I see it all the time. A student’s shooting skills suddenly and steeply degrade. They immediately blame their equipment. There is a time and place to look at your equipment. Has something gone wrong? Is it performing up to specifications? Does it suit you?
But when things go south at the range, the first place you should look is within.
Embrace the suck
If you want to improve as a shooter/armed defender, you have to accept, indeed embrace failure. You have to see your inability as the key to your future ability. After all, how can you know the limits of your shooting skills if you don’t push those limits to failure?
For example, consider practicing shooting center mass for self-defense . . .
If you’re shooting a really tight group, if you’re stacking rounds on top of each other, you’re shooting too slowly. If you’re shooting too large a group, if your target looks like a large hunk of Swiss cheese, you’re shooting too fast.
If you’re shooting the perfect center mass group, you need to chase failure, not success.
Move the target further away. Move and shoot (where it’s safe to do so). Shoot with your weak hand. Remove your prescription glass (and replace them with standard safety glasses.) Challenge yourself to fail, so that you can practice to succeed.
Stop and think: why did I fail?
Understanding why you failed puts you on the path towards improvement.
As I indicated above, begin by checking your ego at the door. Take a step back, be as impartial and objective as you can.
Ask yourself, why did I miss? Narrow it down to the specific reason for the failure — trigger press, grip, lack of practice, nerves, tiredness, unfamiliarity with the firearm, whatever — and then focus on correcting the flaw.
What if I don’t know why I failed?
A recent student impressed me. “Watch me shoot and tell me what I’m doing wrong,” he asked, before firing a shot. He operates on the principle that there’s always room for improvement, and that we don’t know what we don’t know.
Seek out a truly objective and informed opinion on where you need do better. If you have access to a professional instructor, use it. Take that shooting class. Consider a private lesson, even if it’s just one. Put everything on the table: grip, stance, breathing, everything.
Live in the present
Not everyone can experience rapid, positive growth during firearms training. There’s a lot of frustration as you learn what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. What you can and what you cannot do (yet).
One big problem: sporadic performance. Sometimes a shooter gets just enough positive feedback to give them the impression that nothing’s wrong. Denial much? Shooters often ignore their failures even when they outnumber their successes.
When we push people during diagnostic or precision drills, some students are open to corrective strategies. They make incremental progress. Others are stay mired in their former selves’ performance reminiscing about that one time they really nailed it. Why, they’re just having a bad day!
No, you’re not having a bad day. Your technique is filled with flaws that you don’t want to recognize. But until you do, you’re going nowhere fast.
And now, finally, equipment . . .
Lights, lasers, better triggers, different sights — there are all sorts of bells and whistles that can enhance your shooting experience. Students want to know: are they worth the money?
I ask the student if their technique is solid. Without a solid technique foundation — one that is observable, measurable and repeatable — how will you know if a new piece of equipment is helpful or not? And speaking of a solid foundation, yes, gun selection can lead to failure. Or least, stymie success.
A good example: double action pistols. I don’t care how smooth a particular revolver’s trigger pull may be; the shooter must master two different actions. Close range is notorious for hiding the challenge. Precision work at distance brings it to the surface.
Which brings us full circle. Unless you test to failure, you won’t know whether or not you’re doing what you need to do to succeed, especially when shooting accurately suddenly becomes a lot more difficult — and important (i.e. during an adrenaline dump, when shooting skills degrade).
So go out there and fail. Learn. And fail again.
Jeff Gonzales is a former US. Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned unapologetically to the world at large. Currently he is the Director of Training at The Range at Austin. Learn more about his passion and what he does at therangeuastin.com.