Good Enough For Now



1911 Trigger and Harp with
Trigger Stop Screw Removed

The rules of the Bullseye sport allow considerable latitude in equipment and technique. And there are certain items and practices that improve one’s ability to hit the center of the target.

These include for most shooters but not all

  • Red dot,
  • Good stance,
  • Focus (of attention as well as eye) on the dot (or front sight),
  • and so forth.

But there are exceptions, and good ones, to each of these generalizations.

  • A great many shooters “way back” before there were red dots were, as a rule, shooting better than many of us today with (or without) a red dot.
  • I know a couple of High Masters that, when they assume their shooting stance, look so awkward and uncomfortable I can’t imagine how they do that for a full 2700, but they do – -and they do it quite well.
  • Brian Zins, the most winning Bullseye shooter in history, says he focuses not on the front sight, not on the dot, but contrary to a great many others, he says he focuses on the target.

With those exceptions in mind, here’s the real point: There are some items and practices that, while helpful, may prove to be temporary “stopping off” points along the path. They are useful for a while but, ultimately, they prove to have their own limits — they’ll only take you so far. Eventually, they become counterproductive and must be discarded lest you become stuck on a plateau.

I’ll use some of my experience as an example.

I still consider myself a beginner. In the few years I’ve been trying to hit the X, I’ve used and then discarded some things. For example, when my wobble was basically the entire scoring area (5 ring), the practice of consciously squeezing the trigger as the sights neared the center of the target did — and here’s the key word — temporarily result in an improved score.

For a frustrated Marksman, that’s a powerful incentive and, for a while, it works. But that same Markman will also learn, as did I, that as his wobble decreases with practice and time, when he then “jerks” the shot as the sights near the center of the target, the Marksman will discover the resultant jerking motion overpowers his ever-reducing wobble. So, as the Marksman’s skill increases, jerking the shot must eventually be abandoned.

It works for a little while but then becomes counterproductive.

Now, contrast that with the technique known by the experts as “steering with the trigger.”

Specifically, Masters and High Masters sometimes talk about their ability to fine tune their aim into the deep center of the black by the use of their trigger finger. That is, in the last few fractions of a second before the hammer breaks from the sear and fires the shot, the growing pressure on the trigger is also used to guide the sights into the very center of the target. The combination of steering and increasing pressure is, while admittedly different from what the Marksman does, nonetheless similar in effect: The shot breaks when the sights bear on the center of the target.

I should add that one of these is conscious while the other is automatic. And that is the critical difference.

Regardless, here we have an example of where two similar techniques — breaking the shot as the sight picture reaches perfection — where both the beginner and the expert benefit.

But note that in the middle ranks, perhaps through SharpShooter and well into Expert classes, we try to avoid any connection between where the sights bear and when the shot breaks. In the middle ranks, we learn to align the sights on the aiming area and to build pressure on the trigger until the shot breaks without disturbing the sights.

In these skill levels, the goal is the “surprise break”.

As we progress, therefore, we find that what helps our shooting and what is detrimental to it, change.

“Change” is the operative word.

What gives us a better score today may, in the coming weeks and months, prove to be a limiting factor in achieving even better scores.

So, while there may be some near-ideals we learn for stance, trigger control, eye focus and so forth, it is also true that not only are these skills time-consuming to learn, but also that, in some cases, we’re just not ready to apply them.

And it is also worth noting that only the top echelon in the sport have developed the abilities to do these things all at the same time and that, even for them, they may have found techniques that work just as well for them.

Each of us must, therefore, be constantly learning, integrating, re-examining, discarding and trying something different.

It therefore behooves us non-High Masters to listen, watch, read and experiment, but never to assume that every technique will apply to us now. Some may work for us but only after years of effort, years where we essentially ignore that good advice. We may not be able to execute on that good advice until our skill reaches a certain level.

It’s about finding the right combination that works where you are now.

So, yes, you should look for the ideals and try to work them into your shot plan but also be realistic and know that “putting it all together” takes time, a lot of time.

We may have to file away some techniques we are shown. For us, they may be “later.”

In the meantime, we need to push a lot of lead downrange, and do that thoughtfully, studiously and repeatedly.

It will come, but the square of Earth on which I place my left foot today is not the same square I will put it on a year from now.

Times change, and so do we.

Go with the flow, but don’t be afraid to push against the edges of the channel.

That’s where you’ll find the breakthroughs.

When Zins Speaks, …

Brian Zins has won the US national bullseye (Conventional Pistol) competition at Camp Perry Ohio more times than most of us have shot Xs in a single target. Understandably, when Brian speaks, bullseye shooters listen.

Not long ago, Brian wrote to the bullseye-l mailing list about his grip. He said,

From: Zins GySgt Brian H [mailto:brian.zins@usmc.mil] 
Sent: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 12:19 PM 
To: bullsey...@lists.lava.net 
Subject: [Bullseye-L] RE High and right 

Jack, 
        All shots that not on call are in some form or fashion anticipation. 
I would have to say that your problem is probably stemming from a grip 
issue. I will try to explain this the best that I can without actually 
having a visual for you to follow. 
Look at your hand 
The crease between the fatty portion below your thumb and pinky finger just 
above your wrist. 
The backstrap of the grip needs to go right between those fatty areas in 
that crease. 
Our hands are actually designed perfectly for shooting. As long as we use 
the shape of our hand to our advantage. If you put the mainspring housing of 
the gun on the either of the fatty parts, the gun will move in recoil. With 
a .45 anyhow, not so much with a .22. 
This will also help the gun align to your eye better without having to move 
your wrist to obtain sight alignment. 

Brian 

 

Well, my 45 scores were dismal, repeatedly so. I had little to lose so I decided to try Brian’s grip.

After a little futzing around with the 1911 in my hand, I found something that seemed like what Brian was describing. Being a methodical (my wife uses a different, and four-letter, word) guy, I wrote down the details:

  1. Form the shooting hand as if you are about to shake hands with someone.
  2. Using the non-shooting hand, grasp the gun by the barrel (never put your hand in front of the muzzle!) and then press the gun into the shooting hand such that it contacts the web between thumb and forefinger first, and as high on the backstrap of the gun as possible.
  3. Still holding the gun with the non-shooting hand, wiggle the shooting hand to feel the “deepest” the bottom part of the backstrap can go in the grip — the “life-line” across the palm forms a V-shaped valley and the backstrap of the gun should “nest” into the center of that valley. The goal is to place the backstrap in an area where there is a minimum of “meat” between backstrap and bone. Rigidity and the absence (or minimum) of padding are the desired characteristics.
  4. Still pressing the gun in position, wrap the shooting hand around the gun and grasp it with the middle two fingers. In some hands, the middle two fingers grasp the gun very close to the second joint and, again, have a minimum of padding between bone and metal, and the fingers cross the front strap at about a 20 degree angle. The pads at the base of each finger (in the palm) are slightly in contact with the slab-side grip but exert little or no pressure.
  5. As you raise the gun to shoot and move onto the target, move the trigger finger into the trigger area as far as possible. For some, the trigger will be touching that finger just outside of the farthest joint but right next to the joint. As before, the goal is to have as little pad between trigger and bone as possible.

When I do this, it feels very odd especially at first. But the sights line up more naturally than before and, when they don’t, I know I didn’t screw the gun into my hand correctly and I stop and do it all over. Eventually, the alignment is correct, the feel is right (odd!), and my whole hand feels “clamped” — Brian’s word in other postings — around the gun.

It ain’t goin’ nowhere!

Dry-firing, the results are promising but in my inexperienced hand, not perfect.

On one hammer fall, the front sight will bob down. (That would’ve been a six o’clock 6).

On the next, the front sight jumps right and up. (Two o’clock something — did I anticipate?)

Then, down and left. (Jerk!)

My hand hurts from the pressure I’ve been exerting on the slab-sided grip but cannot maintain. That’s not what jerked the trigger — I did that by trying to make the hammer fall when I “willed it” to get the shot over (and release the painful pressure!) — but the lessened pressure made the front sight jump way down and left, not a 9, an 8 or a 7. No, that one probably was a weak 5 or, worse than that, a “Maggie’s Drawers”, a miss.

Take the gun out of your hand, I say to myself. Let the blood circulate for a few seconds.

Okay, screw it into your grip and try again.

Click! There — it didn’t move! (Or maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention?)

Again … Ah, a small jump that time, not a lot but it was there.

Come on, now, straight back. (I have to arch my trigger finger just a little to make that happen.)

Click. Yes, nothing moved.

By golly, this can work!

But again, my hand is aching.

After a few more dry-fire shots, that’s all I can do that day. It’s a strain gripping that hard.

“GTSOOI”, I wrote on a Post-It and stuck it inside my gun box. “Grip The S%!* Out Of It.”

As you may know, I travel a lot and occasionally shoot at different bullseye ranges when a local competition and my business assighments match up. But that’s the exception, not the rule. As a result, training and practice for me, much less formal competitions, are catch as catch can.

So it was barely a week after changing my grip that I had my first opportunity to try it on anything other than dry fire and, as ill-luck would have it, it was a formal competition.

And the results were dismal.

In a moment of less than stellar judgement, I shared my frustration with the list.

… I also found that when I didn’t do everything right, things got really, really bad in a hurry. the least little jerk seemed to take the round much farther away from “home” and, in more than one case, completely outside the scoring rings!

So now I’m “on the fence”.

Should I keep at the new grip which, when it works is very nice, or should I fall back to the old grip which is more forgiving?

I received a couple of mildly encouraging replies and then, to my surprise, a personal reply from Brian himself.

(Can I say we’re “buddies” now? Is one personal email sufficient?)

Brian wrote,

I would say stay with the new grip. The key is consistency and the grip may take a little getting used [to] but [in] the long run you will [be] much better off and more consistent. The reason things may seem to be more “out” when you make a mistake is probably because your hand is trying to do what it has done for so long and the combination of the two do not work. Give it time it will work for you.

All right, I thought. How long?

I decided to give myself three months, April, May and all of June.

Toward the end of April, I had shot a few times with the new grip technique, dry-fired a lot (50% of the days?), and more recently had noticed my hand feeling a bit less strained in the evenings.

I was quite sure that, accuracy aside, I was gaining a lot of grip strength. And one of the constants I had seen in other Bullseye shooters was that Master and High Master ratings often seem to go with upper-body strength.

Brian Zins is one tough-looking Marine. Woe be to he who doubts a Marine’s strength.

John Zurek swings hammer, pushes a saw and hauls lumber as a carpenter five days a week and sometimes on weekends building his own place.

Steve Reiter grew up on a farm. He’s no mouse-pusher.

They are all High Masters and they all have very good arm and shoulder strength.

Top bullseye shooters may be alike in other ways but, of this, I am convinced. If you want to shoot the 45 well, you need better than average, and possibly much better than average upper body strength.

In this day when mouse and keyboard dominate the skills used by many for 8+ hours a day, the 45 needs more, a lot more.

And I’ve also discovered that the Zins grip is utterly, maybe even “wildly”, intolerant of fat-fisted, limp-wristed, bendy-elbowed shooters.

Steel demands steel.

Power demands power.

If you want to shoot a powerful steel gun, you have to back it up with power and steel. If you don’t, the gun will run right over you and the shot will go the hell where it wants to go. You show the least little weakness and it’s gonna get ya.

But if you show strength and resilience, it’ll do exactly what you want.

Rule the gun!

When I GTSOOI, focus on the front sight, pressure the trigger straight back and get a (nearly) surprise break, it’s going in the X ring or damn close to it.

And when the shot goes anywhere else — and when it goes bad, it sometimes goes really bad — I blew one of the basics:

  • Crush the oil out of the grips and make my arm rigid, hand, wrist and elbow;
  • Pour all my attention into the front sight for alignment and forget the wobble no matter how interesting it might be;
  • Add straight-back pressure to drive the trigger directly into the top of my nose; and
  • … bang!

When it works, it is magnificent!

And when it fails, oh brother, is it bad!

Sometimes I know which one of the basics I messed up. But other times the shot is almost completely off the target and I won’t have a clue what I did wrong.

Imagine a target with 4 Xs, 3 tens, a 9, an 8 and a top right-hand corner of the target, way way way outside the 5 ring.

“Hey,” I want to shout, “who’s shooting on my target?”

But I know better. I am. It’s me.

I’m coming up to the end of the first month of my three month trial. The good news is it’s working. I can see the improvement, I can feel it working, and I have seen enough really good shots to know that I can shoot a “tenex” (10 Xs in one 10 round target) with this grip. It will happen. I will shoot it, and it will unquestionably be with this grip.

I shot the center-fire and 45 stages of a 2700 this weekend. I told the other shooters I skipped the 22 portion because my grandaughter was competing in the state finals in soccer which was true. (They won in triple overtime!) But it is also true that I am completely focused right now on the 45. I don’t want any scores going to the NRA from any other gun.

I want my Outdoor Expert rating to be based on that gun, the hard gun, the real gun.

And its coming, its coming.

Patience and perfect practice. Dry-fire, dry-fire and dry-fire.

I’m writing this flying to Huntsville Alabama and my 1911 is in checked baggage, cleaned and lubed after the competition, it is ready for dry-fire every evening at the Comfort Inn.

GTSOOI, front sight, straight-back, … click.

GTSOOI, front sight, straight-back, … click.

GTSOOI, front sight, straight-back, … click.


ADDENDUM:

Today, Bruce Martindale summed up grip pressure very nicely. He wrote:

… my personal concept on grip pressure is that group size, as a function of grip pressure, is a U shaped curve and maybe it has a third axis for trigger sear weight.

Too loose grip gives bigger groups (trigger motion and recoil induced). Too tight also gives bigger groups (lack of trigger control). You can not grip tight and retain fine motor control of your finger. So what to do? “Just Right” tension that gives you trigger AND recoil control).

How much is that? Well you have to figure that out by training with “too much” and “too little” then “just right”. Call it the “3 bears” exercise.

Thanks, Bruce, that’s perfect!

Oh yeah, my wife knows me, all right. (See reference to “wife” herein.)

Competition Day Diet

For Bullseye 2700s that last all day (typically 8:30AM to about 3:00PM) I have adopted a very specific diet. Several other local shooters seem to do about the same and also Brian Zins, the seven times US pistol shooting champion from whom I’m admittedly borrowing much of this advice, has mentioned a very similar diet for the day of competition. Please note, however, that I’ve adapted all this to the perceived dictates of my own metabolism. (YMMV.)

I normally do not eat any breakfast. I tried a couple of different ones on shooting days but universally found I did worse with the change of habit so, now, I have no food for breakfast on competition days. My normal start-of-day is one cup of regular coffee and one cup of decaf, both with a little 2% milk and NO SUGAR. I now do the same on competition days. Although that one cup of caffeinated coffee probably affects my steadiness, I find it a plus for mental sharpness (in my very subjective opinion, of course).

I eat a banana between 22 and CF, about 10:30AM and am thoroughly convinced it helps over the next two hours.

Lunch (12:30-ish) is a 6″ turkey sandwich at Subway or its equivalent. I have provolone cheese on the sandwich, oil and vinegar dressing, bell pepper, tomato, olives, fresh spinach (if they have it) or a small amount of lettuce if not, and lots of black pepper. Lots! I drink only water with lunch (and throughout the day as desired).

If we shoot a hardball match after the 2700, I’ve tried a second banana but, with my shooting of that gun, I can’t say it helps or hinders.

When the Subway near the range was closed for remodeling at a recent 2700, I ate a 1/2 cup of pasta with garlic and olive oil (from the deli section at a grocery) and a 4 oz. packet of turkey slices for lunch. I did as well on that as with the turkey sandwich from Subway. (Pasta gets a plus vote from me.)

Some of the key features of this are, in my opinion, 1) eat only enough to keep you going — a less than full stomach is a must, 2) the turkey contains something (tryptophan? sp?) that has a calming effect (as do chicken and tuna but to a lesser extent) which is beneficial, and 3) the banana seems to have the right balance of natural sugars (for mental sharpness) and potassium (which is a muscle relaxant if I’m not mistaken).

Sugar is bad, real bad, at any time when shooting for accuracy. Sugar in my coffee or a cookie at lunch will definately mess me up. (I’m slightly hypoglycemic so I’m very sensitive to refined sugars.) For similar reasons, any kind of sports drink (or “soft” drink) is a big no-no. Based on my experience, I would recommend plain water only to drink but make sure to get enough to keep the blood flowing easily: dehydration will lessen the oxygen flow to the brain and aim will suffer (in my inexpert opinion).

Overall, you want to keep your heart rate low. If the competition has you walking back and forth to the targets, walk slow. If there is a 30 second or longer lull in the competition, sit down. Pick up banana and lunch (and water) before the competition, eat at the range rather than going out with “the guys and gals” and sit calmly. Keep everything low key. (If you clean a target then, OK, you can do a little victory dance, but only a really little one, and then forget that target and concentrate on shooting only the very next shot.)

Relaxed and alert seem to be the bottom line.

Look Ma, No Hands!

Shooting, I’m beginning to suspect, is like riding a bicycle. Intellectually you know what you have to do but as long as you have to think about it, you’re gonna crash.

I shot only my 22 at first but, a few months ago, decided to start working on the 45. I wanted to do the whole nine yards and shoot a full 2700 with the right guns and all the rules. Shooting just the 22, I felt like I was only putting my toes in the water. So I bought a 45 and jumped into the deep end.

I then focused solely on the 45 and shot nothing else. And my shooting was, to put it mildly, horrific. I kept moving the target closer and closer until, finally at 15 feet, I could put all ten rounds into the paper. Then, over time and a lot of rounds, I slowly started to get things under control. The target stayed at 15 feet for several weeks. This was a slow process for me. That, in itself, was an important “fact of life” for this beginner to learn.

Grip was the first “Eureka” I discovered. Before making what for me felt like a big breakthrough (which I’ll describe in a moment), all my shots were landing 3″ (or more) left of center at 15 feet. But when I “got it”, the shots moved into the center — the difference was profound and, by changing my grip in what I thought was a very small way, I could move the shots back and forth at will. That day at the range, I shot several targets and alternated my grip between them and, sure enough, I could move those holes left and right just by changing my grip. Wow!

It took me a couple of days to figure out that, up until that point, no matter how hard I tried to grip the gun, I just wasn’t strong enough to maintain that grip through the shot. My grip was that of the proverbial 98 pound weakling and I simply couldn’t muster enough force, even just short of the quivering and shaking point that is recommended, to hold the gun well enough, and to hold it that way through the shot.

But when my grip had strengthened to some magic level, then I could.

But even so, there still seems to be a “balance” to be found between grip intensity and enough “play” so my trigger finger can move without moving the rest of the hand muscles. When shooting, what I do now is to consciously grip as tight as I can and then relax it a couple of notches. My grip is still very tight but I can also move my trigger finger (more or less) independently.

Balance.

In time, perhaps as my grip strength continues to increase, that balance range won’t be as narrow. Right now, it’s hard to get the right amount of grip versus relaxation so that everything “goes” as it should.

I feel like my abilities and strength finally reached the platform of a step on the learning curve where, suddenly, several things started working correctly.

With that “Eureka” successfully learned, I then turned my attention to trigger control and I have spent a couple of months (and a lot of brass) attempting to get rid of the jerk in all its front-sight twitching variants. In the past few days, literally, I think I’ve made a small breakthrough via a realization.

“Trigger Control” is a misnomer. You don’t control the trigger. Instead, it’s like riding a bicycle or driving a car with a stick shift and a clutch. Intellectually, you know exactly what you have to do, but there’s no way the mind can do it. The brain can help the body learn, but it just doesn’t work until the body “gets it” and can do it on its own. When my brain attempts to ride a bike, I crash, but when I let my body do it, I sail along just fine. In shooting, when that happens I — excuse me, gentlemen — giggle, “Wow, it’s working.” (And then “crash” my next shot cause I’ve start thinking about shooting again.)

When I shoot, the intellectual litany I repeat to myself now goes like this:

  1. Prove the stance (make sure I’m lined up, etc.),
  2. Two deep breaths, raise gun, exhale partially and hold,
  3. Pre-check sight alignment and picture (put it close to correct),
  4. Visualize rolling a cylinder with my trigger finger,
  5. Focus on the front sight, front sight, front sight …

And eventually the gun goes off — and it’s definately a surprise (when this works).

What I’m doing in step #4 will (hopefully) start the trigger finger on auto-pilot and then, in #5, I WILL NEVER THINK ABOUT THE TRIGGER AGAIN. That is, step #5 truly is a waiting game — when I do it the way I intend, [OH!] the gun goes off and I’m truly surprised. I know when I’ve done it right — I can feel it in my gut (and hear a giggle in my brain) and I *know* where the shot went on the target. I can call the shot — well, I can call the “o’clock” portion more often than which ring, but that’s real progress!

During step #5, if my mind wanders to the trigger or if I hear myself wondering when the gun is going to go off, I (try to) abort the shot and start over. Hearing that thought and then aborting the shot are, of course, a challenge. I need to work at enhancing my multiple personalities so someone can do the monitoring while someone else watches the sights and the body *does* the trigger.

So, I shot nothing but the 45 for several months.

One day, in great frustration with the 45, I decided I needed some “feel good” shooting and I took out the 22 pistol. It took me a couple of targets to settle back into it but what I discovered was that although my shots weren’t particularly better, I found I could call very close to 100% of them. I *knew* where every shot was going. “Trigger Control” was happening. I was riding the bike!

And, for some reason, Timed Fire was suddenly much, MUCH better. Indeed, on the wall behind my desk at this very moment I have taped up a 98-2 TF target I shot June 28th in 22 cal. It was target #8 of the day. The two 9-ring holes are at 10 and 4 o’clocks and probably show some trigger finger position anomolies and just plain not lining up the sights. But the target is on my wall because I now know I will clean a target at some point. I can see that I can do it. On June 28th, I came within two points of doing exactly that. It will happen.

But my slow fire is only a little improved from before, and a lot of other shooters report a similar phenomenon, that their TF is much better than SF (or RF).

Something is going on, and my guess (theory) is that I’m not really holding the alignment when the shot goes. My conscious mind is attempting to hold it, to focus on the front sight, keep it centered in the rear sight with the tops of the sights in a straight line, and in the aiming area of the target, and …

But I can see that, as with the trigger, I’m trying to do the sight alignment with my conscious mind. As it was with the trigger, so too (I’m beginning to think) must the sight alignment become automatic, and unconscious. The conscious brain has to keep the eye on the front sight so the unconsciou gets the right data, but you just can’t ride a bicycle by thinking about it. It’s got to be automatic.

In TF, there’s just enough time for my wobbly “riding” to stay on the sidewalk, if you will, and my shots go to the right place. But in SF I think about how to align the sights rather than simply telling the unconscious to “align the sights”, and by consciously trying to ride the bike, I crash.

Nope, I need to train the unconscious to do what I want, and then let it do it. And in RF, my conscious mind tries to control things to get all five shots away in time and, again, I crash the bicycle by trying to ride it with my brain not my body.

Remember how you learned to ride a bike? It took help, patience and a lot of practice. I’m told that Marine shooters are instructed to go out to the line and “Shoot until you’re knee deep in brass.”

They’re learning how to ride a bicycle.

They are doing it over and over and over and over … until the body knows what to do and the mind go just quietly watch the show.

And I’m convinced that through each gun we learn more and more about shooting any gun, but that each gun forces us to focus on different areas. From the 45 I think I’m figuring out the badly named “Trigger Control” bugaboo. And from the 22 I can “see” my problem with “Sight Alignment” — and that it’s really the same kind of “control” issue.

Since I’m really in “learn” mode much more than “compete effectively” mode, I focus on solely shooting one gun during practice/training sessions and, at the moment (and for a couple of months to come, I’m sure), that will be the 45. It’s a bear to shoot — what an incredible challenge — but I’m learning and slowly getting better, sometimes incrementally from practice to practice, but other times only after staying stuck, growing frustrated, and then suddenly experiencing a jump. “What did I just do,” is the question to answer when that happens in practice/training.

And there is the inevitable back-sliding, too. That can be so very frustrating when you’ve seen something working but then lose it somehow.

Patience.

In competitions (such as the Tuesday night league here in Phoenix), I try to turn my brain off as much as possible and enjoy the shoot because, when the brain turns on (because I shot a pretty good target) the brain always tries to do it better, and when that happens, I crash my bike.

Don Plante said to me once, “Don’t think. Just shoot.”

Coach Pat, the ex-Marine pistol coach that calls our league competitions, sometimes walks behind the line before a string and reminds the shooters, “You know what DFT is, don’t you? ‘Don’t … Think!'”

And Brian Zins, seven times the US National Champion says, “I am not smart enough to shoot bad.”

Shooting is body work, not brain work.

It’s like riding a bicycle.

Well, almost like that but, fortunately for the other shooters on the line, there’s never any temptation to suddenly shout, “Look Ma, no hands!”