First Lesson

On the Monday after Christmas, I called Coach Pat [Dolan] at the phone number he’d given
me during the Bullseye competition two months previously.
I introduced myself, said I was very interested in taking him up on his offer of coaching,
and asked when he might be available and what range was convenient for him.
In thirty seconds we found that 1:00PM that same day was good for both of us,
and that he preferred the facilities at the
Phoenix Rod and Gun Club
where the Bullseye Competition had taken place.

In our first session, I learned the first of two sins I was committing:

Sin #1: Grip

After watching me shoot, Coach Pat pointed
out that my grip was wrong on several counts. First, I was holding the pistol
with my lower three fingers as well as my thumb, and also the tips of those
same fingers to hold the pistol. Coach Pat demonstrated the grip I should
be using by demonstrating it, and by pointing out that his finger tips were
not turning red. Also, he invited me to wiggle his little finger and his
thumb and notice that neither was participating in the grip. I commented
that, all in all, I was surprised at how light his grip seemed.
He nodded and said that the middle of his middle two fingers were holding
the gun into the hollow of his hand rather firmly, but not to the degree
that made the gun shake.

This was quite a revelation to me. I had been using what I termed a hard
grip, holding the gun tightly to the point where the tightness of the grip
made the gun shake (slightly). According to Coach Pat, this was wrong. I
revised my grip so that only the middle of my two middle (#3 and #4) fingers
(counting the thumb as #1) exerted any force, and kept the tips
of those fingers relaxed so they did not press on the gun, and also kept
my pinky (finger #5) and thumb (#1) loose (relaxed) and not participating
in the grip.

This change, all by itself however, didn’t do much for
my shooting — but Coach Pat didn’t give me time to notice that. Instead,
he immediately started helping my with my trigger pull (never say, or do, “squeeze” — that’s the wrong way to do the trigger, whether thinking or doing).

Sin #2: Trigger Pull

Closely
related and, to the novice, interlinked with the grip, is how the trigger
is actuated. When I “squeezed” the trigger, my whole hand would move and,
with it, the aim point would move. Coach Pat said I needed to learn to pull with my finger, not “squeeze” with my hand.

To
demonstrate, Coach Pat had me the hold the pistol and keep it sighted on
the bull (as best as I could) while he reached in and prepared to pull the
trigger. Obviously, I had no idea when the shot would go off, and that was
one of the big points of his demonstration because, when the gun fired, it
was a total surprise to me, and most importantly, the shot was far better
centered than any others I had shot that day.

“Wow!” I’m sure I said. “Do that again!”

Coach Pat was pleased to oblidge and, again, the shot was an utter surprise, and it landed very close to the X-ring again.

Over
the next twenty or so rounds and with Coach Pat repeating the shooter’s mantra
in my ear — “Smooth and Slow, Smooth and Slow, Smooth and Slow”, I started
to get the feel for what he was after. It took a while and, when I did it
wrong, he was very factually state, “Jerk” before going back to the mantra
for my next shot. Eventually, I finally got one round off that totally surprised
me, and I got it — I felt the difference, I knew I’d done it. And I knew that, from then on, every shot must be a surprise. Every shot.

With those two sins identified and an idea of what I would need to strive
for in my subsequent practice, I then brought up the expectations that had
been making me jerk the trigger instead of pulling it slowly. That is, in
the past I had “learned” to watch the target wavering about in my sights
and, when I saw that the aim-point was about to pass through the middle of
the target, to get off the shot.

Coach Pat said this sounded good but would never work because the “jerk”
needed to get the shot off at the right time would always yank the gun off
in some new (and highly predictable) direction.

Instead, he said, I needed to keep the sights aligned and on the target (at large), wait for the wandering
to calm down (but that I shouldn’t expect it to cease, maybe never) and then
to slowly and smoothly pull the trigger while keeping the aim-point on the
target but not trying to fire at any particular time. Just hold the aim-point
on the target, wavering and all, and pull off the shot “Smoothly and Slowly”.
If the shot going off were a total surprise, he said, then I would have done
that shot correctly.

But, I objected, if the aim-point keeps wandering and I don’t know when the shot will go off, how will I hit the X-ring?

Coach Pat’s answer could’ve been voiced by Yoda: For now, you won’t. At least, not consistently. But you will
consistently put the round into the area in which your aim-point is wandering,
and in time, the wandering will get smaller and smaller.

I must’ve looked skeptical because he added, “You must accept this. Just accept it.”

I nodded as I thought, “This is why I’m here, to hear the advice of an expert and give it a full measure of effort.”

Next, Coach Pat had me use the pad of my forefinger to pull the trigger
rather than the joint. He demonstrated the difference by holding his hand
as if it were holding a pistol pointed down, placing the tip (point) of a
ball-point pen on the joint and resting the body of the pen on the flesh
between thumb and forefinger. He then demonstrated that when he “pulled the
trigger,” the back end of the pen moved in a small arc. Then, he moved the
tip of the pen to the middle of his forefinger’s pad and again, “pulled the
trigger.” This time, the back end of the pen moved straight back, without
the arc. I duplicated his demonstration with the pen and found that, for
me also, positioning the trigger (pen) in the joint resulted in a sidewise
movement as well as back and forth, but that using the pad in the middle
of the forefinger’s tip, only the front to back movement resulted.

Coach Pat then watched me try and do all of these corrections at the same
time. I took each change and tried to apply them in order: grip with the
middle of two fingers only, others loose, no finger-tip pressure, sight in
the bull and place the middle of the pad of my forefinger on the trigger
and take up the slack, align the sight on the bull, wait for the “wander”
to lessen (and accept that it will never go away completely) and then slowly,
oh so very slowly, and oh so very gently, pull the trigger, slowly, smoothly,
slo … Bang!

This is starting to work, I realized.

We spent a few minutes with his 1911 automatic (in .45 calibre) and I
learned the “fighter’s stance” (a.k.a., Weaver’s stance) and two-handed shooting.

By that point, we had been going at it, teacher and student for an hour and a half.
My right arm was tired and I was starting to feel guilty about the wonderful coaching I was receiving
for such a small sum.
And I was also thinking I needed to practice what I had learned so far rather than trying for too much
too fast. So I thanked Coach Pat, handed him the previously agreed to $20.00 and said that I was
enormously pleased with what I’d learned, and would be carefully working to put all of it into practice.

Coach Pat was, I think, pleased at my willingness to listen and follow
his directions. In my profession as a teacher, I know how gratifying it can
be when one of my students does that, and I was pretty sure I could see that
same satisfaction in his face.

3 thoughts on “First Lesson

  1. Ed – Great stuff, after reading your lesson, I feel like I owe Coach Pat $20.00!! I just bought a used (1970) S & W Model 41 and I’m thoroghly enjoying your blog. I’m going to join a local Bullseye club next week, can’t wait to put to use yours, and coach Pats advice.

    Bob H

  2. Congratulations — the 41 is the perfect place to begin. I used that gun, and only that gun, for many many months. It is cheap to shoot (and strongly prefers CCI Standard Velocity ammunition), has a fabulous trigger and puts the bullet exactly where it should (when you do your part).
    And joining a club, and more so shooting with them on a regular basis, is a great idea. The inspiration and camraderie will help you keep going on bad days and on good ones you’ll see what a wonderful gun that 41 is.
    Hope to see you on the line someday!

  3. Just found your blog searching for Coach Pat. Your post really brings back memories. He would teach anyone who showed up at the PR&GC public range on Sunday afternoons. I saw him take people who’d never touched a gun before, and have them putting shots in the black within half an hour.

    Or he’d see someone adjusting the sights on a handgun, ask if he could try it out for two rounds. Then he’d flip it upside down, tilt his head back to peer through his bifocals, and pull the trigger with his pinky. Usually both shots would go right through the bullseye. He’d turn around and say, “There’s nothing wrong with those sights!” and then proceed to teach them how to shoot.

    Every time I go to the range I can still hear his voice, “Level and clear”, and “Smoooth, not smoo-OOTH!”

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