Confidence, Part 3: On Demand

The time I spent focusing on shooting from a standing position recently was definitely time well spent.  I have to confess that there was a huge disparity in my level of confidence between dry fire and live fire that was present only in the standing position.  It would not be a great exaggeration to say that I felt like I could hit the head of a pin at 50 yards in dry fire, but I worried about missing a full sheet of paper at the same distance in live fire.  This feeling used to be a lot worse.

When I shot my standing groups in June of 2011 in preparation to launch this blog, I almost had a feeling of anxiety about the group I was shooting.  Dry fire had felt so stable, and live fire was feeling almost unimaginably unstable.  I didn’t generally think my ’06 had a lot of recoil, but I picked up a flinch in short order and it was enough to add to the nervousness.

I made a point recently to get to the range almost every week and shoot a few groups from standing.  The regularity of both dry fire and live fire was helpful.  It made the disparity in feeling between the dry fire and live fire stand out that much more.  What I started noticing was that I was not confident in my ability to make the shot on the 4” target from 50 yards, although in dry fire, I could usually break the shot with the sight very near a target the equivalent of about half that size.

I also noticed that the process of breaking a shot during dry fire was almost casual while in live fire I would hover over a sight picture afraid to disturb it by pressing the trigger.  Too long a hold puts a strain on one’s oxygen supply and everything starts to degrade, so generally things only get worse with hesitation.  Some of the problem was that I had to reinforce my follow through to a point where I could extend my fundamentals through the break.  Another part was a lack of awareness of my balance breaking down which I addressed last month.  Those were all contributing problems, but they were not the primary contributors.

To increase my confidence in live fire, I moved closer to the target, up to 35 yards.  All the shots were on target, but the group size was still mediocre.  As I moved back, the angular measurement of my group got smaller.  My confidence was improving, which allowed me to be more aggressive in my firing.

When I got back to 50 yards, I don’t know if it was a psychological hurdle, or that my ability to group was pushing the limits of my target size (probably both), but I had a setback in my angular group size for one group.  It was a good opportunity to observe the phenomenon of my performance choking a bit, and I quickly got back in form.

Why Did I Choke At the Range?  Aim small, miss small.

Here’s what I think was going on.  Calling shots in dry fire is a bit of an interpretive game.  Recently I would pick out a cluster of red berries on a tree outside and dry fire at them.  Many of the clusters were smaller than I’m capable of hitting on demand, but I was pretty happy if I could keep my shots within a certain radius, say a mil, from the center of the intended target (for reference a mil is 3.438 MOA, and the largest radius that will fit inside the 5 point scoring area on the standing portion of the AQT is 3.493 MOA).  However there are no stakes for “hitting or missing” because it’s dry fire.  Therefore I was accepting close misses in large proportions without worrying about it at all because the angular measurement of my total shots appeared to be consistent with a pretty good group size.

Another type of practice I did that had me frustratingly choking at the range was single hits on targets at both the 7 yard and 25 yard lines.  My practice in this venue was time driven.  To improve my times I would also accept a proportion of misses as part of getting faster.  This method of working speed is known as “zero or hero”, as opposed to a reliable “on demand” type practice that is more conservative.

I think that accepting misses in practice created a disparity between my attitude in dry fire and live fire.  In live fire I really don’t want to miss, and there is no credit given for misses, even if they would represent a decent group.  A 50% hit rate is garbage, in my opinion.  Thinking of it in that way made it clear to me that for the type of shooting performance I feel I need to be capable of, the zero or hero methodology is fatally flawed, and at maximum should be carefully employed in very limited doses.

Know Your Limits, Then Push Them

The old adage “aim small, miss small” is not applicable to people who don’t want to miss.  I think it’s actually a recipe for learning to miss.  Showing up to the range and wondering what’s going to happen may be exciting, but it does not foster confidence.  In my experience it caused me to be nervous when my performance was on the edge, even when the stakes were only photos of my groups in the internet.

A better approach is to be well aware of what you are actually capable of, then deliberately train to increase your capabilities incrementally.  It’s similar to using progressive resistance to get stronger.  It would be silly to go through the motion of deadlifting with no weights, then to head to the gym and attempt to do it for real with 500 pounds, just hoping for a good outcome.  A messed up back is something that gets one’s attention in a hurry, but for some reason a bad group is very easily written off as a fluke.

It’s important to be the type of shooter who hits the target.  Starting from a point where hitting the target is a given will train the mind to get hits as a matter of course.  Increasing the distance incrementally after hitting the target is well established will allow the shooter’s capabilities to grow.  He will also be able to discern what type of shots he can and cannot make, which will allow him to make informed decision on ethical shots in the field- with confidence.


2 thoughts on “Confidence, Part 3: On Demand

  1. This may be heresy, but is dry fire a bit overrated? I do think dry fire is an important part of training, but I have recently begun to question the value of extensive dry fire exercise. Recent extreme cold has forced to retreat to the basement for some 10m bullseye air pistol shooting. This is done one handed with open sights. At my skill level a perfectly steady hold just never happens, but a very good sight picture may be maintained. Obtaining good scores is a question of timing. I attempt to operate the trigger as the sights are coming to perfect alignment on target. I have a similar approach to standing with the rifle–the timing matters a great deal. The feedback obtained from shooting a lot and getting immediate feedback is valuable.

  2. Air guns are great. Dry fire has value, as long as you keep it a learning experience. Over on The Every Day Marksman blog I posted a list of things to py attention to for every shot. Most of that goes for live fire as well as dry.
    The greater value of dry fire comes when you are still on the steep part of the learning curve – it will help you advance faster.

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