Bang! Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!

I’ve been concentrating on the 45 hardball gun for several weeks (seems like months) and other than two 900s per month on the 22 and 45 wad gun, I’ve been shooting almost nothing else. I probably shoot 4X as much hardball as anything else right now, all on the theory that shooting the more difficult gun will teach me more and, in turn, help the other guns.

I think this is basically true, but there seem to be at least two limiting or otherwise extenuating factors, both of which have become prominent, and real problems.

By way of explaining, let me say that at last night’s league 900, my shooting was dismal with the hardball gun. I only succeeded in calling maybe one shot in ten. All the rest went somewhere wildly different than I thought. Or when I thought I’d heeled a shot up a little, it would hit the very top of the target “way up there” instead of just a little up that I thought I had done. My score for the 900 was a depressing 626-3 (70% but only because it rounds up that way).

I knew last night what was wrong: I have no trigger control with that gun. Instead, when the iron sights waggle into the right place on the target, I’m snatching the shot and, of
course, yanking it all over the paper. Timed Fire is the only place I can establish any semblance of smoothness and that’s only by ignoring where the gun is aimed and just focusing on a smooth trigger finger movement. But I can’t even do that consistently so even in Timed Fire more than half my shots go down and left into jerk-land.

Dry fire will, I’m sure, fix this but, well, dry firing is just not much fun. There’s no flash, no kick, no bang and no smoke. You tell me where’s the fun in that?

So, that’s the first issue, trigger control. The good part of that is it’s a core issue: everyone struggles with it, occasionally even the High Masters. To be specific, I find it enormously reassuring when I’m standing at the line shooting slow fire and I hear one of the High Masters next to me release a shot and immediately mumble, “Damn!” (I love my amplified ear protectors!) I’ve heard Steve Reiter, several (three?) time Perry (US) champion, curse that he “jerked an eight” (I should be so good!). And I’ve heard John Zurek, US Olympic shooting team member, say almost the same thing.

Trigger control is the big one in this sport. Everything else is foundation and it all has to be there, but if you can’t release a shot cleanly, the rest of it just doesn’t matter.

The second issue, at least for me, goes by a couple of names including ego and confidence. Basically, when I get frustrated amd things aren’t going well, I can sometimes pull myself together and recover, but there are also those times when it just goes completely to pot. Last night was one of the latter because things just got worse and worse as the evening went on.

One of the very accomplished shooters last night commented his progress was like a badly cut saw: overall his scores are getting better and better, but only if you look at them over the span of several *months*. Looking at individual match scores, he said it is hard to see the progress, and sometimes very discouraging if you limit your vision to just one or two matches. You have to take the long view not only of what this sport is going to take, but also of each individual’s progress. For most of us, it is a long, slow and uneven road.

In a related vein, I’ve noticed that when new shooters come to the league, the others are encouraging and helpful to a degree but the really focused and patient help, the coaching
that really matters, doesn’t come out for a while. Some might say they are waiting while the newcomer “pays his dues” but I think it’s something else. I think the experienced shooters intuitively know this sport is going to take time and present an awful lot of frustrations. I think they are unconsciously waiting to see if the newcomer has the determination to stick with it. The experienced Bullseye shooters know these lessons take a long time to learn, especially the one called “trigger control” and if someone is going to give up after as little as just a couple of years of trying then, hell, why bother showing them something that’s going to take a decade and more to master?

But speaking only for myself, my ego took a real beating last night and, frankly, it needs some TLC. So I am going to put away the hardball gun for a while. I need some successes.
I’m going to shoot some 22 for a couple of weeks to boost my ego, and thereby my confidence. With the 22, I will again see that I can shoot, and that I can shoot pretty darn well, sometimes in the low Expert range. Hell, I even cleaned a target with that gun in an authorized competition. I need some time with that gun to rebuild my confidence, to boost my ego, and maybe to get a little angry at myself so that, when I do pick up the hardball gun again, I’ll have the determination to push through some more of that oh-so-valuable but oh-so-painful “learning experience.”

For me, it’s time for some fun and plain old self-gratification. I’m gonna forget the seriousness for a little bit and just enjoy making a big bang, a bright flash and a lot of smoke.

And, come to think of it, not worrying about where the gun is aimed (other than “in a safe direction”) will give me the perfect opportunity to practice just moving the trigger smoothly and not worrying about where it’s going to hit the target.

As Coach Pat would sometimes say, “Shoot, make noise, have fun!”

I love this sport almost as much as I love the people who shoot. (Ah, don’t get wierd guys. “Love” is a relative word, okay?) Having the opportunity to stand next to and try to do
the same thing as world class athletes is incredible, and when we’re walking back and forth to the targets and they say something like, “You know, I noticed you’re doing something when you shoot — let me show you a different way of doing that — it might be helpful” — well, what are the odds of a poor duffer getting a personal tip from Tiger Woods who just watched you muff the tee shot? But in Bullseye, it happens, and not just once a lifetime.

Bang!

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

Oh yeah!

The Internal Coach

I tried a slight modification to the approach I recently wrote about. Specifically, although I still try to release all thoughts and self-talk during a shot, after I’ve released the shot and lowered the gun, that’s when I do something different.

I let the coach talk to me then.

This “coach” is entirely inside my head. Basically he silently watches me shoot and then, as may be indicated, he makes a suggestion or two, but then moves quietly back to observe again for the next shot.

To tell you how I found this internal coach, I have to go back to the beginning.

When I first started shooting Bullseye, I received a lot of one-on-one (live) coaching. Coach Pat was ex-Marine, ex-shooting coach, and an all around interesting individual. He was the consummate coach and would change his coaching technique as he came to know me better, as my technique improved, or didn’t, and as would fit his demeanor for the day.

He would say, “My rate is twenty bucks until one of us gets tired or pissed off.”

And Coach Pat was very effective. When grooming an internal coach, the same changes in strategy Coach Pat would use might also be effective.

For example, on my first lesson with Coach Pat, we spent what I thought was a surprising amount of time just learning how to stand. My internal coach doesn’t spend that much time when I move to the line now but, nonetheless, he talks me through getting my stance set so my Natural Point of Aim (NPA) falls dead-on the bullseye.

And preparing for a string, my internal coach might remind me, for example, that “This is Timed Fire. You will have a lot of time for each shot. Take your time and settle each one in.”

But once I start to raise the gun, the coach goes silent.

Or rather, I start letting those thoughts go. Thereafter, when words come to mind, I just let them go without repeating or thinking about what they say. After a few seconds, there will be silence. I let the silence settle over me as I start watching the sights (well, the red dot actually) and just keep doing that until the shot goes.

After the shot has gone, I continue the silence until I recover the sight picture and then start to put the gun down.

I then announce where the shot went.

“Eight o’clock, seven ring,” for example.

The internal coach now moves up beside me and is free to speak.

“Do you know what happened on that one?” he might ask.

“Yeah,” I would tell him, “I heard myself say, ‘Ooh, that looks good, shoot now!’ and so I jerked the shot.”

Nodding his head, the coach might say, “Focus solely on the dot this time. If any thought of the trigger enters your mind, abort the shot and put the gun down, and then try again. Focus on the dot. Focus on the dot.”

Coach will step back then as I quiet my mind and do the next shot.

 

Some comments are in order about this mental coaching technique.

  1. First, in selecting a live coach, you will want someone who both knows about shooting and who is also a good people-person. If you’re going to use an internal coach, the same requirements apply. Obviously, you will want to be as educated as possible about shooting so you give yourself good advice. That’s why the “internal coach” won’t work for beginners: they don’t know what to do yet. The needed education can be acquired, in large part, through books and I won’t go into which one(s) I prefer here. My approach was to read a lot and take a little from each source.

    But you won’t find much on coaching in books. For that, you’ll need to get some first-hand experience, and preferably from more than one individual because the coach/coached relationship is a very personal thing. Your personalities have to mesh to a certain degree or it just won’t work.

    So, how do you find a good coach? Well, you don’t actually. What you do is try different people and eventually you luck into a good coach. You can start with the shooter to your right or left the next time you go shooting. Obviously you want someone who seems to shoot fairly well, but the funny thing is that a good coach needs to know how to help others shoot well, not necessarily themselves. So if they shoot “Ok” (or better), that person could be the right coach for you.

    Between targets, lean over and ask them, “Excuse me but could you watch me shoot a couple of shots and see if you see me doing anything wrong? I’d really appreciate any suggestions you might make.”

    Do that several times and, somewhere in all those shooters you’ll find a good coach. Much of your internal coach will be modelled on that person’s behavior.

    So, you will also want your internal coach to be a people-person. That means he (or she) has to like you, to want to see you succeed, and to have an endless supply of patience. You may have to groom your internal coach if he doesn’t initially have all of these qualities. But luckily, and unlike real people, your internal coach can become whatever you want him to be. You’ll just have to guide him from time to time. For example, it’s Okay to tell your internal coach, “I know you’re frustrated with me. I am too, so please cut me some slack. We’re in this together, after all.” And he is, and he will.

  2. Achieving that mental silence as you release a shot sounds easy but, in practice, may be difficult to do. Some days I just naturally seem to drop right in whereas on others, it’s like there’s a meeting in the conference room and everyone is clammoring for my attention at the same time. Some times it’s all I can do to get a few seconds of peace. But once achieved, the next few moments of peace are a little easier to find and they last a little longer.

    I took a class in Buddhist Meditation once many years ago and then practiced it for a little while. I’ve fallen away from it as a regular practice now but sometimes when hiking in the desert or a wooded forest, I’ll find that same, word-less peace. And some say that silent prayer, just listening instead of “talking”, just being quiet and letting all thoughts go in a time of prayer feels like a similar state. Practicing these other methods of mind-quieting will help you repeat it at will. (Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, refers to a state of “Mindfullness” that is what may be needed for shooting. Your mind is quiet but alert and attentive. He is one of my favorite authors and his books are widely available.)

  3. Aborting a shot is something I need to do much more often. Thoughts of the trigger, of wanting the shot to go because I see the dot grow still and sitting dead-on the X, of beginning to grow tired of waiting for the shot to go — all of these are signs that the shot should be abandoned. I should put the gun down and start over.

    But that’s so much easier said than done.

    I think I still need the coaches help on this one. What I need to do is tell him, after the shot and after I’ve put the gun down, about what *I* did on a non-verbal level and then listen to his advice. I’m sure he’s going to say that I should just stop and put the gun down when that happens, but I still need to hear that from my internal coach to reinforce what I will then start doing during the silence of the shot when he is watching me again, in silence, to see how I do. And when I do put the gun down and start over, the only thing I may hear from him is a smile. He knows I’m following his advice.

  4. There will be times when the internal coach may give you some good-natured ribbing. Indeed, even a good live coach may do that, and although you may find it annoying, the coach may intuitively know this is exactly what you need at that moment.

    The best example I can think of is something that happened with Coach Pat one day. (This was the real Coach Pat, not my internalized version of him.)

    I was jerking my shots one day as he watched me shoot and the harder I tried not to jerk, the worse it got. After watching me do this for two strings, Coach Pat told me to shoot another but then he moved up and stood with his face right next to my ear and each time I jerked a shot he said “Jerk!” real loud.

    Damn, I got mad, and madder, both at my jerking and at him!

    Bang! “Jerk!”

    Bang!! “Jerk!!”

    Bang!!! “Jerk!!!

    And then suddenly, it was like I went up and over the top of a hill. My tension crested, and then broke. I started laughing. All the tension was gone as I shook my head at how incredibly ridiculous everything seemed.

    Coach Pat laughed too. He knew he’d broken the tension that was making the jerk worse and worse with each shot.

    He said, “Okay, let’s see some good releases now. Remember, level and smooth, level and smooth,” and he stepped back and smiled as I shot three tens in a row.

    Wow!

    Your internal coach may have that same wisdom. It’s a people-skill for sure but you’ve probably been in this life long enough to develop some of that same wisdom, too. If you’re internal coach is doing something you don’t understand, trust him. Could be he’s pretty smart.

 

Over time, shooters may benefit from a lot of coaching at first, possibly even through the release of each shot, but then progressing to letting you shoot in silence with positive suggestions and earned compliments after, and even to the point where the coach doesn’t say anything at all. Instead, he just holds up a target with a single hole dead center in the X and then motions you to the line. Some of the top Bullseye shooters say that’s what it’s like for them. They “show” what they want to their unconscious and then let it figure out how to get there. Although it’s not clear who is the coach and who is the shooter in that situation, there are definately two creatures involved. One is setting the goal, the other is shooting the gun.

Thanks, Coach.

Coach Pat

Coach Pat, Patrick Dolan, passed away last Friday, October 22, 2005.

Most of the pistol shooters at the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club and many of those who frequented the public range had come to know his sometimes goading, sometimes soothing voice. He called a great many of the Bullseye competitions. Anyone who has competed there has probably heard him announce, “The line is safe. Go down and score those targets, … and cover up that mess.”

I met Coach Pat when I came to watch a Bullseye Pistol competition a year ago. I had been shooting for all of a few short months and had learned only that accurate pistol shooting was hard, very hard. While the competitors were down scoring targets, Coach Pat introduced himself and answered my questions about the sport. By way of suggestion, he said he gave private lessons “for twenty bucks until one of us gets tired or pissed off.” Amused at the time, I would come to value his direct and “no holds barred” style of coaching. He was honest and real.

His love of the sport of competitive pistol shooting was surpassed only by his desire to see shooters getting better and better. Some like to teach because it lets them show what they know. Others teach because they truly want others to do better. Coach Pat was solidly in the second group: he wanted to see others hitting closer and closer to the X. Their progress, their growth, was his joy.

Pat’s patience was truly extraordinary. Every time he repeated, yet again, some instruction I just couldn’t get, it was as if he were saying it for the first time, measured, clear and direct. I can hear, even now, “level and smooooth, level and smooooth.”

And in his rare, introspective moments, it was as if each event in his life had been a shot that stood out clear and stark, but after a brief glance at the goal, his focus would come back to the front sight, the next shot, the next moment in his life.

I think he would have said, “Life is now. Focus here, right here.”

Coach Pat taught many to shoot; most got more.

Thanks, Coach.

Stinkin’ Thinkin’

It was “International” at Nighthawks league last night. The turnout was relatively small especially considering that the temperature had backed off from previous weeks.

I started well and scored 77 on my first Precision Fire target. Considering that I’m usually in the mid 50s, I was optimistic, but prematurely so as I would soon discover because whatever I was doing right on that target, I forgot or otherwise messed up on the next two scoring 55 and then 56.

Duelling Fire similarly started well. In fact, my 87 on the first target was a significant improvement over anything I had previously shot in that form. But the next target’s 71 was a bucket of cold water and was followed by more of the same with the final target of 63.

The pattern of “good first target followed by messing it up” in both forms suggests I shoot better when following an ingrained script rather than trying to analyze and improve upon, or just repeat, what I last did.

Coach Pat looked at my score card and, comparing the Precision (slow) Fire versus the Duelling (timed) Fire, gave an instant analysis: “See? Less thinking works!”

My final score of 409 was a notch better than previous totals in this form of competition. Of course, at this end of the scale, it’s relatively easy to have a new “personal best” quite often. Last night was no exception.

But considering that my aggregate score at almost every competition is better than the one before, there are two basic truths: I’m getting better and better, and I’m probably learning to think less and less.

I’m printing two small reminders for my gun box.

  • “Don’t think. Just shoot.” (Don Plante)
  • “DFT – Don’t F^#$ing Think!” (Coach Pat)

Thanks, guys.

Getting Started

Background

After going pistol shooting with some co-workers, I became interested in target shooting.
My first pistol was a Ruger New Model Blackhawk in .357 calibre with the stainless steel finish.
I immediately liked the really big noise that it made and ran through a couple of boxes of ammunition
before deciding that 1) this could get expensive at approximately $0.25 per “bang”, and 2) I wasn’t
hitting where I was aiming except on rare occasions, and didn’t know why.
Talking with my friends and the other shooters, I discovered what “flinch” meant,
and I had it big time.
I learned that as I pulled the trigger, I knew when the gun was going to go off
and my body was reacting in anticipation, and in a protect-myself manner,
just before the hammer actually fell.
That reaction was pulling the gun away from the middle of the target and I was never going to hit
what I thought I was aiming at with any semblance of regularity.

Reading up on “the flinch” I discovered this was a very common problem [phew!],
especially with larger calibre guns [oh-no!].
An often recommended cure was to shoot much smaller “bangs” until the flinching stopped.

So, on a visit to the gun store, I bought a .22 calibre automatic handgun, a Walther P-22.
It was cute, sexy, and loved “high velocity” ammunition so I wouldn’t have to give up all of
the “bang” I enjoyed — and yes, I know, this contradicts my whole reason for going to the
smaller calibre to get rid of the flinch — but it was such a neat looking gun, I just couldn’t
resist.

And I was right — the Walther P-22 was just plain fun to shoot.
The ammunition was cheap (I used a lot of Federal Bulk ammo from Walmart at $8.99 for 525 rounds)
and, little by little, my subconscious reaction to the “bang” began to decrease.

But at the same time, I also discovered what “short sight radius” meant,
especially to an unskilled shooter such as myself.
The short distance between the front and rear sights meant that the slightest wobble in my
wrist, or the slightest off-centering of the front blade in the rear notch, or even the
slightest misalignment across the tops of the front and rear sights rapidly translated into
a large offset in where the bullet was going to go.

And the trigger pull wasn’t what I’ve since learned to call “crisp.”
Instead, the pull on the Walther was rather long and heavy so that, as I pulled it through
that relatively long distance at ever increasing pressure, my entire hand tended to “help”
in the “squeeze” (rather than the “pull”) of the trigger, and that too deflected the gun
from my intended aiming point.

Although the Walther was cheap and fun to shoot, it wasn’t a good pistol on which to learn
the basics of accurate shooting. In a sense, it amplified my sins and, as a beginner with so
many things to learn, it complicated the process well beyond my ability to cope.

At about that time, I learned about Bullseye Competition shooting. This
is target shooting whose primary concern is putting the bullet through the
center of the target, and not much else. That seemed like a good thing to
learn and so I started introducing myself to the Bullseye shooters at the
range. (Once you see one, you’ll recognize a Bullseye shooter. Look for the
big case with the attached spotting scope, the characteristic one-handed
stance, and the “hold the gun in place for many, many, many seconds before pulling off one solitary shot and then look through the scope to see where that round landed
look. That’s a Bullseye shooter.

Through this very helpful community, I began to learn a little here and a little there.
First, they confirmed what I already knew about flinch and short sight radius.
Then, they confirmed, by shooting my guns, that the faults I was seeing were within my skills, not within
the guns I had purchased. (One shooter produced a 1″ grouping with my Walther at 50′ — I was
utterly astonished because I would be lucky to get 10 rounds in the entire target at half that
distance.)

One of the Bullseye shooters I met mentioned that a big competition was scheduled in town
in October and that perhaps I’d be interested in attending as a spectator.

So, I met Coach Pat in October of 2004.
He was in charge of that Competition.

At that competition I found that not only was I very interested in Bullseye shooting,
but also, in talking with Coach Pat, I found out that he was available as a shooting coach,
and at a very reasonable rate.
He said, “I charge $20.00 until one of us gets tired or pissed off.”
I thought that was a very equitable arrangement and
asked for his telephone number.

At that time, however, I was still doing most of my shooting with a Walther P-22
but knew I would have to make a change.
I needed a .22 with a longer sight radius, and with some more bulk (weight) to help
steady my aim.

So at the competition,
I looked to see what pistols the competitors were using in the .22 caliber events.
Many (perhaps a third) were shooting Smith and Wesson Model 41s.
There were several shooters in the US military (sorry but I don’t remember which branch).
They all had S&W 41s, and they looked very well used.
But when it came time to examine the targets, I could see, by comparison with what the
other shooters were getting with other brands, that the 41s were right up there with the best.

Another third of the competitors were using Ruger Model II’s or similar models (from Ruger).
Some of the individuals shooting the Rugers were considerably younger than the
other competitors (down to as young as 14 years), but were producing excellent groupings
in their targets.

And the final third of the shooters were using a variety of what I would soon learn were
either very high-priced target pistols, or other less expensive models that had
undergone considerable rework by expert gunsmiths.

Overall, the competition was a real eye opener.
I enjoyed the shooting, was amazed at the precision I witnessed several shooters
produce in targets as far away as 50 yards, but was most impressed with how really
nice, helpful and informative all of the shooters had been to my novice questions.

I was hooked. Bullseye Competition shooting was what I wanted to do.

Now, I needed an appropriate set of pistols, starting with a .22 similar to what I had seen in use.

So, in the weeks after the competition, I read up on the various models and alternatives
I had seen and, before long, narrowed my focus on the S&W Model 41 and the Ruger Mark II,
both of which were still in production.

Between them, it appeared that the Ruger would almost certainly need the
touch of a gunsmith almost immediately whereas the S&W would probably
be a better pistol to begin with and the gunsmith’s honing could wait until
my abilities caught up to the gun (if ever). Although the S&W was more
expensive to begin with, it wasn’t by much when I figured the gunsmith’s
cost in to that of the Ruger.

I also reasoned that, if I started with the Ruger, I would almost immediately
begin wondering when I should sell it and move up to the S&W, and that
I would probably be viewing the Ruger as simply a stepping-stone to something
better. So, with apologies to Ruger and the very fine pistols and rifles
they make, the Smith & Wesson Model 41 looked like the best answer for
my immediate needs.

To raise the cash for that, however, I would need to liquidate my current armory.
So, early in December of 2004 I took my .357 Ruger single-action New Model Blackhawk and my .22
Walther to a gun show in Phoenix and sold them both to private individuals after carefully reviewing
the laws in this regard and making certain to document the transaction for posterity, and to protect
my posterior. (And in case anyone is interested, I sold each of those two pistols at a small profit!)

A few days later I went to Sportsman’s Warehouse in Phoenix AZ and bought a factory new
S&W Model 41 for slightly less than $750 (which rolled over $800 after taxes were added).

Examining the pistol at home, I was immediately impressed with the very high degree of precision
in the metal work. Compared to the Walther, the new Model 41 was a work of art.

And shooting it at the range a couple of days later, I found my groupings were immediately
much tighter and, after several more sessions, and even on a couple of “bad days,” they were still
much better than what I had previously produced with the Walther.

“Now,” I said to myself, “I’m ready to learn how to shoot!”