Preparing for pistol qualification: Reducing anxiety and passing the test

Follow these steps to calm your mind and increase your shooting confidence


One of my favorite professional assignments was being a law enforcement firearms instructor. Occasionally I still pay my own way to instructor classes because I enjoy learning (and relearning). Also, occasionally I get an opportunity to work privately with a police officer who struggles to achieve qualified status. These good protectors often self-diagnose as someone who suffers from test anxiety.

This article summarizes some things I work on with them. If you experience anxiety associated with pistol qualification, I hope you extract some helpful tips.

If you confidently look forward to your next pistol qualification, this article isn’t for you. 

Don't be afraid to ask one of the instructors to take you to the range for live-fire practice a couple of weeks before qualifications.
Don't be afraid to ask one of the instructors to take you to the range for live-fire practice a couple of weeks before qualifications.

Calm your mind, increase shooting confidence

My subjective goals for you are these:

  • Calm your shooting mind; and
  • Increase your shooting confidence.

First of all, you must believe the gun itself is faithful. It is a mindless machine. As such, it will repetitively deliver what its operator inputs. If there is anything about that machine that is unreliable, get the weapon checked by an armorer or switch guns. Your service pistol must function reliably, first and foremost, and you must believe it will. This includes ensuring the sights are aligned with the bore.

Second, qualification is a skills test. It is not a gunfight. In the basic academy, you learned and demonstrated all the fundamentals and skills necessary to pass your test. Your struggles aren’t due to a lack of knowledge. Shooting is rather simple – there isn’t a secret to success that your instructors hold back for themselves. You already know about grip, stance, sight alignment and all the essentials.

One main source of qualification anxiety comes from an officer’s wandering imagination. Imaginations are powerful and can cause real fear, even when there is no objective threat. Fear of embarrassment is common. Another fear is losing one’s job due to failure. Fear causes psychological and physical reactions. We can reduce those reactions by reducing the fear, which begins by controlling our imagination.

Without diminishing or losing track of any safety techniques, for your next pistol skills test I want you to think about performing two behaviors. Focus your mind only on the two actions I am about to describe. Whenever your pre-test imagination goes elsewhere, and especially during the test if your thoughts wander off, constrain your thoughts to what you will do during the test. Specifically, looking through the sight window and operating the trigger.

The brain can effectively focus cognitive attention on one topic at a time. When you think about your test result, the score, what it means if you fail, or any other outcome, you’re making it worse. Worse, you are not focusing your attention on the two behaviors that will help you. Corral your thoughts. Change them by envisioning yourself performing the two behaviors as they are described below.  

Look through the sight window

For LEOs using a red dot sight the window is obvious and literal. The window is the actual lens of the optical sight. When you bring the weapon up into the firing position, look through that lens. Don’t try to align the dot with your front sight post or in the rear sight notch. Ignore the fixed sights – they are distractions that drain your limited attentional capacity. Just look at the target through the red dot as it sits in its window.

For LEOs using traditional notch/post sights, the window is figurative and is located in the same place on top of the slide where the fixed sights are. Look through those. Look through the front sight as if it is a red dot. If you tense up your face or neck or squint your eyes while looking through the notch/post window, you are trying too hard and your attention is draining into the wrong behavior. Relax your face, relax your vision and look through the sights at the target.

In the academy, you were probably trained to focus on the front sight. Yes, that works well for precision shooting, especially when the target holds perfectly still. That makes front-sight-focus fine for firing at the 25-yard line, but looking through the sights is sufficient at closer distances. And looking through the sights is easier.

I said your mind can only attend effectively to one detail at a time, but I gave you two behaviors. Looking through the sight window is passive. Look through the sight window without dedicating conscious thought to it. You will put your active attention on the second behavior, which I will describe shortly.

To “aim” a car you look through the windshield. You don’t squint (unless the sun is in your eyes). You don’t tense up your face or your neck. You passively look through the windshield. That frees up the cognitive space in your mind to attend to what is occurring beyond the car. Aiming the car (keeping the vehicle between the lines and making turns), with all its ongoing micro-adjustments, occurs subconsciously while your attention engages on what’s occurring outside the vehicle.

Do the same with your firearm. Just look through the sight window and trust your subconscious mind to do the aiming. If you change visual focus to the front sight for 25-yard testing purposes, then do that without purposely struggling to aim the gun. Trust your subconscious mind to do the aiming so your attention is available for operating the trigger.

Operate the trigger

This behavior is where you focus your active attention. Focus your cognitive awareness on what the trigger feels like as you operate it.   

Think of a trigger press as a two-step process. Focus your attention on:

  1. Touching the wall; then
  2. Pressing the trigger.

The first part of a service pistol’s trigger pull is “slack.” Slack varies widely between gun types. On a striker-fired trigger, the slack is displaced with about a pound of rearward pressure on the trigger.

After depressing the slack, the first substantial resistance point is called the “wall.” If your striker-fired pistol requires 6 pounds of pressure to pull all the way through to its breaking point (the point at which the trigger snaps backward, spring-releasing the firing pin to discharge the weapon), then with about 5 pounds of pressure you figuratively start climbing over the wall of resistance. As you add a sixth pound of pressure your trigger finger gets over the wall and you get the “trigger break.”

You could do that all at once. You could “snatch the trigger” in one brisk motion, going from zero to 6+ pounds of pressure in an instant. Some moments call for that, especially in close-distance combat. But we’re talking about passing an administrative test here, so stick to this two-step process.

Concentrate on the trigger movement, all of it, and on your finger pressure as it applies to the trigger. To help direct and keep your attention on that I recommend you say these words aloud as you learn to do it: “Touch the wall, [then] press the trigger.”

Doing this reigns in your imagination and channels your thoughts on the trigger instead of outcome or consequences or results.  If it helps during testing, then say it out loud then, too.

When time limits are generous (as they often are at the 25-yard line), recite the entire phrase: “Touch the wall, [then] press the trigger.” When time limits are short, abbreviate it. For multiple rapid shots: “Touch – press, touch – press, etc.” When you move the weapon quickly to the firing position, shooting at that pace is fast enough.

Race to the wall

If you lollygag in the process you won’t make the time limits, especially at closer distances where times are shorter. So, race to the wall.

No matter how much time you have, when you get the start signal, move the window into your line of sight as fast as you can. As the gun enters its firing position – after it is pointed downrange in the direction of the target – prepare the trigger by applying that first pound of pressure so you get to the wall quickly. The trigger should be prepped and ready for step two when you see the target through the sight window.

All of that should be done quickly, as fast as you can. It’s the last step, pressing the trigger – in fact, it is the final pound of that step, the sixth pound on a 6-pound trigger break – that matters most for controlled impact on the target.

Draw quickly. When you decide to discharge the weapon, present the weapon quickly toward the target – get the window into your view as fast as you can. Touch the wall quickly. Moving quickly to the wall won’t disturb the shot; whereas, rushing the press may. You are racing to get to the wall. Then slow down just enough to feel the rest of the trigger press.

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Positive self-talk

As soon as you recognize your mind is dwelling on the upcoming test, change your thoughts to the positive actions you will take. As soon as you sense you are worrying about the outcome, refocus your attention on the process of shooting. During the test, you should do the same thing.

Focus your attention away from embarrassments, results and outcomes by reciting any of these to yourself:

  • “The gun is faithful. It will repetitively deliver what I input. The process is faithful. It will repetitively input what the gun needs for success.”
  •  “The process works. I will follow the process.”

The process is:

  • “I will look through the sight window as I touch the trigger to its wall, and then I will feel the trigger as I press it rearward.”
  • “I will concentrate on what the trigger feels like during its rearward motion.”
  • “Touch the wall, press the trigger.” Repeat. 

For more on this topic see Joel Turner’s archery book, Controlled Process Shooting: The Science of Target Panic, or google his name for informative videos.

Conclusion: Prepare

Invest in yourself by practicing a few times before your test day.
Invest in yourself by practicing a few times before your test day.

The more prepared you are, the less anxiety you’ll have. The more prepared you are, the easier the test will be.

Qualification usually isn’t a secret. Typically, you know your test date in advance, and you often know the content. So, invest in yourself by practicing a few times before your test day. Ammunition is expensive. Dry practice is a strong alternative, so there is no excuse for anyone to arrive at their test unprepared.

My final tip is this. Ask one of the instructors to take you to the range for live-fire practice a couple of weeks before qualifications. Firearms instructors want you to be successful for at least three reasons: 1) it makes their job easier on test day; 2) your success makes them feel better about their mostly thankless assignment and long days at the range; and most importantly, 3) they want you to win your gunfights. They want to prepare you. That’s why they chose the assignment. An alternative is to ask your commander to get someone to help you prepare.

We all want you to be successful. In fact, as commanders, that’s our job. Please initiate by asking for the extra support you need to win.

Police1 readers share their top FIREARMS TRAINING tips

  • Remember the 60/40 grip. Push back with you off hand. Feet shoulder wide. Shoot with both eyes open. Focus on the front sight. Practice, practice, practice. Ammo is cheaper than a funeral.

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