Can shooters of one particular discipline learn from another? Mike Morton is here with some top shooting tips.
I doubt many of us have tried airgun shooting in all its many and varied forms, but I bet most of us have dabbled in a couple of different types of shooting.
I’m also prepared to bet that many of us will have established a firm favourite, with our other disciplines being shot less and less, or even not at all. But is there really that much difference between the various genres of airgun shooting, and if not, is there anything we can learn from the others?
The inspiration for this article was the result of an airgun instructor’s course that I recently took, run by the National Small-bore Rifle Association.
I was one of four members from my local club who turned up with a mix of guns between us. We shoot mainly hunting and HFT rifles and were looking forward to learning how to instruct other shooters while using our own hardware.
It took far longer than it should for us to realise that instead of a course focusing on generic shooting instruction using our own selection of guns, everything was centred around 10 Metre Rifle and Pistol – two really demanding disciplines of which none of us had much experience. But as the course progressed our initial disquiet and disbelief were transformed into rapport and respect.
Why? Because as highly technical as 10 Metre shooting is, much of the preparation and practical application is similar to, if not the same as, what my buddies and I had already been doing.
Shooting is one of the safest sports around, mainly because we’re a sensible, self-disciplined and responsible group of people who respect our guns and what they’re capable of. Safety is therefore one aspect that touches each and every shooting discipline.
And safety begins before a gun has even been taken out of its bag. When doing so, ensure the barrel is always pointing in a safe direction. In the excitement of prepping your kit and getting ready to shoot, be aware of who’s around you.
This applies to the hunting field too. Are there any farm workers or walkers around? If you’re shooting on your own, remember you have become your own Range Officer.
Rules and procedures can vary from club to club and range to range, but the NSRA insists on the breech being kept open all the time until the gun, be it rifle or pistol, is actually being fired. And it should go without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway – that when a gun is loaded it should only ever be pointed downrange.
When we fire a shot we expect the pellet to fly straight to its target – and not come back. But both pellets and BBs can ricochet if they hit a particular surface at a particular angle, so we need to protect our eyes by wearing shooting glasses if there’s any ricochet risk.
While most ricochets occur at short range, they can also be a problem at longer ranges under certain circumstances, such as when a ballistic curtain has been hung behind a paper target. Be safe, not sorry!
One of the benefits of shooting a moderated hunting rifle is how quiet they are to us as well as our quarry, and unmoderated airguns, particularly when shot indoors, can be very loud.
Any sound that makes your ears ring is potentially damaging, so some sort of hearing protection is advised. There’s another reason for wearing ear defenders that some target shooters appreciate that’s got nothing to do with protection.
We can concentrate far better if we cut out any distracting ambient sounds. This is something that will not be welcomed by hunters, who use their ears almost as much as their eyes, but it could be beneficial to someone shooting benchrest who wants to enter a zen-like state and get that 10X with their next shot.
We should also be aware of our personal hygiene regarding the safe handling of pellets. Most of us will have begun our shooting careers with a break-barrel, and back in the 1960s and 70s it wasn’t uncommon to hold a few lead pellets between our lips so they were easily accessible.
But we’re a bit older and wiser now, and are more aware of the dangers of this toxic metal – so that means washing our hands after handling ammo, and especially before handling food.
Ten Metre shooters use flathead .177 pellets, while for the rest of us we can largely choose to shoot whatever we want, but one thing’s the same across the various disciplines – the need to use the best ammo for our particular gun.
And we can add to that the need to look after our pellets. It’s always best to keep the lid on the tin when the pellets aren’t being used and only unseal a new tin when it’s needed.
Pellets can oxidise and corrode if they are exposed to the air for too long, so we should do our best to minimise this.
Ten Metre rifle shooting is subdivided into two categories, Precision and Sporter. While Precision shooters wear deliberately stiff clothing to help them maintain a well-supported stance, Sporter shooters do not, and the advice for them is the same as it is for any other discipline – wear comfortable clothing that allows a full range of movement so you can easily adopt your chosen shooting stance with no restrictions.
Another target tip is to wear flat-soled shoes or boots. This will not always be possible when you’re in the field and standing on uneven terrain, although high boots can offer some ankle support. However, if you are able to stand on a flat surface while shooting, then flat soles will help to increase stability.
Dedicated indoor shooting footwear can be quite pricey, but a popular alternative that won’t break the bank and can even be used outside under the right circumstances are skateboarding shoes and boots made by a company called Vans.
Taking unsupported standing shots is the life-blood of 10 Metre shooters and is a highly technical skill to master. However, there are some general pointers that benefit most types of shooting, even if you’re using some form of support.
When taking any type of standing shot, foot placement and hence your orientation to the target are crucial. I’ve been shooting for a long time, and with nobody around to tell me otherwise, I’ve adopted some pretty bad habits over the years. They seem obvious when written down and spelled out, but it’s easy to get even the basics wrong sometimes.
Here’s something you can try without even needing to hold a gun. Identify a target and adopt your normal stance, then raise your arms into the shooting position while keeping your eyes closed.
Open them when you’re in the aim with your imaginary rifle or pistol and see if you’re lined up correctly to the target. When I tried this I generally found I was pointing a few degrees off target in both my rifle and pistol stances.
I compounded my initial mistake by twisting my torso and arms to get myself lined up. What I should have been doing is what’s known as a full reset: instead of trying to fix a bad position, start the whole procedure again, this time altering the position of my feet, and therefore naturally changing the orientation of my body and arms when I go into the aim again.
The idea here is to adopt a stance that lets you point your gun at the target with no need to twist, turn, strain or otherwise move a muscle. The basic principle behind this applies to all types of shooting, including standing using sticks, being seated at a bench or shooting prone: make your stance do the bulk of the work for you, don’t compensate using your muscles.
With this in mind, there are some specific standing stances for target shooters. Let’s look at pistol, for example, where if you’re shooting one-handed you can either be fully face-on to the target, fully side-on, or facing 45 degrees away from the target in what’s known as the oblique stance.
The oblique is the recommended stance as it creates the most stable platform. Like the earlier example, you can try it yourself by adopting this stance, then pointing at the target to see whether you’ve got it right.
But one really important thing was emphasised here by the NSRA: while you should try out a variety of stances, you’re better off adopting the one that feels most comfortable to you, rather than the ‘best’ stance.
That’s important in competition and it’s important in the field too, as you’ll be spending an extended period of time there and it’s essential to avoid muscular strain.
I can now look back to many times when I’ve been shooting prone off a bipod where I’ve gone into the aim and tried to lay the crosshairs over the target, only to find I’m slightly off.
In situations like this it’s very tempting to make minor corrections by moving our torso or arms, but this makes us less stable and induces muscle fatigue. What we should do is the full reset: come out of the aim, shuffle our whole body into a better firing position and then try again.
Breathing, or respiration, is a largely unconscious act that carries out two functions: it provides our bodies with oxygen, which is used to convert the nutrients we eat into energy, and it also helps our bodies get rid of waste products such as carbon dioxide. When we breathe our rib cage expands and contracts, and this can cause other parts of our body to move as well.
In shooting, we want to release the shot when there is as little body movement going on as possible. In the normal respiratory cycle the inhalation and exhalation phases last approximately two seconds each, with a pause between them of two to three seconds. This momentary period of inactivity is known as the respiratory pause.
And this is where things get interesting. The NSRA method for pistol shooting is to take a few deep breaths to oxygenate the blood, then to breathe normally for a few cycles and then finally to half-exhale and take the shot.
For rifle shooting the method is different, with the shooter breathing normally until they’re about to take the shot, then taking a slightly deeper breath, half-exhaling and then releasing the pellet. In both cases the shot should be taken within eight seconds.
If the shooter cannot get their shot off within that period, it’s time for another reset. Trying to hold on for longer will almost certainly end up with a poor shot being taken.
These two breathing patterns can be practised at any time – I’m doing it right now while typing this paragraph. It does help to be in reasonable physical shape to cope with these breathing patterns and the other physical demands of the sport, toning up the body and improving stamina, and this can be improved with cardio and aerobic exercises such as swimming, skipping, running or even just fast walking.
Springer shooters are well aware that they should adopt a relatively light grip on their airgun, but this holds true for PCP shooters as well.
A shooter’s grip mustn’t be so loose that the gun can waver, but if it’s too tight it can induce a muscular tremor and interfere with trigger release. Like most things in shooting, consistency and uniformity are key.
Pistol shooters are also trained to pick up their gun with the non-shooting hand and to press the butt into the palm of the shooting hand, then wrap the fingers around the grip.
The hand should be placed as high as possible on the butt of the pistol in order to minimise any muzzle flip when the gun is fired.
The pull of the trigger can be an almost subconscious act in sending the pellet on its way down the barrel and through the air to its target. But the way we apply pressure on the blade to initiate that process is very much affected by where we place our finger. Get it wrong, and our shot may land wide of the mark.
In this example the shooter has placed only the very tip of their index finger on the trigger blade – this offers poor trigger control at best, and the finger may even slip off the blade altogether.
Pushing the index finger across the blade until it meets the first finger joint is certainly more secure, but it offers the shooter almost no fine control. Shooters sometimes unconsciously adopt this if they are faced with a very heavy trigger – they may need to actively train themselves to ditch this habit.
The pad is making perfect contact with the blade. This part of our finger is the most sensitive part, and results in superior trigger control when taking the shot.
The master eye
Most people have a dominant, or master eye, which means their brain prefers to receive and process more visual information from that eye than the other.
It’s fairly easy to tell which of your eyes is dominant. Find a small object to focus on, like a light switch across the room or a particular tree in the distance, then hold both hands up in front of your face with your thumbs overlapping, making a triangular shape.
Slowly move your hands apart until you’ve made a small hole that you can look through and see your chosen object. Close one eye and see what happens. If the object is still in view then you’ve found your dominant eye; if not, it’s the other one.
With a pistol, you’ll naturally find yourself using your dominant eye, and it doesn’t matter if you’re right- or left-handed. A rifle, however, is a bit different.
Target shooters are encouraged to shoulder and aim their rifle from the side of their dominant eye, which can be complicated if you’re right-handed, but left eye dominant or vice versa.
This is something that won’t come naturally to many people. It can be learned, but it’s up to you to decide if the results are really worth it.
Both eyes open
Many shooters, particularly rifle shooters, will have grown up either being taught to close, or naturally finding themselves closing, their non-shooting eye. This seems like the obvious thing to do and feels more comfortable for most people.
But over the past few years there’s been a definite move towards shooting with both eyes open. Part of this has come from the military, where soldiers want to be as aware of what’s going on around them as possible, and having both eyes open can also help them locate their next target more quickly.
Target shooters adopt the same regime, but for very different reasons. Keeping both eyes open helps the eyes to stay oxygenated and prevents their vision blurring.
But too much light entering the non-shooting eye can be a distraction, so target shooters wear a set of glasses with an opaque shield to cover the non-shooting eye, which is known as a blinder.
Hunters may well profit from shooting with both eyes open, reaping the environmentally aware benefits of the military shooter as well as the physiological ones of the target shooter.
Target shooters also look after their eyes in another very simple, but often overlooked, way – they drink plenty of water. Take a look at the firing line during a serious target competition and you’ll see plenty of bottles of water lined up.
When we get dehydrated our eyes are usually the first to suffer, and ensuring we take in plenty of fluids is a great way to avoid getting blurred vision at a crucial moment.
Trigger control and follow through
It’ll come as no surprise to learn that these two shooting fundamentals are as important to target shooters as they are to the rest of us. Trigger control simply means placing your finger on the trigger blade then applying pressure as the sight picture settles over the target, but the way that pressure is applied can affect the way the shot is released.
We should apply pressure using the first pad of our trigger fingers as this is the most sensitive area of the finger, all the while keeping the pad central to the axis of the blade as that pressure is applied.
If you look closely at your fingertip you’ll see a whorl pattern in your fingerprint, and the centre of that whorl is what needs to do the work.
Following through a shot means maintaining the hold and the sight picture until the pellet has struck the target. This is an essential technique as any tiny movement made before the pellet has left the barrel can create a massive shift in the pellet’s point of impact downrange.
Dry fire versus live fire
The NSRA places a massive emphasis on dry-firing as a training tool. While it initially seems alien – after all, pellets are cheap enough, aren’t they? – there’s some sound logic behind this: if you dry-fire, then you are more likely to focus on the technique rather than your shot placement.
If you’ve not tried this before, then it’s well worth giving it a go – just make sure that you don’t do it with a springer, as you can damage the gun.
Practise holding the gun and lifting it into the aiming position to develop muscle memory and then practise aiming the gun – hold it so it doesn’t wobble when you are looking down the sights.
It can be very intimidating to see a competition target in your sight picture and realise, at least in my case, how badly you’re controlling the movement of your gun. One tip is to take baby steps.
Draw a circle on a piece of card that’s far larger than your intended target. Steadily decrease the size of the circle as you get more proficient at holding the gun steadier when in the aim.
You can use your live-fire sessions to confirm the gun is properly sighted and is functioning correctly, and of course for practising your technique because we never stop learning.
Another tip that’s relevant to all types of discipline is to gear up for your shoot, keeping all your equipment in the same place so everything is with you when you need it.
That extends to your firing point too, whether you’re lying prone on a mat on the firing point at the range, or on a carpet of leaves in the woods. Place your gear near to you when you’re ready to shoot so it’s close to hand and within easy reach.
I firmly believe shooters of different disciplines have much more in common than they think, and this means that they have a lot to learn from each other.
Perhaps the most important pointer I picked up from the course was the reset: don’t push ahead with a shot you know is probably going to be bad, just stop, adjust and then repeat the whole process from the start. I think it’s time to gear up, get shooting and put some of these pointers into practice!
The NSRA is the national governing body for all small-bore rifle and pistol target shooting in the United Kingdom, including airgun.
For more details visit www.nsra.co.uk