Book Review – Basics of Pistol Shooting Pt 1 (NRA, 2020)

The National Rifle Association recently released a major update to the Basics of Pistol Shooting book. You can order it direct from NRA here.

The book is printed in a standard large paperback format of 6″ x 9″, but spiral bound on the short edge. So it will fit on a bookshelf with older NRA books, but is designed to open wide and flat when set on a table. I found it awkward to handle and read when held in the hands, seated in a chair. The cover is plastic, not paper, which will help the book hold up if stuffed into a pocket of a range bag, used on an outdoor range. The interior pages are also heavier glossy paper. The book was intended to be used and referenced beyond class day. These are big improvements and even though they likely increased the sale price of the book, they are worth it. Every page is full color, with good choices for font selection and font size, and the graphics are the best I’ve ever seen in an NRA training book.

For every minor issue that I will discuss, there are a dozen things that were done very well. I think it’s important for instructors that are using this book to know where the issues of concern are, so they can address them with students.

I’m not sure what this picture is supposed to show, in the “Safety Notes” section of the book. It’s impossible to tell if the model has her finger on the trigger or not, and this isn’t a way I want students holding their guns when on the firing line or anyplace else.

“Know your target and what is beyond” (page 15). Beginners often do not understand how far bullets can travel, or what can (or can’t) stop a bullet. In the sheriff’s weekly report in our small town newspaper, almost every week there is something about neighbors complaining about others shooting with concerns about safety. My sister-in-law had problems with a neighbor using an easel as a target stand, shooting with no backstop, with rounds impacting on their property. In my opinion, the book should explain this topic in more detail. Simply explaining that people need to shoot safely (as the book does) is not the same as explaining how to do it.

My biggest complaint with the book is the NRA’s new embrace of the “muzzle up” position for ready and reloading. At most ranges, muzzle up either points the gun at the indoor range ceiling, or over the outdoor range backstop, violating NRA safety rule 1: Always point the gun in a safe direction. While I know that the muzzle up position is widely used and popular with military personnel (and trainers coming from a military background), arguing that obeying the “keep finger off trigger” rule somehow mitigates violation of the safe direction rule (as defenders of that position have done in online discussions), is illogical. By the “it’s OK to violate one gun safety rule if you obey the others” reasoning, having finger off trigger would make it OK to point the muzzle in any direction (including at your own head or at other shooters) at any time.

The definition of “safe direction” that I teach and use is that a safe direction is one in which you know where the bullet will stop, and can accept the consequences of firing a shot in that direction. In the muzzle up position, the shooter has no idea where the bullet will land, and no way to assess consequences if a shot is fired.

The section on eye and ear protection – something beginners need to understand in depth, is far too cursory. Nothing is taught about Noise Reduction Ratings nor the pros and cons of over-the-ear vs. ear plugs, nothing about difficulties using earmuffs with long guns nor the higher noise levels that occur in indoor ranges.

On page 18, a muzzle up reload is shown, with a comment that competition shooting may require different techniques. At the outdoor range, members-only gun club that hosts most of the matches in my area, pointing a muzzle over the backstop is a match disqualification offense. It would have been more appropriate for the NRA manual to teach beginners a technique that is unlikely to violate range guidelines at most ranges (muzzle pointed at the backstop) than to teach muzzle up reloading, which could get them ejected from some commercial ranges and/or some matches.

I wrote an article, including video, discussing muzzle direction during a reload that you can read (and watch the videos) here.

One argument that’s been made for the muzzle up reload is that it prevents the shooter from looking down and losing “situational awareness”. In the picture in the book, the shooter is looking straight ahead and trying to reload using peripheral vision (or not looking at the gun at all). That’s not a technique a novice with no experience inserting a magazine into a pistol should be emulating.

It appears the technique being shown is a reload with retention, since the gun is not locked back and the model is attempting retain the partial magazine. In my opinion, that type of reload is not a technique that should be taught in a basic pistol course, to students just learning to operate a pistol for the first time. They should be taught to look at the gun so they can see what their fingers are doing, and work with one magazine at a time.

In the section on action types, the single action cowboy revolver is included but the traditional DA/SA pistol with a decocking lever is omitted. The typical student in the NRA Basic Pistol course, in the 21st century, is someone taking the course because their state requires it to obtain a carry permit. In 29 years of teaching carry permit and general interest firearms classes, I have never had a student bring a cowboy sixgun to a basic or carry permit class, but I have had many bring traditional DA/SA guns.

The Texas License to Carry shooting test requires that 23 of the 50 shots be fired starting at a ready position, and that those running DA/SA guns fire those shots in double action mode, decocking each time the gun comes back to ready between strings. It’s very common for beginner level DA/SA owners to have never used the decocking lever on their pistol, and to have avoided firing any shots in the DA/SA mode. I’ve had a few students with carry permits show up for classes carrying DA/SA guns “cocked and unlocked” with a round chambered, hammer back, with no understanding that the gun was not designed to be carried in that mode, and no consideration as to whether the gun was drop safe in that mode or not. Discussion of the decocking lever in this section is limited to a single sentence that does not address when or how the lever is to be used.

I’ll end part 1 of the review on a positive note: this section on how to load a magazine is well done with lots of detail. Better close ups of what the hands are doing would be useful, but this is a big improvement over the detail this topic was shown in previous editions of the book.

This video explains the mag loading process in even more detail.

The review will continue in part 2 (and beyond).