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”
2A: Shotgun Importation Ban and its impact on Practical Shooting
With the May 1st deadline looming, I decided to send in an email to the BATFE’s working group for the pending ban of certain shotguns. You can do likewise by sending your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what I wrote:
I am writing to express my deep concern regarding the current shotgun importation ban now under consideration. I am a member of the United States Practical Shooting Association and I use shotguns for competition that are designed with many of the 10 features that are being considered as criteria for banning a shotgun from importation. Telescoping stocks, pistol grips, extended magazines, compensators and additional mounting rails are critically important in our sport. To say these guns serve no sporting purpose is to deny practical shooting as a sport in general. This may be convenient for your current purposes but it is wrong. The working group cannot use potential repercussions as a reason for denying facts. Namely that practical shotgun shooting is a highly popular sport thereby making many of the shotgun features under consideration “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” Continue reading “2A: Shotgun Importation Ban and its impact on Practical Shooting”
USPSA: 9mm bullets for Production – what weight?
A friend recently mentioned that he had tried out some “sub-sonic 9mm ammo” that was supposed to be good for use in USPSA Production class shooting. He asked me what I thought, which resulted in the following response.
Before I comment on subsonic ammo, a few words are in order:
As a competitive shooter, one of the key reasons for reloading is to work up a tuned round specifically to work with one’s tuned pistol to produce shots with little felt recoil that still achieve minimum power factor for the division one is shooting. In our case (Production division) everyone is scored Minor Power Factor (MinorPF), so there’s no advantage to loading higher than that. Minimum MinorPF is 125. This is Mass (bullet weight in grains) times velocity divided by 1000. So, if you are shooting 115gr bullets at 1100 feet-per-second that equals a PF of 126.5, or just over the minimum for Minor. Most factory ammo is hotter than this, which results in a higher PF but also much greater felt recoil. Shooters desiring less recoil and more control can achieve this by trading velocity for bullet weight. Continue reading “USPSA: 9mm bullets for Production – what weight?”
USPSA Pistol Shooting: Managing the Mag Release
The modern semi-automatic pistol uses a single or double-stack magazine held in place by a catch. To remove the magazine requires pressing a magazine release button which disengages the catch and allows the magazine to fall free. Pistols normally have this button located on the left side of the grip frame, just aft of the bottom of the trigger guard. For many right-handed shooters this is perfectly functional, allowing the right thumb to shift slightly to press the mag release but not so easy that the mag is dropped inadvertently.
Unfortunately there are quite a few people that can’t easily reach the mag release so they have to pivot the pistol counter-clockwise about 45 degrees to allow the thumb to reach. For those of us in USPSA, this can be a real problem, especially when moving or turning to the left. The trouble relates to that all-important safety rule: the 180. At no time is the muzzle of a shooter’s pistol allowed to break the 180-degree plane that separates up-range from down-range. When shooting my SR9, the sticky mag release (even after it was massaged it was still really stiff) would often require that I pivot the gun even further t0 get a good, solid punch with my thumb. I had a few very close calls at matches that made me change how I held the pistol during mag changes: I had to hold the pistol to my right, well offline so that even with the pivot it was well short of breaking the 180.
I’ve heard arguments from 1911 shooters that this is just a part of life and that everyone should be able to flip the gun to reach the mag release then flip it back to shoot. They claim that this is actually a safety feature to avoid accidentally dropping the mag. Well, I rather doubt that John Moses Browning intended for his large-handed brethren to be able to operate the pistol easily while the rest of us were kept safe from ourselves by not being able to reach the release. No, in fact I think that he simply designed the gun as best he could to work well for most of his intended customers.
When I recently switched from the SR9 to the M&P9 I found that while the mag release was vastly superior to that of the SR9, it was still really tough to insure that I could reach it every single time, even with the smallest “palm swell” insert on the backstrap. There were some memorable miscues where I just couldn’t make it happen. This got me thinking…
This past summer (2010) I had a chance to shoot Bill’s Sig 226 for a week. He had the mag release switched to the right side since he is a lefty. After some fiddling around, I determined that using the middle finger of my right hand to punch the mag release worked really well. It allowed my trigger finger to index high along the slide, where it naturally tends to go, and required no pivoting of the pistol at all. Maybe this would work for the M&P.
I looked over the manual and switching the mag release from left to right (and vice-versa) was incredibly easy, requiring only a small punch, screwdriver, or even a knife blade. I made the change and haven’t looked back. I can’t believe how easy it is to drop the mags this way! The M&P has a raised, stippled button, which really helps but having it on the right side is clearly better for me and I have never accidentally dropped a mag after about 5k rounds. Not only that but my mag changes are noticeably quicker.
So, if you have small hands this might be a good solution. And if you have an M&P, you can try it both ways during your next visit to the range and see for yourself.
Now, where’s that Brownells catalog? I need to order a Lefty mag release for my 1911!
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?
S&W M&P 9 – Part VII: Update
Well, it’s been a couple of months now with the M&P9. Let’s review where we are so far:
- Apex Tactical “Competition Action Enhancement Kit”
- Dawson sights (fiber 1.25 red front/ black serrated wide rear)
- Black Diamond grip tape
- stainless guide rod
- ISMI 13lb spring
- Polished the bearing surfaces on the trigger bar, striker block plunger and the sear.
That’s everything that’s been done to the pistol other than shoot it and clean it. As you may recall in Part VI, I didn’t have a great experience at my first match with this setup but this past weekend saw much improvement.
Since the September match I have put about 2.5k rounds through the gun. As you can see in the videos of the match the true character of this pistol is being revealed. I came in 2nd in production, winning the longest stage of the match outright. Additionally GMPS calculates combined scores across all divisions, which isn’t valid as far as USPSA is concerned but it’s a nice set of data to compare overall placement. Even with minor PF and 10-round mags, I was 6th overall. This is the best I’ve shot at a GMPS match by a good margin. The biggest change was in my accuracy. If you watch the Part IV video my run was under 40 seconds, due in large part to the fact that I cleared the Texas Star in six shots (one miss). Granted it wasn’t far away but it did have two no-shoot poppers sitting at the 5 and 7 o’clock positions, which made it pretty difficult. Also my A-hit ratio for the match was my highest ever.
During the course of the match I had one failure to feed after a mag change but I couldn’t tell what happened and you can’t see in the video. That was almost certainly not the fault of the pistol so I have to give it a perfect score on that account.
So this is much more the kind of result I expected from this platform. I think it will only get better. Hats off to the fine folks at Smith & Wesson for producing this outstanding pistol. Thanks also to Dawson Precision for those great sights and of course, thanks to Apex Tactical for the action kit which makes this easily the best competition pistol I’ve ever shot by a wide margin.
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.
CED 7000: Shot Timer Supreme
Practical shooting is judged on accuracy, power and speed so correctly capturing the speed of a shooter is critical. There are many manufacturers of timing devices for our sport but one company stands out: Competitive Edge Dynamics. Their CED7000 timer has a ton of features that make it an outstanding choice for use in practice and at matches.
Shot timers perform two primary functions: producing a starting signal and recording the times of a competitor’s shots precisely. The CED7000 has a very loud starting signal but can be adjusted if necessary. It also has a back-lit LCD display that is easy to read and has tons of information on it that is useful, like time of day, battery life and of course the shot number, total time and current split time. You can hold up to 10 strings with unlimited shots per string. This is really handy since you don’t necessarily have to report a first string to the scoring RO before shooting the second string. Reviewing the string can be done easily in either direction, making a detailed time assessment of a run very easy.
Along with the basics, you can also set par times, fixed/random delay or instant start times and the unit can perform in stealth mode for timing other shooters silently. It can also be used as a standard stop watch for those times you may want to check range equipment or any other non-shooting event.
The CED7000 uses a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery that can run for 20-30 hours of practice or match duty. I find that I charge mine about once a month. Given the tiny size of the unit, the loud signal, bright display and low weight (2.9 oz.) this is amazing run-time. The charger is a small “wall-wart” type that is also small and light, making it easy to keep right in the range bag.
The model I bought is the CED7000T, or “tactical”, which is all black. I thought the standard model with all those chrome buttons was just a little too shiny for me. If is functionally identical otherwise.
There are a number of accessories for this timer to make it more useful, like silicone “skins” that protect the device from damage, belt holsters, wrist holsters, storage bags and even an RF module that allows the timer to communicate with a remote “big board” display so that everyone on the line can see the times.
I normally wear the unit on a lanyard around my neck. It is included with the timer, along with a second wrist-sized lanyard. I find it is so small and light that it is unnoticeable, except on rare occasions that involve running hard or very abrupt/awkward transitions during a stage.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the timer even has an automatic power-down feature that saves the battery if you forget to turn it off. This is perfect for me since I often forget.
Given the small size, light weight, terrific battery life and excellent feature set, I find this to be the perfect shot timer for my needs.
S&W M&P 9 – Part VI: bottom line (sort-of)
After all the time, money and work spent on this project I was very anxious to get to the range with this tricked out pistol. This past weekend the Upper Valley Practical Shooters (UVPS) met per usual on Saturday morning to set up a practice stage and run through it several times. I asked if I could shoot the gun into the berm just as a function check and everyone was OK with that. I loaded one round and fired it without any trouble. I then put a 10-rounder in and blasted about a half-dozen rounds faster than I’ve ever done before. This was going to be fun.
I went first through the stage, which was a bunch of poppers and 1-shot paper targets, then transition to Box B and repeat. Plenty of hard cover on the paper too. We went through the stage five times each and I did OK, but nothing unusual. Once the usual suspects left Neil and I stayed to shoot some paper targets with the usual 2-shots-per-target routine. It was then that I noticed something disturbing: most of my shots were quite low but usually in line vertically with the target center. I then tried some aimed slow fire to confirm zero and was relieved to see that my groups were spot-on. So, what was happening? I can’t say with certainty but I suspect it is just that the cumulative changes will take time to get used to. I then went on to spend a good deal of time trying to gauge the reset. This was harder than it sounds, especially in the heat of running a stage. This will take some time too.
I went home puzzled but truthfully, between the action job and the sights this was a completely different gun. Not to mention that I only had the gun a week in total by this time. That’s a lot of change to assimilate. So, what to do next? Shoot a match!
Green Mountain Practical Shooters (GMPS) is another group to which I belong. We hold monthly matches in Morrisville, Vermont and yesterday was the scheduled monthly match. Bill and I headed up early in the morning.
I would love to tell you that I had the best match of my life but that isn’t what happened. I shot worse than usual, with a fair number A hits followed by C or D hits low. This is similar to what I noticed Saturday. I just don’t have the muscle memory in place yet for this radically different trigger. Now, there were other factors that should be mentioned. This match was the first multi-gun optional match ever held at GMPS which meant that I was shooting pistol on stages meant for rifles in many cases. Had these stages been more traditional I would certainly have done better, but even on the more normal sections I had trouble.
The other big thing to mention is that for some reason I decided to wear contact lenses instead of my usual glasses. This was just foolish. My extreme Myopia renders soft contact lenses only moderately effective at close ranges, like say the distance to the front sight of my pistol. My sight picture for the day consisted of a fuzzy red blob that sometimes appeared out of the darkness of my rear sight. Yep, not my best MENSA moment.
The last thing I’ll mention is that the match was delayed an hour starting and was only about 2/3 complete when we had to leave at almost 4 pm. Sure, it shouldn’t matter but the frustration of sitting around waiting all that time was certainly a factor.
Am I being a cry-baby? Probably, but this is shared in the interest of full disclosure. The bottom line is that this was far from an ideal match at which to try out a radically different gun from what I was used to shooting. I already knew from practice that I would need a ton of trigger time to dial in this new system but on the other hand I wasn’t going to miss the fun of a match just because I had a new platform.
So, where does that leave us? Well, there’s little doubt in my mind that with several thousand more rounds down range I will acclimate to this system and I will be better for it. The platform is everything I could ask for so now the rest is up to me. I will post a follow-up in Part VII after a few weeks so stay tuned.
Wish me luck!
S&W M&P 9 – Part V: Light at the end of the…barrel
With the trigger squared away it was time to install the new sights. My Dawson Precision sights arrived and I quickly got to work. I put the slide in a vise with some 3/4 pine blocks as buffers and got down to business.
As you may recall, the Apex kit required the rear sight be removed so taking that off was easy. The inclusion of the nylon sight tool is really nice (thanks Apex!) because it keeps the striker plunger and spring from launching into the void when you remove the sight itself. Randy’s videos show clearly how to use the tool.
One really critical thing to mention is that the dovetails on the M&P are tapered. So when you drift out the sights you must do it from left to right as you look at the slide from the rear.
Once the rear sight was out it was time to insert the Dawson unit which is a standard DP rear sight (black, serrated). Given that dovetails vary from slide to slide (manufacturing variances, wear from previous sight installations, etc.) Dawson ships them all somewhat over-sized. I have found that fitting them is not really difficult provided you use some decent needle files and plenty of patience. I started the new rear sight into the dovetail (right to left of course) and when it was clearly not going any further (moderate taps with a tack hammer) I backed it out and examined the contact points. I could then clearly see the gouges in the sight base. I then began removing material until the gouges disappeared. I repeated this step several times, advancing further into the dovetail each time. Once the sight reached the halfway point I simply drifted it all the way in. The rear sights have a set screw so even though it isn’t critical to have the tightest fit possible, that’s what I wanted. I put the rear dead-center.
The front sight that matches the DP serrated rear is .180 tall and it comes with a nice aluminum drift punch to be used for installing the new sight mar-free. Without thinking, I started trying to remove the factory sight with this soft metal tool. The results were predictable: the sight didn’t move and the tool deformed. My late father always reminded me that nothing worked better at freeing stuck parts than penetrating oil and vibration. I’ve proven him right hundreds of times so I put some lube on the sight and spent several minutes tapping on and around the sight itself. I used a steel punch and a small hammer to try and drift it out but had no luck. I then found many references to how difficult these sights are to remove so I escalated the hostilities. Eventually I was using a large punch and a framing hammer and hitting it hard enough to make things fall over on the workbench! Still no luck. I did read several places that the best way to remove this sight was with a sight puller. I suppose this is some sort of press-like device which even then doesn’t always work.
At this point (this was later the same night after my Apex kit installation saga) I was done being subtle. Out came the Dremel with a new cutoff wheel and five minutes later the sight lay in two neat pieces on my bench without a mark on the slide. This is not for the faint of heart but with patience and resting your hand on the vise it really isn’t that difficult. I knew that sight would never go on a gun again so it was really pointless to keep pounding on the darned thing and/or waiting overnight to let the oil work its magic.
I repeated the preparation process from the rear sight but this time I had to be very careful since the front sight has no set screw. Dawson has an excellent suggestion: once the sight is able to be easily tapped 1/3 of the way into the dovetail, go ahead and drive it home from there. I used the aluminum drift that came with the kit to get it dead center and that was that.
It is noteworthy that Dawson recommends regular lube of their sights. The language they use is interesting because they mention that their sights “…require regular oiling to protect against rust, just like you would your firearm.” Ironically the M&P slide is coated stainless so it actually does not require lube for rust prevention. I bring this all up because for me it would in fact be easy to forget about this and one day find a bunch of rust on the sights. So let’s keep them protected with the occasional shot of Remoil, CLP or whatever you like.
So with the action job and new sights it was time to do some shooting. Next up in Part VI: practice and first match with the M&P9!