First Lesson

On the Monday after Christmas, I called Coach Pat [Dolan] at the phone number he’d given me during the Bullseye competition two months previously. I introduced myself, said I was very interested in taking him up on his offer of coaching, and asked when he might be available and what range was convenient for him. In thirty seconds we found that 1:00PM that same day was good for both of us, and that he preferred the facilities at the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club where the Bullseye Competition had taken place.

In our first session, I learned the first of two sins I was committing:

Sin #1: Grip

After watching me shoot, Coach Pat pointed out that my grip was wrong on several counts. First, I was holding the pistol with my lower three fingers as well as my thumb, and also the tips of those same fingers to hold the pistol. Coach Pat demonstrated the grip I should be using by demonstrating it, and by pointing out that his finger tips were not turning red. Also, he invited me to wiggle his little finger and his thumb and notice that neither was participating in the grip. I commented that, all in all, I was surprised at how light his grip seemed. He nodded and said that the middle of his middle two fingers were holding the gun into the hollow of his hand rather firmly, but not to the degree that made the gun shake.

This was quite a revelation to me. I had been using what I termed a hard grip, holding the gun tightly to the point where the tightness of the grip made the gun shake (slightly). According to Coach Pat, this was wrong. I revised my grip so that only the middle of my two middle (#3 and #4) fingers (counting the thumb as #1) exerted any force, and kept the tips of those fingers relaxed so they did not press on the gun, and also kept my pinky (finger #5) and thumb (#1) loose (relaxed) and not participating in the grip.

This change, all by itself however, didn’t do much for my shooting – but Coach Pat didn’t give me time to notice that. Instead, he immediately started helping my with my trigger pull (never say, or do, “squeeze” – that’s the wrong way to do the trigger, whether thinking or doing).

Sin #2: Trigger Pull

Closely related and, to the novice, interlinked with the grip, is how the trigger is actuated. When I “squeezed” the trigger, my whole hand would move and, with it, the aim point would move. Coach Pat said I needed to learn to pull with my finger, not “squeeze” with my hand.

To demonstrate, Coach Pat had me the hold the pistol and keep it sighted on the bull (as best as I could) while he reached in and prepared to pull the trigger. Obviously, I had no idea when the shot would go off, and that was one of the big points of his demonstration because, when the gun fired, it was a total surprise to me, and most importantly, the shot was far better centered than any others I had shot that day.

“Wow!” I’m sure I said. “Do that again!”

Coach Pat was pleased to oblidge and, again, the shot was an utter surprise, and it landed very close to the X-ring again.

Smooth and Slow

Over the next twenty or so rounds and with Coach Pat repeating the shooter’s mantra in my ear – “Smooth and Slow, Smooth and Slow, Smooth and Slow”, I started to get the feel for what he was after. It took a while and, when I did it wrong, he was very factually state, “Jerk” before going back to the mantra for my next shot. Eventually, I finally got one round off that totally surprised me, and I got it – I felt the difference, I knew I’d done it. And I knew that, from then on, every shot must be a surprise. Every shot.

With those two sins identified and an idea of what I would need to strive for in my subsequent practice, I then brought up the expectations that had been making me jerk the trigger instead of pulling it slowly. That is, in the past I had “learned” to watch the target wavering about in my sights and, when I saw that the aim-point was about to pass through the middle of the target, to get off the shot.

Coach Pat said this sounded good but would never work because the “jerk” needed to get the shot off at the right time would always yank the gun off in some new (and highly predictable) direction.

Instead, he said, I needed to keep the sights aligned and on the target (at large), wait for the wandering to calm down (but that I shouldn’t expect it to cease, maybe never) and then to slowly and smoothly pull the trigger while keeping the aim-point on the target but not trying to fire at any particular time. Just hold the aim-point on the target, wavering and all, and pull off the shot “Smoothly and Slowly”. If the shot going off were a total surprise, he said, then I would have done that shot correctly.

Accept The Wobble

But, I objected, if the aim-point keeps wandering and I don’t know when the shot will go off, how will I hit the X-ring?

Coach Pat’s answer could’ve been voiced by Yoda: For now, you won’t. At least, not consistently. But you will consistently put the round into the area in which your aim-point is wandering, and in time, the wandering will get smaller and smaller.

I must’ve looked skeptical because he added, “You must accept this. Just accept it.”

I nodded as I thought, “This is why I’m here, to hear the advice of an expert and give it a full measure of effort.”

Next, Coach Pat had me use the pad of my forefinger to pull the trigger rather than the joint. He demonstrated the difference by holding his hand as if it were holding a pistol pointed down, placing the tip (point) of a ball-point pen on the joint and resting the body of the pen on the flesh between thumb and forefinger. He then demonstrated that when he “pulled the trigger,” the back end of the pen moved in a small arc. Then, he moved the tip of the pen to the middle of his forefinger’s pad and again, “pulled the trigger.” This time, the back end of the pen moved straight back, without the arc. I duplicated his demonstration with the pen and found that, for me also, positioning the trigger (pen) in the joint resulted in a sidewise movement as well as back and forth, but that using the pad in the middle of the forefinger’s tip, only the front to back movement resulted.

Putting It All Together

Coach Pat then watched me try and do all of these corrections at the same time. I took each change and tried to apply them in order: grip with the middle of two fingers only, others loose, no finger-tip pressure, sight in the bull and place the middle of the pad of my forefinger on the trigger and take up the slack, align the sight on the bull, wait for the “wander” to lessen (and accept that it will never go away completely) and then slowly, oh so very slowly, and oh so very gently, pull the trigger, slowly, smoothly, slo … Bang!

This is starting to work, I realized.

We spent a few minutes with his 1911 automatic (in .45 calibre) and I learned the “fighter’s stance” (a.k.a., Weaver’s stance) and two-handed shooting.

By that point, we had been going at it, teacher and student for an hour and a half. My right arm was tired and I was starting to feel guilty about the wonderful coaching I was receiving for such a small sum. And I was also thinking I needed to practice what I had learned so far rather than trying for too much too fast. So I thanked Coach Pat, handed him the previously agreed to $20.00 and said that I was enormously pleased with what I’d learned, and would be carefully working to put all of it into practice.

Teacher-Student Relationship

Coach Pat was, I think, pleased at my willingness to listen and follow his directions. In my profession as a teacher, I know how gratifying it can be when one of my students does that, and I was pretty sure I could see that same satisfaction in his face.

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