The basics of shooting: Part 2

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

This report covers:

  • Accuracy
  • Kentucky rifle and the importance of the hold
  • Follow through
  • Percussion locks revealed more!
  • Other influences on hold
  • Breathing control
  • Trigger control
  • Combine things
  • Dry-firing
  • Review
  • Summary

I was asked to write this series by just one reader, but from the responses we got to Part One, I’d say that a lot of you wanted it. Let’s dive in.

Accuracy

I’ll start where I let off — with accuracy. It started with sights that gave shooters a way of knowing where their barrels were pointing. Then came the rifled barrel. Rifling was a huge step toward accurate shooting. It took the strike of the ball from being within feet down to within inches. Sights got the shooter into the correct compass quadrant; rifling got them somewhere on the target.

Rifling was so revolutionary that it was prohibited from early shooting contests because it was seen as too much of an advantage. Can you imagine that? And dueling pistols were not supposed to be rifled, but many sets of pistols have been found with at least one pistol containing a secretly rifled barrel.

So with rifling we are down to accuracy within inches. What’s next? Well — distance comes next. Instead of being accurate at 60 feet why not accurate at 100 yards or 300 feet? Early rifles were muzzleloaders, so the patched ball that came into existence just after 1700 allowed this to happen. Of course a breechloader would have solved the problem of loading the ball even better, but with black powder the breechloader wasn’t popular during the flintlock era that lasted until just after 1810.

Kentucky rifle and the importance of the hold

Around 1720 or so the “Kentucky” rifle came into existence. It’s an American design made popular on the western frontier of the United States at that time. That would be western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Kentucky rifle had a longer barrel that needed less gunpowder and a smaller ball that was patched (loaded with a material surrounding the ball that “took” the rifling so the ball was left unmarked). The patch spun the ball for accuracy and fell away in the first few feet of flight.

When the Kentucky rifle came into existence it became possible to see an even greater potential for accuracy (down to fractions of an inch), and shooters started noticing that how they held the rifle was important. Of course the hold had always been important, but the errors of a smooth bore and no sights had masked it. With the Kentucky rifle, accuracy rose to such a level that the hold became noticeable.

Follow through

The early shooters called it “letting the rifle hang,” but what that meant was holding it so their bodies didn’t disturb it when the rifle recoiled. In other words they were doing the very first use of what I call the artillery hold. But for over a century shooters have called it follow-through. They mean that after the shot is fired you don’t move, which accomplishes the same thing.

Percussion locks revealed more!

Those early shooters were shooting flintlocks that blew up in their faces when they fired. Staying calm though that took a lot of guts, because the burning gunpowder in your flash pan could easily blind you! If you don’t understand, watch this video all the way through.

When the percussion cap replaced the flint lock, shooters were safe from the secondary explosion that set off the main charge of gunpowder. Also, the percussion cap exploded the main charge of gunpowder faster than the flint lock had. The LOCK TIME (time it takes the lock to act) was reduced, which meant there was less time for the shooter’s hold to influence the shot. Now the hold became super-critical, as it affected differences of just hundredths of an inch!

Just before 1900, barrelmaker and world champion rifleman Harry Pope put 10 bullets into two-tenths of one inch between centers at 200 yards! To do that he didn’t hold the rifle at all! it rested in a double rest — one cradled the barrel out by the muzzle and the other rest held the stock near the butt. Benchrest shooters still hold their rifles this way more than a century later.

Other influences on hold

We have identified the major drivers of accuracy — sights, rifling and hold. But it doesn’t end there. Now we have to look at a lot of little things.

Breathing control

Both your heartbeat and breathing affect the hold of your rifle. To get the heartbeat under control champion shooters exercise so their resting heartbeat is under 60 beats a minute. Then they learn how to shoot between the heartbeats. But your heart has to beat, so you have to tolerate that movement to some degree. Your breathing, however, is under your control.

The best approach is to breath deeply, exhale half the air and then shoot. You have 3 to 5 seconds before your heart starts beating harder and faster to circulate more air to your body. With training you can learn to sight and squeeze off a shot in this interval. I will address how you learn that in a moment, but know that it is essential that you learn this lesson if you want to be a good shot.

Trigger control

When the trigger breaks (releases the sear so the gun will fire), it should not impart any movement to the rifle. This is why we teach shooters to squeeze the trigger blade until the gun fires and it’s also why a crisp trigger is preferred over one that’s stiff and jerky.

Combine things

Now I will combine some things. I will combine the hold, and breathing and trigger control. These things play together to help or hinder accuracy down in the region of small fractions of an inch. And the way we train to get all of them under control and working together is by dry-firing.

Dry-firing

I am a pistol shooter, so I will now switch from using rifles as examples and move over to air pistols. The sport of 10-meter air pistol (paper target shooting at 10 meters) is a very precise one where hundredths of an inch separate winners from those who don’t even place in the top three. The three things we are talking about — hold, breathing and trigger control all play an important role in accuracy, as does the sight picture the shooter takes before releasing the shot.

The stance is so precise that it is difficult for the shooter to hit more than three inches on either side of dead center, left and right. The hold goes along with that and makes it impossible to hit more than three inches above or below the center of the bullseye. Sounds nice but I have just described a square that’s six inches on a side. Hitting somewhere inside that isn’t going to win anything.

Here is where your breathing and trigger control come into play. The shooter takes a deep breath and lets half of it out. While doing this he relaxes and also raises the muzzle of the pistol above the target, then lets it slowly settle back down. As the front and rear sight come into perfect alignment with the bull, he is squeezing the 500-gram trigger so it will break in a second. All of this, from start to finish, takes less than 5 seconds. It is a robotic movement the shooter has practiced tens of thousands of times though dry-firing.

Every day, seven days a week, the shooter raises the pistol, sights on a bull and fires the gun that doesn’t actually fire because it has a dry-fire training system built in that allows the trigger to break without anything else happening. The shooter will dry-fire this way perhaps 400 times each day, followed by shooting 60 live shots at a target.

As the days, weeks and months pass the shooter’s movements are programmed into his body until he can “see” where every pellet goes during dry-fire. He can see the difference between a pellet that would have scored 10 and one that would have scored 9 on every shot.

I’ll tell you how exact this is. Once, during a match I shot a 6 when I thought it was a 10. The pellet was perfectly in line with the center of the bull but landed 1.125-inches directly below the 10. I was shooting a CO2 target pistol that had just run out of gas in the middle of a match. The loss of those 4 points kept me from scoring expert for the first time in competition. I refilled the pistol, but was so flustered that I also threw a couple 9s afterward.

I couldn’t afford a better target pistol at the time and that was the last national match I competed in. To put the cherry on top my automatic transmission failed on the drive home, leaving me stranded on a freeway in Maryland, just outside Washington D.C.

Sorry to end on a negative note, but that’s the whole story. The important thing here is to note that I was so “trained up” at this point that I knew the bad shot should have been a 10. I could see it because of all my dry-firing.

Review

Let’s look at what has been discussed today.

Accuracy — the givens
Sights — better sights can help you.
Rifling — the right projectile is matched to the right rifling.
Lock time — the artillery hold accounts for the time until the pellet leaves the muzzle.

Accuracy — the things you control
Hold — use a hold that doesn’t affect the rifle in a negative way.
Breathing — learn to control your breathing to not influence the rifle negatively.
Trigger control — let the trigger break without moving the rifle.
Sight alignment — that what you are shooting at is actually your target (parallax).

Summary

Wow! I’m, still not finished! I have sight training (triangulation drills) and the closeness of airgunners to their target to discuss. And maybe you readers will suggest more topics.

As I was writing this several other basic and important topics occurred to me. They are hold, breathing control, ammo and cleaning the barrel. I’ll also talk about training shooters to use the sights correctly (triangulation drills) and the accuracy differences that airguns bring to the table. Airgunners shoot so close to the sights that misalignment stands out in a major way, where with a firearm that gets masked by distance. I bet you readers will remind me of some others.

30 thoughts on “The basics of shooting: Part 2

  1. “And dueling pistols were not supposed to be rifled, but many sets of pistols have been found with at least one pistol containing a secretly rifled barrel.”
    Wow, you keep the rifled one for yourself, and give your opponent the smoothbore, hahaha! =)~


  2. B.B.
    This is turning into a nice treatise for new shooters, as well as good reminders for seasoned shooters. It will be referred to for years to come…cool!
    I really like the parts about breath and trigger control, but I’m sorry about your dropped shot and your failed transmission; although I guess that made for an unforgettable day! On the bright side, that dropped shot provides a good cautionary tale for anyone that shoots a CO2 or PCP gun…know when you are running low on juice! =>
    Take care & God bless,
    dave


  3. B.B.,

    This is a great topic. I have shot a flint lock a few times but all my matches were shot percussion. Those that can hold the follow through for a flint lock have my admiration. It is not easy. I will say if you can shoot a Kentucky flintlock accurately you should be able to shoot most anything offhand and open sights. Even with percussion rifles and pistols there is a minute difference in the sear release and ignition that requires a mental focus to account for the variable in time for the follow through.

    I have noticed some of this in airguns. It is a different vibe (only word I could think of) but is very similar. The microsecond between sear release and valve function seems to vary enough to be noticeable, especially in the less expensive guns where tolerance in parts is not good. I guess that is lock time but seems to be also lock consistency that includes trigger pull.

    I have always thought an Olympic 100 meter real muzzle loaded black powder flintlock roundball open sights standing offhand competition would be the ultimate shooting sport. It combines all the key components in shooting. Would Daniel Boone win? Not with his guns. The club I was in had one requirement black powder. A 50 caliber Thompson Center Hawkins cannot compete with a 308 loaded with FFFF g powder so I quit. No regrets I learned a lot. There is quite a few similarities between black powder and airguns; except the cleaning after shooting, I don’t miss that.

    The best shot is the one you see hit where you expect it to. Why did that happen? What is luck? Why is it bad when the first shot takes out the X?

    Great report,
    Don


  4. As a followup I should ask why if you have 9 shots that are a screamer the tenth opens it up. What is that about? I remember one time in bowling I bowled 7 spares in a row for some reason everyone in the bowling alley was watching on the next ball, it was a gutterball. Since then I have not thrown a 300 game but quite a few that were 11 strikes and one spare (not for a while). So practice and competition under pressure makes a difference.



    • Benji-Don,

      Being hunting orientated, the “pressure” is on the first shot – because there should only be one eh?

      Think that people blow the last shot in group because they lose their focus and break their shooting rhythm.

      I believe that the experience of thousands of shots provides a “database” for the subconscious to use in aligning the next shot. Subconsciously comparing “this shot” as it is happening (stance, hold, breathing, sight picture etc.) to all the previous shots allows shooters to know where the POI is going to be and they can call the shot.

      I shoot best when I don’t interfere with my subconscious as it makes the final corrections for the shot. Once I commit to shooting, my conscious “duties” are to (intensely) focus on the exact dot where I want to hit. If I try to take “manual control” of the shot I override all of the training, lose contact with all the experience, fail to provide an exact POA and throw a gutter-ball.

      For training, I sight in for that range and shoot one pellet at each target so I can clearly see the POA and POI through the spotting scope. To “program” my subconscious database, I check each shot as I go so that I can clearly relate the experience (stance, hold, breathing, sight picture etc.) with the results.

      I am just going through training on a new setup to learn the sight picture at different ranges and magnifications so I am in “one shot per target” mode. Attached is a picture of the .050 inch target that I use (the 1/2″ circle is just for reference) – I believe in the “aim small, miss small” school of thought.

      Hank


      • Hank,

        That is a good target. I have used it to work on my shooting skills. I shoot one shot at each bull and write down how each shot went both mentally and physically before the next shot. Mostly it showes my focus is not good as my mind wanders over all sorts off things instead of the shot.

        Hunting is a different story, I have no problem focusing and one shot is what I expect and normally all that is needed.

        Don


      • Vana2,

        Hank, your target grid reminds me of the concentration drill a coach introduced. Instead of shooting at it each circle contained a number from 1 to 100 SCRAMBLED. The concept was to find and Mark with an X numbers which he had written on the blackboard in a set time limit. He added someone watching quietly over your shoulder and finally talking about your lack of brains and any other personal attacks they could think of. The drill really showed how Selftalk could derail your concentration. That little voice we all have in our heads needs to be neither positive or negative but NEUTRAL.

        Wishing you some high 70’s/80!

        shootski


        • Shootski,

          Your wish came true – temperatures have been pleasant and winds calm for the past two days – ideal shooting weather! Tomorrow is supposed to be the same!

          Like the concentration drill – sounds like fun!

          Personal attacks wouldn’t phase me – I have excellent powers of “ignore” LOL!; on the other hand, I would sense someone moving into my space and that would distract me. Still, the focus to shoot is so intense that for that fraction of a second only the target exists.

          Hank


  5. B.B.,

    Another good installment. Don’s comment on 9/10 being great and blowing the final shot reminded me of,.. What if you are SURE you did everything right, but there was still a miss? Psychological? Ok, I will give that. Anyone of the things you have already mentioned? Ok, I will give that too.

    An “off” magazine chamber, or pellet weight or head size can also blow the best of skills. Shot curve,.. like with an unregulated PCP can factor in as well.

    So,… 1) Single load VS Mag. 2) Quality (sorted?) ammo 3) Shot curve (fps variance) might be added topics.

    Good Day to you and to all,………. Chris

    I would add in too about a slight overfill (PCP) and how that can cause partial valve lock and cause fps ((slow))/rise/level/fall.


    • Chris USA,

      For shame Chris!

      The expert knows his tools (unregulated PCP MZ velocity curve and pressure tube warp) and eliminates or compensates for the problem ones.

      The Craftsman looks to his skills; the Workman blames his tools!

      shootski


      • Shootski,

        Ahhhh!,….. but we are not talking about expert shooters here now are we? We are talking about the basics ( and some advanced) skills in shooting. Newbies.

        1) If someone is shooting junk pellets,…. they will never know (never see) the results of advancing their skills.

        2) A new shooter may not realize that magazines can have an off chamber and possibly damage the pellet on the way in. Do they know that for most precision shooting,… shooters single load? Again, they will never see the full results of perfecting new shooting skills.

        3) Does a new shooter even know about shot fps curve? Do they know about partial valve lock?

        You see,…. these (are) important for a new shooter. These may (most likely will) influence the entire learning process and accurately ascertaining any progress. They need to know that these things exist and know them upfront. Then,…. work on all the skills that have been set forth.

        What good are perfect shooting skills when the deck is stacked against you from the start? Good one day? Mediocre the next? Poor the next? Why? Why? No,…. improvement should be steadily positive without having the process muddied from variables that could be controlled..

        I like your post below. Some of those things have nothing to do with learning new (skills) though. Having some of those things,.. knowing how to use them,… will (enhance) what you are learning/practicing and most likely make for faster progress. Thus,… complimenting what you are practicing.

        Maybe I did not state my points well,… now or this AM.,…. but I am sure you get what I am saying.

        Respectfully,…. Chris


        • Chris USA,

          Well put my friend!
          The basics of shooting apply to us all; newbie, old hand and even the experts.
          I agree with all your points and hope the readership will glean all (okay most of) that valuable information before they buy their first airgun or at least before they buy the second. I hope we are welcoming enough of a group that folks are comfortable asking questions, unlike some other On-Line resources, and if someone strives to become expert that this blog of B.B.’s helps them in the beginning, middle and top of that endeavor.

          shootski


          • Shootski,

            While I am far advanced from where I started,…. I still consider my self to be a Newbie because of all of the stuff I do not know. If not having shot for awhile,… I find myself blowing even the most basic skills if I am not mindful. I do well,…. but I can always do better and learn more.

            Chris


  6. Psychology, Hmmmm…

    Given the size of the readership and the diversity of occupations and experience, I’ll bet that there is at least one psychologist or psychiatrist who will be reading this installment.

    There is some evidence of a fear of success. Not overt, but still a factor in high level performance. Some years ago there was a slow-motion video (?) of an Olympic pole vaulter clearing the bar only to look back and dislodge the bar with his arm, ruining an otherwise perfect performance. He was informed of his action and was adamant that he had not sabotaged his effort. However the evidence was unassailable. In addition to all of the other factors that B.B. has listed ones “head” has to be clear as well.

    B.B.’s recent blog posts have been so eye-opening for me, both the mechanics of shooting and the “why” of shooting. Aside to B.B., I think that there is a book forming here, just sayin’. This would have been so useful to have long before I made my first airgun purchase. I thought that I was well informed, but not. I hadn’t even scratched the surface, I had just disturbed some dust. I understand now that my focus was on the hardware of shooting accurately, not on the “software.” Take care of the Why and How, then the What becomes much clearer.

    B.B. Kudos on these posts, not about guns, but so foundational for we newbies.

    Dan
    Pennsylvania, USA



      • BB,

        Loving this series. I hope we get a lot more to come.

        I did not grow up around guns. I’ve never received any training on how to shoot. Like Dan, my interest in airguns began with the hardware. (And some practical pest- control needs.)

        My skills are thus limited to fairly close range shots. Pushed over greater distances, it’s clear I don’t have a consistent technique.

        Glad to have your thoughts on the many parameters that inform accuracy. I think I need to reread these a few times. Gives me something to work on. I was especially interested to read your thoughts on the 10 meter competition, and how you put it all together. Well done.

        StarboardRower


    • GrandpaDan,

      Check out the ever growing field of Sports Psychology.
      At the highest levels of Sport the trained skills are almost identical to the thousandths the differences in performance is found in the mental.

      shootski


  7. BB,

    Really enjoying and need this series!

    I wonder if you or any reader knows what the AVERAGE capability of Civil War long guns IN COMBINATION with their shooters was. My brother reads about the Civil War all the time and contends that soldiers were routinely facing opponents that were shooting back at 500 to 600 yards, accurately. I called B.S. and said that that doesn’t even happen with modern warfare, but when I later tried to find proof of my position on the internet, all I found was material that pointed out the CAPABILITIES of various guns that were used in the war and some were, indeed, accurate to 600 yards. I also know that the NRA was formed to improve the shooting skills of the soldiers because it was so poor during the war, so did Civil War soldiers really have to fear being shot from 600 yards out?

    Half


    • Half,

      The average soldier on both side wasn’t able to shoot 600 yards accurately, but both sides did have sharpshooters (named after the Sharps rifle some of them shot) who could do it. There were many more good shooters on the South side when the war began, because they were hunters for subsistence or sport. Hunting in the North wasn’t as popular.

      There were also long range target rifles capable of killing at 1,200 yards. The North had more of them but the South had some, too. These rifles were huge! They often weighed more than 35 pounds and had to be rested to shoot. Their barrels were 6 feet long and the calibers were large — .68 or so. They were all scoped. They shot conical bullets and took a long time to set up and load. But they did make some surprising kills.

      B.B.

      B.B.


      • BB and Half

        Google the Whitworth rifle or as Edith got me doing, Startpage or Ixquick it. The Whitworth was run through the blockade at huge cost. It looked similar to a Springfield or Parker Hale but had that hexagonal bore shooting hexagonal bullets. A beast to load but accuracy was simply incredible.

        Great report and one to keep close by. So many reminders of good stuff to practice. Oh, and the Harry Pope hold. Except for firearms I have not used two supports for my low recoiling air rifles in a long time.

        Deck


        • Deck,

          The Whitworth was what I had in mind when I wrote the part about Sharpshooters. England supported the South for the cotton trade, so they supplied the Whitworths and at 600 yards they were deadly! Even a replica will cost you over a thousand dollars today.

          B.B.


  8. B.B.,

    First things first! Thank you for this series.

    More discussion topics: Shooting Jackets and trousers for rifle shooters, shoes/boots for pistol and rifle shooters.
    Slings
    Bags
    Rests
    Hand stops
    Cheek weld/cheek rests
    Various methods and phisical levels.
    Concentration drills and aids.

    Errata: in “Percussion locks revealed more!” third paragraph:
    “…out by the muzzle and the other back (bag) held the stock near the butt.”
    Yes it was the bag in the back! Lol!

    shootski



    • Shootski,

      When you say “Shooting Jackets” are you referring to stylish garments or those specially reinforced shooting jackets that are designed to steady the gun?

      Hank


      • Hank,

        Those stylish jackets are “Smoking Jackets” for after the completion of the shoot when all the exaggerating occurs!!
        I was infact referring to the canvas or leather ones with all the straps, battens, hooks that keep you from being all Gumby (reference to Gumby, his horse Pokey and friends) like.

        shootski


        • Shootski,

          There is a Feinwerkbau dealer near by and on one of my visits I spent some time looking over the shooting “accessories”.

          Guess that I viewed that stuff as something to try to compensate for a lack of real skill and was less than impressed. You know, “I can shoot better than you because my equipment makes it so” kinda thing. Probably not a fair assessment as I have never tried it. Each to their own eh?

          As kids, when we had our shooting competitions, we shot in our street cloths and everybody shot the same gun so there was no “equipment advantage”. Still have that mind-set.

          Might do my perspective good to have B.B cover these things in his report.

          Hank


  9. B.B.
    Very interesting report today. A good reminder of the basics of what is takes to be an accurate shooter. A while back I brought up a question regarding scopes. One was how do you accurately determine the center line distance between the scope and the barrel? Another was how do you determine if the scope adjustments are set at the center of travel to insure that the erector tube does not float? You said at that time that you needed to revisit how to setup a scope correctly. Were you thinking of including this topic in this series of reports, or creating a separate report for that topic?
    Geo


    • George,

      Don’t worry about centering the scope or exactly where the bore is. Guess. You’re going to adjust the scope anyway.

      The thing to watch is how high the scope is adjusted when you first begin shooting. On some scopes that’s hard to see, so You can count the clicks from stop to stop, which would be the only way to determine the middle.

      B.B.


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