The basics of shooting: Part 3
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Accuracy from gross to fine
- Rough airguns
- Smooth airguns
- Cleaning the barrel
- Sight picture training
- The triangulation system
- Making a triangulation sighting bar
- Conduct of the exercise
- A simpler, faster way to begin
- Style of the sights doesn’t matter
- The results you want
Wow! I started this series for one reader but it seems like many of you are enjoying it. I have a lot to cover today, and part of that comes from your comments. So, thanks! I want to begin where we left off in Part 2.
Accuracy from gross to fine
In Parts One and Two we looked at the things affecting accuracy. They started with major things like sights and rifling that caused gross increases in accuracy. Then we looked at things that made smaller improvements — things like the hold, breathing and trigger control.
We have gotten to the point of refinement where any further improvements will be very small, but many shooters are not using the things we have already discussed. We’ll start with the hold, but we will focus on the airgun rather than the shooter.
There is a class of airgun that is quite rough in operation and it’s nearly impossible to be accurate with one. The breakbarrel springer that shoots at super-high velocity, say 1,200 to 1,400 f.p.s. in .177 caliber, is a good example, however you will find air rifles like this in every caliber. These guns almost always operate roughly. They are hard to cock and vibrate and recoil a lot when they fire. No matter how potentially accurate their barrels might be, it is practically impossible to shoot such airguns well. They come from China, Spain and Turkey, but in the past have also come from Germany and the United Kingdom.
I tested a Turkish-made Webley Patriot in 2007 and found it to be adequately accurate, though a lot of special hold technique had to be used. By that I mean the artillery hold. Resting the same rifle on a sandbag tripled the size of the group at 25 yards.
More recently I tested the Hatsan 135 QE Vortex .30-caliber pellet rifle and found it very accurate at 25 yards but far less so at 50 yards. However — and this plays into what I’m saying about the roughness of the powerplant — I also shot the same rifle that Rich Shar had modified and tuned for smoothness and I found his to be very accurate at the longer distances. We shot it out to around 40 yards at the 2018 Pyramyd Air Cup. Now, besides tuning the powerplant to be incredibly smooth, Rich has also replaced the Hatsan barrel with a custom barrel. So that test wasn’t a one-for-one test. But I think it does support my point about smooth airguns shooting better.
Contrast what I have just said with air rifles that shoot smoothly, and the Air Arms TX200 Mark III is the poster child of smooth-shooting springers. The TX isn’t weak. Mine shoots a 7.9-grain Crosman Premier pellet at over 950 f.p.s. When I first got it about 20 years ago it shot that same pellet at 875 f.p.s. and all the increase in speed has come from just shooting the rifle. And, talk about smooth? It’s the closest new spring gun you can find to shooting a precharged rifle!
Remember how I raved about the ASP20 when it first came out? That’s another spring-piston rifle that has been made very smooth, only that one has a gas piston that is usually quite harsh. But, through engineering, Sig managed to smooth out the action and make a 23 foot-pound (in .22 caliber) spring rifle. So, shooting smoothly is one answer to accuracy.
All of this discussion centers on the subject of hold, only this time it’s all on the side of the rifle rather than the shooter. But even with an accurate rifle, the shooter can hold incorrectly and lose much of the potential. We have discussed using the artillery hold that works for nearly all recoiling spring-piston air rifles. Until shooters learn about it they will never get the kind of accuracy we see.
The same holds true for the shooters who don’t control their breathing. The sport of biathlon (cross-country skiing and marksmanship) is structured around extreme exercise to get the heart rate and breathing outside comfortable levels and then force shooters to shoot accurately.
I haven’t said as much about the effects of the trigger, but they are just as real. We don’t celebrate the Weihrauch Rekord trigger for nothing! Even a precharged airgun can lose some accuracy if the trigger is either too rough or too vague. A 5-pound trigger that breaks consistently is better for accuracy than a 5-ounce trigger that has no distinct second stage. In recent tests you read where I praised the triggers on both the Air Arms S510 Ultimate Sporter and the FX Dreamlite. Of course both of these are high-end air rifles, but the TX200 Mark III sells for half as much or less, and the ASP20 is less than one-third the price. Good triggers don’t have to cost a lot, but bad triggers can spoil the whole shooting experience.
Cleaning the barrel
I don’t like cleaning airgun barrels because I think it’s not usually necessary, but there is an instance when it is. When the accuracy of a given gun deteriorates, you should clean the barrel. And I mean clean it aggressively with JB Non-Embedding Bore Cleaning Compound on a brass or bronze brush.
I’m not just talking about barrels that have been made dirty from shooting. An airgun barrel will ALWAYS have black stuff inside because it’s the anti-oxidant compound that’s on most pellets. It’s not actually dirt and it gets pushed out of the bore with every shot, while new stuff is deposited. Don’t worry about that stuff. I’m talking about lead fouling. Lead from pellets will smear inside the bore and degrade accuracy. That’s what the JB compounds gets rid of.
When your airgun starts to become noticeably less accurate it’s time to scrub the bore with JB compound. Some world-class target shooters clean their barrels this way once each year. I seldom do it and I have guns with over 10,000 shots since they were last cleaned.
I have also seen improvement when the barrels of certain brand new airguns were cleaned in this way. One of my jobs when I worked at AirForce Airguns was to clean every barrel by hand in the way I have just described. These are all premium Lothar Walther barrels but after they were delivered to us we ground their outsides to a precise dimension, and we had them all blued. Cleaning was the final step before they were assembled into airguns. I am talking about hand-cleaning hundreds of barrels at a time — a job that could easily take up most of an 8-hour day! I feel quite certain that other makers of premium airguns like Air Arms, FX, Daystate and others do the same thing.
Now I’ll talk about a major training tool for the novice shooter. It’s how to use the sights!
Sight picture training
For new shooters, some training with the sight picture establishes whether or not they understand how the sights work. Here is a wonderful way to teach people how to use the sights.
The triangulation system
When I was a youngster, my mother enrolled me in an NRA-run course that taught me how to shoot. This was in the late 1950s, and the techniques used to teach us back then were those that had been popular both before and during World War II. I’ve researched both the modern U.S. Army and Marine Corps marksmanship syllabi and find that what I’m about to show you is, unfortunately, no longer taught — but it should be! Today’s lesson could turn out to be the most valuable teaching technique you ever learn for training new shooters.
We’re going to teach the new shooter how to use sights through a method called triangulation. Although we’ll be using aperture sights that are the easiest to learn and the most precise to use, any type of non-optical sight may be taught by this method. Read everything before asking any questions. This method will immediately reveal whether a student understands how to use sights, plus it will show the student’s level of skill in sighting — all without the use of a rifle.
Making a triangulation sighting bar
You can make a simple training aid to teach the student how to use the sights. It consists of a straight bar with open “sights” on each end. An 18″ strip of wood will suffice for the bar, and you can fashion the “sights” from paper index cards. If you’re the coach of a shooting club and plan to teach a lot of kids, it might be worth the effort to mount real sights to the bar, though that isn’t necessary. Simple card-stock sights taped to the bar as shown in the drawings will work great. If you cannot find a piece of wood to use for the bar, a long ruler works well as a substitute. The dimensions of this training aid are not precise and critical, as long as it’s made reasonably close to what’s described here.
Poke a small hole through the rear “sight” for the student to peer through. The front “sight” is just a square post. Fasten both front and rear sights to the bar so they cannot move during the exercise, as repeatability is important. Place the sighting bar on a box so the student can use the sights without touching or moving them.
The instructor stands or sits 33 feet away and holds a black bullseye target against a large white piece of paper that’s attached to the wall or to a large box under his seat. In the center of the black bullseye on the target, a small hole has been made for a lead pencil to poke through and mark the white background paper.
Conduct of the exercise
The student looks through the sighting bar and tells the instructor how to move the bullseye target until it’s positioned perfectly against his sights for a 6 o’clock hold. It’s important that the sighting bar does not move during the exercise — only the target, as adjusted by the instructor. When the sight picture looks right, the student tells the instructor to mark the target and the instructor makes a mark on the white background paper by pressing his pencil through the hole in the center of the target.
A simpler, faster way to begin
You can avoid making the sighting bar if you want to by simply using the rifle itself. Simply rest it so the student can see through the sights without touching or moving the rifle. This will be more difficult because the stock gets in the way, which is why the bar was created, but it is possible. Once again, you don’t want that rifle to move.
Many people don’t like the idea of being downrange with a rifle pointed at them, and the sighting bar makes it unnecessary. I think the sighting bar is a much better training aid that takes only a few minutes to create.
Style of the sights doesn’t matter
Don’t worry if your rifle’s sights don’t look like the sights I’ve shown here. You can make them any kind of sight you desire. Just cut them out of card stock and color them black to help the student define the sight picture. If you plan to use open sights with a rear notch, be sure to allow enough room on the bar behind the rear sight so it appears reasonably sharp to the student when aligned with the front sight. And remember to tell the student that the front sight is what they must focus on — not the rear sight and not the target. Both the rear sight and the target should appear slightly out of focus when they sight correctly.
I have wanted to share this technique with you readers for years, but I held back because I felt it might be too difficult to follow. I hope this report has made it clear and that this exercise helps both you and your students learn how to use open sights as it once helped me. One week after completing this exercise successfully, I was shooting five-shot, dime-sized groups at 50 feet from the prone position, which was the first position the NRA taught.
Repeat this exercise three times and there will be three pencil marks on the white background paper. The closer these marks are to each other, the better the student has adjusted his sights. This gives both the student and the instructor an excellent idea of how well the student understands the sight picture.
The results you want
What you are looking for is three dots on the background paper in the form of a triangle. A good result is if the dots are all within one inch of each other. Don’t be surprised if they are within one-half-inch of each other. The closer they are, the better and more precise the student is seeing the sight picture.
But if the dots are several inches apart, the student is not yet seeing the sight picture correctly. They may not understand all that is required of them in the exercise, or they may not appreciate the precision they are expected to achieve. Also, this could be an indication of a vision problem.
Once you determine the problem(s), you can run the exercise again until they get it right. When the student can place three dots close to each other, they will instinctively know how the rifle sights should look.
This report grew long because of explaining the triangulation exercise. I didn’t address the problems of different ammo, nor of the difference that airguns bring to the accuracy table. And there is also the problem of how close airgunners are to their targets. So there is more to come. If you have additional things for me to address, please let me know.