courtesy 3gunnation.com

My hands [not shown] were killing me as I fired the last few rounds in the magazine. The barrel toasty enough that there was a visible mirage across the top of the slide, and the takedown pin was so hot that it actually burned my trigger finger when I indexed it along the frame. The sun was already beating down on the Texas dirt, and I could feel the beginnings of a sunburn taking shape on my neck. I had long since passed the point where the day’s trip to the range was fun – now it was officially work. And the day was just beginning . . .

Following my terrible handgun shooting performance at the last 3-gun match, I needed some serious trigger time with my new FNS-9. I had never run a handgun in competition that wasn’t a P226 before, and as a result, I was way off target with the FNS-9. There are subtle differences between the two guns, things like the grip angle and the height of the barrel above my hand, and it was enough to throw off my aim. I needed to fix that, to get my hands to default to the FNS-9’s point of aim, and I needed to do it fast.

The only true way to become familiar with a new gun is to shoot damned thing. A lot. Preferably over a number of trips to the range, each time reinforcing the previous experience. But given the rather compressed schedule I’m running these days, I figured my best bet would be to grab as much ammo as I could carry and hit the range. I walked out the door with 500 rounds in the morning, and didn’t bring a single one back.

The problem with practicing with handguns is the regular options aren’t much fun. Punching holes in paper is great for a few minutes, but by the second magazine there are too many holes to know which ones you just put there and which are older. Plus, it’s downright boring. You need something to keep your attention, keep you entertained and let you know that you’re hitting what you’re aiming at. And for that, there’s nothing better than a big-ass steel plate.

That chunk of steel is about the best $100 I’ve ever spent on firearms-related equipment. I use a 12” square AR 500 steel plate that’s bolted to a 2×4 and set into a metal stand. A pair of springs on the back keep it propped up. The best part is that everything in the configuration is replaceable, which is good because I’ve already gone through three sets of bolts (they get sheared off when I hit them by accident).

The main benefit of the steel plate is that it gives you a permanent target that reacts every time it’s hit. You don’t need to go downrange every few minutes to put up a new target, and you can even see where you’re hitting as long as you spray on a new layer of paint every few magazines. It really is the perfect training aid, as long as your range allows you to use them.

The Best of the West Range up near Liberty Hill is one of those awesome ranges where you can use whatever targets you want (so long as you’re safe and clean up the pieces afterwards). So I rolled into the range at 8 AM, set myself up in one of the bays, plopped the steel target about 20 yards in front of me and got to work.

For the majority of my time, I was just concerned about improving my accuracy. I’d been shooting low during the competition, and I needed to fix that. So I put round after round on steel, trying to keep my group as small and close to the center as possible. It took some practice, but a couple hundred rounds later I was instinctively aiming nearly as well as I had with my old P226.

About halfway through the big box ‘o ammo, I was on target, but that wasn’t good enough. I needed to be able to hit the target no matter what, so I put 50 rounds in a row on the steel to confirm that I knew where to aim and moved on to “phase 2.”

The challenge in 3-gun isn’t necessarily the shooting. In my opinion, the challenge comes from moving as fast as you can one second and then making a precisely aimed shot the next. Being able to apply those speed brakes is a requirement, and not something that comes easy. So, for the rest of the day I practiced running full speed to my mark and then putting five rounds into the steel plate as fast as I could. By the end of the day I was running it like a champ.

When the ammo was all gone, I looked down at my hands and realized how absolutely terrible they looked. My fingers were covered in grime and carbon, my palms were raw and bleeding and I couldn’t find a single portion of them that wasn’t somehow in pain. Normally, I love going to the range and blowing through ammo, but I’d passed the point of fun hundreds of rounds back.

As I stood there, I heard the words of one of my first 3-gun teammates ringing in my ears. It was our first competition and things didn’t look pleasant. It had been raining all night and showed no signs of letting up. The temp was about 34 degrees and the wind was howling through the fields. We were freezing, wet, and by the looks of the massive streams between us and the finish line, we were about to be even wetter. As we toed the starting line, my friend turned to us, grinned his USMC-issue smile and shouted “harden the f*** up boys, pain is momentary but glory is eternal!” Just then, the RO tapped the buzzer and off we sprinted without a moment’s hesitation.

I smiled to myself at the memory as I blasted the steel plate with a fresh coat of paint (to seal in the lead particles), lit a cigar and relaxed while the paint dried and the gun cooled off. I was improving, but I still had a long way to go to go to catch up with the big boys. And as much as it might suck to practice that much, I was determined to climb that learning curve no matter how long and hard it may be.

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23 Responses to Doing My Pistol Penance

  1. training like that is further away than a dream, here in the heart of Liberation and Freedom, known as Chicago Illinois. color me extremely jealous!!

  2. Years ago, I went to work with my uncle one day who is SF and he was running a combat arms training course for a non-combat supply company teaching basic combat firing techniques.

    Anyway, he set me at a target with a M9 and a .50 cal ammo can with at least 1,000 rds where I proceeded to receive one-on-one instruction from several SF NCO’s.

    Suffice to say, with a 12-13 lb double action trigger pull, I had a very sore trigger finger by the end of the day. So I know what it feels like when you say the trip to the range had long passed being fun and became work.

  3. But it hurts so good!

    Especially after you ice those hands. Just hope you don’t develop a flinch. No, not when you shoot, when you pick the gun up!

  4. I need to find a range (or private property in NJ) that allows “fun” targets.

    The place I go in PA (maintained by the PA DCNR) only allows paper targets, although I do hang tennis balls and small chunks of wood at the 100 yard range for my .22 rifle. Paper targets at 10 -25 yards for pistol is fun for about 10 shots. After that I want to hear something clang or break up into small pieces!

  5. I am just surprised you didn’t go to the Bullet Hole. You seemed so fond of them after your last trip.

  6. Cliche but true nonetheless; embrace the suck and know that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You’ve been given a truly golden opportunity, make the most of it. I know you will. Have a blast!!

  7. Nick, I’ve been reading this forum a short time but did read your other post about shooting the match with your new equipment and I feel your pain. I’d like to offer some advice from the perspective of an old school guy. I did get into the sport close to the beginning in the 70’s when everyone was learning and had the good fortune to practice and compete with the legends of the sport.

    I agree that shooting paper can be boring but that is where you learn to shoot, you just have to do it right. That big chunk of steel you enjoy shooting has a diabolical way of robbing your accuracy. The steel gives a satisfying ring no matter where you hit it, on the edge high low wherever. The most necessary skill you must have to shoot fast and accurately is the ability to visually call your shots, shooting steel fools you into thinking you’re calling your shots when you are really not, or at least not from your sight picture. Paper on the other hand forces you to see and paste those shots that land in areas that your didn’t really intended them to. You start learning and self correcting when you call a shot and then see it did or didn’t hit where you called it. So put time in shooting groups, one shot and two shot draws, and walking down and pasting up your hits to see if you really called them. When you practice on steel paint it often and call a hit anywhere outside say half of the target a miss even though it did ring the steel. We all know those edgers in practice will be misses on race day.

    I started my practice sessions with 10 one shot draws on a 25yd target 2 second time limit and if I had any even close to the A zone line I would repeat until I got ten honest hits in a row and then move on to practicing other things. This is a great drill and I suggest adjusting it to your skill level by shooting from closer and or longer time limits, adjusting the difficulty level as you improve. I also ended my practice sessions with some sort of accuracy drill. If for instance I started having problems while practicing for the Steel Challenge I always went back to accuracy drills where the problem was easily identified. My good friend and practice partner Bill Wilson and I would do a lot of thousand round practice days making that last accuracy drill a real challenge.

    Good luck in your shooting adventures.

    • I think you bring up a lot of great points but I have to day shooting on a 12″ plate at 20 yards isn’t that large of an area. Most shots that hit at that range and size with a handgun would be sufficiently accurate for a 3-gun course. It definitely doesn’t provide the specific feedback paper targets can, but using small steel targets can’t be a big hinder on accuracy like lather steel target could at the same ranges.

    • That’s what I’m wondering.
      I’m so low on ammo that I’m down to dry-firing for practice ’cause I cannot find any on the shelves, and what’s on-line is so exorbitantly over-priced.

  8. This reads an awful lot like a chapter from an upcoming book…. If it is, I look forward to picking up a copy!

  9. Nick, next time on you way up to Best of the West, if you need company stop by and pick me up in Austin. I’d love to get your insight on some of my shooting.

  10. I know that feel bro. It’s a great experience that hurts the body but enriches the soul in an undefinable way. We did much the same with our service rifles in a predeployment exercise in 29 Palms and learned the true meaning of ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’.

  11. The sun was searing my backside, as my quivering & sweaty hands tried to row back the 12lb trigger of my 5906. Boom boom,decock & holster, go down range.

    Yup. Hit the 7 ring again. Jesus, sweat in your eye really stings.

    But no mind-I didn’t leave until the 250 round box was empty. While I’m no comp shooter, I can confidently defend myself with any firearm no matter how heavy its trigger. A skill worth some degree of sunburn and sticker shock.

  12. I love (understatement) Best of the West. They have always, always treated my friends and I right. Good people out there.

  13. For all those that think 500 is a lot, it’s not. That’s a couple of hours of my reloading time, and I’m slow. Typical training sessions should be at least a couple hundred cartridges. Training classes are typically a thousand cartridges a day. Not sure why your hands were bloody, Nick, you may want to look into that. I burned at least that much in my range session today, definitely that much in my weekend matches (every weekend). Heck, I’m not even “sponsored”.

    Now that you’ve taught yourself how to shoot steel, you’ll have to unlearn or relearn how to shoot paper. Given that paper targets are the norm, most of the time, for pistol selection (barring some random inclusions or shooter’s choice on small steel) targets, the mental picture in your head is a steel plate vice an A zone of a paper/cardboard target. Additionally, steel isn’t really ideal for shot placement shot calling drills to figure out conclusively where you need adjustments/improvements. Train how you’ll fight…. (Or compete, as the case may be)

    I’m still at a loss as to how the sights on the FNS are so radically different from the P226. Sight alignment, sight picture, etc.; concepts and principles are the same. I get that it’s a new firearm…. Practice was needed, which you have now done, great job!

  14. As someone who tests guns for a living, and subsequently shoots A LOT in a day (3-5K rounds) through handguns in snappier calibers than 9mm, I have a hard time feeling sorry for you.

    I will say I do envy you having a goal for those 500 rds. Your hands will harden up. I imagine you got a bit of splitting around the back joint of the thumb, try putting some athletic tape over that area to keep the friction down.

    BTW, cool articles on the whole Team FN thing. We’re all pretty jealous.

  15. Sure, blame the gun for your failure to adapt. Grip angle is an excuse; you override grip angle every time you line up the sights. If you blame grip angle for poor recovery, then you are failing to address the problem with your grip technique for recoil management. Learn to recalibrate your brain to any gun by mixing up the guns you shoot–revolvers, small semi autos, Glock, 1911’s, SIGs and so forth. If you cannot recalibrate in a magazine or two, then you have one or more problems in your technique that should be addressed through professional instruction.

    As for boring practice: stop your whining!! A bad day on the range is better than a great day at work. Get off your butt and DRY FIRE a variety guns every night for one hour total. Put in the time or continue to suck at shooting in silence.

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