Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

I personally love the challenge of breaking a bad habit in myself but trying to lead a horse to water and break one in someone else is another story completely, especially in the macho man gun culture wherein admitting you don’t know something results in immediate surrender of your man card and comprehensive suspension of man rights.

Saturday morning I had a private NRA Pistol FIRST Steps scheduled. The student showed with his own gun (Glock 23, a fine gun, albeit in a caliber (.40) I don’t care for) and immediately informed me he was just trying to get the certificate of proficiency that would allow him to procure his non-resident FL Concealed Carry Permit. I took a look at his Glock and noticed it wasn’t a Gen4 or even a Gen3 model. I looked like a Gen2, which dated it to the late 90’s at the latest. It was well worn, obviously seeing a lot of use over the years, had an aftermarket Hogue grip sleeve and, apparently, had been bought new. In my head, I’m thinking, “This guy is a seasoned shooter, this is going to be a piece of cake.”

We zipped through the FIRST Steps lesson plan using his Glock and my Next Level Training SIRT Pistol. He seemed to have solid fundamentals, at least as near as I can tell by watching someone dry fire. We finished up the classroom portion uneventfully and off we went to the range.

This is where things got interesting.

We had identified that the shooter was cross-eye dominant in class. In layman’s terms, this means he’s right handed and shoots with this right hand, but uses his left eye to align his sites and attain a site picture. Most cross-eye dominant shooters learned to shoot using a Chapman stance because it seems to naturally align the shooter’s left eye with the sites. Not a problem, I like the isosceles for numerous reasons, but to each his own. But he also appeared to be far sighted, which meant he leaned his head sort of up and back, as if he was trying to use bifocals to find his front site and focus on it. As always, with a new student, I go through stance, grip, sight alignment and site picture with just the unloaded gun to make sure they’re comfortable with what we’re about to do and what I’m looking for when we start shooting live. I was comfortable that this student, despite being unorthodox, would shoot well.

Bad Habit #1

The student loaded up a magazine, inserted into his magwell and, despite the number of times we went over it in class, released the slide using the slide stop on the frame instead of grabbing it with his off/support (in this case, left) hand, pulling it all the way back and releasing it.

I get it. Many of us, myself included, learned how to rack a slide that way. They do it in the movies, too, and it looks super cool. I always go over this in class because so many of us have the habit.

Lesson: Even with experienced shooters emphasize that the “slide stop” is not a “slide release.” 

There are at least three reasons for this:

  1. Avoiding Wear and Tear: Using the slide stop to release the slide introduces unnecessary wear and tear on the metal tab which locks the slide to the rear. It’s just a little sliver of metal, really, and under a fair amount of spring tension when the slide is back. Articulating it with your thumb to release the slide causes unlubricated metal-on-metal contact which you should always avoid where possible.
  2. Adrenaline Management: In a gunfight your adrenaline spikes. When your adrenaline spikes the first thing you lose is fine muscle control. Using your thumb to feel for, find, and articulate a tiny metal lever is going to be difficult if not downright impossible. On the other hand (pun intended) grabbing the entire slide with you support hand and pulling it to the rear is a gross muscle activity. You have a much better chance of getting your firearm into battery (slide closed, barrel locked, round chambered) by using your entire off hand.
  3. Reliable Opertation: Next time you’re cleaning your gun, lock the slide to the rear. Then pull it the rest of the way, so it’s all the way open. It’s a fairly significant travel, isn’t it? I know on my Springfield XD’s it’s about 1/4″ or more. By pulling that slide all the way to the rear and releasing it, you’re realizing the full potential of the recoil spring and minimizing the chance that you’ll have a failure to feed. With modern firearms with decent feed ramps and round nose ammunition, this isn’t so much of a problem. But start using flat point or even hollow point ammo with blunt tips and  that quarter inch might be the difference between a round chambering and jamming. I have at least one gun that will not chamber anything other than round nose ammo unless the slide is released from it’s full extent of rearward travel.

Bad Habit #2

This student was all over the paper. Almost immediately he was doing the classic “down and to the left” thing new shooters do. Anyone who’s ever analyzed a shooter’s target knows immediately that we have trigger issues. And this guy had some serious ones. At 5 yards, he was between 9 and 12″ down left.

I had already verified that he was using the appropriate part of his finger so I started watching his movement before, during and after the shot. I noticed one thing immediately – he was slapping the trigger. I also suspected, based on the shot pattern, that he was anticipating the recoil, which causes shooters to break the wrist forward and down slightly, but that was more difficult to see. So we went back to the fundamentals.

  1. There is only one way to squeeze the trigger: Evenly and with direct backward pressure
  2. The report of the round firing should surprise the shooter. Okay, that’s a funny way to say it, because you know you’re firing a gun and all but hear me out: The trigger, at some point during it’s travel, releases a hammer or striker which causes the gun to fire. It’s called the “trigger break.” You should not try to anticipate when the trigger is going to break, which will likely cause an involuntary reaction of trying to compensate for anticipated recoil by pushing the gun forward and making the round strike low. In fact the only thing moving should be your trigger finger. Let the gun surprise you. You have a good grip and a solid, athletic stance; you’re not going to drop the gun and it’s not going to blast you over.
  3. Slow down. You don’t have to squeeze the trigger quickly. That causes you to jerk the trigger. As the military is fond of saying, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” You build speed through practice, through relentless repetition. Start slow and smooth and build speed from that solid foundation.

So, what we ended up doing was having him go through a magazine v e r y  s l o w l y. I told him to pull the trigger slowly and evenly, let the gun fire, don’t anticipate the break, etc. Essentially practicing good trigger control, one of the most critical fundamentals of marksmanship. Why is it so critical? Because there is only one way to squeeze the trigger. Correctly, anyway.

Anyway, sure enough, he started drilling the center of the target. He got a big grin and said he’d never shot that well. So his homework, and, Mr. Student, if you’re reading this, is to dry fire constantly. Work the trigger constantly. Go to the range and apply solid fundamentals constantly. Stop going to the range just to make brass. Go to the range with a purpose. Train. Start with the fundamentals before you get fancy. Learn to shoot.

Lesson: Don’t assume that just because a shooter shows up and seems to have a lot of experience he has solid fundamentals.

And I should have known this one. I use SIRT training pistols in class to ensure fundamentals are being used and people know how to align sites, gain site picture, control breathing and movement, manage a trigger and follow through. I need to use it more effectively.

I practice trigger discipline every time I touch a gun. Nine times out of 10, before I holster my carry gun, I dry fire it, unloaded of course, half a dozen times. I have a SIRT Training pistol sitting next to my TV chair. I probably get at least 100 trigger reps a day.

Like I said in my Fundamentals of Concealed Carry Article: you owe it to everyone around you to know what in the hell you’re doing when you carry a gun. Being able to hit what you’re aiming at, by sound application of fundamentals, is exactly what I’m talking about.

Bad Habit #3

This next one is mine. I saw a guy come in, saw a well-worn gun, talked to him, assessed his experience and assumed that he was a sound shooter. He wasn’t.

Lesson: Give every student their money’s worth.

This episode made me an exponentially better instructor. No longer will I worry about boring a student in class. We can all learn something by going back to the basics.

About Andy

Andy is a veteran of OEF and OIF and currently works in the surveillance industry, keeping an eye on the bad guys. He's been an NRA Certified instructor for over two years.
Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply