The basics of shooting: Part 2
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Kentucky rifle and the importance of the hold
- Follow through
- Percussion locks revealed more!
- Other influences on hold
- Breathing control
- Trigger control
- Combine things
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.