Straight Resistance, Too

It has been argued that, with the 1911, the bullet leaves the barrel before any rearward slide motion begins. In addition, I have proposed that resistance to recoil must be aligned with the intended flight path because the resistance to recoil occurs before the bullet leaves the barrel and, if misaligned, the aim will be deflected and with it, the flight path of the bullet.

The video (link below) contains a closeup of the muzzle end of a 1911 when a shot is fired. Thirteen (13) frames are shown, spaced out so this can be analyzed.

Here is a description of the individual frames in this video.

  1. Initial position. Note dark frame at bottom left, and lighter slide above.
  2. Slide has begun moving to rear.
  3. Slide continues back.
  4. Slide continues.
  5. Slide continues.
  6. Gas can be seen coming from the end of the barrel. (Slide continues back.)
  7. More gas from the barrel. (Slide continues.)
  8. Same.
  9. Same.
  10. Front of bullet visible coming from the barrel. The odd shape thereof may be due, in my opinion, to the scanning of the video capture and the very high speed of the bullet as this scanning takes place. (Slide continues moving back.)
  11. Plume of incadescent gas mushrooms out from end of barrel, presumably immediately after the tail of the bullet “unplugs” the barrel. (Slide continues.)
  12. More of same.
  13. More. Final frame.

As you can see, the slide begins it rearward movement in frame #2, well before the tip of the bullet appears in frame #10.

Note that, if the slide is being propelled back, then the recoil spring is being compressed. That, in turn, is pressing the gun backward into the shooter’s hand with increasing pressure. The recoil from the shot, therefore, is attempting to move the gun backward before the shot leaves the barrel.

I conclude, therefore, that because the slide is in motion during this “critical to where the shot goes” time, this demonstrates that other forces acting on the gun at this same time — such as the resistance to the recoil from the shooter’s hand, wrist, arm, etc. — may cause the gun to move while the bullet is inside the barrel.

Muscle strength alone is insufficient to resist the exceedingly brief recoil when the gun is fired. The gun is going to move. The important question is, in what direction?

To achieve an accurate shot, resistance to the recoil must align perfectly with the shooter’s hand, forearm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder and body so that the gun moves directly in line with the intended flight path. If fully aligned, the barrel will move “straight back” and the bullet will depart the barrel in the desired direction. Conversely, any sideways or vertical motion that occurs during this brief time is likely to “throw off” the shot.

A good indicator of aligned resistance to recoil is the manner in which the gun moves throughout recoil. Straight back is good. To the left, right, up or down suggests there may be a problem.

 

A special thanks to Tripp Research for permission to reproduce these frames taken from their video at … This link no longer works, sorry: http://www.trippresearch.com/media/movement/hispeedgateway.html

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!

Finesse the Trigger

See that stack of rocks?

That’s Steve Reiter, national champion Bullseye shooter many times over.

I call him a “stack of rocks” because if you finish your Slow Fire early and sit down to watch, he looks like an utterly immobile stack of rocks that’s been like that for a couple of millenia. Nothing moves. The wind blows but nothing moves. A cloud hides the sun, nothing moves. A bird flies across the range but nothing, not even a muscle in his beefy, farm-boy arm moves.

Eternity.

Now there’s no way I’m going to be able to stand that still. While I do have my better days when the wobble nearly stops for a second or two, when that happens, I so dearly want the gun to go “Bang” but, invariably, if I will it, I jerk it.

Years ago, Coach Pat had me hold the gun and do everything except pull the trigger. He did that. As a team, we shot a ten, two nines, an eight and a seven with five shots. Coach’s lesson was that my “hold” was the seven ring even though my shooting (by myself) had a lot of fives and sixes.

He said, “Your problem is trigger control. Move the trigger straight back.”

“Level and smooth,” he would croon as I would try to follow his teaching.

So, I’ve learned to do a lot of dry-fire and to watch and see what the front sight does when the hammer falls. And recently, I’ve been seeing the front sight take a little bob downward. Sometimes I put the gun down, rest a moment and try again and it goes away. But other times, it’s still there and ultimately I decide to stop because I’m obviously teaching myself to do the wrong thing. But what am I doing that causes it?

Not long ago, our car had a slight pull to the left. To compensate, we drove with a slight pressure to the right, not much, just enough to offset the left pull. The car goes perfectly straight as long as you keep up the pressure.

Pressing the trigger back on the 1911 and holding the gun really tight can end up in a similar situation. If your trigger pressure isn’t perfectly straight, a strong grip can exert a counter-pressure and end up holding the gun perfectly straight.

But unlike the car, at some point the trigger hooks release the hammer. At that instant, the trigger floats free for a fraction of a second before bottoming out on the over-travel adjustment. During that fraction of a second, whatever unaligned force your trigger finger was adding is suddenly removed and the compensating force from your grip that was previously offsetting the crooked trigger pressure is released, and the nose of the gun twitches out of alignment.

Bang!

I once asked the members of the Bullseye-L emailing list how long it took, with everything in place and all lined up, from the time they committed to firing a shot to when the gun went off. Answers varied but the norm seemed to be somewhere between a half and a couple of seconds, no more than 2-3.

But when I watch Steve Reiter, I think it’s longer, much longer.

Same with John Zurek. I know because I asked him what he was doing for the 30+ seconds I watched him routinely hold.

John said, “Movin’ the trigger straight back.”

Here’s an interesting observation: The harder you grip the gun, the more it will mask a mis-aligned trigger pull, and you’ll only know it when the hammer drops.

Oops, too late!

With a very strong grip, mis-aligned trigger pressure can’t be seen before the hammer falls.

A gentler grip, on the other hand, will immediately show poorly directed trigger pressure; it will push the front sight away from alignment. Long before the shot breaks, you’ll see the sights being pushed out of alignment.

Brian Zins says he “steers” the front sight with his trigger finger. He calls the sights his “trigger purity indicator.”

A word comes to mind: finesse.

BassPro.com says finesse refers to “slowing down and using smaller lures, line, and rods.”

And in Bullseye, perhaps it can mean using a less-than-crushing grip and finer “control” of the trigger.

Finesse the trigger.

Practice: Moving the Trigger Straight Back

Don’t have an unloaded handgun to practice with? No problem. Here’s how to practice moving the trigger finger straight back. You can do this standing or sitting, any time day or night. All it needs is your attention and a credit card.

  1. Hold your arm, wrist and fingers the same as when you are holding the handgun.
  2. Hold a credit card vertically in your hand between the point on your trigger finger where you place the trigger and the web between thumb and finger where the back of the gun normally sits. Only the trigger finger and the web should touch the credit card.
  3. Check the alignment: You should be seeing the credit card “edge on”. Eye, “front sight” and “rear sight”, the vertical edges of the credit card, should all be lined up.
  4. Focus on the near edge of the credit card and then slowly pressure the trigger finger straight back.
  5. The credit card should stay perfectly aligned with the eye.

Do you also have a GripMaster exerciser?

  1. Hold it upside down and low in the hand with the middle two gripping fingers on what are now the “top” two finger spring pads. Note that, as when holding a handgun, the middle joint of the gripping fingers, not the finger tips, will hold the GripMaster.
  2. Then, add the credit card between trigger-finger-position and web similar to before.
  3. Compress the springs of the gripmaster with the middle two fingers and, thereby, grip the “gun” (GripMaster).
  4. Focus on the credit card as before and pressure the trigger finger straight back. You should continue to see the credit card “edge on” at all times.

Alternatively:

  1. Hold the GripMaster normally.
  2. Fully compress the middle two springs with the middle two fingers.
  3. Practice pressing the trigger finger spring slowly but fully.
  4. Note that the middle two springs must be fully compressed throughout this exercise. If they aren’t, when the trigger finger spring is pressed, it will change the tension on the middle two springs and everything will move as you pull the trigger. Instead, you want everything to remain locked and still as you move the trigger. This is called “trigger finger independence”.

FYI: If you are shooting 45 ACP 1911 or other large caliber handgun, you will probably want the “heavy” (9 lb. spring) model GripMaster (http://www.gripmaster.net). (Their webpage lists this model as appropriate for those needing to do “weapon retention”.)

Shooting Strange Guns

I travel for a living. My job often sends me out on a Monday and home again on Friday but sometimes there’s a Sunday “out” or a Saturday “back” day. As such, it’s difficult for me to shoot the Tuesday evening Nighthawks here in Phoenix. Worse, I often miss the once-a-month 2700s on Sundays when an outbound leg starts with a mid-afternoon flight.

So, I try to find weeknight leagues in which to shoot at my destination. In so doing, I shoot at a lot of different ranges, experience the occasional “unique to this range” rules, and most enjoyably, I get to meet a lot of really nice people.

On occasion, however, I travel to places that aren’t particularly “gun friendly.” That is, the local laws either prohibit or otherwise discourage me from bringing my own guns. And some airlines are even more un-friendly in this regard.

But even when gun-less on my travels, I still like go to local events. The people are still friendly and it’s still a sport I enjoy even if I don’t shoot. I look at the guns and talk with the owners, watch how the shooter’s shoot (and note the consequent results) and enjoy my “night out” from work.

And as you might imagine, shooters offer their backup guns (and ammo!) to let me shoot on an almost unfailing basis. I’m more than a little embarassed to count up how often I’ve shot someone else’s gun and ammo only to leave them a dirty gun and empty brass. (I do try to sneak a couple of bucks to the owner to make up for what I’ve consumed but, having cleaned my own 1911s many times, I know there’s nothing I can do to compensate them for their time. I am truly grateful.)

But it does give me a chance to shoot a lot of different guns and, over that experience, I’ve started to form some opinions about how to adapt to different grips and triggers and, much to my surprise, I find that what’s important aren’t competition versus slab grips, dots versus iron sights or flat versus arched mainspring housing. But before I tell you “the secret”, let me tell you the routine I’ve developed for shooting a strange gun in Bullseye competition.

First, with a borrowed gun, one of my cardinal rules is to leave the gun with the same adjustments as when I started. If I need six clicks up, I’m always careful to crank six clicks down before returning the gun. And the same for the dot size: I’ve started shooting with a big orange dot but I try to note what the owner prefers and put it back that way when I’m done.

But for a competition grip, that pretty much means I can’t move the palm shelf up or down. There are no marks and it would be difficult to get it back to the original position. This means that “grip” is often less than ideal. Indeed, there is almost always some awkwardness and, in many cases, it’s just downright close to painful. I’ve shot some competition grips where my (big) hand could only be jammed in as far as my knuckles while leaving most of my hand hanging out the back. Other times, holding the grips felt like hanging on to a 3″ diameter piece of pipe with no contact above or below my hand. (If I can’t hang on to the gun safely, I don’t shoot. This has only come up once.)

Ideal finger placement on the trigger is often impossible. Indeed, sometimes even a “reasonable placement” can be beyond my ability to control. If I can’t get my hand into the grip, odds are I’m just barely going to be able to reach the trigger with the tip of the finger. Or if the grip is like that of a broom handle, my finger will be all the way through the trigger guard and in danger of going well beyond the first knuckle.

All of that is noticed and dealt with before ever raising the gun to see how the sights line up with my eye. And in most cases, the gun is pointed off at some scarey angle or, at a minimum, at a target three or four positions away from mine. So I have to stop, try and adjust how and where the gun fits in my hand, and in some cases, horror of horror, I even have to bend my wrist to make eye, rear sight and front sight all line up.

Once that’s accomplished (and I shuffle my feet so I’m then lined up on my target), it’s time to learn the trigger.

“Learn the trigger.” Now there’s an understatement!

I have been utterly astonished at the variety of triggers I’ve experienced. Some guns have a lot of take-up, some have virtually none. Some have a long springy feel followed by a larger amount of resistance, others have virtually none. Some slide smooth as glass from there until the shot breaks, some feel like I’m pushing a red brick across a slab of concrete (fortunately there aren’t too many of those), and some have virtually no movement whatsoever before the break. There are the “gee, was that even two pounds?” triggers, the “is the safety still on or something?” triggers, and the “ooh, that was nice!” triggers.

I carry half a dozen 22LR dummy rounds so I can dry fire the target guns of that caliber since you aren’t supposed to dry fire many of them. And with the center fire guns, I always ask the owner, “May I dry fire it?”

But during a weeknight league, everyone isn’t standing around waiting on me to learn the gun. Instead, I get a quick “here’s how this gun operates” lesson from the owner and then it’s time for the first Slow Fire target. I will use up several of that first target’s ten minutes working out these details.

One of the hardest things to figure out during this time is how to move the trigger straight back. With different guns, my trigger finger lands on the trigger in different ways. Sometimes it is flat and at a right angle but, when the grip fits me poorly, sometimes all I can manage is a finger tip at a steep angle. Consequently, each gun requires a different way of moving the trigger finger in order to get that straight back direction.

Heavy triggers with big fat grips are particularly challenging because it’s hard to get the trigger finger “around there” and flat on the trigger. Instead, if all that can be managed is a finger tip at an angle, mustering enough strength to pressure it straight back can require an inordinate amount of effort. And that has to be done over and over throughout the evening.

At the Sunnyvale (California) Gun Club on a recent Wednesday evening, I had the privilege of shooting a Hammerli 280 with iron sights (thanks, Liz) and then a Masaki 1911 set up for wad ammo with a red dot (thank you, Norman).

For those who don’t know, the very, very, very best handguns are referred to not by their manufacturers but, rather, by the name of the gunsmith who worked on them. Well, Ed Masaki had brought this particular 1911 to utter perfection. His work is legend in the sport. Shooters wait years — I’m not exaggerating — for one of his guns.

The slide on this 1911 was bank vault tight and moved just as smoothly. Shooting the wad loads, the action was so silky I hardly noticed the recoil. If it hadn’t been for the loud bang when the round fired, I would have removed my hearing protection just to hear the gun cycle.

Both the Hammerli and the Masaki shot magnificently that evening. I shot a (respectable for me) 531-7 out of 600 with the Hammerli. That’s 88.5% with iron sights, well into my current SharpShooter ranking. I was happy with that.

Ah, but the Masaki was another story, I’m afraid. Perhaps I was over-confident. Perhaps I rushed through the preparations. Clearly, I didn’t dry-fire enough to figure out that straight back motion because it seemed that after every shot, the gun would turn to me slightly and say, “You pushed me left on that shot.” We (me and the gun) would hunker down for another shot but, again, the gun would sneer, “Nope, you flipped me a little bit left again.”

And just as I was tempted to crank in 2-3″ right on the sight, everything would feel perfect and we would shoot an X.

“There,” the gun would seem to say, “you did me just right. See what we can do?”

But sadly, the repeatable fine control needed to shoot straight at 50 or even at 25 yards with that gun was beyond me that night. I knew it could be done, could do it every now and then, but doing it over and over again was more than I could manage that night.

So, what have I learned from all this, you might ask? Is it better to stick with one gun and learn to shoot it accurately before starting over with another gun? Or is there profit to be had in shooting many different guns and “dealing with” the issues and learning to shoot in spite of them?

What I’ve found is that in both approaches, the lessons to be learned are the same. Regardless of whether you want to shoot one gun or many guns, regardless of whether you prefer red dots or irons, slab or competition grips, roll or crisp or light or heavy triggers, the one (1) thing to be learned is the same.

The one (1) thing to be learned is to align the sights and move the trigger straight back.

Everything thing else can be adjusted, compensated, ignored, held funny, squished awkwardly, accompanied with long slow “effort noises” or whatever else might be needed.

Just align the sights and move the trigger straight back, that’s all.

Everything else is minor. Everything else can be imperfect. Everything else is irrelevent.

Align the sights and move the trigger straight back.

Don’t think, just do it.

That’s it. Straight back now…

BANG!

X!

There, see? You can do it!

Align the sights and move the trigger straight back.

Good.

Now, let’s try it again.

(Thanks, coach!)

Consolidation

The Learning Process takes place in a couple of radically different phases.

The first comes when we have some experience that ignites the quest for learning. When the interest is deep, that flame may flicker over time but it doesn’t go out. Instead it may come and go like the phases of the moon.

For Bulleye, the spark that started me down this path happened a couple of years ago when a friend at work took me shooting. That spark manifested itself in a cowboy six shooter firing 357 magnum rounds. Boy, was that a bad choice for the beginner — I was terrible and that huge explosion made it all the worse. Nonetheless, one of my best memories is a shot fired from that gun with my adult son behind me and the huge blast of incadescent gas. I heard him exclaim, “Woah!” and it had been a long time since Dad had impressed his Son like that. It brought back some forgotten father/son memories. And I cherished the moment for that.

The second phase of learning is when we actively take in new knowledge. This may come from books, from watching others, from advice read on the Bullseye-L list or from innumerable other sources. Studying takes place.

You name it and I’ve probably got it on my book shelf, or probably it’s on loan to someone (and probably not coming back). Elmer Keith is there, so are Jerry Kuhnhausen and Robert A. Rinker. The Pistol Marksmanship Guide from the USAMU gets a re-read from time to time as does The Pistol Shooter’s Treasury from Gil Hebard. And there are a dozen other books from shooters in related disciplines who all have something instructive to add. I’ve got the Bullseye DVD from the CMP and the more recent dry-fire practice DVD from Tillman Eddy. They’re all good. They all have something to teach.

Training falls into this same phase. Whether you train with a coach who watches, suggests and corrects, or whether you train by watching yourself and, comparing your performance to others or what you’ve read, training is learning.

Every source of information, whether a book or an instructor, has a different way of teaching. I suppose there may be those who can read one book or take one session from a coach and then go and do it perfectly but that’s not me. With all the distractions in my life including family and work, house and friends, taxes and television, Bullseye has been a long climb.

For me, I need those different ways of saying many of the same things, reading, watching and coaching, so I can get it.

Call me dense. Ok, I’m dense.

Call me stubborn. Ok, I’m stubborn.

But you can also call me persistent, dogged and determined.

Because I’ve always known that just getting it isn’t enough. In Bullseye, you’ve also got to do it. And as I’m sure you all know, knowing and doing are two very different things.

Bullseye isn’t a written test where you get a written score. Bullseye is about doing, about performing when it matters.

Moving from knowing to doing is where most of us spend a lot of time and ammo.
And that transition involves an intermediate phase, the third in the learning process. This third phase has two activities, practice and consolidation. Practice what you’ve learned and consolidate it with what you are already doing.

Sometimes the consolidation is easy. The new skill just fits right in. Other times, a new skill wrecks what used to work and you have to go back and reassemble the picture with new answers.

Well, for the past several months, my progress shooting Bullseye has been difficult to see from the score card. Indeed, it looks like I’ve slid backward; my scores with the 1911s (both wad and ball, red dot and irons) have declined or only made, at best, no more than nominal improvement. And my 22 scores have not progressed to any substantial degree.

To the outsider and perhaps to those who stood at the line at yesterday’s practice 2700 in Phoenix, my performance now is perplexing. It certainly was to me. My scores were down and some of what I used to do fairly well didn’t happen. I was disappointed as my scores plummeted from CF to 45 even though I was shooting the same gun and, to no small degree, I was perplexed at my performance.

But, with a night’s sleep to put things in perspective, I think I’m right about something I’ve been suspecting about my shooting. That is, for several weeks I’ve started to feel that I don’t really understand “trigger control”. I can tell you the definition but, to borrow a word from science fiction author Robert Heinlein, I don’t “Grok” trigger control.

Suddenly, I know what it is that I don’t know: I don’t know how to control the trigger.

I have consolidated a lot of lessons and that’s good.

All of the things I’ve been reading, trying, practicing, rejecting and trying something else before ultimately accepting what works for me, and then occasionally discovering that what worked at one level of ability becomes counter-productive later and that I’ve got to sometimes go back to the basics and re-learn old teaching for new lessons, … all of that has been consolidated into a bundle I will now call “the basics.”

I know how to stand. I know my NPA. I know how to grip all my guns, and each of my guns. I know where my trigger finger needs to be on each of their triggers and where I need to feel the pressure.

All of that knowledge is consolidated. When I go to the line and get ready to shoot, it all just happens. I know what to do.

And with all of those basics nicely packaged and in place, I now discover that I really don’t know how to shoot.

Intellectually, I know how the muscles in my hand need to feel to move the trigger straight back, but I don’t know. The “I” in this is the whole creature that is me: brain, bones, muscles, fibers, nerves and fluids. The brain knows but the rest of the creature doesn’t.

The bottom line is that “I” don’t know how to move that trigger straight back without disturbing the sights.

I can hit the “X” but when I do it, it’s not through trigger control. It’s luck, it’s snatching the trigger at the right time and in the right way, but only rarely is it moving the trigger straight back without disturbing the sights.

I need to learn that.

And Bullseye isn’t about doing it just once.

I’ve raised the gun, done everything right and shot an “X” on the very first shot of several matches. But to do that again, and again, and again for 269 more shots (or 299 if there’s a leg match) is quite something else.

Some will say that the most important lessons to learn in Bullseye are sight alignment and trigger control. Having the basics somewhat in place, I am beginning to understand not only how vital those two are, but also just how difficult they are to master.

Knowing and doing are two different things. But I would add that doing and doing on demand are, again, two different things.

In this period of consolidation for the past several months, I’ve begun to suspect that “mastering” the basics is a good, valuable and essential first step, but no more than that. It’s a good start.

What remains is to master sight alignment and trigger control, and to not do it just once or twice per target or match but truly master them and do them again, and again, and again, round after round, target after target, match after match.

My admiration of shooters in the High Master category has skyrocketed in the past few months. I now have a very small inkling of understanding of what they do and it is truly awesome.

Now when I watch someone who hits that 10 ring over and over — Steve Reiter cleaned two slow fire targets yesterday — I am at a loss for words.

I’m not being trite when I say, “Nice shot!” Instead, I am dumbfounded.

I know that everyone single one of those shots truly was a “Nice shot!”

The tasks before me are to consolidate the learned skills but then to focus on the front sight and move the trigger straight back.

Trigger control.

It’s time for me to learn some trigger control.

So simple.

So hard.

Feel the Wiggle

For what it may be worth, I learned something unexpected in dry-fire. Whether or not I need to keep that lesson or if it was just a stepping stone along the way, I don’t know.

Regardless, here it is.

In dry-fire, I noticed there is a small amount of lateral play in the triggers on my 1911s. And in trying 1911s that belong to others, I also noticed it in theirs as well. I presume it is present in all 1911s, to greater or lesser degree it is true, but it seems to always be there.

I’m only talking a fraction of a millimeter but to the sensitive finger-tip, it’s very definately there. I can feel it.

Part of my trigger preparation now is to “feel” for that left-to-right movement and to position the trigger in the middle of it.

What I think is happening is that, inside the gun’s frame, the harp of the trigger is “floating” — it is not touching the frame or magazine on either side. Instead, the trigger is, if you will, “standing” on the sear. There is no other contact inside the frame.

The release I subsequently get is far more likely to be straighter back than if I just feel for where the trigger and finger come into contact. Don’t misunderstand. I still have to get trigger and finger in the exact same contact but I then also do the lateral wobble to feel the movement and finally place the trigger right in the middle of that space. The trigger feels like it is balanced on a point deep inside the gun.

I mentioned this to John Zurek but he looked at me like I was nuts. (Well, maybe I am.) John might have said something like, “You’re gettin’ way too analytical, Ed.”

Well, there is certainly some truth to that. It is an occupational hazard, and my wife would certainly say it annoys her to no end sometimes.

Yeah, I’m an analytical kind of guy. Guilty as charged.

But whether it is too analytical or not, I don’t care because, frankly, it works!

I am suddenly (well, not so suddenly — it’s been a looong time coming) getting some really nice releases and a much improved “score” on calling those shots. The holes in the target are right where I saw them, dead on and my Slow Fire is up 10+ points.

Unfortunately, Timed and Rapid Fire, especially Rapid, start good but then I fall into old habits. The first shot or two are straight back and hit the target very nicely, but then the rhythm-monster takes over inside my head and my whole body spasms to yank the shots off “in tempo”. I’m also a musician and, boy, can I keep a steady beat. But in Rapid Fire, I don’t consistently follow through, don’t get the sights back on the target, but the “beat” is there and the gun fires precisely on the beat, forget the target thank you very much.

And most noticeably, there’s always this same circular motion that starts as the gun comes down out of recoil and enters the black. At that point, something takes over and the gun takes off to the right, moves out of the black, neatly circles down and completely around the black, and the shot goes when the aim point reaches jerk land sometimes with an extra jerk in there just to show me who’s really in control here.

“Oh no, it’s the jerk,” I could almost scream.

The monster is in control and, oh yeah, the holes are gonna be down and left.

“Ragged Fire” is going to take time.

But getting that trigger under control in Slow Fire, in finding a mantra that enables me to move that trigger straight back, well, it’s a major revelation!

Is this something good shooters have to think of? Almost certainly not. Most shooters, I’m just about convinced, learn by watching and doing. As infants, we learn how to learn by observation. Let a child see a step-stool in use and they’ll soon be climbing the furniture and onto the counter. Most things in life we learn by watching and most of the things I’ve learned about shooting, I’ve learned by watching others.

Is this something good shooters have to do but aren’t necessarily aware that they’re doing it? Again, the answer is probably no. What is essential seems to be moving the trigger straight back. If you can do that with the harp pressed up against the inside of the frame, that’s fine. What matters is the hole in the target.

But is this something I needed to discover so I could find a way (not necessarily the only way) of getting a clean release?

To that, my answer is an emphatic, “Yes!”

It was the step that moved me through a tough road block.

For the next several weeks (and years?) I’ll be in the process of cementing that lesson into place in head and body. Repetition is the way that’s done. I’ll write it up for my Shot Plan and tape it into my gun box. I’ll read it often and mentally say the steps to myself many, many times.

  • “Okay, raise the gun so the sights are just above the bull.
  • “Find the dot. See the dot. Focus on the dot.
  • “Now, place the finger carefully on the trigger right there on the pad of my finger, and right there on the trigger.
  • “Put on a slight pressure so you feel the contact with the trigger more on the lower part of the finger rather than the upper.
  • “Next, gently move the trigger left and right. Do you feel the free space? Move it again if you don’t. You’ve got to find it. [Put the gun down and start over if you can’t find the free space.]
  • “Okay, position the trigger right in the middle of the space and add a tiny bit of pressure to keep it there.
  • “Come down into the bull and into the aim point.
  • “Let the wobble happen — it will diminish and when it does, my unconscious mind will move the trigger straight back through that free space and the shot will go straight to the target.
  • “Okay, stay on the dot, … the dot … the dot … ohmmmmmmmmmmmmmm… Bang!”

With repetition, that straight back movement will eventually dominate what’s happening in Timed and Rapid Fire. It will come.

Ultimately, the evil “jerk” will be banished.

His days are numbered.

Hooray!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bang!

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

Oh yeah!

The Watched Pot Never Boils

Something interesting has been happening the past few weeks.

As anyone who visits this blog on a regular basis may have noticed, I haven’t been writing much. Initially this was due to “the bug” that was making its way through seemingly everyone in my extended family. The grandbaby had it, her parents, we got it, the grandaughter and her family then had it, then my wife developed a pneumonia ’cause she wasn’t quite over it after all … And through all that, I wasn’t doing much shooting, just a lot of reloading and dreaming.

This past Saturday, we shot an L Match. For those who haven’t done one, it’s basically a two gun event, a 900 (90 shots) with a 22 and another 900 (90 shots) with a centerfire. But the rings on the target are decidedly bigger and so everyone has a good chance of getting a much higher numerical score.

The best shooters are intensely focused on putting every shot into the X ring. That’s where the overall winner will be decided.

I’m not in that category, of course. Instead, I just focused on doing the best I could.

But I *did* do something a little different. What I did was to pour almost all my attention into keeping my self intensely interested in what the dot was doing.

That’s gotta be the hardest way to say, “Watch the dot” but those three words belie what I was doing. They just don’t capture it. So please let me say it again:

I concentrated on staying with the dot as it waggled around in the scope. I followed it (with my attention) as it went over there, and then over here. I tracked it as it went up, then down. I just stayed with it whereever it went and, somewhere in all that, “BANG!” The shot went.

That’s the first part of the story.

Here’s the second part.

Move the trigger straight back, perfectly smooth.

Last Saturday, I was able to (sometimes) do both of those things simultaneously, and without having to consciously think about them while “doing” the shot.

And my scores (in the larger L Match targets) were decidedly closer to center and with fewer jerks.

Other shooters, upon hearing my description of how this all felt, have said, “You were in the zone, Ed.”

And I must say, it was a grand experience. The shots went with no concious effort but rather a recognition, an instant after the fact, that everything was in the right place. And it punched an X or a good solid 10.

But I do have to temper my excitement — the rings in the L Match targets are definately bigger than what I’m accustomed to shooting so my shots would certainly seem better for that reason alone.

But in Timed Fire, something really wonderful happened so I know what I experienced on Saturday is not just because of the size of the target rings.

In fact, what happened was that I totally blew the first string. My first five shots on that Timed Fire target were strung out from “no score jerk land” (low and left) in a line into about the 8 ring. I jerked every shot. Gak!

As I reloaded the magazine, I quietly said to myself (hey, with the hearing protection, no one can hear what I’m saying, right?), “Move the trigger straight back, smooothly, float the harp in the middle of the channel up and down and left and right, remember how that feels when it just smoothly goes straight back.”

I raised the gun and when the target turned for the second string, everything came into place and each of the five shots went right through the X ring. Damn! All five in a row were Xs!! Wow!!!

 

Precision pistol shooting is a bunch of basic skills. Each of them must be understood, practiced with great attention to detail, errors noticed and corrected time and time again, and then practiced in context while the next basic skill is similarly perfected. Each skill warps all the previous ones and the learner has to go back and go over them again and again.

But when it comes time to “shoot the X”, all of that has to be flushed out of the head. All of the skills have to be there, but not in the head.

Last Saturday, I watched the dot, I mean *really* watch the dot, and I moved the trigger smoothly and straight back, all at the same time and for what feels like it must have been the very first time together, and shot the heck out of the center of the target.

Practice, practice, practice, yes. But when it’s time to shoot, fill up the pot, turn up the heat, but then walk away and let the pot cook.

It will boil, but only if you get it ready and then just let it cook.

The Internal Coach

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

I let the coach talk to me then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I then announce where the shot went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some comments are in order about this mental coaching technique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But that’s so much easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

    Bang! “Jerk!”

    Bang!! “Jerk!!”

    Bang!!! “Jerk!!!

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

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

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

    Wow!

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

 

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

Thanks, Coach.