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.”