Why can’t I shoot better ?

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • Why can’t I shoot better?
  • B-I-L speaks
  • Plateaus
  • What could make me advance?
  • Better equipment?
  • The end

This is a question I am asked from time to time. Why can’t I shoot better? Recently several readers asked the question and my brother-in-law, Bob, asked it privately. I told everyone I would address this issue, and today is the day.

Why can’t I shoot better?

This is a question that’s not unlike the one we all asked as children, namely ” Why can’t I grow any taller?” Of course today you recognize that you were growing all the time, but the progress was so slow it was impossible to see. Someone, probably your mom, may have marked your height from time to time with a pencil mark on the woodwork of a door frame. As a kid you didn’t think too much about that process, but as time passed you had to admit the marks kept going up.

Now you’re an adult and you’re in the same position with your shooting, only mom can’t help. Your progress isn’t measured by marks on a wall, but by scores in a record book. That’s assuming you keep records. If you don’t keep records you will never be able to see progress. I would guess that most of you asking this question don’t keep records. You remember your scores. The problem with that is your remembery isn’t as good as you think it is. Most of ours isn’t. Either we only remember the best things, like Pollyanna, or we remember the worst — like most of the rest of us.

Until you keep accurate records you will never know if you are getting any better. In fact, keeping records tells you what you must do to get better, as in, “I have shot 514 and 519 out of 600 in the last two matches, but today I shot a 528! If I keep that up, my average is going to increase.”

I can talk to a serious 10-meter pistol competitor and ask how well he shoots and his answer goes like this, “Well, I’m averaging 8.9 points a shot in practice, which is a 534 (600 possible points for a men’s match), but in competition my average drops to 8.7 points (522/600). I need to work on my concentration during the matches.”

If I ask a non-competitor how well he shoots he might say, “I’m pretty good. I keep them all in the black most of the time and I get at least five 10s in every match.” In other words, he hasn’t got a clue how well he shoots.

Now, before I get a lot of comments about how you only shoot for enjoyment and your score is incidental, please remember the title of this report. If you really want to shoot better you have to know how well you shoot now. Otherwise the title would be How to enjoy yourself while shooting. I’m talking to the guys who think there is a cap to how far they can improve as a shooter. I’m telling them there isn’t — at least not a cap they will ever reach.

B-I-L speaks

My brother-in-law, Bob said this about his shooting, “The great golfer, Lee Trevino, as a teenager, used to gamble with other golfers by using a Dr. Pepper glass bottle and broomstick as a “club” and usually won the bet. He was a “natural” and played well no matter what equipment he used.” Bob was lamenting his seeming lack of progress in the field of shooting.

I will admit there are natural talents in every field of endeavor, including shooting. I’ve told you guys how Crystal Ackley outshot a national airgun silhouette champion with his own rifle on American Airgunner in the first season. Viewers never saw it because it was edited out. She also outshot me with a pistol, and I think that did make it to the air (naturally). Guys — I’m pretty good with a pistol. She did it while I was supposed to be teaching her how to shoot! Talk about an ungrateful student!

Seriously, it’s better to have talent for something than to not. But just because you don’t have a lot of talent does not mean you can’t practice until you are very good — even great! I used to “coach” a man who lived several states away in 10-meter pistol. He had a hard time breaking 400 out of 600 when we started. Within a year he was averaging over 500 out of 600, but then things slowed down. It took him another year to get up to a 530 point average. That’s 100 points advancement in the first year and 30 points in the second. What does that mean for his future?

Plateaus

The stopping places along the road to improvement are called plateaus. How long we remain at one depends on many things, but the principal blame always comes back to us. Let me tell you about one of mine to illustrate.

I was competing in national matches run by the NRA many years ago and my average was creeping up steadily. I went from an average 505 points per match when I started to an average 534 points per match in about a year of competition.

I stayed at that average for more than a year. That was my plateau. Then something happened during training. I discovered what the experts mean when they say the front sight is the most important thing in sighting, and I learned how to focus on it. When I got that lesson internalized, my average practice score jumped over 540, with 545 being my all-time high in practice. I was one of those people who do as well in matches as they do in practice, so I looked forward to advancing from the top of the Sharpshooter class (85.0 to 89.99 points out of 100 possible, which is 510 to 539.94 points out of a possible 600) to Expert (90 to 94.99 points out of 100 possible). That 540/600 would have bumped me up to the bottom of the Expert class.

But things in my personal life arose at that time and I stopped competing rather suddenly. So I never made it to the Expert class. But I was about to! In all it took me about three years of shooting to go from novice to that level.

What could make me advance?

This question always arises. Can anything help me advance, when I reach a plateau? Do I have to remain where I am or is there a way to break through? I always thought a better target pistol would have added some points to my score. But I knew there were shooters with pistols even cruder than mine who were out-shooting me. So in reality, the pistol was not the problem.

More dry-firing was what pushed me into the next class — or would have, if I had continued to compete. I was spending an hour each day dry-firing at a target. Top competitors spend up to five times that long, from what I have learned. It was during a dry-fire session that I discovered the importance of the front sight.

Better equipment?

Does better equipment really help? Part of what started this discussion among you readers was that whomptydoodle rifle Al Otter shot at the Pyramyd Air Cup a few weeks ago (see it in the Pyramyd Air Cup report Part 1). Several readers asked if Al won the match. No, he didn’t. I shot with Al for several years at the DIFTA field target club in Maryland and we were about equivalent, with him having a slight edge over me. Today I’m sure he is better, not because of his equipment but because of all the shooting he does.

Al and I both shot with another guy who was famous for spending a fortune buying the latest and greatest equipment. At one time I think he owned 5 field target rifles worth over $2,000 each. And that was back in the late ‘90s. He had the best stuff, but his scores were always in the middle of the pack.

Another guy who shot with us only owned one rifle — an HW77K with a 6-power scope. That guy usually placed in the top 3 spots and nearly always won the spring gun honors. Oh, did I mention that he only shot offhand? I have seen him hit 4 for 4 one-inch kill zones at 50 yards — OFFHAND!

The end

You can pursue the latest fads if you want, but don’t expect them to make you a better shooter. I will close with a joke I heard back in the 1960s. A tourist in New York City needed directions to a concert for which he had tickets. So he asked a beatnik who was playing bongos on a subway landing, “Can you please tell me how to get to Carnagie Hall?”

The beatnik responded, “Practice man. Practice.”

43 thoughts on “Why can’t I shoot better ?

  1. BB,

    These are some wonderful words of wisdom, even “remembery”.

    The beatnik had it right. Practice. Practice and study. As you pointed out, we often reach plateaus in everything we do. To move to the next level we need to see what is holding us at this level.

    I personally have been working on shooting sproingers. I have been reading and studying a book about such, “How To Shoot Spring Rifles – The Complete Guide To Improving Accuracy”. It is a well thought out guide on how to shoot sproingers, or anything for that matter. It examines the variables that affect shooting. It also goes into detail concerning the fundamentals of shooting accurately.

    I was on a plateau myself, but practice and study has help to take me to my next level. I am to the point that this past weekend I was hitting a 3/4″ spinner at 25 yards frequently with open sights from an unsupported sitting position. I soon hope to do that from any position. Then I will move on to the uber magnum sproinger with a scope. That will be a challenge in and of itself.



      • Good morning Tom. Beatnik??? Boy are you showing your age!

        I go to the range on a weekly basis shooting my own handloads which use the same primers, weight and brand of powder, and brand and weight of bullet. I try to go for consistency as a starting point. On Tom’s advice, I got rid of the el cheapo 3X9 scope that came with my second-hand rifle and purchased an UTG 4X16 scope which made a world of difference. I also make it a habit to record a digital copy of my target each week with my iPhone which automatically gives it a date stamp. Not perfect but it does give me a baseline record.

        So what are some of the lessons I have learned? Recently, I switched from using a bipod to sandbags at the range to steady my rifle, and I immediately noticed better shot placement. In the field, I would use my backpack in a prone position rather than the bipod which I will leave on the firearm just as a backup if needed to steady my aim.

        I usually bring 30 rounds to a shooting session and found out that the first 10-15 rounds are fairly well placed but as the barrel heats up, the rounds tend to move farther away from my aimpoint. It is almost random so I find it difficult to make a correction. I do let the barrel cool down every 10 rounds but not to the point of being totally cold. My range time on the weekends is limited, so time has to be used most efficiently.

        Lastly, there is the cursed “flyer” that ruins a perfectly wonderful looking paper target with all the holes in or near the bullseye, except the ONE! I do have an excuse in one instance where I was just killing the bullseye with my Marlin .22 Papoose with 20 rounds when on the last shot, a wasp landed on my hand and scared the crap out of me, just as I was pulling the trigger. There went my perfect target with one errant hole! My other “flyers” have no excuse or obvious known reason. Not the equipment’s fault, but most likely due to user error.

        At the end of the day, I still get a lot of pleasure out of going to the range. Of course, my fun continues as I save the empty brass and reload it at a later date. Shoot. Reload. Shoot. Reload. A great hobby.

        Bob


      • BB,
        I have taught archery for more than 60 years, my IPSc number was 511, and the last NRA league I shot I finished with 93 average. Jack of all Trades Master of None. But recently I have done some reading that changed my ideas about natural or innate talent.
        “Mastery” (George Leonard) A great book and might encourage you to read:
        “Peak:Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” (Ericsson and Pool)
        “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” (various authors)
        From the last two the idea of “10,000 hours of Dedicated Practice” The emphasis on Dedicated. They repeatedly shoot down the examples of innate talent (and a repeat reading of “Mastery”and his ideas about the “Hacker”, the “Dabbler”,the “Obsessive” and the “Master” and the Plateau pulls it all together.


  2. B.B.,

    Very nice. This “dovetails” into your “What Is Accuracy?” pretty nicely. Not that it replaces Part II,…. hint, hint 😉

    Yes, records of some sort is vital. At least record date, group size and yardage and pellet type. Then you can trash the target. But, at least you have something. I refer back to them often, and often find myself wishing I had recorded a bit more info., (rest type, mag. level, hold over, hold variations, trigger adjustments, etc., etc.). It is very critical to have records when making adjustments or tuning.

    I have all of my targets from almost 2 years ago. A (plus) 1″ group at 41′ indoors was the norm at the start for the TX200. A few months later, 10 were going into 1 hole no bigger than 3/8″, if not smaller.

    Good points on equipment being a being a limiting factor,. (or not). Of course it does, but there is also broad overlaps depending on the individual. I find myself at the “plateau” with the .25 M-rod. Bench rested and shooting 70 yards, (and trying ALL sorts of other things), over 3,000+ shots,….. 1 1/4″ – 1 1/2″ seems to be what it can do on a regular basis. I will continue to tweak the little things in hopes of doing better,…. but this appears to be a TRUE case of equipment (barrel, regulation, etc.) being the limiting factor.

    I have dubbed those awesome sub-groups as nothing more than,…. “The Luck Of The Landing”.

    Nice article and worth a re-read,……. out today,…. but good day to all,…… Chris


  3. B.B.

    Ross Seyfried, longtime contributer to Gun & Ammo magazine and one of the early top guns of practical pistol competition once wrote about this same topic. If I remember correctly, he said that he never worried about the competitor who showed up to a match having spent an extra $1,500 on their pistol. What concerned him most was the competitor who spent an extra $1,500 on primers.

    – Jim in Wichita


  4. B.B.,

    Good case to make to shoot a paper target so one can actually see where your shots are going, as opposed to purely plinking where close enough for guvmint works well enough.

    As somebody once said no record means it did not happen. That makes the case for a shooter’s logbook.

    Siraniko


  5. B.B.,

    Here’s a natural: Back in the 1950s In Basic Training my father qualified Expert Pistol with a 1911, and it was the very first time in his life he had ever shot a handgun! (He always said he was a terrible shot with a rifle, which he did have experience with.) The fellow who was supervising the range thought my dad had simply freak luck, so he had my dad shoot another target. Once again, a superb group on the bull. My dad had to swear up and down that he was not a target shooter.

    Michael


  6. Practice ,practice ,practice I used to have a personal range. 46 yards from inside my garage tk the yard. I could shoot 25-125 shots a day. Three sessions a day almost every day.after 10,000 rounds I could shoot well. I gained three things from this. First was knowledge. I read all of BBs blogs. So I am not having to learn what is known already. Second I mussle memory. This is important. I would just sit in my basement. In my field target position and hold the TX200. Among at a target and trying to hold on rarget as long as I could. Not firing a shot. Just looking through the scope. (It was winter and cold outside) At first I could not do it at all. The retical would wander all over an go up and down and I would have to just give in and stop. But gradually I began to develope mussel memory. I could


    • I could hold on target and relax. Being on target and staying there while relaxed means I can calmly breath and pull the trigger. It also means I can do it 72 times in a match.

      Next after all that is confidence. Nothing else in shooting can replace confidence. Knowing you can make the shot is a huge advantage over thinking you can’t possibly hit that little spot way out there.


  7. I like to go for a walk-about with my FWB124 and plink at target of opportunity (acorns, pine cones and such) so up to recently my shooting has always been a small targets at random distances.

    Since I have been doing this kind of shooting for over 50 years I am pretty good at it and have had many people ask me to teach them to shoot. In spite of the random nature of my style my shooting training is quite formal…

    After indulging in shooting groups at whatever range the shooter wants (I keep this target as a base-line to show improvement later) I have them bench shoot at targets at very close range (5 yards if possible) until they are able to do one inch groups at that range.

    The whole point is to make grouping the shots easy, build confidence and provide positive experience in relating the sight picture to the POI. At closer ranges, the shooter should be able to “call the shot” and recognize when it has been pulled.

    Then it is back to 10 yards until 5-shot one inch groups are attained. This is continued out to 20 – 25 yards (depending on the equipment and shooter skill). This should be done fro at least one can of pellets.

    There is nothing to be gained by shooting beyond the current skill level except frustration and negative input so keep it relaxed and fun – advance slowly!

    Second can of pellets…
    The second phase is to start at close range again, bench shoot a group without compensating then shoot a second group with the appropriate hold over/under to put the group in the bull. The range is again increased in 5 yard increments as skills improve.

    Third can of pellets…
    The third phase is to start shooting off hand. By now the shooter should be comfortable with the loading/shooting cycle, trigger control, sight picture and trajectory.

    Fourth can of pellets…
    Forth phase is to setup spinners beside the target. Shoot at the target with no compensation; shoot with compensation; hit the spinner. Continue until the spinner can be hit 10 times without a miss. As always, start close and work back to the shooters maximum effective range.

    So 2,000 (or more) pellets later, have the shooter shot a target at the same range as the original target was done and compare the two. There is always a substantial improvement. 🙂

    I followed this pattern with many people and results have been consistently very good to excellent. Interestingly, it is the people who are totally new to shooting that do the best.

    Hope this is of interest.

    Hank


  8. BB

    Love the gal showing off a bit. I used to think I could run faster than anybody til a 10 year old girl left me in the dust.

    You emphasize record keeping. Using google docs anyone can easily keep their golf scores, what swing thoughts were used, etc. Same applies to shooting. Years ago I reloaded everything I shot at the range and still have the written records. Combinations of powder, brass, primers and bullets sometimes had dramatic effect on accuracy. Three years ago I reconnected with air guns and am a hopeless addict. Long retired, I shoot 50-100 pellets everyday at paper targets. I measure all groups which are always 10 shots each except when trying new pellets that wander. Group sizes are measured with calipers and recorded along with details about hold, weather, pellet type, actual head diameter and sometimes actual weight. I shoot at 10 meters competing against myself, one pellet vs another, or one rifle or pistol vs another. The convenience of going no farther than my back yard deck sure beats driving 10 miles to the range. Last but not least I read your blog both for interest and tips. If anyone out there has as much fun as I have trying to not disturb neighbors, try recording your scores. It forces you to practice that which gives good results.

    Decksniper


  9. Within my plinking, just for fun shooting, experiencing the fun of shooting all kinds of different air pistols both BB and pellet I really have no way to gauge if my shooting is any better after 3 years , In my house, my wife allows me to shoot in our hobby room which is real close range. I shoot paper targets with dimes printed on the target paper . The more accurate pistols pretty follow your shooting tests The most accurate BB pistol seems to be the Sig Sauer P226 open. My most accurate pellet pistol seems to be the Webley Alecto, followed very closely by the Crosman 1377 and 2240. The problem arises when I shoot with friends at ten meters. Then I fall on my face because all my pistol sights are set for closer range.
    After reading this report, I am going to change my approach. For fun indoor shooting just stick with the BB pistols and leave the pellet pistols set for the ten meter shooting. Thanks for the excellent blog.
    Harvey


  10. I just saw the episode of American Airgunner where Rossi teaches his wife to shoot a pistol. He uses a BB replica, an Airsoft replica, a rimfire version, and finally a 9mm, all of the same gun. It was an interesting demonstration.

    When I used to shoot my 45 ACPs a lot, I would start with my 22 conversion kit until I didn’t notice the recoil and noise. Then, switch to the more powerful gun. It is easier to work out problems with the 22 than the 45.

    David Enoch


  11. BIL’s question reminds of this dating coach I was reading. He said that he had been approached by guys in despair who wondered if maybe “they were just ugly dudes…” He proceeded to tell them that no. All they needed to know was this sure-fire trick. He he. I don’t get the story about the broomstick and the glass bottle. Was Trevino inserting a broomstick into a glass bottle and using it as a club? Wouldn’t the bottle shatter? I can imagine just that apparatus may have demoralized his opponents and led to victory. It’s like the story of Lucky McDaniel using cheap guns against top level equipment. One opponent freaked out after losing because he had his guns custom-made in England.

    My guess is that everyone improves with practice but talent plays a bigger role the higher you go. That is an interesting story about Crystal Ackley. It is reminiscent of my Dad’s experience in boot camp in the army shooting the M1 Garand. He said that there was a very unlikely draftee who had no interest in the army and had never shot before, but this guy broke the range record with the M1. The range officer was freaking out, and all the sergeants gave the shooter grudging congratulations. But this aggravated them more since it was very obvious that the recruit didn’t even care. Years later, my Dad looked up this guy who had become a judge. After basic training, the guy had gone onto training as an MP where he first encountered the 1911. He couldn’t do anything with this gun, and finally the instructor told him that he was better off throwing it at an assailant. The judge had no explanation for this sudden change. He just said that shooting the M1 had seemed very easy. Either he was a gigantic flash in the pan or maybe practice is needed to anchor talent and make it consistent.

    No doubt golf has people wondering if they can get get better, and apparently the South Korean women have shown the virtues of practice. At a level that people thought was determined by talent, they just practiced way more than anyone and dominate the field.

    I have really gotten myself into a fix. With all my gushing about knives, my girlfriend presented as a gift a kit to make your own knife. Apparently she got it into her head to search online for my interests and found a site called something like Man-Crate which caters to manly men. She said that when she saw pictures of big bearded men wearing checked shirts, she knew it was for me. And when she saw the knife kit, she thought it was the perfect thing. “Don’t you like it?” she said. Yeow! She has no idea that I send this kind of stuff to specialists to get done. But I am in for it now. Upon closer inspection, I feel a little better. There was a reference to a blade blank, so I thought I would have to cut the blade to shape. But the blade is finished and despite being made of 440C stainless steel is about the sharpest knife I have encountered in my life. All I need to do is to shape and attach the wooden handle. Maybe this Man-Crate organization knows its clientele after all. There’s also a lot of nice equipment in the form of wood-working tools and vises that I might have use for. The cost is alarming! I suppose that if I could learn how to reload without blowing myself up that I should be able to do this too. And it is also reassuring to know that there is a fund of knowledge about this on the blog. I can think of many blog readers past and present, like BG_Farmer and Duskwight, for whom this knife task would be completely trivial.

    Matt61


  12. BB

    Your right, I did enjoy todays blog. I too enjoy random and off hand shooting and rely on the guns accuracy to hit most things and do concentrate on the front sight and a steady hold. Target shooting is usually reserved for sighting in or competing with my neighbor for fun. Shooting to go through one hole is not really a goal of mine, can be frustrating.

    However, when I am going after a pest what I do is continue to modify my stance, hold position, breathing and every other variable until I can get a solid steady crosshair hold on the target. Lots of concentration and relaxing. Sometimes it feels like a state of suspended animation waiting for the next heartbeat, A good gun makes the rest easy. Usually my FX Indy with a constant PSI. Most of my friends just shoot when the crosshairs pass over the target.
    I rarely shoot from the same place or distance unless I’m sighting in a gun. Fence posts, cars, big rocks and buildings help me keep steady.


  13. BB, you mention dry firing almost in passing. When I was shopping for a pistol recently, I came across this interview with Keith Sanderson talking about Olympic pistol events

    https://youtu.be/Fk-4maiu3hg

    About 8 minutes in he starts to discuss his practice regime: “The one thing I should have done more a new shooter is dry fire… During that 7 months, I fired less than 500 (live) rounds… ”

    He says he was ranked Number One leading up to Beijing 2009 because he dry fired well over 100,000 times. Even though he had free ammo, could get free guns, and worked at a range full time.

    So between your guidance and his, my offhand shooting has improved, at least as far as group size and repeatability are concerned.


  14. B.B.,

    This article was a good one. One,… that I think every,… most every,… shooter,…… has asked themselves.

    I only wished that more people would have “chimed” in. New, old, can plinker, target shooter, professional,…… we all had something to contribute. This one should have been a “post buster”.

    Chris

    Chris


    • Chris,

      Maybe they are taking advantage of the good weather and are out shooting? 😎

      BTW It seems I underestimated the damage done by the weather systems that passed us. The area affected is rather remote and it only now that the news on how devastated the area was is reaching us.

      Siraniko


    • I’m still absorbing all the great information in this and the other posts. I definitely agree it’s about practice, practice and more practice.

      My other thing is locks, been picking seriously for three years now. I’m still learning and always will be. I accept that somedays I won’t be able to pick anything other than my nose!

      Also, if I don’t pick for a few days then I lose some of my skills. Skills need to be maintained or you lose them.

      Looks like I have a lit more still to learn..

      Rick.


  15. Pingback: Why can’t I shoot better ? | Airguns: Air Rifles and Pistols




    • Rick
      I’m a machinist. BB has done articles in the past on swaging. I actually offered to make one for a gun he was testing once. Don’t remember exactly what gun it was now. But I have been interested in pellet making.

      And those are some unique designs you gave the link to. The pellet shapes and the tools to make them. The pellets look really nice. Really glad you posted that link. Makes me want to get back to the idea of making one.


      • Hi gunfun1.
        I’m really torn with this it’s a lot of money to spend. I could buy 5000 pellets instead, that would be more sensible an practical.

        Reading and learning more about pellets, an having fired so many different brands now. I’m concerned that I won’t be able to use the pellets from this mold in all of my rifles.

        Common sense aside, I suspect I’ll treat myself for Xmas! It’s such a really clever gadget, an I’m so weak.

        Wish I had the skills an the tools to make one, but it’s beyond me.


        • Rick
          I agree with your thoughts. But what is in the back of my mind is the big “what if” question.

          What if there is a natural disaster or worse the big war. Or other scenarios. My thought is I could still have ammo with a pellet swaging peice of equipment. It would be something to have stashed away if you couldn’t order or go get your favorite pellets.


          • Hi Gunfun1.

            Agree with you mate, it’s always the what ifs! I also believe in being prepared an having multiple back ups. Got a rifle and you always have food… an entertainment.

            I have to wait till Xmas, but I will get one. Will post pictures or a video when I have played a bit. I’d be happy to send a few pellets for someone here to do a proper test on.

            My link shows the guy making pellets containing a BB, do these actually work? I have some old 1.77 pellets with a BB inside, but only tried in a cheap pistol so can’t be sure if they any use.

            Rick.



Leave a Reply