Attentional Spotlight

I’m reading a non-Bullseye book that has, nonetheless, a lot to say about how we succeed or fail at many aspects that directly contribute to our performance at the firing line.

The book is “brain rules” (yes, the title is in lower case) by John Medina, a molecular biologist with a lifelong interest in how the brain works.

Here’s a brief video by the author on one of the aspects he writes about that is directly applicable to what we [try to] do at the firing line.



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.


“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?


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


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!


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!

Mindless Entertainment

Shooters learn Bullseye much the same way they do any other sport. They study, they experiment, they practice, they talk to others, they get coaching directly and indirectly. They commit things first to memory and then to body actions and, if everything goes well, they become as proficient at the sport as their abilities permit.

But it is also true that Bullseye is significantly less physical than some sports. In Bullseye, for example, there is no running. On the contrary, Bullseye shooters stand for relatively long periods of time nearly motionless. And when they do move, it is what appears to be a leisurely stroll down to the targets and back. But this is not because Bullseye shooters are lazy or laid-back. On the contrary, that leisurely pace is very intentional. Bullseye shooters do not want to elevate their heart rates. The sport requires it. When firing a string, Bullseye shooters want as motionless a stance as possible to minimize their wobble and, in turn, improve their accuracy on the target. Walking fast raises the heart rate, increases the wobble, and worsens the shots. No, Bullseye shooters walk slow for a reason. They take it easy for their next shot.

But, Bullseye is very much like other sports in one key way.

Consider a world champion tennis player. They are certainly very physical running left, right, forward and back, stretching and stooping for each shot. But consider also that player’s mental state while playing. Specifically, for a world-class player, how much self-talk are they doing once a volley begins?

Beginners do a lot of self-talk.

“Do this, do that, grip the gun tightly, focus on the front sight,” are among the common self-talk statements that beginners use to train themselves in Bullseye.

And no doubt beginning tennis players do the same. “Spot the place where I want the ball to go, loft the ball high and stretch up for the serve, now execute a smoothly increasing swing,” they might tell themselves.

But for the world-class tennis player, all of that is automatic. They’ve trained and practiced and everything they do has become completely unconscious. Indeed, it probably feels instinctive and the conscious mind simply watches as the ball is served and the volley played out.

In this, Bullseye is the same.

Indeed, many experts would probably agree that, as a given player’s skill rises, all sports become mental games.

“Attitude is everything,” some say.

“Visualize what you want,” others recommend.

“Focus on the goal.”

As the champion tennis player launches the ball up in the air to be served, his or her thinking has stopped. There is silence in the head. The body is on automatic. The eye sees; the body moves. It is a fully integrated machine.

The brain is only permitted to watch, not to act.

Think of sitting on the sofa and watching TV. The brain watches, it is entertained, but it does not participate.

Mindless entertainment, we call it.

At the upper skill levels, all sports have this in common.

Mindless entertainment.

In Bullseye, after the basics are learned, after shooters learn how to hold the gun, set their natural point of aim and move the trigger straight back to release the shot, an active, talkative, “do this, do that” brain is a hindrance. It messes up the shot.

The brain must be silenced.

Tell it.

“Please be quiet now. I’m going to shoot. Just watch. You’re going to like this. This is going to be good.”

It’s OK for the brain to watch. In fact, it’s good for the brain to watch. It likes to relax and be entertained. The brain enjoys the action and when the string ends, then it can become active and talk to the other shooters, score targets, notice that the body is thirsty and direct it to get a drink of water.

Bullseye must be intensely entertaining to the mind or we wouldn’t keep shooting for all the years it takes to become expert at this sport.

Think of anything non-essential that you have, nonetheless, voluntarily done for years. Why do you do it? Because you enjoy it. It is amusing. It is entertaining. It has to be or you would have abandoned it long ago.

In Bullseye, the brain’s recognition of improvement feels great. It likes it. And recognizing what caused some bad shots during a string can be amusing. I’ve had a lot of shots that made me laugh. I don’t particularly like them, but I do enjoy them when they happen.

And the brain talking with the other shooters is a vital part of the sport. We are, after all, social creatures. We find it enjoyable to talk with the other shooters when we’re not in the middle of a string, and I’m quite certain they do to.

But, when it comes time for the next string, the mind must again become quiet. It must not speak. It must not be active.

As with TV, the commercial is over and the program is starting again.

So, dim the lights and unmute the sound. Turn off the brain and watch the show.

Shooters to the line!

During a string, Bullseye must become mindless entertainment.

Maybe we should change the cadence:

  • Shooters to the line.
  • Brains, switch to silent mode. No talking inside or outside of the head.
  • Bodies, this will be your first string of Rapid Fire.
  • With five rounds, load.
  • Brains, be silent on the line.
  • Are the brains silent?
  • The brains are silent.
  • No thinking on the right.
  • No thinking on the left.
  • The line is not thinking.
  • [Targets face, the string is fired, targets edge.]
  • Make the line safe.
  • Make the line noisy.
  • Brains wake up, open mouths, start talking inside and outside of your heads.
  • Is the line noisy?
  • The line is noisy.
  • Go down, talk as you walk, score your targets, make noise, visit with your neighbors, cover up that mess and stroll back talking all the way. Enjoy!

Bullseye done well is mindless entertainment.

Silence on the line!

Someone Is Watching You!

Inspiration is a great motivator.

I’ve shot Bullseye at a lot of clubs around the US and, in every case, there were better shooters than myself on the line. I’ve been whipped, and I’ve been whipped a lot.

For beginners, Bullseye can be a humbling experience. But if you swallow your pride and pay attention, it’s a great way to improve your game.

And it may be surprising to find out that you learn not only by watching them, but rather by pulling yourself up because they are there and will be looking.

Pressure is a good thing. Accept it, forget it, and then shoot.

For example, when I’m standing between two great Bullseye shooters, I know that one of them is going to be scoring my target. When in that situation, you can bet your bottom dollar I will try my very best. I will focus every bit of knowledge, training and practice on shooting that shot. And when that shot is gone, I’ll do my best to forget it and start working on the next shot.

Oh, it’s also true that, from time to time I let my head get to me. I might think a negative thought such as, “What’s he going to think when he sees how bad I am?” And I doubt if you’ll be surprised to learn that when I start thinking that way, my shooting gets bad, then worse, then absolutely awful. Negative thoughts mess me up faster than bad ammo. With bad ammo I might get the occasional lucky shot where two errors offset each other and the hole ends up in the X ring. It happens. Sometimes you get lucky.

But when your head goes, when you start talking down to yourself, the shots are gonna get wider and wilder.
If you can’t get your mind under control, it’s hopeless.

Bullseye is a head game: To shoot right, you’ve got to think right.

And Bullseye is a control game: If you don’t control your thoughts, they’ll mess you up.

I recently had the awesome privilege of shooting with only two shooters on the line, me and another shooter at an indoor range and he was one of, if not the very best Bullseye shooter in the world, John Zurek.

We fired two NMCs for the NRA Indoor postal, 22 and CF. John stood right next to me and fired a 599, one point short of perfection.

When the shooting was done and targets collected, we swapped. He scored my targets and I scored his and, yes, I really looked hard at that nine, hoping there was some way it would turn out to be a ten. But no, it was a nine. No question about it.

When I handed him the targets I said, “Sorry, John, but I have to score this target with one shot in the nine ring.” He looked and agreed. No hard feelings. It was a nine.

On my way home from the range, though, I realized I was looking at this wrong. It wasn’t important that he’d fired a nine. What he had accomplished instead was fifty-nine tens and Xs. Out of 60 shots fired in a half hour, he’d put 59 of them in the ten or the X ring. 59 tens!

Holy Cow!!

And you know what else? He puts his pants on the same way I do.

He’s got brown hair and so do I.

He stands at the firing line and pours everything he has into each shot. I’ve done that, albeit with less consistency, but I know I can do it too.

And he’s also a really nice guy, married, likes a good joke, sometimes shoots with a couple of day’s growth on his face. I do all of that, too.

Role models are good.

Remember: somebody will be looking.

Focus, do your best, punch a hole in the X.

2007 New Year’s Resolution

I’ve made some good progress this year.

  • In last year’s 2006 New Year’s Resolution I said that “it will be nice to climb out of the Marksman ranks this year” and, effective 05/23/2006, I formally started competing in the Sharpshooter classification as per the NRA.
  • My 22 scores are up about 5 points over the year, from the upper 80s to the low-to-middle 90s range, from Sharpshooter to comfortably in the Expert range.
  • Shooting of the wad gun (CF and 45) is improved almost 5%, from just barely Sharpshooter to the high side of that classification.
  • My aggregate scores in 2700s are up a full 10%, partly owing to the oddities of statistical averaging and partly to the scarcity of 2700s as opposed to our weekly league.
  • And most significant, my efforts on the ball gun are paying off: scores are up a full 10% (from 65-75% to 75-85%).

For the coming year, I plan to continue my primary focus on the ball gun because last year’s intention of “choosing to earn the new classification primarily on that more difficult gun” (the wad gun at that time, now the ball gun) has shown that focused and regimented practice with the hardest gun helps in all my shooting.

Last year my resolution for 2006 was, “For each shot this year, I will release it cleanly with all the basics in concert together.” And over the year, that has been my overarching consideration albeit not something I was always able to accomplish. But that focus on the execution of each shot rather than accomplishing any numerical or categorical goal, has been very helpful — I owe most of this year’s progress to the execution of each single shot I’ve made this year. The progress I’ve made has quite literally been accomplished one shot at a time.

Of late, I’ve begun to see what those who are far more accomplished in this sport have been saying about the “mind game” in Bullseye, and I’m more and more inclined to agree: Bullseye is 10% physical and 90% mental. Mental preparation, visualizing the process and the desired result, and then learning to “let it happen” look like the road to follow.

An Expert classification is possible this year but, as with the past year’s advancement to Sharpshooter, I want to earn any new classification on my worst gun.

But I know I have neither mastered nor even got the better part of “trigger control” working as yet. There are many shots where it works, but there are also far too many where it doesn’t. “Trigger control” is a bear, no doubt about it. And the more I learn, the more I appreciate just how subtle, precise and fragile it is.

So, my resolution for 2007 is “focused” on just that, trigger control. And since that action is something the unconscious must do, my resolution for the new year is:

Get ready, focus my conscious attention (and eye) on the front sight or red dot, but then allow my unconscious mind to move the trigger straight back until the shot breaks.

My unconscious mind will need training to accomplish this. So, the conscious mind will have to do a little coaching. There will be lots of dry fire and shooting on blank targets as well as timed drills when “we” can’t just wait for the unconscious to get around to it: sometimes the trigger just has to be kept moving, smoothly and straight back, but my unconscious doesn’t know how to do that. I’ll have to teach it.

So, for the next year, the operative words will be

  • training, and
  • patience, and
  • perseverance, and
  • practice,
  • and practice,
  • and practice.

And it will come.

See you on the line!

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.


    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.

Don’t Think, Just Throw

In the movie, Bull Durham, Tim Robbin’s character discovers that when he doesn’t think, he pitches better — a lot better. But knowing and doing are two different things. Indeed, after a couple of good pitches, Tim Robbin’s character gets cocky, starts thinking about what he’s throwing, and blows it.

Same thing happened to me yesterday.

There was a 2700 down at the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club on Sunday. With other commitments, however, I wasn’t sure if I could make it for even the final, 45 portion. But my luck held: the competition was running slow and they were still on the lunch break when I arrived at 1:45PM. I filled-in and submitted my SR-1 card, paid the $13.00 single-gun fee (members rate), grabbed a blue score card and set up in position #6.

As I raised the gun for the first shot of Slow Fire I thought, “Okay, start the trigger, hold the sights, keep the dot in the middle, hold it th… Bang!”

I called, “two o’clock, nine ring” before looking in the scope.

More like two-thirty but, yeah, I knew where that one was going.

Repeating that mantra on the remaining nine shots, the target looked pretty good when finished including two nice Xs. That’s pretty good for me at the long line (50 yards).

Down at the targets, I scored the neighbor to my right and then looked at my score: 90-2.

“Wow, that’s definately my best Slow Fire with the 45!”

Tim Robbins experienced the same emotion after his good pitch.

And things went down-hill from there — but with one difference. I knew that thinking was bad. I knew that, before each shot, I had to remember (think) to not think the next shot. Instead, I needed to just follow the recipe taped to the inside of my gunbox but which I know so well, and just let the shot happen.

Aim the gun, start the trigger, hold the sights on the target, keep them there, nicely in the black, just keep it right there … until the shot goes.

Such a simple thing but, at least for me, so hard to trust my training and just “let it happen.”

I’d say I was moderately successful on Sunday. Slow and even some of the Timed Fire targets went well.

Rapid Fire, however, is something else. My hold is not good enough to reliably bring the sights back into alignment and on the target. There is often a delay while I turn my attention to the gun and figure out how to move it to bring the dot back into view, and then turn my attention to the dot and the black ring on the target. They say to “keep the trigger moving” in Rapid Fire and I know that’s essential, but I still need to work on hold and muscle memory (thank you John Zurek) so the gun gets back on the bull all by itself.

It will come, I know. Just practice, practice, practice.

All of my competition scores are recorded in the oldest blog entry here, and there is also a link to them in one of the shortcuts near the top-right of this page. Regardless, here are my scores from yesterday and some comments on the sequence:

Slow Fire #1 90-2 Personal best Slow Fire!
Slow Fire #2 79-1 Shots hitting all around the bull
NMC: Slow Fire 82-2 Tighter but starting to jerk left
NMC: Timed Fire 76-0 8 out of 10 jerked
NMC: Rapid Fire 74-0 Jerk, jerk, jerk … Argh!
Timed Fire #1 80-0 Starting to “not think” again
Timed Fire #2 86-1 Better “not thinking”
Rapid Fire #1 87-2 Hey! That’s pretty good!!
Rapid Fire #2 74-0 Oops, thinking (jerking) again
80.9%, a new personal best!

Practicing What I Preach

“Yeah, maybe he can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk?”

In a word, no.

I know many of the things needed to hit the X but, like so many others, doing them, shot after shot, is quite something else.

But I made some progress this week and it’s important to look back and try to figure out why.

Monday evening I watched a couple of episodes of StarGate with my (triply-checked) unloaded 1911 in my lap. Without paying much attention to it, I cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger a great many times. During commercials, I would raise up the gun, put the red dot on a blank area of the wall and move the trigger as straight back as possible and watch to see if the dot would move with the trigger motion.

I can’t say that I saw any particular improvement during the evening. I’ve always thought I was pretty good at releasing the hammer when the chamber is empty. It’s when there’s a live round in there that things change so I’ve always had mixed feelings about the value of dry-fire.

But last night at the league, I saw the benefit. As I raised the gun for the first Slow Fire shots of the evening, I told myself, “Okay, your hand knows how to release the shot without moving the gun. All I need to do is keep the dot in the black [my wobble] and let my hand do what it knows.”

My first target scored 77-0. Not a very good score for many but, for me, in Slow Fire, that was among my better scores.

“Okay,” I said to myself, “this might be working. Let’s let the hand release the shot and just keep the dot in the black. Be patient. Wait for the shot to be released. It will happen or, if we get tired of waiting, we can put the gun down for a rest and try it again.”

I scored 84-1 on the second Slow Fire target and that is good for me. There was one round down-left and out of the black — a jerk — but all the others were in the black.

“Maybe I’ve got this knocked!” I thought.

But you know what comes next, don’t you?

74-0 for the first Slow Fire of the NMC.


Over-confidence. Didn’t continue to execute on the fundamentals. Forgot to do what I had just been doing. [Doh!]

The next target is Timed Fire, one of my favorites where I do better because, I’m certain, I don’t have enough time for my brain to mess it up, but just enough to get the sights back on the target for each shot. The only trick to add is moving that trigger straight back and letting the hand release each shot.

90-1 for the Timed Fire. Now we’re cookin’.

86-1 in Rapid Fire. Ok, I can live with that.

73-0 (oops: a jam and an alibi string, lost an X — the shooter scoring my target said he could see me jerking several of the alibi shots) and then 90-3 (that’s the way — look at the Xs, thanks for reminding me I can be a “jerk”) in the Timed Fire match.

And 83-2 (let’s do that again but better) and finally 76-0 (another jam and an alibi string — boy, those can really hurt!) in the Rapid Fire match to end the evening.

The NMC score was 250-2 with an aggregate of 733-8 (81.4%) for the evening.


Dry-firing with the gun in the lap trains the lower part of my arm. Doing that practice with Jack, Samantha, Daniel and Teal’c worming their way around the universe keeps the brain (marginally) engaged and out of the loop on the trigger work.

My aggregate score was a personal best and I’m convinced a good part of it was for two reasons: First, my hand knew what to do. And secondly, and perhaps more important for me, my brain trusted and let my hand do the work.

The brain has to figure out the lessons and skills the body needs to learn, oversee the body’s practice enough to be sure it does them correctly, but when the time comes for the performance, the body has to know, and the brain has to let it work.

Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.

Brain teaches. Body does.

Trigger Control and Bicycle Riding Redux

From Email to a shooter asking several questions including why some of his shots hit up and right of center.


Concerning jerk, anticipation, thumbing and the search for a smooth trigger squeeze, all I can tell you is that you are right in there with every other Bullseye shooter.

Let me say that again: The #1 desire, the “Holy Grail” of pistol shooting is “Trigger Control” and that means releasing a shot without disturbing the alignment on the correct area of the target.

I screw up almost every shot.

On the few that I don’t, I can call them and see, in the scope, that I got it right. Those are starting to happen more often (but my current state of progress would be more accurately described as “less infrequently bad”). Trigger Control is exceedingly hard and is the one thing that some say will take a decade or more to become “good” and, for most of us, more than a lifetime to truly master.

Note that even the top, top, top shooters often hit outside the “X” ring with guns that are well capable of 1/2″ groups. Even the top, top, top shooters screw up Trigger Control. This is not an easy thing to master!

In the weeks, months and years to come, you’ll have to do what I think we are all resigned to do: shoot a few shots, try to figure out what isn’t right and then try to fix it. Sometimes you will think that the gun’s sights are a little bit off. Temperature, wear and tear, ammunition, wind and other issues are all important factors in adjusting the sights and, yes, the sights do sometimes need adjusting.

Sometimes it will be you that needs to be fixed. Just this past Tuesday evening, Coach Pat at our league pointed out that I was “thumbing” the pistol and pushing the tip of the barrel right as the shot was being released. So, I “floated” my thumb out into the air and, voila, the shots moved 2″ to the left. Why couldn’t I see that? Well, maybe sometimes we need others to see what we don’t want to see. I really thought I had grip worked out but, no, Coach Pat showed me otherwise. Three steps forward, and then two back.

My guess would be that your “high and right” shots are a slight push with your palm in anticipation of the shot. I sure do exactly that sometimes. Anticipation pushes the shot up and right (for right-handed shooters).

But the fix is not in learning to avoid anticipation. Although that seems like the obvious solution, it’s not the one you want. There’s a better fix!

The best fix is to figure out how to make the gun going off be a surprise to you each time. Stated differently, if you don’t know when the gun is going to go off, then you cannot anticipate it. Ergo, no anticipation (shots go up and right) and no jerk (shots go down and left). [Reverse the left-right directions for left-handed shooters.]

So, how do you make the gun go off without knowing it is going to go off?

Ah, now that’s the real magic!

I like to think of learning to shoot as being a lot like it was when I learned to ride a bicycle. At first, I had to concentrate on keeping my balance and, until I could do that, Mom or Dad would have to hang on to the seat and run awkwardly down the sidewalk to keep me upright. But at some point, after many attempts, I ‘Got It” or rather, some part of my brain “got it” but not my consciousness. On that day, and even now, I couldn’t tell you what to do other than “keep your balance.” But, nonetheless, my body/brain knew how to do it. Oh sure, I was very wobbly for a while but, with more and more practice, I rode better and better and, before too long (and when Mom wasn’t looking), I could ride with my hands off the handlebars.


Everything had become automatic. I was riding the bike! Er, well, “I” wasn’t but somewhere inside, some part of me was doing it, but it wasn’t my conscious brain.

My brain would say, “Let’s ride over to Howard’s” and off I’d go on the bike.

My brain would say, “Let’s jump the curb!” and I would consciously yank up on the handlebars as the front tire rolled off the curb, but who was keeping us balanced?

My brain would say, “The street is slick with rainwater — slow down for the curve,” but who was keeping me upright?

Balance had become automatic and unconscious.

The conscious brain handles the exceptions, the unusual conditions, the special desires of the moment, but something else in the head keeps the bike upright and steady.

I’m convinced that shooting is the same way. Ultimately, everything has to become automatic, unconscious and you just “do it”, like riding a bike.

But to get there you have to shoot many thousands of rounds, watch yourself to see what you’re doing wrong, guess at the fix, try it, see what that screws up and then work at fixing that. And when you find a solution and a big part of your overall technique works, then you have to do it over and over so it becomes an unconscious habit.

“Look, Ma, no hands!”

“Look, guys, I cleaned a target!”

In the Bullseye list, watch for phrases such as “unconscious shot” and “being on automatic” and “let it happen” — I’m pretty sure this is what the top shooters are talking about.

Try this: stand at the line, get your grip right, assume your stance, find your natural point of aim and adjust your stance as needed so the sights are dead-on. I put my arm down, close my eyes, raise my arm and then open my eyes to see where my aim is and then I adjust my left [rear] foot to try and bring the sights dead-on the target.

And now here’s the hard part of this exercise — think of nothing, nothing at all until the shot goes.

Just stand there with the gun out, clear your mind and wait.

I know you’re supposed to hold the sights in alignment during that “think nothing” period but try it with and without aligning the sights — what’s important is that the gun will eventually go off if you’ve trained enough, if you’ve activated your arm and trigger finger often enough, if you’ve gotten to the point where, when everything is set, you shoot. It will happen and it’ll surprise the hell out of you!

Sometimes as I’m ready to clear my mind I tell myself, “Let the monkey shoot now.” And it always scares the bloody hell out of me that the gun I am holding suddenly goes off. But that’s what you want because, if you don’t know when it’s going to go “Bang”, there’s no way you can anticipate it!

And you want that to happen on every single shot.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

Dry-firing is a great way to practice the skills you will need to “ride the bicycle”. It ingrains the movements into that unconscious part of the brain that needs to be in charge when you shoot.

The “dead alibi” rounds — some call this the “Ball and Dummy” drill — may also be helpful but remember this technique is useful only as a test of your ability to release a shot without moving the sights.

Let me ask a question: When you studied a subject in school, how often do you take a test?

Using the “dead alibi” rounds is a good test and it will tell you if you need to study some more, but then put the technique away while you do the study (the practice). “Coach Pat” in Phoenix tells me I should “Ball and Dummy” each Slow Fire target but, to me, that just generates frustration. I know I’m jerking the trigger. What I didn’t know is how not to do it.

And the answer is, literally, don’t think about it. Just do it. No thinking. Just ride.

Later, when I think I’m holding the sights on target as I release the shot, then I can test myself with “ball and dummy” to see if I can pass that test. And I’ll use that technique occasionally to help me figure out what I am doing wrong, but then I’ll go and work on the solution a while before re-testing.

I’m just amazed how difficult this sport is to do well. It seems so simple — just align the sights on the proper part of the target and then release the shot without disturbing the alignment.


Final word: When you find that the practice and training for Bullseye is really frustrating, go and do something fun with your 41. I love to “plink” and my favorite targets are MacDonald’s ketchup packets taped to white paper plates on sticks [splat!], new cans of shaving cream [gush!], and old milk cartons filled with water [foom!]. With your 41, you can probably hit each of these at a greater distance than most other “plinking” shooters. I enjoy shooting at the junk and especially when someone else shows up and I see myself doing better (sometimes a lot better), I immediately feel recharged. I’m ready to go back and work on my precision shooting technique.

10s and Xs (and splats, gushes and fooms)!