Shooting Sessions: Practice vs. “Zen” Moments

By David Tong

For those of us who have been involved with the shooting sports for a “few” years, we have had times at the range, or in the field, when everything “seemed” to go right. To the amazement of the shooter as well as the onlooker, it’s one of those times when you simply can’t miss. Why does this happen and when?

Human beings operate very well through repetitive training. Neural pathways and eye/hand coordination coalesce over time. When enough repetition occurs, and usually for most this means a period of several years, a level of competency happens.

The mind recognizes this. It is like “connecting the dots.” All of a “sudden,” the picture emerges from the haze of what seems to be disconnected events.

I believe that there are other athletes of far greater physical prowess than the average shooter. However, while one has to be in pretty good shape to hunt Dall sheep, shooting is primarily a mental exercise.

A good friend who was in the Marines in the 1970s said that they had an acronym they used in Boot Camp, “B.R.A.S.S.” This stands for “Breathe; Relax, Aim, (take up the trigger) Slack, Squeeze.” This provides the basic formula and mindset of shooting fundamentals in a simple, yet also sublime way. (I’m sure it didn’t feel sublime to the Recruits, though!) All shooting disciplines can begin this way, to nip bad habits in the bud.

When someone is new to shooting, it is often with anticipation and excitement. There is nothing wrong with that, because it is what attracts and hopefully keeps people in the sport. However, shooting at first is something that has to be approached with a level of maturity and discipline for safety’s sake and instilled at the beginning. These same five tenets apply to pistol, rifle, or shotgun use.

Breath control oxygenates your brain initially, but then releasing a half-breath is usually recommended to release the shot so that the movement of your chest does not throw off your aim. Generally in slow fire, I would tend to take as many as 5-10 breaths before releasing the last one partially.

Thus, one comes to the state of concentration and you relax. You’ve been down this road before, and your mental goal is to be as calm as possible under the circumstances to position your body, your arms, legs, and eyes behind the sighting equipment. You will be noting your balance, weight over your knees and the balls of your feet for solidity of stance, leaving your neck relatively upright for comfort.

Aiming is the alignment of the eyes behind sights of a pistol or rifle, or bead on a shotgun. During slow fire, or on non-moving targets, one can take one’s time and ensure that the small muscle motions needed to support the firearm are as minimal as possible. For me, these tend to go in cycles and then go in and out of stability until you get momentary steadiness.

The balance one has to have in this stage is that holding one’s breath for too long is going to cause instability and the shakes, so one has to compress the final two stages of this equation to successfully release the round. One may have to return to the start of the cycle when this occurs and rebuild the mindset and body control.

In addition, sometimes the target is moving, such as wild game or clay birds, and some motion or follow-through (keeping the arm in motion as if one were painting with a brush stroke) is going to have to occur to ensure a hit. Shotgun shooting and much of hunting are much more dynamic acts than stationary range work.

Taking up “slack” on a trigger is something familiar to those of us who spent time shooting older military service rifles with their two-stage triggers, or the amount of “take-up” prevalent on the semi-automatic. Because of my long familiarity with both types, I find that this is actually more relaxing to have to remove this slack before beginning the actual trigger squeeze than it is to have a very lightweight single-stage trigger such as those found on most sporting rifles.

Some of those triggers are adjusted or gunsmith-modified down to 2-3 pounds pull weight, which may be fine for a high-magnification telescoped rifle on a bipod or benchrest, but I think that most people are going to be happier between 3-4 pounds of release for the majority of field use.

Service rifle competition in the U.S. pretty much mandates a 4.75lb trigger pull. So long as the release is clean, without creep, I certainly do not have an issue with this much poundage at all.

On the pistol, anywhere between 3.75 – 5.5 pounds is also “just fine,” but that depends on what you are used to. I don’t think a 1.5-2 pound single action pull on a revolver is a particularly good training tool for a beginner, but then again most guys and gals who have wheelies like that are not neophytes.

Finally, there remains the squeeze. The speed in which your finger compresses the last of the trigger pull before shot release can vary widely. You may be excited at harvesting your deer, or shooting one of the best groups ever at the range. Either way, it still comes down to being both composed yet focused on the smoothness for this final effort, to avoid imposing a muscle twitch that affects the shot placement.

Some may have ice water in their veins and be able to S-L-O-O-O-W-W-LY squeeze, especially if you are on the bench and don’t have your arms having to support the weight. Most of us though are going to use a timed “press” when we simply will the shot release while keeping everything else as steady as possible during field, position, or offhand use.

The release of the shot is therefore when the natural UN-steadiness of motion briefly stops and becomes time for a “compressed surprise break.”

For as many years as I’ve been shooting, more as a sport than as a discipline requiring lots of practice sessions, I can count probably on the fingers of both hands the number of times when I had shooting “moments” when I simply could not miss. Generally I am a bit above average while shooting, well below the capability of a competitive shooter though.

These events happened mainly with pistols. I remember one day when firing my Kimber TLE 1911 .45 and placing “hammers” paired shots (no second sight picture) within an inch of each other as fast as I could press the trigger, at 15 feet.

Another day with an H&K Mark 23 SOCOM, managing a hand held 5 shot group with Cor-Bon 185gr +P JHP at 25 yards measuring under 1 1/8” and beating the average group from a test fixture during that pistol’s military trials before adoption. First time I’d ever shot that load in that pistol.

With an accurized Colt Delta Elite 1911 in 10mm, it happened while shooting stationary clay birds with single shots at up to 75 yards.

Firing my friend’s Italian made SAA replica in .45 Colt single-handed up to 20yrds away, and never having fired it before in my life.

With rifles, it was using my Remington 700 in .375 H&H offhand shooting running jackrabbits in the Mojave Desert. Another time was taking the head off a squirrel at 75 yards using a Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk III* with surplus Mk. VIII ball ammo from prone, never having practiced or shot that ammo before either. Both with open sights.

Shotgun outings; shooting multiple 24s while trap shooting (but never a 25!) in one day, or clover leafing Brenneke Magnum Slugs out of a 12ga Benelli at 75 yards.

What is interesting is that while the old saying, “Practice makes Perfect,” is often used to describe these occurrences, in my experience it is more mindset, a mental image of what one has to do. It moves through your thought process in a continuous consciousness stream as you go through the rehearsed motions, not because of the motions themselves. Mindset organizes them, providing a framework for what is to transpire.

I don’t believe in fate or luck, or even “Zen.” These were simply some moments when shooting just “flowed” as a very-natural-feeling extension of my will. When you pay attention to your fundamentals, relax, and enjoy the outing, you will experience them, and more often, as well.

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Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.