Practice Makes Perfect

But only if it’s perfect practice.

After making three slow passes on his ATV, the Range Safety Officer couldn’t stand it anymore. Parking his rig outside the action-shooting bay, he waited until I was reloading, then hailed me and sauntered up with a quizzical look on his sun-creased face.

“Not ta yank yer chain or ’sturb ya, Mister,” he drawled, “But could I ask just what the heck you’re doin’? I’ve seen a lot of shootin’, but yours got my curiosity up.”

I guess it looked pretty goofy, beginning with me; a semi-sheared ape with a pistol on his hip and a carbine slung up front, staggering around on a cane. As the RSO observed, I had been doing trigger-finger-dances on my pistol, going from indexed position to the trigger, popping off single shots and doubles 1-handed, changing hands, and sometimes clearing the piece and repeating the drill dry-firing. In the process, I radically changed my orientation to the targets, set up at varying distances from 7 to about 20 yards at random angles. That left me presenting at targets directly to my front, off at sharp or shallow angles, even at 90 degrees away or directly across my body. I was in a deep, 3-sided shooting bay with high-impact berms, so it was safe to do so.

My primary goal during those particular drills was working on the transition from “ready to engage,” with trigger finger in the indexed position lying at the side of the triggerguard, to firing, getting my trigger finger swiftly and properly placed on the trigger and making a sure, straight press to the break. It’s a very small movement, but important and often overlooked. Earlier, I had caught myself blowin’ it. My secondary goal, when shooting doubles, was to concentrate on managing the trigger reset.

Since this is far more easily done when shooting 2-handed, my practice that day was 1-handed. And, since running that drill is more easily done when your body and feet are oriented squarely toward the target, I was presenting and firing at acute, random angles, checking for negative effects of working the involved joints and muscles on achieving that sure, straight trigger press. Every time I found a “problematic position” which made my trigger press unsatisfactory, I would stop, clear the weapon, do some dry-firing and then re-engage with live shots.

The RSO and I had a nice chat. He’s a well-trained shooter and IDPA competitor. As we talked, he realized he routinely trained on drawing and presenting, and he also trained on his trigger press, addressing the two as separate elements—but he had largely overlooked that all-important transition which brings the two together, and recognized that might explain some problems he’d experienced. He also mentioned some difficulty with managing trigger reset while shooting rapid doubles. It only took a couple of minutes and about 10 sets of doubles to see that frequently his finger was coming off the trigger after his first shot, and the rushed second shot was more of a jerk than a press.

Pieces Into Process

With sufficient training he can cure that “coming off the trigger” problem, but the immediate treatment was simply to slow down on that second shot by a fraction of a second and concentrate on finger placement and press. Initially, he might lose a half second on his doubles, but more than make it up in more accurate hits—and greater speed would follow in time.

The two “take-aways” from this were first, he needed to integrate his grip, draw, presentation, indexed-to-trigger finger movement, sighting and trigger press into a seamless process instead of just continuing to practice individual elements, and then trying to put them together in matches. Second, even though he was very experienced, he benefited from friendly critical observation. Sometimes you, the shooter, just can’t see what you might be fumbling, ’cause you’re too busy shootin’!

The best lessons I learn for myself, I learn by watching others, including people I’m training. The next-best lessons I learn, I get from self-analysis of screwing things up. In this column, I’d like to share some observations. They’re primarily intended for “defensive shooters,” both handgunners and riflemen, but competition shooters and even hunters might find a nugget or two.

Overwhelmingly, I see well-intended, conscientious, methodical shooters simply concentrating way too hard on the individual elements of the mechanics of shooting, and trying to get everything perfect; exactly the right stance, centering their weight, achieving textbook positions, and treating each element of breathing, trigger control and more as separate operations. Each step becomes sorta’ segmented and jerky, and rarely achieves the level of results the shooter desires.

Devil’s In The Digit

While each element of shooting can be trained individually, most could and should be practiced and well drilled at home, dry-firing. There, you’re under no pressure of time, distracting noise, movement of other shooters or the mechanical action of the weapon being fired. It’s also the best place to work on integrating all those individual elements into the smooth, seamless process they should be. Try to make your dry-firing drills no more than about 20 minutes long, but done as often as possible.

If you do your “homework” at home until you’re satisfied with your rhythm, your trips to the range can be far more productive and pleasant, more like “ballistic therapy” than “trial by torture.” This should also relieve you of a lot of self-generated pressure. Hey—you know what you’re doing, you’ve practiced it thoroughly, and if you’re not cutting groups as tight as you’d like, well heck, you can’t hit a homerun every time you step to the plate, can you? And, by relieving that pressure, you’re more likely to pick up on your weak points and rough spots, so you can address them calmly rather than just cursing a “bad shooting day.”

A friendly observer can spot things you’re doing unconsciously, like adjusting your grip or fluttering your support-hand fingers after that first shot. I’ve pointed this out to many shooters who were completely unaware they were doing it.

Sure, you should practice shooting on level ground in textbook positions, but I urge you to mix it up with shooting—carefully—from less favorable unconventional positions and at radical angles. Life is unlikely to allow you such luxuries in lethal-threat situations. The only two things you should never, ever vary are a sure, solid grip and a clean trigger press. Regardless of poor positions, bad angles and uncooperative targets, having those two elements nailed down can make the difference between winning and losing, living and dying. The devil’s in the digit, folks, and the gremlin’s in the grip. Connor OUT
By John Connor

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