Competition Footwear: What Works for Me in 2014

Adidas Corner Blitz 1
Adidas Corner Blitz

An often-neglected consideration for practical shooting is the choice of footwear. Two key events have shaped my decisions in this area. First, in my early days of USPSA we had a practice during mud season that involved the need to retreat from one shooting box to another. I was wearing hiking boots that had moderate tread but were somewhat worn. The result was that on planting my pivot foot it went right out from under me. I fell ungraciously, rolled and wound up pointing the gun all over the sky, undoubtedly past the 180 plane. My solution¬†ultimately was to wear football cleats. Continue reading “Competition Footwear: What Works for Me in 2014”

SureFire Shot Timer: Excellent Free Training Tool

Prior to purchasing a dedicated shot timer I took a look around the Apple app store and found Surefire’s shot timer application, called simply “Shot Timer”. It was and is still free and is arguably more polished than many commercial applications. The basic functions of generating a starting sound and timing subsequent shots is done nicely. The only problems I have ever encountered were 1) the starting beep isn’t terribly loud (tough if you don’t have amplified earmuffs) and 2) the sensitivity adjustments are a little challenging. Once dialed in the system works quite well. The trick seems to be to find the precise spot where your shots are detected but spurious signals are ignored. For example, I have noticed that when sensitivity is slightly low, not all shots are detected. Likewise, when too high it Continue reading “SureFire Shot Timer: Excellent Free Training Tool”

USPSA Pistol Shooting: How’s My Grip?

I have benefited greatly by watching Todd Jarret’s Youtube video on pistol shooting tips. I think his explanation of the placement of the pistol within the strong hand and the grip of the weak hand is outstanding. I have followed the guidance regarding the use of the pad of the trigger finger, the alignment of the pistol and the forearm and the 360-degree grip contact for a long time. Interestingly enough, after watching the videos of my shooting at the last match I realized I was missing a key point he makes: the placement and direction of the weak-hand thumb.

I have apparently been letting my weak-hand thumb come to rest along the left side of the slide in a near vertical position. With the black slide on my M&P, this really stands out in the videos (as opposed to the stainless slide of my SR9). This past week I have begun to really look at this issue. If you notice towards the end of the video Todd shows the student how you can check your grip by looking down at the top of the slide and checking to insure that both the trigger finger and the weak-side thumb are the same distance from the front of the slide. This of course is done while the trigger finger is resting along the right side of the slide.

In order for me to get the weak thumb in this orientation I have had to rotate my weak hand forward significantly. While this may sound like a simple, perhaps insignificant change, it has created a very different feel to my pistol shooting. It is very awkward at this point but I have to say that I can feel more positive control and recoil mitigation with this different grip.

I recently read a blog post by Brad Engmann, a USPSA Grand Master in Production division. Most people know Brad from his appearance on the first season of the History Channel’s Top Shot program. He received a lot of criticism for some of his perceived whining about the Beretta 92FS and its grip angle, compared to the Glock he shoots in Production. As most people know, the producers of these shows are trying to use footage to create drama rather than to show educational information. Emotion tends to sell more than knowledge I guess. Anyway, in his post Brad talks about the long climb to top-level pistol shooting in USPSA. He points out that the road to success is not easy and that each time a new area of our technique is adjusted our performance goes off. This dip is inevitable but must be experienced if we are to improve. If the adjustment is a good one, the change becomes comfortable and the performance dip is followed by better shooting than before.Those of us who can tolerate the discomfort and short-term drop in our shooting can continue to improve and ultimately reach the highest level we can personally achieve.

I think the thing that really makes Practical Shooting so unique is that we are moving at speeds that make the shooting entirely dependent on our training. There simply is no time to contemplate. If my grip adjustment is going to work, I must draw to it hundreds of times during practice at home, dry-firing and just doing draws and mag changes. That lays the foundation for live-fire practice which lets me really feel the new grip in action. Once the technique change has become fully integrated then I can see how it really works. So far I’ve only had a few tweaks that have not worked out. This one I think is destined to stay.

A final note: There really is no substitute for watching video tape of yourself shooting, especially at matches. If you can arrange it, have someone tape you from the strong side on some stages and weak side on the others. This will allow you to see your draw, grip, mag draws, mag insertions, recoil management, general grip geometry, etc. from all possible angles. Try and capture footwork on stages with movement but don’t zoom out unnecessarily. Remember: there’s no real point in having the targets in the picture. Paper hits are invisible and hits on steel can be heard distinctly in the videos. When reviewing stages it is important to have your scores readily viewable also since the best looking run in the world is pointless if you weren’t accurate. We try and get a shot of the score sheet at the end of our practice sessions and match scores are posted on the USPSA site. This way you can compare technique with results.

So, my grip is under construction…again. How’s yours?

USPSA Training: Speed or Accuracy?

USPSA focuses on three factors during competition: Power, Speed and Accuracy. Power meaning the use of Power Factor (PF=mass x velocity/1000) in determining relative point values for given hits, Speed meaning simply the time elapsed while shooting a course of fire and Accuracy meaning hits in the highest point-value areas of targets or simply hitting a steel target on the first shot. I’ve seen comparisons done between IDPA and USPSA and there is a clear distinction: USPSA rewards speed much more than accuracy compared to IDPA. What this translates to is that if you shoot a stage perfectly in USPSA then shoot it with several “C” hits but in 80% of the first run’s time, you will actually have a higher score on the second run. In IDPA the same exact scenario will always result in a lower score on the second run.

I first discovered this facet of USPSA scoring when I began to really push through stages, shooting them as fast as I possibly could. I suddenly found myself having significantly higher hit factors (HF is essentially “points-per-second”) than ever before even though my accuracy was much less than before in general. Not only that but it was incredibly exciting and hugely fun. This then creates a dilemma for many of us: do I train for speed or for accuracy? The simplistic answer is “both”, but in reality which you choose to focus on will likely yield different results, some quite surprising.

As many of you may know I am a licensed ham radio operator, KX1Y. I was licensed originally in 1992 in the days when a Morse Code test was part of the licensing requirement. In the intervening years the Code requirement has been entirely removed but the experience of learning it has had a lasting impression on me. When I first began to study the Dits and Dahs, I did it like most folks did: I listened to tapes and on-air transmissions at a very slow speed. The conventional wisdom was to learn the characters, one-by-one, then gradually speed up the tempo until fast enough to pass the necessary test for a given license level. Novice was 5 words-per-minute (WPM), General was 13wpm and Extra was 20wpm.

As you can see, this is similar to how most of us learn and practice shooting in USPSA. We try to shoot slowly and accurately, then we gradually try to increase the speed and thereby improve our match results.

Some years ago I stumbled onto what is now known as the “Farnsworth Method” for learning Morse Code. The concept is simple: begin by learning individual characters at full speed (20wpm) but with spacing between characters only at 5wpm. This forces the brain to process the characters by pure sound/cadence rather than using a mental “look-up table” to convert dits and dahs into characters. Another system called the “Koch Method” involves starting with only two characters and as proficiency builds, add one character at a time until the set is complete.

Once I realized that I could achieve high scores by focusing primarily on shooting really fast, I remembered the Farnsworth/Koch system and thought it might be applicable here too. It turns out that the experience of making numerous shots on targets at very high speed requires a different set of skills compared to slow, carefully aimed shots. Learning to see the sight picture not as a still frame, but as a flow or a progression rather than a snapshot. This involves a very dynamic set of perceptions and actions required by us as shooters.

As the field of Perceptual Psychology has proven, our visual systems (eyes, optic nerves and visual cortex) are by far the most advanced sensory components of our brains. In fact some in that field consider the eyes more an extension of the cortex rather than as a separate sensory organ. There are tons of studies showing that we take in absolutely enormous volumes of data each instant visually but almost all of it is discarded. What we are left with at the back end is a set of summary data that we further process to use in decision making. I think that for shooting at speed we have to leverage this torrent of data to be able to decide not only when it is time to break the shot but when it will be time. This allows us to set in motion the muscle activity to acquire the target, prepare to break the shot, break the shot, precisely time the reacquisition, break the second shot and begin driving the gun to the next target.

So, how does this relate to the whole Morse Code stuff? Well, the classic dit/dah look-up table is analogous to performing each of the above shooting steps as discrete, sequential actions taken independently. Obviously if each step has to stop before the next one begins this will be slower than if several are happening at once. Hearing the dits/dahs as characters is what psychologists call “chunking”, i.e., allowing multiple elements of meaning to be viewed as a single element. I hear “K” or “L” but if you ask me how many dits or dahs are in each I have to stop and think about it.

Similarly the series of shots taken on one or more targets in an array can be viewed as a single event rather than as a series. This may seem counter-intuitive but it works. In practice, the gun never really stops moving. We roll in on the target and break the shot before coming to a complete stop and then break the second shot while beginning to roll out. It is a continuum of perception, motion and action.

So, how do we put this into practice? It’s not as hard as it sounds. Set up some simple stages and try this for yourself. Just force yourself to shoot as fast as you can, anticipating the sight picture and trusting that your eyes will tell you the truth, even if you don’t consciously see that perfect sight picture for each shot. For many this will be very uncomfortable and may require a great deal of effort to accomplish but you can do it. And you will probably shoot better than you expect. Once the speed is in hand, accuracy will improve steadily as you begin to trust that visual system more and more.

So, is this the “One True Technique”? Certainly not. This method may not work at all for some folks. I don’t see myself as an expert but I have seen good results from this method personally. How it works for you is up to you to discover.