Why practice makes perfect: Considering accuracy

Andy McLachlan argues that the best equipment in the world is no substitute for practice

James practises supported kneelers frequently

A change is as good as a rest,” so the saying goes. I don’t know about you, but as a confirmed target shooter, I am always looking for equipment that might lead to an improvement in my own performance. Sometimes, this can be down to discovering a particular batch of pellets that display improved levels of accuracy. This is a cheap and easy fix as we try to improve our average scores, with the price of a sleeve of pellets costing in the region of £90.

However, this quick and simple way of increasing accuracy is sometimes – for me anyway – not sufficient to ease the nagging doubt that purchasing more expensive equipment will lead to better scores. I am of course well aware, as most experienced shooters are, that the best way to secure improved levels of performance is to practise frequently and concentrate on using your existing equipment – so that the release of the shot happens without even thinking about it. This occurs when you are so familiar and confident with your shooting outfit that the combination appears to aim and fire itself, with little or no input from your conscious mind.

I also do a lot of fly fishing, and the choice of fly – usually made to represent whatever the trout happen to be feeding on at that particular time – involves looking at the water surface for clues, noticing any surface rise forms and how the fish are moving as they hoover up their prey. If you’re lucky enough to land a fish and wishing to take one for the table, it is also possible to check out the stomach contents of a fish to identify precisely which imitation can be used to best effect.

Outdoor target shooting is similar in that we always need to be looking for clues as to how any breeze might affect the flight of our pellet, and indeed how far away our target happens to be. The problem is that unless we resort to using devices devised to record wind speed and range, we must always rely on our own best estimations as to what these might be.

Andy shooting a kneeler at Emley

In other words, we are unable to choose the exact pattern of fly required to ensure success. At best, we are faced with the usual compromise solution of our best guess, and hoping that our firing solution manages to knock down the target. In my own case, that happens about 80 per cent of the time, where top shooters will be managing over 90 per cent on most days. This equates to a difference of about five successful shots over the duration of an HFT course between average shooters like me and shooters who appear at the top of the leaderboards and individual league tables most of the time.

As in all sports, it’s the most talented and committed shooters who tend to enjoy the most success. Most regular PCP shooters can enjoy what they consider to be excellent results when shooting indoors at known ranges, with all pellets landing through the same hole – at ranges up to fifty yards in some cases – when using top equipment.

This is all well and good when faced with an indoor paper target, but the actual skills of proper trigger release and follow-through required for high standards of accuracy are only a very small part of the skill-set required to shoot to a similarly high standard outside. Judging range can be a difficult skill to master, with our relatively loopy pellets requiring accurate estimation of distance to best increase our chances of success. Chuck in the effects of any breeze, and you can see why things start to get so much more difficult. Movement of the air obviously has dramatic effects upon the direction your pellet is travelling.

In addition to sussing out the range, the shooter then must decide how much to allow for any deflection the wind will have on our pellet during its short, but sometimes curved, flight path, as both the force of gravity and air movement must be accounted for. This isn’t helped when the wind, or even a slight breeze for that matter, has not decided which way or at what particular strength it wishes to blow. These are the types of scenarios when the very best and most experienced usually decide to remind us all why they are usually so successful.

I have occasionally managed to work out the correct firing solution on days when the wind blows and the course-setter has laid some ‘range traps’ to catch out the unwary with their range estimation. Most of us will occasionally succeed over the course of a 30-shot outdoor target shoot, but the top shots will obviously be the competitors who are able to make more accurate judgements more of the time. For me, this is what separates the truly good outdoor shots from the rest of us, as we either make incorrect calculations or fail to make any at all when starting out.

Top springer shot Steve Whiting frequently practises his unsupported kneeling shots

So, how do the top shots manage to perform every week? I am fortunate that the group of people I shoot with most weekends are widely recognised as some of the best in the country. This can be beneficial in some ways, but negative in others. When you all shoot the same courses, you are most of the time reminded why you are a middle-ranked competitor and they are not. In my case this is painfully obvious when you look at league table scores and work out averages. As I’ve already mentioned, my own averages are about five or six shots, at least, below those of my compatriots. This often leads to feelings of personal frustration and asking introspective questions of myself on a regular basis.

The fact of the matter is that I now shoot more frequently than they do, but I’m still not performing at the same level. My son James, never one to spend a long time providing a carefully considered response, tells me: “You might shoot a lot of pellets, but how many do you shoot from the standing and kneeling positions when at the indoor range?” Fair point.

In addition to practising additional numbers of positional shots, I should also be trying to work on improving my own abilities to accurately range-find and better assess the effects of any wind on an individual shot. When you consider that

I have been using airguns for target shooting outside for a very long time, the reality that the basic skills require constant review is a sober reminder that complacency is easy for the shooter who is prepared to always accept second-best.

The only answer is to practise shooting outdoors as frequently as possible and to not become too fixated upon any perceived shortfall in your equipment. Basically, just get out there and shoot!

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