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.

Ta-daa!

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.

Hah!

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)!

Stinkin’ Thinkin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, guys.

Closed Box Shooting

As a relatively new shooter who is reading and thinking about this a lot, I think of the perfect shot process as something in a closed box that can be started and monitored but, left to its own, will continue on automatic and run to completion.

Monitoring of that process is (ideally) also largely automatic and getting the “Abort!” signal to function correctly is like all other elements in that it is something that has to be practiced enough so that it becomes automatic.

Assuming a shot has been fired and something (in the brain) indicates “that wasn’t right,” I then think of the conscious brain as analyzing the performance, trying to identify what wasn’t ideal, and then opening the closed box and taking out that part of the process for correction. The conscious mind puts that part of the process on the tool bench and using various tools, attempts to reshape it so that it works correctly.

Next, the repaired part of the process is put back in the box, the lid closed, and the process started and allowed to run. Conscious analysis then tries to figure out if the fix was correct and, if not, it tries again to effect a repair.

In order for this to work, the conscious brain has to know roughly how the process should work. After all, it has to initially hammer out and connect the pieces inside the box. The more reading and study it can do — and that’s where these discussions come in — the more likely it is that what the consciousness crafts will work well.

Secondly, I’ve been somewhat frustrated to be unable to find a “Here’s how to shoot an X everytime” book but now I see that everyone’s “box” is slightly different, that the raw materials each of us has to put in the box is different, and each person’s ability to analyze, modify and refit those parts is also going to vary.

There is some similarity from one shooter to the next, however, so this isn’t hopeless. We all hold similarly, NPA is a very useful component to put in your box early on and hearing from others what sorts of analysis are useful (self-monitoring, a coach, video tape, etc.) is great.

I have compared shooting to riding a bicycle in that much of what happens has to be automatic (but I said “subconscious” in a posting on that so maybe I need to rethink the use of that word).

The idea of the “process in the box” helps me understand what ties the rank beginner — who is tinkering with the pieces, often at random, and trying to produce a good shot and, over time, assembles some sort of process “in the box” that works the same way each time — to the expert — who detects a deficiency and takes a single piece out of the process and gives it a few strokes with the polishing stone before replacing it and trying again.

For the beginner, many of the pieces in his box are only roughly shaped; much of what interests the experts is too fine an adjustment for the beginner. But it can benefit the beginner to listen to the experts in a couple of ways. First, it helps build an appreciation for what a finely polished process is at the end of all this work. Second, listening to the experts suggests the general shape of what the beginner must craft. And third, as simple as it sounds to “Line up the sights on the portion of the target that is your aiming area and release the shot without disturbing that alignment”, we are all learning just how finely honed a process is required to do that over and over and over 270 times, and more.

Look Ma, No Hands!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re learning how to ride a bicycle.

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

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

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

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

Patience.

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

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

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

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

Shooting is body work, not brain work.

It’s like riding a bicycle.

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