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Shot Group Tighteners

Letter to a friend: A ramble about target shooting


I did compete in target rifle in high school, .22 long rifle, and eventually achieved a "Distinguished" rating, the highest medal you could win. I used to come in an hour before school every morning, often while it was still pitch dark, where our ROTC instructor would always be waiting, with his steaming cup of coffee, in the Armory, for any members of the shooting team who might actually show up for practice.

Sergeant Goodman was a Master Sergeant in the Regular Army, which to us (in 1961) was as close to God as you could get. He was also my shooting coach. He taught me shooting posture, sight pictures, breathing control and even mental control: "Relax, Forbes ... think about your sight picture and the ten ring and NOTHING else ..."

And so one morning, I was the only student who showed up, and I was on a roll. I was finishing up my practice match, and he pushed away the spotting scope and asked me how well I thought I was shooting that morning.

He asked me this, like you might ask if I knew what time it was, if I was really late for an appointment but I still didn't realize it yet.

He lit up a Lucky Strike. I looked away so the glare of the match wouldn't get to my eyes in the darkened armory. Only the paper targets down range were illuminated, ten black dots on white paper. I couldn't see any shots on the paper, which meant they were all very good, or all missed completely. He shook out the match, and threw it on the armory floor. He almost never smoked in front of his students, and certainly never "in class". He just looked at me.

My biggest target shooting problem had always been getting too hyper and forgetting my concentration.

For non-shooters: alignment of the front and rear sights with the dominant shooting eye, and with the target, is called the "sight picture." Shooters are trained to move the body, head and rifle or handgun as a coordinated unit. Relative to the eye, the barrel never wavers.

The object is to train this fixed "focus" on a target. Imagine the desirable black center of a target as a black ball. On good days, the ball floats over the general vicinity of the front sight, if you have some control. On bad days it may jerk back and forth, and bob up and down: the barrel, that appears stationary to the observer, to the shooter seems to chase a ball that has caught a bad case of the shakes.

On very good days, the black ball is willed to attach itself to the top of the front sight, so that it is exactly centered and tangent, and remain fixed there while the shooter slowly squeezes the trigger with increasing pressure rather than discernable motion. Everything must slow down. The shooter shall not try to anticipate exactly when the round will fire, hence, the requirement that the black ball remain glued to the front sight for a finite period of time.

Even mediocre-grade firearms are usually inherently much more accurate than any but the best of shooters.

The purpose of all this concentration is to bracket those one or two thousandths of a second when it actually matters where the barrel is aiming, as the bullet accelerates down the barrel. That is the "window". Ballistically speaking, every other factor takes a distant second place. No matter how accurate the firearm, no matter how carefully the ammunition is loaded and hand-matched, if the "window" isn't right, the shot is spoiled.

To the observer, the set-up time frame may be a couple of seconds. To a properly focused shooter, a perfect sight picture may seem an eternity.


The other problem, on the high school rifle range, was that I'd somehow still learned to define a window much smaller than anything we'd been taught in class, essentially, how to squeeze off the perfect shot -- but I didn't know how it worked, or how to control it.

I knew how that window "felt" when I was in it, but not how to command it nearer at will.

I think our practice drill was so many shots each in standing, sitting, and prone positions. I think a practice match was two boxes of 50. I'm pretty sure the "perfect" score was 1,000 (which would be consistent with 100 shots). No one had ever done it in our high school, and I, I'd just barely made First String.

But I did think I was on that roll, and I felt pretty confident that morning. When Sergeant Goodman asked me how I thought I was doing, I answered, "Pretty good, Sir", adding: "But don't tell me ...!"

And he told me anyway. I felt flustered, got back down into prone position, and "threw" the last shot. It was a 7. The only shot not in the black; I could see the hole in the white paper backing (in those days) with my own eyes.

But the other shots in the black could have been nines or eights. I didn't have the spotting scope, he did. We went back down range and looked at the targets.

Sergeant Goodman's voice normally carried a loud, commanding bark with a touch of New England accent. That morning, it was hushed, almost reverential: "My God, Forbes ... "

I couldn't say anything. I would have had that last one, but I couldn't blame him of all people for my own shooting.

We were really looking at a 997 out of 1000, and he checked every shot with a scoring device to make sure. Almost every one was a perfect 10, what we called a "V Bull", a tiebreaker the Rules allowed us, beating those shots that merely touched the ten-ring.

Except the last shot of course, which looked like someone else had shot it just to ruin the target.

I felt bad because it wasn't the perfect 1000 we'd touched, but failed to grab. He gave me a pep talk about what we can do when we just concentrate. He told me he'd never seen shooting like that before in his life.

If I remember right, a "990" was considered something only the very best could achieve, and then, only a few times. Ninety tens and ten nines is very good shooting.

I forget my average score then, but I'd guess I was shooting a little above the mid 900's in those days. A 10-point increase in score would be equivalent to something on the order of 100-fold increase in difficulty.

I felt I could never repeat a 997 in a million years. It was one of the sadder realizations of my high school years. I still didn't actually understand what "practice" and "discipline" was really about. I knew just how close I'd come, yet I really knew just how far away from that standard I was and probably always would be.

It was like missing the Gold Cup by one point when there are no second-place winners.

My shooting average declined sharply after that, and I had to fight hard (and practice more than ever) just to stay on the team. A month before graduation, I broke my losing streak and slightly improved over my previous averages.

But -- no, never again. Sergeant Goodman would cajole me in private whenever he caught the chance, prompting hopefully, "You can do it again. You KNOW you can do it, DON'T you, Forbes!"

And I would look him in the eye, shake my head and smile, "No, Sir, I don't know that at all." I had already made up my mind, and we all know there's nothing anybody can do about that.

Still, that was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that Sergeant Goodman and I had witnessed. We were both very lucky that day.

Shooting today is associated in the public mind with assault rifles and headline atrocities. We forget, because so few of us ever knew in the first place, that target marksmanship requires incredible discipline, concentration and practice. The total control required for a perfect shot group is very similar to that required for golf, and there are the same degrees of goodness. The story above is not really a story, just a recollection as narrated to a friend. But it does illustrate just how close to success we can get, and still not recognize it.

I put that story out of my mind for forty years. Every once in a while since then, I would re-find that "window": nine or ten in the middle of the black at the 25-yard pistol range, double-action rapid-fire, when all of my other targets were peppered with obvious holes in the white. There was the time in the Mojave I blew away six clay pigeons in a row, set up for the shotgunners on a hillock, with a handgun, also rapid-fire. Friends still talk of the time I took a bead on an iron gatepost about 300 yards away, with a big old single-action .44 magnum with a 10-1/2 inch barrel, and nailed the post with one shot. The post rewarded us with a resounding "gong!" that was heard back in camp.

I still don't know how I did those things, but I'd place my bets on practice, practice, practice. I could never completely summon that "window" at will, but I achieved a point where I could tell when it was coming back to me, and encourage it along. I firmly believe in practice now, but also that it was as much a matter of attitude and total concentration.

In those days I was up on the target range a lot. Today, I pursue different interests because I don't have time for them all. I do know this: if you find you're in the "window", whether it's shooting, golf, racing or programming, don't waste time with a lot of foolish questions about whether you deserve to be getting those kinds of scores. I believe the musicians called it "in the groove". When you're on a roll, just go for it.

You can always practice later.

For the other days, the world needs more coaches like Sergeant Goodman. After all, coaching me to shoot a 997, even once, is a remarkable achievement. There will always be a special place in my heart for that incredible good will and hard work he put into trying to teach discipline to me, his most difficult student.


© Alex Forbes, April 2000


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