Why You Shouldn’t Shoot Small Groups – Defensive Pistol Training

Paper plate targets
If you use a gun for concealed carry or home defense, tiny groups are not always your friend.

U.S.A.-(Ammoland.com)- I may or may not have a touch of OCD in my genetic makeup. Hypothetically speaking, if I arrange my boxes of ammo on the shelf by lot order, would that qualify? How about if I have to reset things when the “wrong” one of the two same-circuit light switches in my office is “up” when the light should be “off?” Don’t get me started with the focus-robbing chaos that ensues when my two aviation instrument drink coasters are in the wrong place on my desk…

There’s also an OCD range habit I have to actively resist: Shooting tiny groups.

Yes, you heard that right. “But wait,” you ask, “isn’t the goal of master-level pistol shooting being able to shoot tiny groups at 300 yards on demand?” Well, yes. Sometimes.

If you’re a trick shot YouTube star like 22 Plinkster, then yes, you want to be able to shoot tiny groups.

If you compete in NRA Bullseye competition or have plans to attend the Civilian Marksmanship Program National Matches, then yes, small groups are your friend.

Maybe you require a steady diet of Squirrel Wellington and need to make precise shots. OK, that’s another good reason to practice shooting tiny and precise groups.

Perhaps you’re using itty-bitty groups as a measurement of a fundamentals practice session. If you are spending a range visit working on your smooth trigger press technique, then group size is a great indicator of your success or failure.

Last but not least is bragging rights. Admit it, we all want range neighbors to look into our lane and see us nailing dimes at 20 yards with ease.

Here’s the gotcha. If you use a gun for concealed carry or home defense, tiny groups are not your friend.

Several years ago, I enrolled in an advanced concealed carry class with my wife and some family friends. Most of the curriculum involved range work with an emphasis on drawing and getting shots on target quickly, drawing while getting off the X, shooting while moving, creating distance from the threat, and putting shots on target until the threat was neutralized.

Without consciously knowing what I was doing, I was putting my shots on the “bad guy” silhouette targets in a nifty and impressive little cluster on the target. If I’m to be completely honest with myself, I suspect there was some of the last reason in play. You know, shooting tiny groups to impress other nearby shooters and in this case, the training staff.

Anyway, my results drew the attention of the primary instructor. As he approached me, wearing a wide grin, I mentally rehearsed what type of sincerely humble response I would give to the praise and recognition sure to come my way.

Instead of calling me out and telling the rest of the class what a tactical ninja I was, he proceeded to run me through some command drills.

“Shoot twice and re-holster!”

“Drop that mag! It’s jammed! Now fire three times at each target!”

“Switch hands and keep shooting!”

“You have a malfunction, clear it now! No, now!!!”

“You’re dead!”

“Stop shooting, a bystander just popped up behind your target!”

“Two to the torso! That didn’t work, one to the head!”

You get the idea. He issued a flood of commands in such a fast and furious manner that within seconds I was fumbling all over the place to the point of ejecting live rounds, missing shots, dropping perfectly good magazines, and generally bringing shame to all descendants of the late Colonel Jeff Cooper and his orchestra.

My instructor wasn’t being a jerk, he was making a point, and a valuable one at that. I wasn’t at that class to work on my NRA Precision Pistol scores, I was there to learn how to use a pistol defensively. They are very, very different things.

Even if you shoot at an indoor range that doesn't allow draws and has narrow target lanes, you can get in some good practice with the right drills.
Even if you shoot at an indoor range that doesn’t allow draws and has narrow target lanes, you can get in some good practice with the right drills.

One of the skills you need to master in defensive shooting is getting shots on target—fast—under exceptionally adverse conditions. Standing at the shooting line, taking shots at a stationary target in such a leisurely way as to print tiny groups isn’t likely to help you learn those skills. In a defensive situation, you’re not likely to bring your sights on target once, then take multiple shots at the same bullseye whole both you and the target are planted firmly into fixed locations.

Once that instructor made his not-so-subtle point, he offered up some alternative ways for me to shoot. To break some “tiny group” habits, he had me fire multiple shots with each impacting a different point on the silhouette target. For example, the first shot might be in the pelvic area, the second center mass, and the third high center mass. The “groups” looked like hell, but the target was well perforated and if it had been a determined assailant, the variety of shot placement had much better odds of stopping his attack quickly and decisively.

Anyway, the experience got me thinking. While it’s still fun to go to the range and try to nail tiny targets (I still do that on occasion) I spend far more time working on more realistic defensive shooting skills, even though the results don’t look nearly as impressive on target.

So how have I changed my practice routines and casual range time? Here are some things that help me. While mileage varies for all of us, maybe some of these methods will help you too.

Lose the Pride

Yeah, I know it’s hard, but try not to think about how your targets look in comparison to your range neighbor’s. Accept that your groups will be larger and that they won’t be impressed with your skill. Know that you’re the one who’s actually working on valuable techniques and be quietly confident in that. If you want to improve your defensive skills, work on getting shots on target from the draw or low ready position if your range doesn’t allow draws. If your shots are landing in small clusters, your either really, really good or you’re shooting too slow. That brings us to the next point.

Shoot Faster

With the caveat of safety first, meaning never shoot faster than your ability to be safe and control each and every shot, push yourself a bit. Action pistol competitors do this all the time. If you can get every shot into a paper plate sized target at 10 yards, increase your speed until you start to get some misses. When you start to get all those in a target circle, increase your speed again.

I also like these Birchwood Casey Dirty Bird targets with six-inch circles. I didn't push myself enough on these - not enough misses!
I also like these Birchwood Casey Dirty Bird targets with six-inch circles. I didn’t push myself enough on these – not enough misses!

Be sure to work on two different elements of speed. First, push the time you take to get your sights on target and release an aimed shot. Second, work on the “split” or time between aimed shots. Both are skills that only improve with practice.

Use Paper Plates for Targets

Forget the quarter-sized bullseye in your targets. Instead, focus on getting shots inside of a reasonably sized circle. I like to use six-inch Birchwood Casey Dirty Bird Targets or even paper plates. I don’t go for groups; I go for all shots in the circle—somewhere. One benefit to the paper plate approach is that there is no distinct aiming point—the target area is a bit ambiguous. That’s OK. Self-defense targets are ambiguous too.

Yes, this is the world's nastiest range, but the targets will be useful and allow lots of transition practice.
Yes, this is the world’s nastiest range, but the targets will be useful and allow lots of transition practice.

For these reasons, steel targets are great too. With no aiming point, they operate on a pass/fail basis.

Perform “Full Cycle” Shots

I start most of my individual shots from the holster or low ready position depending on the range rules. Sometimes I raise the gun to target and fire a single shot. Other times I raise the gun to target and fire multiple shots. What I don’t do is get on target, then shoot a full magazine without ever taking the sights off target. I want to get the maximum number of repetitions of bringing my sights into view and releasing an aimed shot the instant they line up with my intended target. Much of the time duration between holster and hole in the target, for me at least, is getting the proper sight picture, so I practice that element—a lot.

There’s a counter-intuitive detail to this method. Practice the raise sights and fire routine slowly at first, focusing on consistent and perfect technique. Don’t allow your sights to go above the target so you have to bring them back down. If you do the Karate Kid method of slow repetitions, you’ll be surprised at how fast you can draw and place an accurate shot later.

Shift Targets with Every Shot, Then Randomize

I also like to move my shots around on one or more targets. If your range conditions allow, set up two or three targets and alternate between them randomly. That gets you extra sight transition practice. If you shoot at an indoor range and have only one target, shoot at different zones on that single paper. Force yourself to go high right, then low left for example. Again, your “groups” will look like hell, but you’ll be building valuable transition skills.

If you can, use multiple targets to work on transitions. If not, just use different target "zones" on the same target.
If you can, use multiple targets to work on transitions. If not, just use different target “zones” on the same target.

The most important takeaway, at least for me, of this change in practice approach is that my real-life goal isn’t to leisurely shoot small groups. I doubt many hyped-up attackers would be impressed by that. My goal is to be able to use my handgun more effectively, and that requires a difference in thinking as to what defines success.

AboutTom McHale

Tom McHale is the author of the Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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FIRST RULE: Every shot you miss with has a price tag of some type attached to it! So, draw fast shoot deliberate. If you think you will shoot perfect groups under a gun fight you are in for a surprise. You will not hear the gun go off, feel the recoil, see any hits or misses, not know how many times you fired and so much more-or less. So if you train to shoot tight and pretty fast in practice, when the shit hits the fan your groups will grow big time, trust me. But if you train big you… Read more »


I guess I’ll be the odd one out and say that this is bad advice for most shooters. Advanced tactical drills are great if you’re ready for them, but I’ve seen too many beginners at the range using “advanced tactical drills” to cover up the fact that their slow fire groups at 5 yards are the size of a large pizza. With pineapple. I agree we need to swallow our pride at the range and not worry about impressing others, but more often than not, that means humbly practicing the fundamentals like grip, stance, sight picture, and trigger pull instead… Read more »


Not sure why that double posted. Just to clarify, I’m not saying this article is bad advice. It reminds me of the Andy Griffith episode, “The Sermon”: Big city preacher visits the sleepy town of Mayberry and rails against the busyness of modern life. By the end of the episode the whole town is running around like headless chickens trying to “take life slow” . It’s great advice, just not for the majority of your audience.


I understand the “logic” of the author’s statement, but don’t agree that you shouldn’t shoot small groups if you can. One good hit with a .22 is better than 10 misses with a .45. Once you have learned to shoot ACCURATELY with your hand gun, then you can move on to the drills with the paper plates as suggested. If you don’t know how to shoot accurately at a basic lever there is NO WAY you will be able to group shots into a paper plated, regardless of the distance.

Sgt H

When I started my daughter on pistol craft, think subcompact 9mm. She would only get 4 rounds to a mag. Spare mag in carrier. Ie she prefers back pocket now adays. 2 in the chest 2 in the head..reload. after awhile I’d load her mags and every 10th one in insert a snap cap. Please note immediate action drill was taught before hand. She dose well to 50 feet. Next I’m gonna take her to the big outdoors and teach her to run and gun. Please note she has a good 1st aid”blow out” kit and knows how to use… Read more »

Deplorable Bill

There is some good advise in this article. Practice for speed and real world accuracy is a good thing. I would, however, differ with group size. Most people will never have to make a 50 yard head shot with a 380 but to ignore the possibility of having to deal with a hostage type scenario is just not a good idea these days. The idea of PLACING a round on a small, particular spot is a skill set that everyone should practice. A target the size of a bottle cap @ 15 yards, shot on a regular basis, lends competency… Read more »


Your comments are good advice for those that are Hale and Hearty, which I have never actually been for the most part, but certainly not for the last decade! There is no run-and-gun for this old geezer, my body simply will not allow me to do that! Shooting from concealment on my knees? Not in this lifetime nor any other, because just getting down to my knees is a major exercise with nothing going on around me, except perhaps trying to avoid kneeling down on top of my cat! What I am saying is that one size does not fit… Read more »

Deplorable Bill

I do truly know what you mean…I retired under disability 20+ years ago. I used to run a 2 1/2″ model 19 at the cactus league combat pistol matches some years ago. Those were some very accurate little pop guns but they did make major caliber. Also a Colt officer model in 45 acp–but it would not make major. The state/regional qualification matches do have 50 yard targets but most any other shoot the max distance was 25 yds. and most were 15 yards and under even to the point of being able to actually touch them with your hand.… Read more »


Deplorable Bill, Awesome Comment. Sometimes we Tape a {3×5} Recipe Card on A FBI Q Target for Center Mass Practice.

Deplorable Bill

That works really good! If you can land one on a 3″ x 5″ card, you can land one on a center of chest cavity or even a fore head. That is a real confidence builder both for yourself but also for the others who have seen your ability to make that shot. We all hope that the day never arrives when we would be forced to make such a shot but knowing you can do so can be life saving. Arm up, carry on.


I read that Wyatt Earp also gave this advice about a gunfight, “take your time, in a hurry”.

Deplorable Bill

Yes Sir, he did say that and it is good advise. When the question is; How much time do I have to engage and stop a threat, the answer becomes; The rest of your life. Arm up, carry on..


Good article. It doesn’t do much to try and put down the bat-shit crazy drug-infused bad guy using expanding bullets going through the same wound cavity. They need to strike intact meat and bone to be able to shock and shut down the central nervous system to STOP said bad guy. My bedside self-defense weapon is a S&W Governor, loaded with (3) Hornady Critical Defense and (3) Federal 000 Buck .410 shot shells. The cylinder is set so the Hornady round comes out the pipe first, with the Federal for follow up, a total of 7 projectiles in two shots,… Read more »


As with any/all physical skills, shooting can be broken down into a methodical step-by-step approach with different areas to focus on at different times. Perhaps the title should be, ‘Why You Shouldn’t Solely Focus On Shooting Small Groups’? Accuracy is one of the most important parts of the fundamentals of shooting, and there’s a difference between maximum accuracy vs practical accuracy; but you still need to learn to walk, before learning to run, much less compete in the 110m hurdles. A shooter first needs to focus on being consistently accurate, before they can learn the small differences/changes needed to be… Read more »


Ten years ago, when I was most likely at the top of my game, my requirement for myself was to be able to put 90% of my rounds in a B-27 head firing at the rate of one round per second at 25 yards. It was easy to do. Now that the eyes aren’t quite as good and the hands suffer from arthritis and the feet aren’t quite as steady that set of requirements is applied to a paper plate at 25 yds. This is while shooting standing and unsupported. I also shoot to a standard, while shooting “barricade”, of… Read more »


Your last point is very well taken, and it is my response to the subset hand gun purchasers who believe they have to have magnum power in order to stay alive! Uber powerful handgun calibers must be in line with the ability of the shooter! The first shot May well be on target, and through the Target, and through a bystander, but the second shot probably will not be on target, because most folks cannot handle the 10 mm, or the 41 magnum, or the 44 Magnum, or the 357 Sig recoil for follow-up shots. This is why I like… Read more »


I was taught the three shoot rule back in the late sixties early seventies. Never knew I was practicing what you just said. Used 4 / 5 inch & 8 inch paper plates. Now I know I’m not the only one who realises the importance of shoot placement on a living person intent on doing bodily harm on someone. Thank you for your words of wisdom that you learned.


I was taught the same methodology back in the day, and that is still the way that I like to practice today. I was also raised on field guns, and letting a hammer down on a live round was a normal thing back then.

Today, people start bouncing off the walls and rocketing to the Moon by the mere thought of lowering a hammer onto a live round! It just makes me appalled at how paranoid people have become about the concept of safety! They want to be so safe they’ve become dangerous!


There is no question that shooting for small groups at Camp Perry is different from defensive shooting. However, I truly believe if you can’t maintain trigger control shooting bullseye, you sure are not going to put shots on target under stress.


You can shoot however you like. I prefer to have my projectiles hit where I aim them.


News flash, so does the author of the article!

His whole point is that paper punching for Supreme accuracy does not necessarily translate to real-world firefight scenarios!

The bottom line is to make sure that you, those you love, and innocent bystanders do not end up in the body bag, rather, if absolutely necessary for the need to shoot, the bad guy ends up in the body bag.

Take off the blinders and open up your mind to a new way of thinking on things!


Neanderthal…perfect moniker.

One perfect shot on call beats 10 peripheral shots, every time. Once you get 30, 40 or 50 years of experience, you may come to understand this. There is a “News Flash” LMAO.


Your inability to think outside the box proved my point.

Pa John

Sooner or later, some paper plate company is going to make a big increase in sales. They’ll be selling the same typical paper plates as they always have, just with new patterns printed onto them. Printed _target_ patterns of varying kinds, perhaps, or even just one simple standard “bullseye” target pattern – consisting of a simple series of progressively smaller circles, with a small “bullseye” in the center of the plate. They could even print the bullseye target pattern on the _bottom_ of the plate so as to not trigger some people’s OCD when it comes to keeping the clean… Read more »


Yeah that’ll work for the first batch of printed plates, but then the anti-gunners will get a whiff of it, and then immediately begin the shame game and boycott banality, and then the company will back down like a bunch of coward dogs, tail between their legs, apologizing profusely to the jackbooted anti 2A thugs!


I agree with Mr.McHale. While I do from time to time work on shooting tight groups. I generally us my range time practicing on the very things he spoke of. While being able to hit minute of man. Real world scenarios. Involving drawing with and without movement,malfunctions and high heart rate situations. The ability to shoot tight groups is important for sight and function control. It just should never consume all of your Practice Time if the purpose of having a firearm is personal protection. A multi-faceted approach involving real world scenarios will serve to make you not only a… Read more »


Good article and spot on.

I always follow this advice when getting someone proficient in self defense: Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

Practice slowly until you can do the movement smoothly. Then you can increase speed.

My range (backyard is 10 acres) allows me to set up targets so that I can move and shoot coupled with draws with either hand. It is important to be on target while in motion rather than move, stop and set, fire. To further this, my friends and I set targets for each other to discover as we move.


Good article. Good understanding of what is needed in a SD situation. If I may suggest if anyone has a local club that hosts an IDPA-style practice or regular events they are great training aids. The club I shoot at Apr-Oct hosts a Wed. night session,we have averaged 50-60 shooter in age from 16-80+ . Even though many are not “fast” or competing there is a lot to learn/practice and muscle memory to develop. https://youtu.be/7Fgc9gRTdVY


This is a very important article for people using their firearm for self-defense to read!!!


Practice, Practice, Practice. The Most Expensive Round You Shoot Will Do NO Good Unless It Hits It Target.

Navy shooter

Drawing on the above, at our local range, we gave similar suggestions to those who were obviously concentrating on self-defense shooting, but putting lots of tight groups at short distances. As this was an outdoor range, with lots of space, we had folks sit at right angles to the targets, and on command, respond as if someone just kicked in their front door. They simply had to put three shots on the paper plate from their sitting position (as though they were home watching TV). It drew everyone’s attention and soon there were always a number of folks working on… Read more »


I guess I’ll be the odd one out and say that this is bad advice for most shooters. Advanced tactical drills are great if you’re ready for them, but I’ve seen too many beginners at the range using “advanced tactical drills” to cover up the fact that their slow fire groups at 5 yards are the size of a large pizza. With pineapple. I agree we need to swallow our pride at the range and not worry about impressing others, but more often than not, that means humbly practicing the fundamentals like grip, stance, sight picture, and trigger pull instead… Read more »


Will, yes sir, that is the only kind of “gun control” we need!

Eric Equis

What was it “Naughty by Nature” rapped… “You down with OCD? Yea, you know me! You down with OCD? Yea, you know me! You down with OCD? Yea, you know me! You down with OCD? Yea, you know me! You down with OCD? Yea, you know me!” (Repeat 72 times then wash your hands for 5 minutes, LMAO!) Seriously, great advice here! When I work with my trainees, I start with the fundamentals (actually, I tell em to blast a few mags just to get used to the gun), then we work on accuracy and weapon system operations (especially in… Read more »

Heed the Call-up

OCP, other people’s property,


USA, that`s my kind of range.


I dont know maybe it’s just me but I never thought shooting a bad guy first before he shot me would be stressful. At least not as stressful as if he shot me first. Lol just sayin’


Was that photo of the guys at the indoor range a stock photo? It looks just like my range. Elite Shooting Sports in VA.

Get Out

IMOA shooting small groups under stress is a must and will probably help you survive a defensive shoot out but only if you train with someone shooting at you too. It’s already been pointed out by many posters here you have to hit your mark first to put the threat down as quickly as possible and training with simunitions force on force are humbling to say the least. It’s amazing and eye opening to watch someone forget how to clear a malfunction or which pocket their spare magazine is in when their gun ran dry while being fired upon. Give… Read more »

Small Arms Master Gunner

Goes against every tenet of proper firearm handling and safe employment. Can’t shoot straight under duress? Well then, go ahead and blast rounds all over hell! You were scared and stressing out, surely the Cops will forgive you for blasting that old lady, especially when you tell them you deliberately let loose bullets without the intent to keep them on target! How’s this instead: train under stress. Learn to shoot defensively and accurately, while all hell is bustin’ loose around you. No bad guy ever went to the hospital because you missed him….on purpose. If you want a shotgun effect… Read more »

moe mensale

You failed reading comprehension class, didn’t you? Yeah.


Reading, it’s fundamental.

Small Arms Master Gunner

Nope. Read it all perfectly fine. His instructor advised him to not shoot accurately, because stress will make you fumble magazine changes when he yells at you. How much more stressed will he be, when 6’10” prison escapee with the baseball bat and knife, decides he really likes your car and wallet, maybe your wife too? Now, amongst all the yelling, you’ve pissed your pants, gone temporarily deaf, and your vision has receded to a tiny point of light on Mr. Bad Guy’s nose. Are you really going to remember you even have a gun? I said, train under stress.… Read more »


You really should read the article. You are embarrassing yourself. Nowhere did he state his instructor not to worry about accuracy. Here is what he said: “One of the skills you need to master in defensive shooting is getting shots **on target***—fast—under exceptionally adverse conditions. ”

The whole article documents his “training under stress.”


The weather on your planet must be nice 24/7 365, right? One size does not fit all John Wayne! Each person must practice to shoot with their specific caliber for their specific handgun for their specific physical limitations! Generally speaking if a person is in good health, then the methodology in the article above will provide that individual with good real world shooting abilities, because muscle memory becomes part and parcel of the shooting practice! Repetition works wonders for learning! Frankly, I haven’t seen many 6 ft 10 in tall drug-infused crazies running around with baseball bats, but there are… Read more »


Neanderthal LOL, I know where you are coming from.

moe mensale

“Read it all perfectly fine. His instructor advised him to not shoot accurately, because stress will make you fumble magazine changes when he yells at you.”

I cleaned my glasses to make sure I was reading that correctly. Unfortunately, I was.