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.