Zen and the art of hitting stuff

We can separate the skills associated with practical handgun marksmanship into three rough sets: aiming, trigger control and tactical gun handling. In my experience, handgun shooting errors are invariably trigger control related, though most shooters tend to ascribe large groups and missed shots to incorrect aim, poor vision or a “bad grip”. Blaming your sights is praying to a false idol. Let’s assume sight regulation is OK for now.

I’ll go so far as to say that just about every person I’ve ever worked with had the ability to see and focus on their aligned sights, and hold that alignment well enough to shoot a very small group. However, few have had the ability to press the trigger well enough to exploit their aiming skills without considerable training.

So, I agree with those who counsel dry firing. I’d say dry firing is far more important than any other single thing you can do to build your fundamental skills. I do not think it will hurt your pistol as much as shooting poorly can hurt you. Shooters generally seem to “flinch” (which we can define here as a failure to press the trigger and release the hammer without disturbing the sights, and/or to follow through during the entire shot) for two basic reasons:

The first is performance anxiety. By it’s nature, shooting is an exercise in truthful self-realization: the bullet hits or misses, whether completely or by degrees. Everyone wants to “do well” and not look like an idiot in front of others. Without intending to make broad gender-based generalizations, women are less prone to succumbing to this anxiety (and in fact often do better in marksmanship training as a result), whereas men do tend to become more ego-involved in the results to the detriment of their skill development. In any event, those who have been highly conditioned to feel potent and capable (such as law enforcement officers and other highly trained professionals) will tend to identify strongly with symbols of that potency to support their self image. Nothing in American society symbolizes this potency more than the gun.

It follows that when presented with an objective test of competency that challenges one’s illusory self-image, even highly educated and successful new shooters will freak out and fail. This is the person who shakes his or her head in growing frustration at each “bad” shot. In reality, shooting is pretty darn easy; it’s just the shooter’s highly personal investment in results that makes it difficult.

Everyone wobbles. The sights are never going to rest motionless and in perfect alignment on the target. Yet, our egos tend to be perfectionists. Result-oriented shooters won’t accept their wobble and are disappointed in the lack of immediate reinforcement shot as an instantaneous event mediated by their will to hit, yet are frustrated by that overpowering will when they jerk the trigger, flinch and miss. That frustration stems from the highly conscious (and thus clumsy) nature of their technique.

In the absence of a learned, subconscious and visually patient process which presses the trigger in response to the appearance of aligned sights orbiting about the target area, the results-oriented shooter jumps on the trigger when the sights suddenly look right “NOW”. This reinforces true flinching reactions from recoil and blast, which is the second reason we miss. It’s true the good Lord didn’t design us to well tolerate an explosion 18 inches in front of our eyes. Guns were our idea.

Grabbing at the trigger when the sights look “right” to satisfy the ego causes the shooter to place his focus even more on the target, and less on that icon of his increasingly conflicted, unpleasant and unsuccessful marksmanship process: his sights. When a shooter feels he’s inconsistent, it’s often because his visual attention floats aimlessly on an unstable emotional sea between sharply focused process and vaguely seen results.

Process oriented shooters develop a sense for what they must do to fire an acceptable shot for a given target and distance, and train their subconscious minds to do only that. Note, I do not say a “perfect” shot, as that’s not possible or even desirable to strive for. We must define an acceptable shot as one that puts the bullet within a reasonable target area for the style and application of shooting we’re doing.

For IPSC and other practical shooting applications, the process of making an acceptable shot varies by distance, target area, position and how long it takes to make it. Some shots require an absolutely hard sight picture, perfect trigger break and monolithic follow through. Other acceptable shots require a quick slap of the trigger with the gun on the move to the next target. Training the mind to select and apply the correct technique for each shot is the first trick.

Having the visual patience to let your highly trained mind do it for you without conscious intervention is the second trick. Guess which trick is harder to master?

While perfectionism can be counter productive, I also believe shooters handicap themselves by being too in awe of supposedly greater talents and therefore convincing themselves they can’t shoot as fast or as accurately for various reasons. The empirical nature of shooting spawns endless excuses that allow each of us to remain comfortable in our self-imposed zone of relative skill. It’s a little uncomfortable to extend oneself out of that comfort zone and try something harder. The champion differs only in that she knows her comfort zone is an illusion.

But that doesn’t mean we start out trying to hit aspirin tablets at 50 feet. For right now, we just want to hit something honestly and reliably. Let’s say a 2″ dot at 10 yards? That’s reasonable, though daunting for the new shooter. (For that matter, I know of some very experienced competitors who won’t allow themselves to hit that target reliably.)

Well, assuming your sights are aligned fairly well and you see the blurred dot somewhere behind them, you’ll hit within a 2” target area every time so long as the trigger is pressed correctly.

That’s the fundamental skill. This is how to get it:

Unload your gun, and check it three more times. Good! You’ll do the rest with eyes closed.

You note that you can easily drop the hammer without disturbing a dime when dry firing, but not when you know a bullet is present. I think you need to develop an unshakable faith in that skill, and an equally hard faith in the belief that if you focus on and align the sights and press through as you practice, you absolutely will hit the target.

You also need to have equal faith in your ability to call each shot, and know where it went based on what the sights were doing as they lifted off the target during recoil.

Visualize a sight picture on your chosen target in your mind while simultaneously pressing through on the trigger. Feel the trigger, how it might creep and wiggle under finger pressure. Try to get as close to dropping the hammer as you can, and hold it as you watch those imagined sights. You should ignore the target if your mind wants to stick one down there for you to look at instead.

Watch the sights in your mind’s eye and you’ll see them dip, jerk and do all sorts of things. Feel the recoil and blink, perhaps. That’s great! Let your visualized shooting session seem as real as possible without too much conscious direction. Just allow yourself to come back to the sights, focus on the front blade, align them and press.

Be focused on the process of operating the trigger, and learn to press through without tension, convulsive grasping of the hand, jerking or other funny stuff in response to the appearance of aligned sights in your mind. It’s a thing, a device, a machine you own and control. It doesn’t control you.

Do this for two weeks, each night for at least ten or 15 minutes, or until you can’t maintain good form and sight visualizations without your mind wandering too much, and stop when you can’t feel exactly what the trigger’s doing as it releases the hammer. It’s fine to alternate visualization drills with a sighted “shots” against the wall, but the bulk of your dry firing practice should be associated and reinforced with guided imagery.

Then, go the the range. Dry fire in this way on the line a bit. Now, here’s the deal: tell yourself the truth. You know when the gun’s loaded, but you have convinced yourself that following this process is what you will do. You must allow your subconscious to do it for you, since that’s what that last two weeks of intense repetition was for. Trust me, you’ve learned it. To actually DO it, you just occupy the ego with something safe it can do to help, rather than letting it take over in a doomed effort to make it happen and be the star of the show “now that it counts.”

So, give the ego a job: let it watch the sights. Tell it to focus intensely on the front sight and not to think of anything else. Not the target (it’s there), not the gun (it’s fine and we know it’s zeroed well enough), just the front sight, aligned in the notch just as you’ve visualized. If you visualize the pistol firing when the sights appear aligned on the target, that’s what will happen. You have only to step out of the way and watch that front sight.

The gun will fire, at least once or twice in that first session, without conscious thought making it do so. Those are the shots you’ll remember. Ignore the flinches, jerks and misses, as they don’t matter and are not any indicator of success.

That’s how top shooters get there: they focus on the process and count their hits.

Note, the most highly skilled shooters use the sights all the time, every time, as clearly and as well aligned as needed to make a given shot. Some tactical gurus, gun writers and other hounds baying at the moon will tell you that truly practical shooting isn’t about sights, and you’ll swear when you watch us on ESPN, the Outdoor Channel or at your local match that we can’t be seeing the sights at the rate we’re shooting in high-level competition.

The entire concept of “point shooting” is praying to yet another false idol. I personally think the only true god is God, but your front sight is a safe icon to regard with complete obedience when it’s time to shoot, whether at maximum warp or at aspirin tablets. Here’s some additional thoughts on trigger pull weight and technique: Yes, a 1.5 pound trigger does facilitate trigger slap without unduly disrupting sight alignment / index / pointing or whatever you choose to pay attention to during a given shot. It also makes anything but a trigger slap impossible for most shooters, particularly at moderate speeds on discrete targets where positive reset would be a good thing.

Much of what you see top Limited and Production IPSC shooters doing when shooting relatively quickly is indeed drawn from Open gun technique, in which the trigger is released and then pulled right through the reset point without stopping. Slapping the trigger is easier to learn with a dot, since you get instant feedback from that bouncing ball if you jerk the shot. I had leaned to slap with good follow through once, long ago when I shot an Open gun; somewhere along the way, I lost much of the follow through but kept the slap when I lost the dot.

I say, follow-through is everything, whether you take a hard reset before breaking each shot or blow right through. I think it’s best to learn to use both trigger techniques, and incorporate them when appropriate in a seamless skill set.

I can slap the 3X trigger on my SIG P-226 9mm with fair accuracy. It can be done. The first trick is to train your mind to apply only the pressure and rate required to release the sear without driving the trigger into the frame. The second trick here is to develop rock-solid, “dead” follow through skills. Yes, your muscles will always react to recoil in a reflexive way, as you realign the sights. Fine! Just make sure that reaction takes place well after the bullet has left the barrel. Dry firing with visualization and dummy round training at the range are keys, I believe.

Calling shots at speed means using information from the sights to determine whether the previous shot hit or missed. There’s two ways to shoot: One is reactively, in which the sight picture is read on some conscious level and coordinated with a more or less sub-conscious action of trigger pull. That’s the “watch your front sight” school, and it works…sort of. The other is proactively, in which the sight picture is recalled on a lower-conscious level as verification that the subconscious saw what it needed to see when it broke the previous shot, while the subconscious is busy making the present one. This relates to the mode of observation that Enos and others describe. The conscious mind tends to linger in the just-past, not the present. If you ever wondered why some top shooters could do the things they do, this paragraph is really the whole enchilada.

As for transitions, I do mean between targets. I stress, and can prove, that fast splits between first and second shots are not very productive in Limited, and for darn sure not in Production. (By fast, I mean faster than most anyone can really call their shots, or faster than about .16.) Despite what you see the hosers in your local club do, you will generally not find that the top guys like Todd, Robbie and Eric Grauffel depend upon such splits in Limited to make up time per se. In Open, yes, they can get away with more. But, the math suggests there’s little to gain in stressing splits over transitions, due to the points inevitably lost on the second shot and the extra physical and mental tension involved.

© Grayguns Inc. 2005

Dry fire secrets of the pros

I rarely encounter shooters who feel their shooting and gun handling is as good as it should be, and most will acknowledge a real need for improvement in shooting abilities. Whether you are new in recreational shooting, an officer of the law or armed civilian, or a seasoned practical competitor, experience suggests the place to start rebuilding your firearms training program is by reinforcing the fundamentals.

Fortunately, the most important single fundamental skill in shooting- trigger control- is the one which can best be improved off the range in independent practice. As good as the trigger on your SIGARMS service pistol may be, correct dry firing with visualization is the key to mastering it.

This basic dry-firing and visualization regimen evolved during thirty years of practical pistol competition and professional instruction, and includes ideas I’ve shamelessly robbed from some of today’s best shooters and anybody else I couldn’t outshoot. These basic techniques are directly applicable to anyone who wants to hit accurately at speed with a handgun. As well as being a standard amongst many top competitors, it has been adopted by a number of elite agencies as part of their tactical firearms skill building programs. I urge you to spend the minimal time required to employ it as a cost-free method to improve your shooting skills.

What sports gurus say about training is really true: it takes a minimum of 5 to 10 thousand correct repetitions of an activity before that action becomes permanently hardwired into your subconscious, and proper attention must be paid to form during each repetition for the imprinting of that action to be perfect. Many people hold the mistaken belief that great shooters, like musical prodigies, are simply born with superior coordination, vision or other innate talents from whence they draw their superior skills. The reality is they work harder, but they also have developed better training tools to work smarter.

Practical, defensive shooting requires mastery of many skills beyond simple marksmanship such as the draw, reloading and safe, high-speed gun handling. It might seem that the task of correctly executing each skill many thousands of times while maintaining correct form and acute mental focus would seem almost impossible. It’s really not, but the ability to train effectively is actually the only attribute separating champions and survivors from the losers and the dead. It’s not the amount of training time they put in that counts, it’s the quality of their experience.

The key to such effective training, defined as getting the most correct reps of an action from the time available, is to focus on quality. Do a thing perfectly even one time, and you’ve learned something; let yourself flail about in haste and distraction, and each crummy repetition just does more damage. The purpose of practice is to reinforce your subconscious’ ability to reproduce a performance on demand. Your mind cannot differentiate between a good shooting string and a lousy one, a proper trigger press and an ugly jerk, an aligned and clear sight picture or a fly on the target; it grooves in what you actually do and see as the model for future performances. If you do not want to jerk the trigger and miss your target while staring blankly under stress, you must align your sights and press the trigger as perfectly as possible in practice. This is equally true for both recreational and defensive shooters. Such conceits as letting yourself ignore fundamental shooting skills and hosing wildly or point shooting “because that’s what happens on the street” will gain nothing; an edge hit in practice will be a missed shot when it counts.

We’ve all succumbed to the little panic before a big match or qualification that tells us we haven’t “practiced enough”, and crammed in a lot of rounds in one session. We may get a lot of rounds down range, but have we really gotten the most out of our practice time? I doubt it. If you aren’t shooting at least 95% center hits in practice, you aren’t paying adequate attention to the quality of your shooting. Realistically, most people cannot maintain good focus and excellent performance throughout a long day’s shooting anyway. And, it has to be fun at some point. Practical shooting requires a host of skills beyond sight alignment and trigger control, but it’s always those fundamental skills that are most critical for success. Fortunately, coordination of sights to proper trigger release is, along with the draw and magazine changes, a skill most easily reinforced through dry-firing.

Your dry-fire regimen must support the manner in which you really shoot. Most people dry fire by carefully aiming their UNLOADED pistol at a spot on the wall, bringing the trigger through it’s arc of pre-travel to the sear reset point and then pressing off as good a shot as they possibly can. Beautiful! And, not very applicable to the demands of fast, practical shooting. What you need is trigger control at speed, an immediate, smooth and subconsciously controlled release of the shot upon the appearance of the correct, acceptable sight picture on your target.

Typically, after the initial double action first shot, most people find themselves jerking the trigger in a convulsive and relatively uncontrolled fashion whether they positively reset the trigger between shots or not. Naturally, the faster the pace the less time is available for positive sear reset, also referred to as “trigger staging”. SIG Sauer service pistols such as the P-226 seen here have a considerable amount of trigger reset and reuptake travel which must be mastered to make controlled shots at speed. Why is this important? Because you can only shoot as fast and accurately as you can release the trigger from the previous shot and take up the pre-travel on the way to the next one.

At a pace exceeding about three shots per second, all but the most accomplished shooters will slap all the way through without pausing to stage the trigger. While breaking the traditional rules of bullseye-based trigger control technique, there’s really nothing wrong about a controlled slap. Given the nature of practical shooting, trigger staging is not necessarily a prerequisite for making an acceptably accurate shot; all that counts is that the trigger press is physically isolated enough from the rest of your grip so that it doesn’t disturb sight alignment.

I view trigger control on a continuum, with precisely coordinated bullseye style shooting on one and a high-speed controlled slap on the other. All points on this continuum can be mastered by varying the pace of reset, reuptake and trigger press in coordination with appropriate mental imagery. Properly hardwire each individual aspect of shooting into your subconscious, and it will all come together in a seamless, fluid skill set at the range.

To develop that ideal trigger coordination, break it down to the basics. You’re conscious mind can only direct one action at a time, so don’t clutter your trigger press training with unrelated skills, or all will suffer. Want to practice draws? Practice draws. If your reload needs work, dry-practice reloading.

Want to develop awesome trigger control and overcome jerking and flinching? Just practice the specific acts of releasing and pressing the trigger.

It’s about this simple: While comfortably seated in a safe area with a solid backstop, and with NO AMMUNITION anywhere in the room with you, check to verify your pistol is unloaded. Twice. Good! You’re not ready to anything until you’re ready to be safe.

First, let’s work on your first shot from the hammer-down position. You’ll want to reach through with your trigger finger just as far as needed to draw the trigger straight back without any side pressure one way of the other. In my experience, most people are more than strong enough to control a DA trigger once they’ve developed proper muscular coordination; resist the temptation to shift your grip and choke up on the trigger just to gain some leverage! If trigger reach is an issue for you, contact the SIGARMS Custom Shop for a short trigger.

Now, close your eyes and imagine yourself at the range, with a single large target before you. While paying attention to your grip and form, press through a smooth double action shot while imagining your sights on that target. Did anything move? Don’t be surprised if you find yourself visualizing flinching or missing! That’s OK, as it may be an indication that you are really relaxed and allowing your subconscious to work for you; just allow yourself to make the next shot better, seeing the sights more clearly in your mind.

Despite what many 1911-centric gunwriters have long stated as their objection to double action service pistols, mastering the double to single action transition is easy. While maintaining your strong hand grip, hold the trigger back after your DA shot and cycle the slide of your pistol to cock the hammer. Close your eyes and visualize your target before you. Let yourself “see” the sights appear on it as you release the trigger, feel for the reset and take up the pre-travel; refine your imagined sight alignment as you press off the shot, just as you will on the range. Perfect!

That was easy, wasn’t it? Repeat 10 thousand times…and you’ll be unbeatable.

Do it for twenty minutes a night for a week and you’ll not only see huge improvement only your trigger control, but sight picture and acquisition skills as well. I’ve seen scenario and qualification scores literally double after only one night of homework by law officers.

Why does this work? By correctly “prepping” the trigger, mentally visualizing the sight picture and “shooting” in response, you are able to perform the trigger press perfectly while coordinating it to the appearance of the sights on the target. Your subconscious, being the reliable little soldier that it is, perceives all this as if you were literally shooting and grooves it all in more perfectly than could be had with all the distractions of the range. Perhaps of equal importance, the discipline and “time in the zone” accrued through regular practice will definitely smooth some of those range distractions out. It’s been proven to my satisfaction that dry fire practice with visualization is a shooter’s single best tool for improvement, and I’d take it over range practice if I had to choose.

Finally and most importantly, relying on your subconscious training to make shots on demand frees up your conscious mind to react quickly to changing circumstances and make correct decisions under stress. The secret to thinking on one’s feet is to limit what one has to think about to begin with!

I urge you to spend the minimal time required to employ it as a cost-free method to improve your lifesaving skills.