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.

Relative Importances

To my article, “Be A Straight Shooter“, an anonymous reader objected:

“Is it my understanding that a Sharpshooter is suggesting that everyone else is standing wrong?”

That comment admittedly raised my hackles, initially because the author chose to remain anonymous, but after I had slept on it I had to admit it bothered me because it raised two very good questions I’ve asked myself:

  1. Who am I, a Sharpshooter who admittedly has trouble shooting the 1911 up to this very same ranking, to tell others what they should or should not do; and
  2. If most good (Expert, Master and High Master ranked) Bullseye shooters claim to use the 45 degree stance, doesn’t that disprove the recommendation that a 90 degree stance (or “almost 90” as I’ve described) is superior?

Let me be completely honest in answering the first objection: The anonymous commenter is right. I really don’t know.

This blog is about my efforts to become a better shooter which is not the same as providing expert advice on how to be that better shooter. Where a posting seems to be doing the latter, I need to make it clear such is not the case. I have, therefore, annotated the article in question accordingly (see link above).

But for the second question, as to why the reported stance is not more commonly used or perceived as such, the answer is more involved and serves as the topic of this article.


Some things are more important than others.

At the lower skill levels, the mechanical skills of simply releasing a clean shot may dominate a shooter’s attention and efforts. Many expert shooters have written that there is no proper stance, grip, or right way of shooting. What works for one shooter may not work for another. Each individual has to experiment and find out what works for him or her.

Indeed, beginning shooters may find it hard to simply put ten holes in the target. They may be doing so many things wrong that it is difficult to know which to fix first. And they may also discover that many recommended corrections actually show little or no improvement at the target because the effect is so subtle as to be completely overshadowed by other problems.

This is not to say that learning correct technique isn’t important. On the contrary, developing good technique and instilling it into automatic behaviour is essential. But only after the basics are “down pat” can the shooter move on to the higher levels of the game where attitude dominates the shooter’s consciousness and thereby contributes those final winning points.

To the beginner, technique is all important. Learning the best way of holding the gun, of standing, of aligning the sights on the target and releasing the shot, these skills take most of his or her time and attention. Attitude, “with winning in mind” as Lanny Bassham terms it, unfortunately contributes little to the beginner’s scores. The beginner needs proper mechanical technique first.

Over time, the beginner will improve. Skills will become automatic. And the developing shooter will focus his or her attention on skills that have not yet become automatic that need to be fine-tuned before being “put to bed” in the unconscious skill set.

It is also during the development process that the shooter may discover they have learned some bad, or let’s call them “less than optimal” skills. The shooter may find that some techniques that were learned early and which seemed to help have now become detriments. What used to work is now an impediment.

When this happens, those “skills that don’t help now” must be unlearned and better ones found, practiced, and inserted in place of the old ones.

In several ways, this is where I am now. I’ve learned a few skills and have ingrained them into my unconsciousness and, when I shoot, I do them automatically.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the marriage of grip, stance and alignment, I now see I have not understood the experts. Worse, I now see the ill effects of some of those ingrained habits. I need to undo those and substitute better ones.

If I were to rank the various skills Bullseye shooters need, I would have to preface that by saying that my limited experience makes this a very risky activity. Nonetheless, I would also add that it would appear that the most important skills are those typically having the most subtle effects.

But many skills permeate every level of skill. For example the one that comes immediately to mind is best captured in the dictum to align the sights on the aiming area and then release the shot without disturbing the sights.

Skills that are somewhere in the middle would include fine tuning how each different gun best fits into the shooter’s hand, where exactly the finger should be placed on the trigger, and of course, the shooter’s stance and alignment to the target.

These three are at the center of my current efforts. Grip, placement of trigger finger and the totality of alignment from front sight to rear foot, are a single item. They must be assembled as a unit, not one at a time but in complete concert with each other.

In “Pistol Marksmanship Guide” by the United States Army Marksmanship Unit (Fredonia Books, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, page 3) it says, “When assuming the firing stance, the head must be held as level as possible, so that the shooter can see the target directly in line with arm and sights.” (Emphasis mine.)

And the only way to line up eye, arm and sights is as I’ve documented. Because the head is in the center of the body whereas the arm begins out at the shoulder, the eyes simply won’t line up with the arm and then with the sights in any stance other than 90 degrees.

But if things do line up, then I contend that the shooter is angling the wrist to make it so or tilting the head or gun. If the wrist is angled, recoil is no longer “aimed” straight up the arm. When fired, recoil will move the gun in a direction other than straight back. And if that movement occurs in the few milliseconds while the bullet is still in the barrel, then the shot will be deflected. And tilting or the head or gun have their own problems as described in my previous article that won’t be repeated here.

Some world-class experts agree with this 90 degree — or close thereto — recommendation.

At
http://www.targettalk.org/viewtopic.php?p=99246, Steve Swartz writes, “You want to be facing 75-90 degrees away from the sight line to the target”.

Steve is an accomplished, olympic-caliber pistol shooter, and has been a member of the U. S. National Pistol Team. His accomplishments are, in part, described at http://www.coba.unt.edu/news/view.php?/2006/05/03/dr-steve-swartz-advances-to-world-cup.

John Zurek, a High Master, placed third in this year’s ranking for the two shooters to represent the United States at the Beijing Olympics. John holds multiple range records at the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club. And needless to say, John often wins most of the 2700s he enters around the US.

And John shoots with a full 90 degree stance.

And an Olympic coach in the UK told me the 90 degree stance was preferred because everything is in alignment with the force of the shot. Using this stance, he said, there would be less tendency to “throw the shot off” by misaligned forces while the shot is still within but being accellerated out of the barrel, and that after the shot, recovery would be substantially quicker with the 90 degree stance.

This coach went on to say that I should hold my head straight, not leaning to either side, nor forward or back, because to do otherwise would affect my balance and stability. By keeping my head perfectly erect, my wobble would be less.

And again, in the “Pistol Marksmanship Guide”, see the photographs of shooters on pages 86, 92, 93, 99, 100, 103 and 104. These clearly show a stance much closer to 90 degrees (my “almost 90”) than to 45.

Finally, let me also note that people don’t always do what they think they are doing. Many shooters believe they are using a 45 degree stance but, in practice, they are actually using a much steeper angle, often close to the 75 degrees that Steve Swartz mentioned.

To test this claim, walk down the line at a Bullseye match and note the actual position of shooter’s feet. I believe you will notice that the majority of shooters are actually standing at a steeper angle than 45 degrees. It will be more like 60-75 degrees.

Let me recap this with three basic statements before ending this.

  1. What we say versus what we do are sometimes at odds.
  2. What is best is what works for you.
  3. And what works for you at one stage of development may not work at another.

Bullseye is a learning process. To grow you must change.

And to accomplish growth in a positive direction, you must identify areas causing problems or otherwise holding you back, and then figure out what changes are likely to, in the long run, improve your performance.

To that end, I have chosen to try and follow the advice of experts as exemplified in their actions as well as their words.

But in the area of grip, trigger and stance, I’ve previously been unable to bring all three together at the same time and in agreement with their recommendations.

And so I experimented and found, much to my surprise, that it is possible to achieve the recommended grip, and trigger, and stance all at the same time while simultaneously following all other recommended aspects. And to do so, one must use the 90 degree stance.




90 degree stance

To be blunt, if your body is built like that of most humans, the only way to get your hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, body and eye all into a single line is to stand with your body at 90 degrees from the firing line.

And that alignment is what the experts recommend, and it’s what the experts practice.

And finally, I understand why.

Now all I have to do is put it into practice.

Give me a couple of years. I’ll be working on it.

Ugh!

I skipped coffee in the interest of stability. Maybe that’s what I did wrong.

I ate a high-protein breakfast 90 minutes before first shot so my brain would have the needed molecules for concentration. Maybe that’s what I did wrong.

I disassembled, wiped down and otherwise lightly cleaned the wadder the night before. Maybe that’s what I did wrong.

My finger didn’t feel right on my model 41’s trigger. Maybe that’s what I did wrong.

And I really wanted to shoot scores a level above my current NRA Outdoor Sharpshooter rating. Maybe that’s what I did wrong.



Patching a five [barely]

Or maybe it was just just gonna be an all-around “bad day”.

It sure seemed determined to go that way.

In a word, my shooting was terrible. Nothing seemed to go right. I thought of packing it in early but decided that “quitters never win” and I’d try to see it through. But things just went downhill because after a dismal 22, CF was worse, and then the 45 competition started no better.

Then, adding insult to injury, after the Slow Fire of the National Match Course for the 45, I noticed that the dot on the wadder seemed loose. I grasped it and gave it a wiggle. Yup, sure enough, it was not secure. A vision of the scope coming loose in recoil and bonking me in the forehead as had happened to Leslie flashed through my mind.

Even if it doesn’t come loose, I reasoned, I’ll be thinking about it coming loose instead of concentrating on my shot.

I’ve got to fix this or change guns.

A quick inspection revealed that the bolt holding the front ring to the slide rail had loosened. I started to re-tighten the bolt but, as it began to snug down, something didn’t feel right. When it should have become tight, it felt mushy.

Oh no, I thought. The threads are stripping out.

I stopped turning and hoped it would stay sufficiently snug for the remaining targets but, after the NMC Timed Fire, I could wiggle the front bolt by hand. It wasn’t gonna hold and the whole thing might come away on any shot.

“I’ve got a gun failure here. One of the scope rings is coming loose. Can someone official witness this so I can switch to my backup, to my ball gun?”

From down the line Don yelled, “Wait, what kind of a mount is it?”

He came down, looked and said, “I’ve got a new one of those in the truck. I’ll get it and we can put in a fresh bolt.”

Two minutes later, it was in place.

“That should hold you for the match,” Don said.

But after the first target of the Timed Fire match, it was loose again. Apparently the receiving threads inside the scope mount were also gone.

Turning to the shooter on my right who’d been tallying a good number of Xs and 10s all day, I asked, “Will you verify this?” I wiggled the now loose red dot again. “I’m gonna have to change guns mid-match because this one is disabled.” He agreed. I put the wadder away and took out the ball gun which, luckily, shoots my wad loads just as well as ball ammo.

So, I finished the 2700 on that gun and, incidentally, posted some slightly better scores than I had with the loose-dotted wad gun.

But regardless, with bad 22, center fire and several poor to mediocre 45 scores, my aggregate for the day, 2281-25, was awful, really awful. Indeed, that score was below the SharpShooter baseline (85% of 2700 is 2295) so I didn’t even shoot my qualification this day.

Mmmph.

“Ball match, anyone?”

Well, I thought, what the heck. It can’t get much worse. And my arm actually feels reasonably Okay and, after all, I do like shooting that ammo and the iron sights.

“I’ll shoot,” I volunteered, “but I need a couple of minutes to clean the barrel after running the wad ammo through it.”

While I cleaned the ball gun’s barrel, most everyone else packed up. Oh well, I thought, that just means fewer folks to lose to.

Three of us shot ball, one comparative newbie a couple of positions down to my left, myself and the guy to my right who’d been scoring my bad targets all day but who shot his own very well. I thoroughly expected to get trounced by a bunch of points by him.

But maybe I can beat the newbie, I thought.

I went to Don and bought a box of factory ball Aguila. It’s cheap, kicks like a mule, flies better than I can shoot and, after resizing, the brass would be reloadable.

And I shot a very good Slow Fire target, very good for me at least, an 85-1.

All right! I *do* like shooting these iron sights.

Timed Fire wasn’t quite as good but, at 80-0, still “in there” for my ball scores.

But even with that score, I noticed that my trigger control was better than it had been with the wad gun and its red dot. Not seeing the target clearly is a good thing.

And maybe some luck was with me because, glancing over at my “good shooter” neighbor’s score card, I saw he wasn’t doing very well with the ball gun. Indeed, my Slow Fire was better than his and our Timed Fire had been about the same. I was actually a couple of points ahead. The beginner farther down the line, well, he was doing like beginners do. I know, I’ve been there many times.

But I was doing pretty good and the pretty good shooter to my right wasn’t.

A very dangerous thought crossed my mind:

I could win this admittedly small and not very tough competition. Yes, by golly, I could win this match.

Instantly the other half of my mind jumped in:

No! Stop! Shut up! Don’t think that! Be quiet!
Just focus on the next shot. Remember: front sight, alignment, aiming area, front sight, trigger straight back, front sight, front sight, front sight.
Now be quiet and just shoot.

We shot the first string of Rapid Fire. Some good, some bad.

I resisted the urge to scope the target.

Second string and again, some good, some not so good.

I put the gun away.

Naked eye from the firing line, I could see some holes in the black near the center but I knew I’d jerked a couple also. I folded up the scope without looking through it.

What’s done is done.

I scored the beginner’s target: Yup, he’s out of the running. A good try but really losing it on the Rapid Fire.

Now for my target.

Hmmm. It had a couple of Xs and a couple of 10s. Those looked very nice. But my target also a 5 — lower left, of course. My score was 78-2.

I had gone downhill over the three targets in the ball match. There were some good shots, yes, but there were also some bad ones.

My final score for the ball match was 243-3.

So, I wondered, what had Bob shot on his last target?

It looked like he’d done better than me, but how much?



Winner!

“Hi Bob, how’d you do? What’s your total?” I asked.

“243.”

Trying not to let my voice waver, I asked, “Uhm, how many Xs?”

“It was a bad match, for me. No Xs.”

He shot 243-0, I shot 243-3 … I won? I won. I won the ball match!

Hooray!

I don’t care there was hardly anyone shooting.

I don’t care if none of us were very good.

I won! I won the ball match! Yahoo!!

What a great day!

Be A Straight Shooter

NOTE:
This article presents my opinion on how to bring together several commonly heard recommendations on how to shoot better. And it comes to the rather surprising conclusion that most Bullseye shooters are using a less than perfect stance.

Readers have, very understandably, objected to my apparent pretentiousness and I must say that I too have had these very same qualms. I’ve asked myself, “Who am I to tell others how to shoot?”

This article was motivated by a desire to reconcile recommendations that seemed impossible to perform all at the same time, namely to use a hold that aligns recoil with the arm and, at the same time, aligns the sights with the eye without tilting the head or gun.

In my experiments to accomplish these recommendations simultaneously, I found there is only one stance that makes this physically possible.

But the fact that most shooters do not use that stance is, itself, good cause to question the importance of those commonly heard recommendations. (The relative importance of various recommendations is the topic of a later article.)

So, as you read this article, please keep the above issues in mind.





“Straight Shooter”

I had the range to myself this past Sunday morning and, after a few targets, I noticed something important and, because of it, I completely re-built my shooting stance right on the spot.
That experience allowed me to integrate several pieces of advice I’ve heard, and it also caused me to reject some common knowledge you’ll hear at just about any range with Bullseye shooters.

Because some of this flys in the face of common knowledge, I’ve gone to some length to back up these claims. Consequently, this is a significantly longer article than usual.

Specifically, I’m going to contend that a) you should have recoil coming straight up your arm and b), in order to do so, you simply cannot use a 45 degree stance. Put more strongly, if you are using a 45 degree stance, you aren’t shooting as well as you could. The stance is inherently flawed.

You can do better!

To prove that a 45 degree stance is incompatible with “recoil up the arm”, try this. (I’ll also describe why “recoil up the arm” is so essential but not just yet.)

  1. Take your favorite handgun and make sure it is unloaded.
  2. Grip it normally.
  3. Rotate your wrist until the gun is perfectly lined up with your arm (see picture below).
  4. Now, lock the wrist at that angle and raise the gun as if you were going to shoot.
  5. Rotating at the shoulder, sweep the gun left and right as far as you can in each direction. Keep the wrist locked and in perfect alignment with your arm throughout the entire range. As you sweep around, rotate your head at the neck to follow the gun but keep it straight up — don’t tilt the head. Similarly, keep the gun straight upright as well. Don’t tilt either the head or the gun. Keep everything vertical at all times.
  6. Notice that as you do this, there is only place where the front and rear sights line up with each other and your eye at the same time.
  7. At every other angle throughout the sweep, the front and rear sights will not line up with your eye.

This means that, to make the recoil come straight up your arm, that one angle found above is the only angle that will work. It’s the only arm-to-body angle where the sights line up with the eye in perfect alignment.

So why is that recoil coming straight up the arm so important?
The reason is that when the gun is fired, it moves backward against the hand an instant before the bullet leaves the barrel. If the wrist then moves because the force alignment with the arm is off, the muzzle will shift and throw off the shot.
Those with great upper body strength may be able to resist or minimize this, or they may be able to muster the exact same strength for each shot so the deflection is the same on each shot.
But for those of us who don’t have that strength and repeatability, we’ve simply got to align the recoil with our arm and body so everything moves straight back, first the trigger, then the gun, then our hand and into the arm as the recoil shoves backward.

On Sunday morning, recognizing I needed to line up the gun with my arm, I took my stance completely apart and re-assembled it starting at the trigger. I then worked my way back, joint by joint, until I ended at my feet. Holding that stance, I then shifted my feet until the sights were aligned on the bullseye.

My goal in all this was to integrate as much of the advice I’ve heard with all the “practical” I’ve seen, particularly that practiced by Masters and High Masters.
After all, they’re hitting the 10 and X rings a lot more than me.
What they are doing is obviously working.
The more of that I can do myself, the better my shooting should become.

And along the way, I learned a lot about the “why” of this stance, and also a lot about the conditions that may exist that cause some shooters to have to shoot differently, and what they have to do in order to compensate for those changes.

But before getting into all that, there are a couple of important observations to note.

  • First, I’ve noticed that upper-level shooters typically have very good upper-body strength, often from their profession or upbringing. This can lead to or otherwise permit what I will call “rule breaking”. They can get away with this because they can out-muscle the gun. I can’t do that so I have to do it right.
  • Next, here’s one we all should know: Trigger pressure must be straight back because if it’s not, when the sear breaks from the hammer hooks and the trigger is no longer opposed, the pressure that was holding things straight is now unopposed and the muzzle will be pushed away before the firing pin hits the primer. Trigger pressure must be perfectly straight back so its opposing pressure is perfectly straight forward. That’s the only way the gun will stay straight when the hooks release the hammer.
  • And finally, recoil drives the gun back into the hand before the bullet leaves the barrel. If, during this time, the hand doesn’t stay perfectly straight, the muzzle will be deflected and with it, the bullet will be thrown off. Watch high-speed photographs and you’ll see this to be the case: The gun pushes back into the hand before the bullet leaves the barrel. This explains, by the way, how some Masters and High Masters can still shoot well with less than perfect execution in other aspects — their upper-body strength is enough to prevent that deflection or, failing that, to make that deflection the same on each shot. They can then adjust their sights accordingly and shoot 10s and Xs all day. Not so for (weakling) me. I need to “do it right”.

 

Recoil Up-The-Arm Alignment



Recoil going straight up the arm
(Click to enlarge)

This picture shows the desired gun-to-arm alignment.
In the diagrams that follow with one exception, that gun-to-arm alignment is constant — the recoil force is always lined up with the arm.

On Sunday, it took me a few shots to “settle in”. I then shot several pretty good targets. But after about two hours, my grip was starting to get pretty tired — with all my work travel, I don’t get to shoot with any regularity and, among other things, my grip strength and stamina have suffered. And as my grip went, so did my shooting. And over the past year (or more), this has invariably meant that all my shots start moving to the left. I’ve tried all sorts of solutions and some have helped, but none have completely cured the problem. By this time, I had become convinced that there was one underlying problem I had not yet resolved.

And now I think I know what it is — wrist angle!

To explain what I’m convinced was happening (and which was solved almost immediately on Sunday morning), I have enlisted the assistance of an artist’s mannequin, a digital camera and some photo editing software to make some diagrams of gun/wrist/arm and body alignment. What you will see through these is that, when the gun is perfectly lined up on the arm, there is only one shoulder/body angle that will line up the sights to the eye.
And what is not quite so obvious is that before the shot leaves the barrel, the recoil will drive the gun back into the shooter’s hand and if that hand isn’t lined up to transfer the recoil straight up the arm, those mis-aligned joints will cause the muzzle to move to the left (for a right-handed shooter).

Hence, as my grip becomes fatigued, my shots move left.




Zero (0) degree stance

With the mannequin’s assistance, we will look at the three common stance angles, 0, 45 and 90 degrees.
Each one is named for the angle the toes make with the firing line. In the diagrams that follow, the firing line runs vertically through the picture and the horizontal line goes to the target. The green line marks the shooter’s toes and, in this picture, you can see that green line, the tips of the shooter’s toes, are parallel to the firing line. This is a 0 degree stance.

The red line denotes the axis of the barrel lined up with the shooter’s arm. Going in the other direction and leaving the shooter’s hand, this is the path the bullet will take.

But as you can also see in this first diagram, the target’s direction from the shooter’s eye (blue line) does not line up with the gun sights. Indeed, the sight line (yellow) is so far off that the bullet may not even hit the shooter’s target!

The shooter could try to remedy this by moving his arm to the left and then rotating his wrist to the right to make the three lines all line up, red, blue and yellow.




Wrist cocked right to align sights

But rotating the wrist to the right like this moves the recoil force out of alignment with the shooter’s arm. Consequently, when the gun fires, the wrist will flex and throw the shot off. Also, the recoil force will then flex the shoulder and, again, the shot will be thrown off.
And finally, the recoil will then rotate the shooter’s body. Again, the shot is thrown out from what was a perfectly aligned shot. Wrist and shoulder and the entire body are torqued by the shot because the wrist was cocked to the right to bring the sights into alignment.

For a right-handed shooter with the muzzle cocked to the right, recoil will push the gun straight back but, since the support is to the gun’s right, the gun moves in the unsupported direction, to the left. This leftward motion occurs at the gun, in the wrist, in the shoulder and in the body’s rotation. They all move the gun to the left in recoil.

Nonetheless, there are a small number of excellent shooters who do this.
They get away with it because they have developed compensating pressures in grip, body trunk and muscles that perfectly offset these forces, and they do it over and over again.
Repeatability is, after all, one of the most important goals in this sport.
If you can release shots exactly the same way again and again, no matter how far out of skew they go, if you do it the same way each time you can just turn your body so they always hit the center of the target.

Sadly, I’m not that good. I can’t do things exactly the same way each time, at least not yet.
If I rotate my wrist to align the sights but, in so doing, let the recoil flex my wrist, shoulder and body, it’s going to throw the shot off, and it’s going to be different from one shot to the next. This just won’t work for me.

 

Zero (0) Degree Stance




Head canted right with 0 degree stance

Another possible solution to this problem in the 0 degree stance is to tilt the head over to line up the eye with the gun’s axis which is, in turn, lined up with the arm.
Conversely, the gun can be tilted in to bring the sights into the line of sight.
And some shooters do a little of both.

Standing in the 0 degree stance with the gun tilted over one way and the head leaning the other, everything can be brought into alignment.
Well, just barely as the mannequin shows.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. First, if the gun is canted then the sight adjustments for up and down and left versus right are no longer lined up. Instead, you have to remember how much cant is applied and mentally rotate the target to figure out how much not-quite-up or how much not-quite-left to crank in when adjusting the sights.

Worse, if the head is canted, the inner ear begins telling the brain that the body is leaning. Although the brain will adequately compensate for this for a little while, if you continue to hold your head anywhere but perpendicular, eventually you will start to fall, become dizzy, or at a minimum, start to wobble. It is unavoidable.

If you don’t believe me, stand up, close your eyes and tilt you head to the side. Do this in a padded room because, before long you will start to feel, and see, these ill effects.

And if these happen while breaking a shot, your body will move and, with it, so will the gun.

 

45 Degree Stance

Most shooters say they use a 45 degree stance and it is quite possible their toes actually are on a line that is angled 45 degrees away from the firing line, but look also at their bodies. Are they standing straight or is the body twisted one way or another?

Also, after shooters have “settled in” after several targets, look at their stance again. Have their feet moved? What about body twist?

As you probably know, generalizations are dangerous. And in the sport of Bullseye pistol shooting, there are an amazing number of shooters using some very interesting techniques, many of whom shoot quite well.
But, by and large, if you focus your attention on only the Master and High Master shooters, you will start to see less and less variation.

So I invite you to sit-out a target every now and then to observe, and observe the best shooters with a critical eye. Whether they intend to or not, they have a lot to teach us.

  • How are their feet placed?
  • Does the body “face” in a direction between the feet or is the torso twisted so that although the feet are at some angle, the body is at a different angle?
  • Is the head perfectly upright or is it angled forward or to the side?
  • Is the gun tilted or straight up?
  • Stand directly behind the shoulder in which arm the gun is being held. Is the gun’s recoil aligned with the arm?
  • Watch the gun in recoil. Which way does it go? Does the recoil have a rolling motion as well?

And be forewarned because you’ll need to look at a lot of them before some of the more subtle practices become apparent.
Notice the big things they all do right, but also notice the little quirks and try to figure out what effects those might have.
Then look for them.




45 degree stance

In this diagram you can see that the 45 degree stance brings the barrel’s axis closer to the body. As before, recoil is straight up the arm but, unfortunately and also as before, the sight line (yellow) isn’t perfectly lined up. If the shooter cocks his wrist to the right to align the sights, he will have to move his feet to bring them to bear on his target. He will no longer have his feet at a 45 degree angle. But this is of no major consequence — the primary sin here is in cocking the wrist to the right. Recoil will push the shot to the left and if the shooter doesn’t have enough stamina to exert the same wrist, shoulder and body torque resistance throughout the entire competition, his shots will start to splay out horizontally.

Regardless, many shooters use this stance, line up the sights and hit the X ring.

This begs the question, what are they doing to make this work?




Head canted with 45 degree stance

Tilt the head and/or cant the gun and things will line up. Indeed, tilting the head slightly forward into a more aggressive stance also helps line things up. This is quite common among good shooters.

But as before, tilting the head ultimately leads to a less stable stance because the brain is still receiving an “off-balance” signal from the inner ear.

People who take long airplane rides, myself included, can tell you that after several hours of being bounced around in the air, it takes hours to regain their normal stability.
For several hours after such a flight, I find myself slowly falling right or left and if it wasn’t for the walls of the hallway through which I walk, I’d fall over.
Many is the time I’ve stood in the kitchen talking to my wife after coming home from such a flight and, even while leaning on the counter, I still find myself sliding off to one side or the other.

If you tilt your head for a shot and then straighten it back up in between, you’re doing the same thing to your inner ear as happens to mine on a bumpy airplane flight. And that means you are going to wobble.

On the other hand, if you can stand with your head perfectly straight up, the inner ear will tell the brain everything is balanced, straight and normal, and the brain will leave all the muscles involved in keeping you upright just as they are.
And that means less wobble.

 

90 Degree Stance




90 degree stance

Finally, here is a full 90 degree stance. The toes are perpendicular to the firing line and the head is rotated around and lined up with the sights. In this stance, we finally have complete alignment of the barrel’s axis, recoil up through the shooter’s arm, and the line of sight. (Note also that, in recoil, this is no twisting motion on the body. It is straight back through the upper body as well as through the arm.)

But use of this stance is fairly rare. For one thing, rotating the head a full 90 degrees is getting near the limit of what some people can do. I, for example, have a neck injury that makes this much rotation hard to achieve.
Secondly, it doesn’t feel as stable as the 45 degree stance. Although the recoil is better, the shooter’s body is now vulnerable to stiff winds down the shooting line and moving the feet to counteract that ruins the recoil recovery.
Although better for the shot, this stance may be more difficult to maintain for long periods of time.

Assuming the shooter develops the needed stamina which is, after all, simply standing straight and in one place for extended periods, this does appear to be the best stance.

 

Almost 90 Degree Stance

Remember earlier I mentioned that most shooters thought they used a 45 degree stance?
Well, if you look closely, I contend you’ll see that many of these top shooters are actually standing at a steeper angle. Sixty to seventy-five or more degrees is not all that unusual from what I’ve seen.




Slightly less than 90 degree stance

In this diagram, we see this “almost 90 degree” stance. This stance was selected for the mannequin because it comes closest to lining up where the mannequin’s eye should be which is, of course, slightly off-center in the face, with the line running from gun up the arm and into the shoulder.

And this “almost 90” stance is what I ended up with on Sunday morning. After rebuilding my stance from the trigger and on back from there, I found I just couldn’t do a full 90 degree stance. My neck just hurt too much.

So I compromised.
I shifted my feet ever so slightly, tilted the gun left just a smidgen until everything lined up. My head is straight up without any tilt.
And the recoil is almost coming straight up my arm, and certainly much more so than it was in the 45 degree stance.

The exact “almost 90” angle for other shooters will, of course, vary slightly with each individual. It will vary depending on the position of the eyes in the shooter’s face — are they widely separated or close together, the location of the shoulders forward or back on the body, and as before, a slight cant of the gun or even a small head tilt may also be needed. In some individuals, the forward “aggressive” posture may be sufficient to line things up. And if the head has to be tilted, hopefully the off-balance error signal will be sufficiently small as to be either ignored by the brain, or insignificant during the time of the shot. (Given enough time, however, the body will wobble as the brain tries to shift the body back into what it thinks will be a correctly balanced position, and the gun will wobble as it does so.)




Another view of the slightly
less than 90 degree stance

Here’s that same “almost 90” stance from a slightly different viewpoint. You can see that the shooter’s toes are slightly moved back toward the 45 degree position and, although the angle shown here is quite steep, in practice I think you’ll find angles greater than 45 to be surprisingly common especially among the top shooters.

For my aching neck, I now use this “almost 90” degree stance. I have a small amount of tilt on the gun, perhaps 15 degrees or so but I ignore it when adjusting the sights — my wobbly hold more than drowns out the small error that results.

And best of all, my left-to-right spread has dramatically improved and I’m convinced that is because I’ve gotten rid of all those angles. Everything just naturally lines up and I’m just as comfortable as can be. I could stand just like this for hours. Well, certainly for a “long” time anyway because it feels natural, nothing feels strained.

See you on the line!

Watchin’ the Front Sight

It’s working.

Six weeks ago I removed the red dots from all my guns because, with the dot, I found the urge to snatch a shot as the dot approached the “X” to be irresistable. Invariably, I would jerk the shot elsewhere on the target. No amount of self-talk was able to sway me into an ignore-the-target smooth trigger pull.

So I removed the dot and starting shooting iron sights. And ever since then, I’ve been shooting — not as often as I’d like because of work and travel — no worse and sometimes better than before.

Shooting iron sights not only renders the bull a fuzzy, indistinct ball, it also focuses attention on the hand and what’s happening there.

And for my purposes, that’s exactly what I want. I want my attention back here at the end of my hand where all the important stuff happens. That’s where the work is going on, that’s where I am re-training, that’s where the fix has to happen.

And in spite of appearances, the “X” is not out there on the target. Instead, the “X” might as well be right here at the end of my hand because that’s where I do or don’t shoot it. When the gun goes bang and the bullet leaves the end of the barrel, it’s all over. Later, the bullet will get to the target but where it lands is predetermined. When the hammer fell — and that happened back here in my hand — I either shot an “X” or I didn’t.

Target, schmarget. It doesn’t matter.

Got your guitar handy? All together now, “He’s got the whole world, in His hands…”

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

The simple fact is that when I’m shooting iron sights, it’s easier to keep my attention focused on what I’m doing and ignore how the target wobbles around. My hand is shooting the shot, not the target. Forget the target.

“Talk to the hand, because the ear’s not listening.”

Yup, that’s right.

“Talk to the hand,” because that’s what needs fixin’.

“Hear that, hand? It’s your job. Hold the gun tight but keep that index finger loose. Bring it straight back — you can feel a little arch in the finger as it comes back — push it straight back into my nose, feel it pressing up near the bridge of the nose, right where the boney skull ends and the cartiladge of the nose begins. Here, let me tap that spot so you can feel exactly where you need to be pushing toward. There, feel it? Now, come straight back toward there.”

Tapping the bridge of my nose before a shot looks pretty weird, you’re absolutely right. But, let’s walk down to the targets and see what they say.

(Good job, hand!)

No More Dots!

It’s gonna be the hard way, now: Iron sights and nothing but.

For weeks now I’ve had the growing suspicion that I’m snatching my shots when using a red dot. I will raise the gun, settle into position, think I’m starting the trigger and focus on the dot.

If that was really happening, I wouldn’t complain, but it’s not.

Instead, I’m convinced that I’m putting a little pressure on the trigger, initially focusing on the dot, but then I’m monitoring where the dot is sitting on the target and I’ve somehow trained myself to know when that dot is headed for a good position on the target and to then pull-off the shot at the right moment.

Sometimes, this works. In Timed Fire, for example, I have enough time for each shot that the recovery from the previous shot gets me back into right area and I can see when the dot will cross the X ring.

Bang!

But in Slow and especially in Rapid Fire, the results are dismal. A large proportion of those shots are jerked, down and left. Yeah, there are some good ones too, my “jerk” is sometimes timed well and close enough to straight back that I hit the center of the target, but there are other targets where everything just plain goes to hell in a handbasket. Every shot will land low and left. Boy, is that embarassing!

I want to say, “Please, don’t anyone look at that target! And please, don’t score it. Just give me a zero. Here, let me cover it up. Please!”

It’s hard to say what exactly is trained to this, the conscious or the subconscious mind but, regardless, something in me knows, sends the order, and the trigger finger yanks way, way, way too fast.

On the other hand with iron sights, I simply cannot see the target as anything other than a foggy blob. I can show you about where my hold is in the sub-six area — about one ring below the bottom of the black — but when I’m holding, I really don’t know when I’m there or a bit high, left, right or low.

With the dot, I know. But with iron sights, I don’t.

With the dot, I yank the trigger. But with iron sights, the only choice is to either yank it at random [duh, why now?], or to simply build pressure and keep the sights in alignment until it goes bang.

I got my proof of the problem last Sunday. It came as I shot the 45 portion of the Desert Midwinter competition partly with a red dot and partly without. (See http://www.desertmidwinter.com/.) [I had been travelling on business the week before and that was the only portion of the competition that fit my “Gee, honey, I’m going to be out of town on Valentine’s Day” in-the-doghouse schedule.]

Here are my scores:

Slow Fire #1: 89-1x
Slow Fire #2: 84-2x
NMC, Slow Fire: 82-2x
NMC, Timed Fire: 97-5x
NMC, Rapid Fire: 92-2x
Timed Fire #1: 85-1x
Timed Fire #2: 77-0x
Rapid Fire #1: 85-1x
Rapid Fire #2: 92-1x
Aggregate: 783-15x

The aggregate score is 87% [783/900] of the maximum and roughly in the middle of the Sharpshooter range of scores, my current outdoor classification.

You can see a very clear decline in scores over the three Slow Fire targets. I started well (89-1x) but then bad habits crept in (84-2x) and got worse (82-2x). Suddenly, the first Timed Fire looks great (97-5x) but the decline comes back in Rapid Fire and the first Timed Fire thereafter.

Then, something happened in the second target of the Timed Fire match. That 77-0x signals the sudden change and, thereafter, things got better, not worse.

Specifically, at the end of the first string on that target, the red dot on my wad gun had separated into front and rear components, both still in the mounting rings. The body of the dot was attached to the front tube but there was a quarter-inch gap between it and the rear tube. One of the rings was apparently a little bit less than tight and the impact of firing had literally pulled the scope apart. (It goes back to Larry’s Guns today for repair.)

When it happened, I signalled a disabled gun and was allowed to switch to my backup, my ball gun with iron sights. But in the stress of broken gun and the line waiting on me, I forgot to put on the lense that lets me focus on the front sight. Without it, my eye will not focus on the front sight. So my sight picture was blurry and in that second string on that target, I dropped 10-20 points in what might have been my best target of the match. (See the TF target just above, and also the TF target higher up in the NMC for comparison. Timed Fire is MY target!)

But from there on with lense in place, I shot as well or better with the ball gun (shooting the wad ammo) than I had with the wad gun.

Pondering that, wondering why I had shot as well with iron sights as with the dot, was when I realized what I was doing different.

With iron sights, I have no choice except to pressure the trigger until the gun fires. My eye simply cannot bring the target into focus through that added lense and there’s no way to know when to shoot or when to wait. Instead, once I’m in position the only thing I can do is keep the sights in alignment, add more and more pressure to the trigger, and wait for the gun to fire.

I confirmed the negative effects of the dot last night shooting the last two NMCs for Inland Empire with my 22. Although my scores were consistent and just about where they usually are with that gun at 275-5x and 275-7x out of 300 (91%), and in-line with my (indoor Expert) classification, I clearly noticed the relationship between when the shot was going and my semi-conscious expectation that the dot was about to move through the center of the bull.

That’s bad, really bad for Bullseye. I can fix all sorts of other things but as long as I keep yanking the trigger, I’m just not gonna go very far in Bullseye.

Trigger control is really tough for me. No amount of self-talk has succeeded in a smooth accumulation of pressure when I can see, when I can predict, when the shot needs to go so it will land in the middle of the target.

I need to re-train my finger while keeping my brain out of the act.

Iron sights and the lense I use to focus on the front sight — which blurs the target into a fuzzy ball — are the perfect combination: If the brain can’t see where the sights are on the target, it can’t know when to fire.

So, for the next several weeks and months (years?), I’m off the dot. It’s gonna be nothing but iron sights for a while.

I’ll shoot matches with iron sights.

I’ll dry fire with iron sights.

So, I took the dot off my 22 this morning revealing the patridge iron sights still usable thereon.

And the wad gun is gonna sit in the safe for a while. I’ll shoot the ball gun with its patridge sights and use the wad ammo in it which seems to be both reliable and accurate “as is”.

Patridge, whoever you are, I’m with you and your sights from here on!

Teach me.

“Level and smooooth,” Coach Pat would croon.

I’m with you, Coach. Forget the friggin’ target. The only thing that matters is what happens up here on the shooting line and no farther away than the end of my arm.

From here on its …

Level and smooooth…

… and to hell with the target!

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!”