30 December 2012

An Accidental Activist

Dec 2015 Update - In the wake of San Bernardino, I've realized that the more things change, the more things stay the same. I don't particularly care for getting political, but I don't feel like I am left any choice to protect both the options I want to keep available for my self defense and for the sport I am passionate about. I'm no hero or hero wannabe; I just want the right to keep effective tools at hand rather than to die cowering and with regret. I've become a safe and effective shooter for love of the game, and I see no reason I should be forced to leave those skills at the range when someone means to and is able to do me imminent, grievous bodily harm.

It's not that I think it likely that I will be in the vicinity of some sort of mass attack, or that evil overwhelmingly walks among us. It's that if it does, when it does, I'm not left hiding and wishing for a better way to survive. If I were diagnosed with a terminal disease, I'd feel the same way: I'd want to live and to fight for every day I can have with the best quality of life I can get. I don't live in fear; I live in the powerful optimism that life is beautiful and worth fighting for (hat tip, Cornered Cat).

Like the rest of the world, I watched in horror as the recent events in Sandy Hook unfolded, along with other violent events of the past few months. I don't have a specific frame of reference to say that I can understand what the victims and survivors are feeling, so I can only offer my sympathy and condolences. My friends span the entire political spectrum so in the past few weeks I've heard most of the rhetoric that's been swirling around mental health treatment, school security, gun ownership, and more. I generally try to stay apolitical but it'd be like talking around the mastodon in the room to not speak at least briefly to gun rights, gun control, and my journey towards advocating for simplification of existing laws and enforcement of what is in place, rather than adding more layers of regulation in response to the call to "do something".

When I first learned to shoot, it was mainly because I thought it was the sort of skill every girl should pick up - just like learning to change a tire or use power tools. The fun part of it came as a surprise, and I bought my first .22lr pistol to enjoy going to the range every couple weeks to plink. In order to make it easier to comply with transport laws, I got my license to carry firearms soon after. That was my first hint that complying with gun laws might be a little more complex than I suspected. Even though I waited many weeks for my license to come through, and learned that the sheriff's office called and spoke to each of my references, that extensive process apparently wasn't enough for me to stay legal everywhere I went. In fact, one of the routes to the range involved hopping into another a state to get back into my home state, and I had to remember to follow federal interstate transport laws to stay legal. Figuring out how to get licensed in a manner that would allow me to just stop for dinner on the most efficient route home, then finding the required training classes, getting the right pictures taken, figuring out where to get fingerprints done...I had no idea at the time how complicated it could get!

Over time, I noticed a theme - being a law-abiding gun owner wasn't easy, and it got even harder once I started thinking about the intricacies of permissible self-defense. Before I got into shooting, I'd only considered the use of deadly force as an academic problem. After I became more proficient, partially through defensive and tactical shooting classes because they were the most accessible way to get formal training, it seemed obvious to me that my newly-won skills were something I could use in my everyday life...one that involved late evening walks through a city known for crime but was where I worked and went to school, and a minor disability that makes running away less of an option than it might be for others. Even so, it wasn't an easy decision to make, and one I learned raised many of the same questions other responsible gun owners ask: the practicalities of how to carry, the morality of balancing my life against an attacker's, the legality of where I could have my gun and when I could use it. And that last question? So incredibly confusing to tease out the exact circumstances when using a gun in self-defense wouldn't lead to me becoming a criminal defendant.

As I acquired more guns for different aspects of my new hobby, I learned that many features I found fun or useful - or even necessary - were formerly illegal under the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, currently illegal in certain states, and now proposed to become illegal under new proposals. Features like collapsible stocks, which allow me to properly shoulder a rifle, pistol grips that are more comfortable for my hands and wrists, or suppressors that help protect my hearing. The full capacity magazines that came with many of my pistols can't be taken into many neighboring states without breaking the law. And if not illegal, many items are or are proposed to be taxed in a way to make an already pricey sport even more expensive. For example, a short-barreled rifle that would be easier for my 5'4" self to handle requires a $200 tax stamp and 5-8+ months of processing.

I didn't want to become a firearms activist. It started only because I couldn't understand why it was so difficult to avoid inadvertently breaking the law. It continued when I realized that my new friends in the firearms community were well-trained, level-headed, thoughtful people - not exactly the hot-headed, violent, impulsive types I was led to believe permeated the gun owning crowd (though they're out there! just not everyone, or even most everyone). And as I stand here today, I've realized that I must stand for my community or risk losing what brought us together. So this is one of my New Year's resolutions: to continue to be a good example of a gun owner, and not to stay silent about it. I'm going to teach more, train more, and be a vocal reminder of what this shooter looks like: a law-abiding, white-collar professional passionately enjoying a hobby that has given me good friendships, a way to defend myself, and a sport that I will physically be able to continue with indefinitely. But only if the proposed legislation comes to a grinding halt.

11 December 2012

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I'm rather uncharacteristically late with my holiday shopping this year, but we still have a few days left in Hanukkah, some shopping days left before Christmas, and some families who celebrate on a non-traditional schedule anyhow (one of mine is exchanging gifts on New Year's!). For those of you who are as behind as I am, I offer a few stocking stuffers for a beautiful shooter in your life - perhaps you. I'm going to focus on small craftswomen and craftsmen, since I like to support them as much as possible. Also, these are all products I'm personally familiar with in some way, so if I've left something out, it's only because I haven't gotten my paws on it yet to try it out for myself.

Anybody who's seen me on the range in the last year knows that I'm a big fan of Brilliant Backstraps - a colorful and glitzy add-on to any standard semi-automatic Smith & Wesson M&P Pistol (unfortunately, not the .22lr version or the Shield), as well as for the Sig Sauer P226 and P229. I'm one of the early testers of the product and in the spirit of full disclosure, got my first backstrap for free, but have since purchased others to outfit more of my collection. The best part of using Brilliant Backstraps, in my eyes, is that you can change them out easily and they don't impact the function of the gun. I talked to Tracy, the woman behind the glitter clouds, this morning and she tells me that you have until the end of the week to get your orders in for any standard backstrap if you want it by Christmas.

Unfortunately, this post is too late to make the Christmas ordering deadline for PHLster, a small Kydex holster shop in - surprise - Philadelphia, but gift certificates are available. And if you really can't wait, the same people behind PHLster have also released a series of DIY Kydex holster videos on YouTube as PhillyEDC. While their website selection is limited, they, like many shops, can work with you for custom pieces. It's always worth asking the question if you find a company you like because you might get surprised by what they can turn out for you if you are patient...an especially exciting option given the many colors of Kydex now available. I was in PHLster's shop when they crafted the competition rig for my 1911 and can attest to their quality work (they're also my holster sponsor, so there's that, but I truly do like the gear they've done for me).

If leather is more to your taste, there are many similar small shops out there. I had some input on JesseGunLeather's line of brightly colored and patterned women's holsters, and love the not-basic-black looks of their products. It's too late to order in time for Christmas from many of them but even getting in an order can be a gift when wait times are measured in the 6-8 month time frame for makers like Milt Sparks, who made one of my favorite holsters, the Versa Max 2.

Since many of us have too much "stuff" cluttering our range bags, another option is to give the gift of training. Whatever level your giftee is at, there's training available for him or her - from a basic NRA skills class to a private or small group lesson from someone like me or another local training group to stretching out more advanced skills, it's out there. For women especially, it can be a treat if you can find women's-only classes. I'm incredibly excited to be teaching at Breaking BarriersA Girl & A Gun Shooting League's 2013 conference. Spots are still open, and a membership in the club or a check for conference fees might be just the treat for a woman shooter in your life. I'm also very pleased to announce that I'll be hosting the amazing Kathy Jackson of Cornered Cat for a women's defensive pistol class at my home range in Southeastern Pennsylvania, in April 2013.  A bit of a plug, yes, but training of any form is still a great gift...and one that can be very forgiving of being a procrastinating shopper.

Having pretty gear doesn't conflict with being a good shooter, and getting top-notch training is part of what makes for more fun on the range. I've only listed a few things above, but anyone who's received a MidwayBrownellsCabellas catalog knows there's a lot of choices out there. What will you give to the beautiful shooter in your life? That's you! What do you want for the holidays?

30 November 2012

It's the Biggest Presentation of Your Life

I recently attended a seminar on effective business communication techniques and realized halfway through that the same strategies that make for a good presentation to the Board of Directors are the ones that can prepare you for your best possible shooting performance. Whether you shoot competitively or for self-defense, the same principles are helpful.

One of the keys to effective presentation, whether oral or written, is to simplify. Be concise. For communication, that means using the least words possible to convey a complete picture. For shooting, that generally means paring down excess movement and other distractions. Moving more efficiently is smoother and ultimately faster, plus you'll give yourself less rope to hang yourself with when you confuse yourself with a more complex than necessary manipulations. Just this week in dry-fire, I found that my left hand was making nearly two feet of extra movement in the surrender draw. I'd already been in the habit of making sure that my right hand was on the same vertical plane as my gun, so that it only needed to drop down to meet the grip, but my left hand was coming down nearly to waist level then coming back up to my upper right chest just like my standard draw. By moving my left hand from surrender directly to my upper right chest, it's now waiting to meet the gun and leading to a more sure support hand grip sooner in the draw stroke. And I can't get it caught up in extra clothes I might have on, especially now that it is colder outside.

That little tweak to my technique only came about because I've been practicing - another key for communications success. Remember that while visualization is important, getting out and doing the real thing is also important for your gun handling skills. Practicing with your actual gear is also how you find out whether or not your gear works. Just like making sure that your projector works for that important PowerPoint presentation and that you know how to use that nifty new wireless remote you got, you want to make sure your gun functions properly before the performance that matters. I know some people who are very glad that they brought their carry guns to a recent BUG-friendly IDPA match at my home club. Not only did they get to practice with what the set up they intend to use in real life, but they may have found out that their guns weren't as reliable as they thought. It's hard to know things like that unless you practice. Like finding out your elevator pitch is five minutes long instead of 30 seconds when you finally speak it out loud after writing it out, you won't know until you try it.

When putting together a presentation, it can also be helpful to evaluate your work with fresh eyes whenever possible. If you have a mentor or coach, ask them to watch and give feedback. Or you can use video to critically examine your technique. Finally, just taking a break after working out a new skill and trying it again later can help you spot holes, just like putting aside written work product for a little while makes for a stronger edit later. One of the constant mantras in both shooting sports and self-defense training is that shooting is a perishable skill that will decline if not used regularly. That can be a good thing for training purposes because taking a break accomplishes two things: First, a long practice session spent learning a new skill can result in increased speed and polish beyond our "cold" abilities before nosediving into fatigue and sloppiness. Going back to that skill can help you determine where you really stand in mastering it, and control for both physical and mental fatigue. Second, you may find when you return to working on a skill that you aren't doing it in the best way possible for you, based on changes between when you originally learned it and now. Perhaps you're wearing different clothing, or you've learned a new technique in the meantime that doesn't integrate with your old way of doing things.

Effective communication skills transfer well from the business/academic world to shooting. Whether you consider your important shooting "presentation" to be your next match or your response to a dangerous situation, you can use the same skills you use to pitch a deal to new clients or write a memo to your boss. And as a bonus, you're developing and practicing skills that will help you at work, no matter what you do.

21 November 2012

Now Do It Again. And Again. And Again.

Last weekend, I did something I like to do once or twice a year to measure my progress: shoot an IDPA classifier. Standardized courses of fire can be a great way to exercise a variety of skill sets and confirm how you're doing against an objective standard. During the regular shooting season, I often pick a few people to compare my performance against, but that method relies on seeing the same people regularly and assuming a certain amount of consistency in their shooting. It can also be difficult to use those people as a yardstick if they are improving at a different rate than you are or if you are trying to compare results across different types of matches (whether that means match directors with varying stage design styles or different gun sports entirely). However, classifiers and qualifiers are a way that you can actually shoot against yourself, since the course of fire will be exactly the same every time.

I'm pleased to report that my speed and accuracy have continued to improve every time I've shot this particular classifier. I'm not nearly so pleased to report that while my raw times and penalty points for Stages 1 and 2 have dropped significantly from my last attempt this past spring, my Stage 3 returned to one of the worst overall scores I've posted in nearly two years. It was a lot faster, but that means little in a game where every miss adds 2.5 seconds to your final time. In the spirit of my last post, I'm concentrating on the high point of shooting my best Stages 1 and 2 ever, but I'm also reflecting on one of the biggest problems I'm facing right now: consistency.

Part of the challenge in getting consistent results is how difficult it is to keep all of your skills growing at the same rate. This is perhaps most obvious in how easy it is for many of us to learn how to shoot well at close targets, while hitting a wall when engaging at further distances. There are many elements to being a "good shooter", whatever your discipline, and it's hard work to remember all of them and execute on all of them. Think back to the first time you fired a gun or the last time you brought out a new shooter: stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger press....all that, in addition to just knowing how to run the gun. Then think about all of the things you might add to that, depending on the particular gun game you are playing: breathing and breath control, recoil management, follow-through, follow-ups, target transitions, multiple shooting positions [pdf], trigger prep, optic use including holdovers/holdunders, stage management... It's a lot! Individually, many of these skills aren't hard to master, but doing them all together is something else entirely, especially as you are trying to improve on each one in turn. It takes practice to learn how to run when you are still mastering walking and chewing gum at the same time.

So back to classifiers. Because they are generally intended to test a wide range of skills, they require the shooter to be able to perform at a consistent level across multiple areas. Getting good at one thing and doing it one time isn't enough. We have to bring up our abilities across the board and maintain those levels of performance consistently in order to really show meaningful improvement.

11 November 2012

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

When I last posted, I was getting ready for an IDPA sanctioned match. I had a lot of fun there, and the match director and hosting club did a great job not just with running a smooth match, but in making the shooters and the staff comfortable and welcome. It's not their fault I didn't get my act together and shoot the match I had envisioned. Between that and the fact that November is the start of a slower couple months of shooting in my world, I've had a lot on my mind as I reflected on the 2012 season. 

After every match, but especially after disappointing matches, and even after practice sessions, I'm finding it more and more helpful to take some time to look back at how I performed. While analyzing successes and failures on the spot is necessary for immediate feedback and adjustment, sometimes I need to take a couple days to put that performance into perspective, especially if I managed a late-game crash and burn. It's normal to remember the bad and let it overshadow what you did well. But fortunately, it's also possible to retrain your memories. After I've had some time to think about and remember the high points, I try to use them to reframe my perception of what didn't work out so well for me. For instance, instead of dwelling on how I bombed a stage, I try to think about how I nailed that difficult mover halfway through. (Some of you will remember this as a tip I give for shooting your own match.) I also think it's incredibly important to put current performance in context. You might not be happy that you only shot an 8-inch group in practice, but don't forget that maybe it was only 6 months ago that you couldn't even keep all your shots on paper. And maybe you came in last place, Again. But only by a few points or seconds, and not by the insurmountable-looking margin you came in last place last month...I've totally been there. The mantra in my house is to beat that back is that a bad day on the range now is still better than a good day used to be. Chances are pretty good you'll find the same if you look at the big picture of your shooting experience.

At the same time, I want to keep improving. So winter is when I try to get back to the basics and improve my foundation so that next season, I can have more successes to mentally wipe out the bobbles and mistakes. An instructor once told me that good shooting is just the basics done smoothly and quickly. That means shooting boring drills like groups, and buckling down for dryfire practice, to really ingrain fundamentals into my muscle memory. It can also mean changing things up to make you really think about what you're doing. Try it: shoot a revolver instead of a semi-auto, or put some time into your rifle instead of your pistol. Go out and shoot a discipline you've never tried before. It can help break you out of a rut, concentrate on skills you've started to take for granted, or focus your practice on a new area. I know that for me, going back to my double-action only guns forces me to work harder on consistent trigger press than I ever will shooting my striker-fired or single action guns. And as much as I struggle with shooting flying clays, time spent behind a shotgun always shows in more comfort with moving pistol and rifle targets. More importantly, playing in new areas reminds me that at the end of the day, much of what we do on the range is for fun. Even when training for self-defense or similar, range time should be enjoyable. 

This winter, I'll still be shooting the matches that run year-round (including the one I help run!), but I'm planning on spending some time teaching, on reinforcing my fundamentals, and on rediscovering the joy of shooting. I hope you'll join me. 

25 October 2012

Cramming for a Major

I'm getting ready for a sanctioned IDPA match. I haven't made it to many majors this year and we're getting to the end of the season, so this is probably it for me until spring. While my club runs year round, many large matches happen in warmer weather and not when major snows are threatening (Frozen Penguin and Arctic Blast aside...). As I've been coming down to the wire on this one, I've been thinking a lot about how match prep is like getting ready for an exam or a performance. The athletic part is pretty far down the list at this late date.

I recently read some great advice about mental preparation for a match. In addition to working on internalizing those concepts, I'm also trying to draw on a lifetime of test taking, auditions and recitals as I prepare for tomorrow. The tactics I used for staying calm and collected, and to ensure my best possible performance, on in my 3-degree career of exams and over a decade of playing a musical instrument are the same ones that are helping me focus tonight. In my case, that means reviewing and visualizing the rules and techniques I know trip me up the most. There's been quite a bit of under-the-breath muttering of 1-1-2-1-1 around here today, along with the all-important front sight front sight front sight mantra.

Less shooting-focused, but still important, are eating a good meal of foods I enjoy (mmm, pizza) and hydrating now while planning my food and water for the day of the match. For ranges you aren't familiar with, it's a good idea to check the shooter brief to see what food will be available and make sure that it's something that will work for you. Being hungry is not just a recipe for crankiness and sub-par performance; searching for food can add unneeded stress to your day. As long as I'm packing my snacks, I'm also double checking that my range bag has everything I'll need. From the obvious like gunmagazinesholster, mag pouches, and belt, to spare fibers for my front sight and blister tape...I'm making sure it's all there along with my standard requirements. Getting geared up to step on the line is not the time to find out that you didn't bring the shooting vest you've been training with all week.

During all of this, I'm also relaxing and clearing my mind. Before big exams, I used to listen to upbeat music on repeat. While waiting my turn for auditions and recitals, I'd often find a quiet corner or mentally create a little bubble so that I could gather my focus only on the few minutes I'd be judged by (not so different from handful of seconds that make up most stages, really, although the guns are louder). Tomorrow, I'll probably be using a safe handling area for a few last practice draws and to get my head in the game. And of course, I'll do my best to get a good night's sleep tonight.

In the end, the same tools you use to get ready for any sort of major performance are the same ones that you need to set yourself up for success on the range. Whether it's a big exam, an important interview or audition, a meeting with your boss's boss's boss, or prepping for a major, going through the steps that make you feel relaxed and prepared is the best recipe for success.

Now here's to hoping it works for me tomorrow!

17 October 2012

The Memory Game

Shooting is a physical skill, but there is a mental component that is as or more important than the ability to hold a gun and pull the trigger. One of the hardest for me to get in line is remembering what I need to remember, when I need to remember it. Just as important is remembering what I need to forget, at least for the moment. Since I have a sanctioned IDPA match coming up, I'll talk about this in the context of shooting for score, but many of the same principles apply no matter what the context of your shooting.

Two of my earliest posts talked about the muscle memory required for safety and gun handling. Those are, of course, the things that need to stick in your mind no matter what. For a match, it's important to add to those basics in a couple of ways. First, you need to remember those safety rules that may be specific to your sport or range - things like the 180 degree rule. You'll want to make sure that your gun handling skills include not just basic loading, unloading, and firing, but also malfunction clearing and similar manipulations. Add to that another long-term memory item: the rules of the particular game you are shooting. For me over the next few weeks, that means reviewing the IDPA rule book [pdf] and not letting myself forget pesky rules like not being permitted to drop a magazine if there are any rounds in my gun (pages 41-42). Keeping these things in the back of your head means not having to waste brainpower remembering them actively, making shooting a course of fire less stressful and allowing you to focus on the actual shooting part.

Another area where longer term, more subconscious memory is helpful is learning whatever course of fire you will be required to perform. While you won't always get a month to study up on stage diagrams, like you may be able to for large matches like USPSA Nationals, even just paying attention during stage briefs and taking full advantage of any stage walk through time that you get (but be careful about limits like the rule against personal walk throughs in IDPA). Again, this is an area where not having to stop and think about what you're supposed to be doing will pay off in letting you focus on your shooting...especially important when the course of fire is a "memory stage" or otherwise unusually complex. Tactical sequence, I'm looking at you!

Now that you've filled your brain up with all the things you need to remember, there are also things you need to forget, sometimes very quickly and sometimes only temporarily. A major challenge I've been working hard to overcome is to not think about a bad performance any longer than I have to while I am still at a match. It's important to consider what needs to be fixed to improve performance later in the day; it's not productive to  keep repeating the same mistake for an entire match. However, it's equally important to not beat yourself up over a past flub that you can't fix now. Whether it's a single pulled shot when you are shooting limited rounds at a target or a stage you flailed your way through, you can't take that bullet back. It's best at that point to pull out the lessons that you can quickly, then move on rather than let an early point of failure ruin your performance for the rest of the day. The time to dwell on your mistakes is after last shots, not while you are trying to rock your last few stages to make up for lost time and lost points. Similarly, the time to relive your triumph over an awesome course of fire is not while you are approaching the next challenge you're shooting for score. That's what photos, video, and shooting journals are for.

One of my themes that is probably starting to become clear is that to be a successful shooter, you need to remove as many distractions as you can so that you can concentrate on what matters - whether that is the act of shooting itself or the problem you are trying to solve that just happens to involve your gun as a tool.

05 October 2012


I once knew a woman who was so reputed for having so much stuff in her purse that she tossed in a Barbie kitchen sink, just to say that she really did carry everything and the kitchen sink. Some days, I feel like I should do the same for my range bag, except maybe something a little bigger because sometimes, you really need to scrub under your nails. While you don't need to (and probably shouldn't) go overboard, there are a several things you should  pack when you go to the range that shouldn't be skipped:

Range nutrition and hydration has become an increasingly important part of my routine over the past year. Before, I found it easy to forget that a day spent shooting was a day spent outside and exercising, with all that implies. I often wondered why I got cranky and my performance suffered by the time I got to the last stage in a match until someone reminded me that I hadn't eaten anything since my crack-of-dawn breakfast and it was now well past noon. The easiest fix for me was to keep some protein bars in my bag, or to remember to pack a full lunch if I knew I'd be pulling pit duty. Making sure to eat a complete breakfast is also helpful - a sugary donut isn't enough. I've seen people snack on everything from fruit and nuts to fancy sport goos, so it's worth experimenting to find what works to keep your head focused and body running. In addition to, and often more important than, food is hydration. Liquids are obviously vital when temperatures run high but often forgotten when the weather starts to turn cooler. While you might not need the liter of water per hour I've gone through mid-summer, it's possible to get dangerously dehydrated even in the middle of winter. You may also find, as I did, that staying on top of your fluid intake will help increase your performance since dehydration can show up with symptoms like weakness and confusion. I like plain water in a hydration pack that is part of my range bag to reduce the number of things I'm carrying around, and have started adding electrolyte tabs (in about twice the amount of water as recommended) for longer days on the range. My shooting partner lives on low/no-calorie sports drinks.

Range safety includes personal protective gear, but doesn't stop at just your regular eye protection and ear muffs/plugs. I always keep spare lenses or an extra set of eye pro around in case lighting conditions change or if my regular pair breaks. Extra plugs live in my bag for similar reasons; muffs can get uncomfortable in hot weather conditions or on a long day, and I've had earplugs fail completely while taking them in and out during breaks. They're also small and cheap enough that I can give them out to guests or shooters who need extra hearing protection without wasting a lot of room in my bag. Beyond that, I also stash sunscreen and work gloves in side pockets. Sunscreen isn't only for protecting yourself from burns - including during winter - it can also be an element of protecting yourself from heat exhaustion and its big brother, heat stroke. Work gloves don't take up a lot of room and can prevent a lot of scrapes and splinters when helping set up or break down a match. Even, and sometimes especially, the "light" tasks like painting steel, collecting targets for the dumpster, or corralling the stakes used to hold down temporary walls can benefit from having a sturdy set of gloves. I picked a pair that fit well enough that I also can shoot in them in a pinch if I've been surprised by the cold. One final thing that's important and that I'm working on being better at bringing to the range with me: waterless hand cleaners. In addition to lowering lead exposure, wet wipes (whether of the deleading variety or not) can be refreshing on a hot day and a heavy duty gel/cream cleaner can be more effective than regular alcohol-free sanitizers when you've gotten especially grimy during set-up/re-set/tear-down (sticky paint on steel targets, I'm looking at you!).

You'll notice I haven't mentioned things like pens/markers, notepads, shot timers, mag loaders, knives, tools, spare parts, membership cards, and the litany of other things that crowd range bags. To me, most of those are relatively obvious or are things I can live without for one trip to the range (except when I forget the right magazines to go with the guns I actually brought with me...), but the items I've concentrated on in this post are a necessary part of my kit every time I head out to a match or class or even just a day of plinking.

26 September 2012

Behind the Scenes: Contagion 2012

I spent last week in the middle of final preparations for Contagion, a zombie-themed 3-gun event that I've helped staff for three years now. While most of our nearly 150 participants only see what happens on match day, there's a lot that goes into making the day enjoyable for everyone. For this particular shoot, core staff members work nearly year-round to put on each year's event, which is part new shooter day, part competition, and part costume party.

Contagion is a somewhat unusual event in that new shooters are not only accepted, but specially welcomed. While almost all shooting events and competitions are reasonably friendly to newcomers, few are targeted especially to less experienced shooters and fewer still are as "come as you are" with respect to gear. At the same time, we work hard to keep the course of fire interesting and challenging to regular competitors. More so than the other matches I'm involved in, our guests come with a wide range of ability and equipment and with them, a "wildcat rules" system that is specific to our event. This requires an immense amount of planning in course of fire design and match logistics to ensure a safe and fun day for both participants and staff. Individual stages are conceptualized up to nine months in advance to allow for time to refine what we will ask of each competitor and to buy or build necessary props. This year, our team put together everything from custom cut steel targets to miniature wooden staircases. In a nod to our zombie backdrop, a significant amount of art was also created for atmosphere, particularly for my Alice in Wonderland-inspired stage. For example, each of the playing cards presented as targets were set in large paintings of the Playing Card characters.

Stages may continue to be adjusted right up through the end of staff shoot, less than 24 hours before our guests arrive. Shifting targets or shooting positions aren't the only finishing touches to be put on a major shooting event, though. All of the other logistics you might imagine for a large gathering of people also must be arranged in parallel with the stage design efforts. Everything from making sure food and drinks are available to having extra porta-potties on site is important, as well as more match-specific considerations like putting together participant swag and prize bags and arranging for medics to be available for injuries from dehydration (common!) to the unthinkable gunshot trauma (thankfully extraordinarily rare!).

On the day of the event, most of our shooters primarily spend their time with the safety officers running each stage. However, they aren't the only people responsible for making the match run smoothly. The safety officers are supported by staff members who run food, water and other supplies so that the safety officers can concentrate only on running their stages safely and consistently. Stage staff and shooters are also supported by a dedicated administrative staff for smoothly-run registration and scoring, as well as senior range staff providing event-wide oversight and, if necessary, troubleshooting to make the day as seamless as possible to guests.

So next time you make it out to a match, thank the staff. They've put in more hours than just what you see on match day.

13 September 2012

Don't Fear the Gear

When I first started competing, I often looked a little sideways at all of the fancy guns people brought and the complicated-looking gear shooters strapped on to their guns and themselves. Why would anyone need all of that "stuff"? Did better toys make for better shooters?

Not directly. You can't buy your way to being an expert marksman because your physical and mental technique underlies your success as a shooter, no matter what gun is in your hands. However, having the right gear can help in a couple of ways.

First, it can be more forgiving of mistakes. When I started shooting IDPA, I used my Sig P226 DAK with a 6.5/8 pound trigger (and I do use the short reset, so I spend a lot of time with that 8lb trigger). The results weren't pretty. Not only was the gun too big for my hands, making certain manipulations suffer, the long and heavy trigger amplified the many beginner mistakes I was making under the stress of the timer and the movement. After watching my frustration mount because I was having trouble even hitting targets, I was switched to a Smith & Wesson M&P 9L with an Apex Hard Sear. My improvement was almost instant. Not only did the dreaded Failure to Neutralize disappear almost overnight from my score sheets, my times dropped at the same time. I didn't suddenly become a better shooter, but my new gun was simply nicer about problems like my tendency to drop shots under stress with a big gun and heavy trigger. And not having to fight that particular battle helped give me enough positive feedback to keep going back for more matches.

The right gear can also help set you up for more successes even when you aren't battling your own problems. You can be nailing your technique, but picking up that drop-and-offset holster and those fancy mag pouches could shave a precious tenths of seconds off your draw and reload because the draw stroke requires a few less contortions and you aren't inadvertently grabbing an extra magazine. Shelling out for the PMAGs might save you from having to clear an extra malfunction or two when you're using a rifle magazine as a monopod for a long shot. Buying a quality optic and pairing it with a solid mount will help prevent your groups from suffering because you can't clearly see your target or because your zero is wandering. You can do everything right but if your gear fails you, you'll still be at square one. And at the end of the day, not having to fight your gear can make a day on the range far more enjoyable and allow you to concentrate on really making sure you're doing your part instead of getting your gear to work for you.

Oh, and my Sig? I installed the E2 grip kit and expect to be bringing it back out for matches soon. Don't fear the gear that wasn't right for you in an earlier life either.

06 September 2012

Like a Dancer

Gracefulness on the range isn't a function of one's natural ability to move beautifully. Which is fortunate since I'm a woman who has been known to trip over perfectly flat floors and walk into large, unmovable objects. However, over time, I've been able to integrate movement with my shooting and look pretty doing it because it's a skill that can be learned.

When you shoot an action sport, you will often either have to shoot while you are moving, or move between shooting positions. Shooting on the move requires two things: solid fundamentals and practice. If you cannot consistently make your hits when standing still, it's unlikely that you will be able to do so while your feet are going. Work on that first, then start adding movement. There are a lot of techniques to improve accuracy while you aren't on a stable platform. I encourage you to try each one you are exposed to, then try them again. What works for you with pistol might not work when you're shooting a rifle, and what works for you today might not be the best option for you in six months. Once you've found something that seems to get decent results, work at it because shooting on the move can only be improved by shooting on the move. Most shooting on the move "tricks" are intended to make movement as smooth as possible, which is why the particular one you choose doesn't matter so much as nailing down the technique that makes you move most smoothly. Jerkiness at the feet translates almost directly into jerkiness at the sights and inconsistent groups.

Moving between shooting positions does rely quite a bit on your physical abilities but no matter what your physical limitations, you can still benefit from working on moving as efficiently as possible. And don't forget the finer movements inherent in shooting like drawing a pistol, racking slides or bolts, or loading ammunition into a firearm. Efficiency matters with that type of movement too, and the key there is to find a consistent and repeatable way to perform every action. While a specific way of locking back a slide/bolt may feel awkward at first, with practice you will find the specific movements that work for you every time and they will feel more and more normal. Much of the grace you see in top shooters comes from the fact that they don't waste time and energy with extraneous movement. Instead, they pick the shortest line between two points and the most natural movements to reach for and manipulate their gear. Focus on finding those efficiencies and your shooting will also become more graceful.

Don't believe me? Use one of the favorite tools of the moment and have someone take video of you shooting a few stages, then do it again in a few months or next year after you've worked on making your movements smoother and more efficient. Watching yourself from a third person point of view will help you evaluate yourself more neutrally, instead of relying on your memories of every little bobble and stumble. And as you shoot prettier, you'll find as I did that learning to move gracefully on the range is also learning to shave wasted time off your scores.

28 August 2012

Shoot Your Own Match

A few weeks ago, I helped talk someone into shooting her first match. She had come just to watch her friends, but we all thought that as long as she had made the drive with them, she might as well get to put a few rounds downrange. I always have a few areas of advice I like to share with new competitors, but as the match staff, her friends, and the other shooters worked with her all day, I learned a few new things to add to the arsenal of new competitor advice.

A lot of people seem to want to "get good enough" before going out to shoot a match. I firmly believe that with a friendly, well-run club match, anyone with a decent grasp of gun operation mechanics and safety principles is "ready" to try out competitive shooting. While there are certainly matches that as a technical matter may be frustratingly difficult for a beginner, most, if not all, club-level matches are intended to be accessible to new shooters. This doesn't mean that you'll show up to your first match and win/place/show, and in fact, you might be like me and come in so far behind the pack that you wonder if you even shot the same course of fire. But it does mean that you should be able to finish out, or make a strong attempt at finishing out, the tasks set out for you. And if you can't on your first try - you'll probably get there soon after, since now you know what a course of fire looks like in a way you likely can't set up and practice during your private practice sessions. Shooting 3, 4, 500 yards with my carbine isn't nearly so scary now that I've had a match director force me to do it against the clock.

An important part of letting go the idea that you need to be "good enough" to shoot a match is to understand that you must shoot your own match, to meet your own goals. Winning is fun. I don't know anybody - least of all myself - who doesn't like to win. But sometimes, winning isn't most productively measured against other peoples' performance. Instead of racing the clock to beat an experienced, talented shooter for high overall at your first match, find your own standards to push. It might be something as simple as shooting a "clean" IDPA match with no procedurals, no failures to neutralize, no hits on non-threats. It might be as competitive as beating your training buddy in the match or even just on a single stage. I've had matches where my sole aim was to finish every stage. The key is to choose competitive goals that are reasonable in the context of what you want to do with your shooting overall and what you are capable of. Don't pick something you can do too easily, but don't afraid to reach and fail. Whatever you pick, make sure it is for you.

Then when you get out on the range for that match, take control of your shooting experience so that you are shooting towards your goal. Focus on those as you move through each stage or exercise, and don't be afraid to assert yourself with match staff so that you can concentrate on what you need to. If a safety/range officer asks if you're ready to begin, it's okay to say no. Just because a timer is running, you don't have to speed up. Getting 15 rounds to meet an objective doesn't mean you have to shoot all of them even if you stop before you achieve the stage objective. There's no reason to be a prima donna, but there's every reason to politely ask for the assistance you need and to slow down or stop if you need to to be comfortable and safe. As you do so more, you'll find that match staff and fellow shooters are generally happy to help you out or back off if that's what you need instead. If you're not finding that at a particular match, rest assured that there are many others out there where you can find a place.

Finally, celebrate your achievements, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant! I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that I am proud of a "win" that was merely staying safe while being clumsy and tripping over myself with a loaded gun in hand. This week, I've been really enjoying my success with a single stage with a single target at my last carbine match.  I can't tell you much else about how I did on that early course of fire or in the rest of that carbine match, but those little wins are worth remembering as much as some of my high overall match finishes.

And don't forget that the end of the day, showing up and shooting still puts you ahead of people who never even try. You might even find that as you continue to show up, you'll be able to do so much more than you ever thought possible.

22 August 2012

Friending Your Gun

When I'm on the range, one of the things I assess when evaluating a new-to-me shooter is her relationship with her gun. I'm not talking about whether the gun has a cute name or a fancy paint job, or if it travels gently cocooned in an expensive case. Instead, I look for the shooter's comfort level with basic gun operation: does she hold the gun naturally and not like she's afraid of it? Can she load and unload the gun without awkwardness? Does she know how to rack the slide, work the bolt, (dis)engage the safety, and otherwise use the controls on the gun with confidence? Or, as one of my instructors phrases it, does she have instinctive gun handling skills?

Notice that speed isn't on the list. That's because I'm more interested in knowing if a shooter is comfortable enough with her gun that her attention isn't taken up by the manual of arms. Seeing that kind of proficiency helps give me assurance that a shooter won't be so distracted by fumbling with a reload or clearing a malfunction that she'll forget to be safe. Notice too that I'm not testing shooters on their ability to speed field strip a gun (blindfolded, behind their backs - neat party trick though) or to explain how every spring and lever in the gun interact. While learning those mechanics over time can be useful when delving ever further into the shooting world, they probably won't be a factor on the range under most circumstances.

More importantly for a shooter, instinctive gun handling is one of the set of skills that, once internalized, gives her the freedom to concentrate on other aspects of shooting, whether it's running through a fast and furious action pistol stage or intensely focusing on putting the perfect group of all X-hits through a long-range rifle target. Having those instinctive gun handling skills are an important part of meeting your goals as a shooter because those skills allow you to improve the end result of pulling a trigger as you focus on the shooting itself instead of getting hung up by the tool in your hands.  Like driving a car, navigating slick roads isn't quite so hard if you don't have to think about how to shift gears or turn on your windshield wipers.

It doesn't hurt that being clearly competent with your gun makes you look like a beautiful, bad-ass shooter too.

20 August 2012

Moving Beyond the Three (or Four) Rules

Safety is the mantra on every range, for every kind of shooting event. Whether you subscribe to the three NRA rules or the four Cooper rules, these rules are the foundation of everything we do behind a gun. Simply being able to recite them isn't enough, though. We need to be able to understand, internalize and integrate the rules into our instinctive handling of firearms. Part of the grace and beauty of an experienced shooter is that safety is a natural part of every movement they make around a gun.

It's the bone-deep understanding of where the muzzle is pointed at all times, no matter how the body is positioned or where it's moving. It's always knowing where your trigger finger is and what it's doing so that you never fire except with intention. It's the comfort to keep that muzzle in a safe direction even if it means shifting to a one-handed pistol grip around a tight corner or subconsciously shifting a slung rifle a few inches when someone else joins a conversation between relays. It's training your body to default to indexing a gun, any gun (even a hot glue gun) unless you are ready to shoot. It's the unbreakable habit of controlling the muzzle even when taking a tumble or having hot brass leave blistering burns.

And it all starts very simply - with knowing the rules as something more than a chant to be parroted before a range session or match. Spend some time thinking about what it is the rules boil down to, then practice them not only on the range but off. Pick up that hair dryer with your finger indexed. Air gun while you dance down the hallway of your home, keeping your air muzzle pointed in your designated safe direction. Spend some of your safe dry fire time making a point of always picking up your gun with your trigger finger indexed and experimenting with how you can move while keeping your gun pointed safely. As safe handling becomes more and more natural to you, you'll find that you too will start to look like that experienced shooter you've been admiring at the range.

19 August 2012

The Beauty Behind the Blast

While we are all looking for better results downrange, good marksmanship starts behind the muzzle. When a shooter can demonstrate the right technique, the higher scores follow - whether that's tighter groups, faster follow-ups, longer ranges, or any other measure of shooting success. And I find that looking beautiful can be a step in getting there.

I think of it like my first day at my first "grown up" job. I wore a shiny new suit, moved into my shiny new office, and nearly had a panic attack when I realized I would be expected to advise people twice my age how to run their businesses. I had all the right training and all the right pieces of paper, but I still had a severe case of impostor syndrome and wondered why anybody would listen to a young woman who still looked like a teenager on weekends. As the weeks passed though, I kept wearing my shiny suits and I kept reminding myself to say "This is what to do" instead of "I think maybe you should"...and one day, I found that while I was pretending to be a Serious Professional, I had actually become one. 

Looking beautiful on the range isn't about wearing the cute-butt pants and having a good hair day. It's about confidence and competence. It's about knowing how your gear runs, knowing what you need to do to make that next shot, and knowing that you can get where you want to be.  And when you can do that - even if you have to pretend at first - the successes on the range will follow. And that's beautiful.