05 May 2016

Things I Learned in Gun School - Advanced Competition Pistol with Op Spec Training

One of the most transformative experiences in my shooting career was taking Practical Fundamentals with Operation Specific Training. I’ve been fortunate to have been part of some really excellent classes over the years, but the lightbulbs that clicked on for me in Practical Fundamentals changed the most basic ways in which I thought about the problem of shooting a pistol well: trigger management. Other classes taught me a lot about how to address the more macro problems in practical shooting and gave me a strong grounding in the sport, but Practical Fundamentals addressed some of the micro problems that were preventing me from advancing no matter how much work I put in.

Recently, I was able to follow Practical Fundamentals up with an Advanced Competition Pistol class taught by Bruce Gray, also through Op Spec Training. Bruce and the Op Spec crew are friends and sponsors of mine, but that wasn’t what led me to take these classes. In fact, it was the other way around. In my pursuit for excellence in marksmanship, I’ve been doing my best to hang around the best and have been fortunate to become friends with many of them.

Advanced classes are always a tricky topic: what makes them "advanced"? I consider being really good at shooting as essentially being able to perform the fundamentals more consistently under more pressure. This class was “advanced”, then, in that it assumed a grasp of fundamental trigger control and instead of spending the time solidifying what great trigger management looks like in isolation, it explored the application of time, distance, and other performance pressures both from a psychological standpoint and a practical perspective.

There is a great deal of sports literature that discusses how the conscious and subconscious mind influences performances. The classic work is With Winning in Mind by Lanny Bassham, an Olympic Gold Medalist in International Rifle. I’m partial to The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, actually recommended to me by Bruce himself. Essentially, the theory is that after a certain amount of training, a person’s subconscious mind is able to perform to a high standard, but that the intrusion of conscious thought and concern gets in the way of that performance.

Many strategies have been put forth on how to train the conscious mind or otherwise encourage it to be less interested in attempting to control physical performance. Some of them are purely cerebral in the sense of beliefs to be internalized. Some are more practical in how they direct specific physical actions or conditions to focus on. We covered both types in Advanced Competition Pistol.

On the mental “brain” game side, we spent quite a bit of time discussing concepts like faith, attention to process, and the tension between being reactive and proactive.

When I’m behind a gun at a match or otherwise ‘when it matters’, I, like many shooters, start doubting my ability to be as good as I want to be. I start literally grabbing at every little thing I think might help me be faster or more accurate and try to make sure right away that I’ve done what I needed to so that I can fix it right then if not. The results are somewhat predictable: I’m slower and less accurate as I try harder and harder.

In class, this problem was identified as a lack of faith: faith that my sight picture and alignment is acceptable, faith that my ability to press a trigger and handle a gun is sufficient…probably about the only faith I don’t completely lack is faith that my gun will perform. Naming a problem is a good start to fixing it, fortunately, and for the particular areas that I doubt the most, rounds downrange is one of best ways to internalize that I am and have enough. I got plenty of both with this class.

While I don’t generally believe that extremely high round count practice is a very productive way to spend time and ammunition, it ended up being useful for me when paired specifically with the concept of solidifying my faith in my shooting skills and some of the physical techniques that can help maintain that faith, like the ones I’ll talk about a little later. After repetitively shooting difficult drills not just successfully, but in a state of mind where I was able to identify imperfections from behind the gun, I now know much more innately that I am enough, that I have enough skill to meet my goals.

My self-images are beginning to merge now, so that what I know about how others see me, with all of my flaws and my potential, the “me” I secretly and not-so-secretly aspire to, and the imperfect but improving individual I see in the mirror are starting to look more and more alike. That’s a direct result of beginning the process of getting more directly on the path of giving my conscious mind faith in the ability of my unconscious competence.

Part of creating that bridge of faith is focusing on process. Instead of trying to directly mash together who I am and who I want to be, keying on to doing the work and really staying on that bridge, rather than looking behind or ahead, is really important. Staying engaged in process is one of the most reliable ways to keep the conscious mind busy without interfering with the subconscious. Therefore, we spent quite a bit of time in class speaking to what the process of shooting really looks like and what fundamental elements to concentrate on.

Another part is to make the shift from shooting reactively to shooting proactively. In other words, instead of acting out of fear, anxiety, or worry (about missing, or otherwise screwing up), and allowing yourself to feel tense or rushed, you take a leap off the cliff of proactivity and attack the shooting problem. It’s a little terrifying in the same way that crowdsurfing or riding a rollercoaster can be, but it’s also exhilarating, fun, even joyful to let go and allow yourself to fly and trust that you will land safely. It’s really hard, especially for us overthinking, analytical, risk-averse types. But oh, it’s so beautiful when you do.

On the more practical, physical side, we worked on visual patience and were led to what Bruce considers the universal answer: prep harder. Range exercises including the bump drill, dot drills, Bill and Triple Bill drills, transition drills, and strings of steel targets.

In Bruce’s paradigm, there are two fundamentals of pistol shooting: trigger control and sight alignment, with trigger being paramount. Other elements of technique like grip and stance are adjuncts to making it possible to perform these fundamentals more consistently and perfectly.

Good trigger control is the ability to press the trigger to the rear without disturbing the sights. Seems simple when put that way, but there is a lot that can get in the way of being able to do so successfully. As I already said, the answer is to “prep harder”, but what does that mean?

The concept of prepping a trigger is to exert ever-increasing pressure on the trigger to the pressure wall, to and through the point it breaks and the shot fires. Ideally, no more pressure is used than the minimum necessary to move through the break, and as a function of recoil after following through completely, the finger releases past the trigger’s reset point then begins to exert that pressure again with the goal of being up against the wall by the time the sights have settled. The bump drill, where the shooter ‘bumps’ against the trigger with repeated presses on the trigger that increase in weight minutely each time until the gun fires, is an important tool to learn this skill.

Prepping harder means continuing to increase pressure on the trigger at the wall, an intensely process-oriented technique that is focused on the preparation to fire the gun rather than the end goal of actually firing. The physical feeling of prepping the trigger is part of what anchors the conscious mind and busies it from distracting from subconscious performance.

For me, continuing to prep and prep and prep is what I need to do in order to avoid the most common flaw in my trigger control, which is mashing at the trigger and trying to make the gun fire as soon as I see what I perceive as a good sight picture. That particular strategy doesn’t work very well because it almost inevitably results in a trigger press that paradoxically disturbs the sights enough to send the bullet away from its intended point of impact. Instead, if I just prep harder as I see what I need to see, and have faith in the process of prepping, then my shot lands where I wanted it to go.

The question then, is how I as the shooter can know that I’ve seen what I need to see and can trust that what I’ve seen is enough – that is, how can I develop visual patience?

The first step is to consider the boundaries of what must be seen and processed in order to successfully shoot the intended target zone. How steady does the sight picture need to be? How well do the sights need to be aligned with each other and with the target?

No human can hold a gun perfectly still. There is always some degree of wobble, but with a good grip and stance, that wobble is relatively small as compared to the size of most targets, even targets we might perceive as “far” or “hard”. Instead of looking for perfection, the shooter must accept the wobble and understand that the singular micro-moment of perfection is a misconception.

Trying to “catch” that moment is a major cause of degraded trigger control. Instead, the shooter needs to have faith (there’s that word again) in the wobble and in the fact that excellent trigger control through the wobble will result in the shot landing at the point of aim. Here again, the answer to the wobble is “prep harder”.

The need to trust the wobble and the ability of the prep to result in the desired shot was illustrated in class by shooting a dot drill with a number of tiny dots shot in sequence from just a few yards away. The dots were small enough that the sights felt like they were wandering on and off them all the time. But prepping harder resulted in holes punching through the dots time after time. The principle is applicable to larger targets further away that appear the same as those tiny dots behind the sights. I didn’t find it extremely difficult to shoot the tiny dots up close, and doing so not long before shooting 30+ yard plates that looked the same helped drive home the fact that if I can shoot small groups up close (and I can!), then I can shoot anything I can see.

The extension of the wobble is the idea of how much a shooter needs to let the sights settle after firing one shot or after moving into position, before firing the next shot. The temptation for me has always been to get another really solid, stable, perfect sight picture again. But if my sights have slowed down enough to be within what I would have considered part of the wobble zone normally, then that should be enough for me to continue prepping the trigger harder and allowing the shot to fire. I don’t need to wait. Shooting Bill drills and other drills that put a lot of shots on a target were used in class to illustrate that if the sights were observed with acceptable alignment and placement, then shots can be fired as fast as the shooter can continue prepping the trigger.

I’ve known from other classes and other drills that the ideal “equal height, equal light” sight alignment is not actually necessary for close-up, wide-open targets so long as there is some definable relationship between the front sight and the rear sight notch. I’ve even known intellectually that “close-up” and “wide-open” are elastic terms with meanings that change between shooters and under different circumstances. What I’ve been struggling with is how to expand my definitions so that I become less concerned with waiting for perfect sight alignment before I fire a shot.

Similarly, I know that my P320 is mechanically capable of shooting ridiculously small groups. Even if my aim is a bit off, the gun’s ability to maintain tight groups means I have quite a bit of forgiveness to still land a shot where I need to on most targets because I can rely on the gun to not throw the shot wild. Combined with the fact that Bruce reminded us of this weekend – that our trained subconscious knows how to put the sights where they need to go on the target – I should trust my body’s ability to know when my sights are in the right place.

This spot is where I need to sidetrack into another area I've been working on for the last few months with Yong Lee: the concept of target focus. Traditionally, marksmanship is taught with a hard visual focus on the front sight of a pistol, leaving the rear sight and the target itself a blur. The theory behind target focus is that the target should be the clearest to the eye while the front and rear sights are blurs to be referenced for alignment and to confirm that the gun is correctly aimed at the target. Among other benefits, I’ve found that target focus has allowed me to accept less perfection in my sights because I’m not trying to make my front sight look perfect.

Part of learning target focus for me has included significant dry fire time practicing getting my gun and sights up to a specific spot on the target. I do so with target focus, and since I have time in dry fire, can confirm by focusing on my front sight to make sure everything is lined up like I’m used to with front sight focus. Through this conscious process, I’ve been able to train my body to put my sights in exactly the right place every time.

By applying the target focus skills I’ve been working so hard in dry fire with the live fire exercises in Advanced Competition Pistol, I was able to make the transition to believing that my subconscious had learned what I was trying to teach it. In drills requiring reloads or transitions between targets, using target focus to observe my targets and my sight-blurs, and deciding to trust my subconscious to know when the blurs were lined up, I was able to shoot lots of Alphas and make lots of hits on steel. Live fire confirms dry fire, but it’s rarely been so dramatic for me.

I return full circle now to the concept of visual patience, the idea of waiting until the sights have given us acceptable feedback before we fire the next shot. The obvious prerequisite is that the shooter has to actually watch the sights. Along with giving attention to the feel of prepping the trigger, proactive engagement in observing the sights keeps the conscious mind from interfering with the subconscious mind that knows how to perform and allows the conscious mind to feed the necessary input into the subconscious mind so that it knows what to perform. It’s important not to try to direct what is seen but rather to simply see what the eyes pick up – a subtle, but vital, distinction that underlies visual patience.

When the subconscious is satisfied with what it observes both visually and by feel, then it will perform so long as there is no interference. Learning how to feed my subconscious and let it do its thing to solve the problem of marksmanship in the midst of increasingly complicated tasks, like 18-round, multiple target drills with reloads or ever-changing small steel stages (each with targets past 30 yards), and with the pressure of other students on the line at the same time or watching you…that’s what Advanced Competition Pistol brought me.