At the start of 2016, I posted an article about one of the things I was going to try to do to get better at shooting throughout the year, which was attempt to dryfire every day. While I didn’t manage to meet my goal of dryfiring every day, I did certainly dryfire much more often than I had in the past, and it made a difference to my shooting. (I made excuses for myself on some days later in the year, rationalizing not putting in the work. The excuses weren’t valid, and it isn’t like the extra 3 minutes I got instead of practicing ended up being useful to me. One of my goals this year is to not make excuses for not doing the work.)
Keeping on with the thread of learning how to shoot, let’s talk about live fire. We’ve discussed the general process of learning, we’ve talked about the effectiveness of dryfire practice in general—so how do you make sure that your live fire practice actually makes you better?
First: HAVE A PLAN.
Hopefully, you’ve already done enough dryfire practice to both know your current strengths and weaknesses, and even better, your limits with regard to various skills. If you’ve been practicing, then you will have made gains in your dryfire skills that need to be tested in live fire.
Which means that you should know what skills you should be testing in this range trip. Prior to going to the range, check your dryfire practice regimen and look at what needs to be tested in live fire. I generally TRY to work on no more than three skills per range trip–because I tend to attempt to verify my dryfire practice skill level in isolated drills, then work on combining those skills with others to make sure the skills are integrated correctly. (In other words, that I can do it on demand no matter the circumstances, as opposed to only when I’m set and ready to perform solely that skill.)
Which means that I’ve already got quite a practice session set up. While there is occasionally some value in a marathon 1000-round all-day practice session, MOST people hit their concentration limit at 2-3 hours. (Some sooner than that.) If you can’t concentrate, focus, and control your motor skills, you are just making loud noises for fun. Nothing wrong with that—but it doesn’t help, and may actually cause you to practice poor technique.
So: Plan to test a limited number of skills first in isolation, then in combination.
Second: ALWAYS PRACTICE ACCURACY.
USPSA Grandmaster Manny Bragg has a dot drill that he uses to start every range practice, which requires nothing but the ability to draw and repeatedly make accurate shots on a single target within a par time. It isn’t an incredibly difficult drill, but it does require that the shooter demonstrate the ability to have solid sight alignment and manage the trigger correctly. He keeps shooting it until he passes the drill—whereupon he goes and works on whatever he had planned for his range practice that day.
His contention, which I completely agree with, is this: If he can’t be accurate enough to hit 3″ circles at 10 yards under a slight time pressure, then he isn’t shooting well enough to practice anything else live. (After all, anything NON-shooting can be done in dryfire, and if you are shooting, you have to be accurate.)
He’s had at least one occasion where he never got to his actual practice plan—he kept not being able to keep his concentration, would blow the drill, and finally just stopped and went home.
If you can’t shoot accurately, then not much else matters in live fire practice.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot drills at 3 yards with only a target focus, or anything similar—it simply means that at the start of your practice, if you can’t manage the concentration and discipline necessary for solid accurate shooting then it isn’t a day where anything more complicated will be improved.
Third: DON’T DRILL IT INTO THE GROUND.
Performing 1000 reps of a particular drill won’t actually make you better, if you do them all in a row. For most people, by about rep 10 their concentration will start to wander (if they have done all the reps in a row in the same fashion) and it simply won’t help.
Yes, to be skilled you’ll have to practice a drill 10,000 times. But like dryfire practice, it’ll work a lot better if you do that in chunks of 10 reps, interspersed with other things. Do 10 good, solid, disciplined reps–then do a different drill. Then come back, and perhaps do 10 more, in a slightly different fashion. Same skill, but different enough situation that you still have to concentrate fully on it. Work on another drill for awhile, take a break, then do your original drill for 10 more reps.
You’ll see a LOT more skill gain doing it that way compared to doing 30 reps in a row. And you’ll be more likely to retain that skill gain.
Fourth: VERIFY YOUR SKILLS.
In general, dryfire is where you push your limits. Live fire is where you verify your skills. You know you aren’t going to draw as fast as you possibly ever can in live fire, because if you screw up the gun will go flipping downrange. Instead, you push yourself in dryfire, and then in live fire find what you can do consistently and accurately.
Part of that is of course working skills in an isolated fashion, for example working on your ability to draw to an upper A-zone hit (the “ocular window” area, for those who don’t USPSA) in less than 1.5 seconds. Or working a 7-yard A-zone hit, reload, to a second A-zone hit in less than 2 seconds. That’s isolated, specific skills. (Perhaps your times are better. Or worse. It depends on what your skill level is.)
But you also need to work on integrating those skills with others–and practicing your recoil control while switching skills is something you can only do in live fire. So don’t neglect it!
Practice a draw-to-one-shot drill. Then a 1-reload-1 drill. Then a draw-to-one-shot drill while taking a step. Then a 1-reload-1 drill where you transition from one target to another while reloading. Then practice a stepping draw-to-one-shot, reload-while-transitioning to a second target, one shot drill. Lastly some more reps of a draw/shot drill, a 1-reload-1 drill, and then end that sequence with a basic draw/shot/reload/shot drill on the same target—but at 15 yards instead of 7 yards.
That’s 8 drills, two skills, with a combination of isolation and integrative practice.
The skill stays the same. But the differences require you to keep concentrating, and sequencing the drills mean that you have to keep yourself honest about your recoil control and ability to handle the firearm.
Pistol-training.com (Todd Louis Green) created an outstanding general purpose target awhile back, available from National Target. If you don’t have much time or equipment, you can EASILY get in a solid 200-round practice session using only one target. Obviously, multiple targets of the type you are most likely to shoot (IDPA, IPSC, silhouette, bullseye, whatever!) at different ranges and angles are best—but it is also true that occasionally shooting at something different is a good thing, and the P-T.com target gives you LOTS to work with.
When working on getting better, remember: if you can’t work the gun, then you’ll never have a chance to shoot. If when you shoot you can’t hit anything, it won’t help. So in terms of skills, those two are the most important. If those are solid, work on keeping those going while doing other things like transitioning, shooting one-handed, weak-handed, turning, on moving targets, while moving backward….the possibilities are endless.
Have a plan, keep your accuracy high, drill intelligently, and verify that your dryfire practice is working.
Other posts in this series:
I’m a big fan of using a timer for shooting skills practice. HUGE fan. I believe strongly that if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you need to go.
And yet, I almost completely agree with John Wallace in his blog posting about Randomness in practice: Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer (Part V: Randomness) In it, he suggests doing a whole LOT of things that mean you can’t actually track your progress over time, and sometimes can’t even use a timer in the first place.
So how can I agree with both of those perspectives without demonstrating some significant schizophrenia? (And we are going to leave my mental health out of this, thank you very much.)
Simple: one of the above methods is for practicing shooting skills. The other is for practicing applications of shooting skills. There is a bit of grey area in there (for example, when practicing the skill of using cover, you still don’t try to beat the timer) but for the most part, the issue of randomness should occur when attempting to prepare for real-life self-defense (or military, or LEO) applications–not when learning the skills in the first place.
When do I use a timer?
- Practicing my draws (hands at sides, surrender, concealment 2-handed, concealment 1-handed, WHO draw, sitting, prone, supine)
- Practicing my reloads (emergency, speed, one-handed SHO, one-handed WHO)
- Working transitions and splits
- Practicing explosive movement into and out of positions onto near/far targets
- …and many other specific physical skills.
Put it this way—specific skills, practiced in isolation, make you good at those skills, such that in terms of applications of said skills, you don’t have to think through the skill itself. In application, you can then use the majority of your brain to concentrate on the situation, instead of having to devote part of it to remembering (for example) how to get a good draw using only your strong hand.
When you first learned how to work a manual transmission, you had to think about it a lot—at the expense of paying attention to your surroundings. Someone ever try to talk to you when you were first trying to go from a stop into first gear uphill? How’d that go? Did you tell them to shut up until you got the car moving? (I’ll bet you did.)
And yet, as you got more comfortable with the transmission, the amount of brainpower you had to spend on it became less—so that you could spend more time watching the road, and paying attention to the situation around you. And talking with friends.
In a similar fashion, If your shooting skills are good, it’ll make your ability to apply those skills far greater. You’ll have more brain capacity available for problem-solving, as less of it (less of the conscious part, at least) will be needed for the skill itself.
Using a timer for building skills means you have a way to measure your practice–what works, what doesn’t, what helps you improve most. It gives you a standard against which to practice, a point at which you can say “okay, this skill is pretty good, time to change training priorities.” (We don’t want to say “good enough,” unless it is “good enough that I should be practicing something else before I try to get this one better.) For example, if your draw from concealment on a target at 7 yards is already 1 second, you might be better served by practicing other skills as opposed to trying to drop another 0.15 seconds.
But after your skills are solid (and while you continue to practice your skills), you should be practicing applications of those skills. Say that you can already draw, reload, and shoot on the move. Now, (with a training partner) set up a situation in which there are three targets in front of you, with varying (and mixed) colors, numbers, and shapes on them. Have your partner yell out a combination that you have to recognize, and only shoot those targets. Or maybe only NOT shoot those targets.
Too easy? Have the targets appearing, (visual start, instead of an audible start) and also require that you shoot on the move to cover.
Still too easy? Have your training partner give you a magazine that has an unknown number of rounds it in, forcing an emergency reload at some point in time. Or instead, include a dummy round in the magazine somewhere to force remedial action under stress.
Those applications really aren’t made for timer work. (You could use one occasionally if you want, but it won’t really tell you anything.) The purpose of those applications is to train your brain to make appropriate situational choices—in which you need as much free brainpower as possible. (As opposed to training your body to perform physical skills.)
If your skills practice was solid enough, then you should HAVE free brainpower available. If, on the other hand, you haven’t put yourself on a timer for basic shooting skills, chances are that your skills are weaker than you think, and your shooting application success level will be far lower.
We use bullseye targets to measure accuracy, don’t we? In a similar fashion, you should use a timer to measure speed. (Unless, in your lifestyle, shooting is all bullseye and never self-defense. No, there isn’t a timer in a self-defense situation. There is another guy there who really is trying to be faster than you, however.) And you should use a timer in your practice fairly often.
But you should also NOT use the timer fairly often, because in addition to training your body to handle specific skills, you need to train your brain to handle varying situations.
You are practicing two different things. And unsurprisingly, the best methodology to use in these two different things, with two different goals—-is different.
What a shock.
Use a timer on known drills. Also—incorporate randomness in your training.
(I will note my biggest disagreement with John is in his title. He calls it: “Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer” —I think that Randomness and situational training actually should start occurring AFTER you’ve been chasing the timer for awhile. Get good at specific skills. Then, start practicing occasionally with randomness.)