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.