Trigger Control and Bicycle Riding Redux

From Email to a shooter asking several questions including why some of his shots hit up and right of center.

Concerning jerk, anticipation, thumbing and the search for a smooth trigger squeeze, all I can tell you is that you are right in there with every other Bullseye shooter.

Let me say that again: The #1 desire, the “Holy Grail” of pistol shooting is “Trigger Control” and that means releasing a shot without disturbing the alignment on the correct area of the target.

I screw up almost every shot.

On the few that I don’t, I can call them and see, in the scope, that I got it right. Those are starting to happen more often (but my current state of progress would be more accurately described as “less infrequently bad”). Trigger Control is exceedingly hard and is the one thing that some say will take a decade or more to become “good” and, for most of us, more than a lifetime to truly master.

Note that even the top, top, top shooters often hit outside the “X” ring with guns that are well capable of 1/2" groups. Even the top, top, top shooters screw up Trigger Control. This is not an easy thing to master!

In the weeks, months and years to come, you’ll have to do what I think we are all resigned to do: shoot a few shots, try to figure out what isn’t right and then try to fix it. Sometimes you will think that the gun’s sights are a little bit off. Temperature, wear and tear, ammunition, wind and other issues are all important factors in adjusting the sights and, yes, the sights do sometimes need adjusting.

Sometimes it will be you that needs to be fixed. Just this past Tuesday evening, Coach Pat at our league pointed out that I was “thumbing” the pistol and pushing the tip of the barrel right as the shot was being released. So, I “floated” my thumb out into the air and, voila, the shots moved 2" to the left. Why couldn’t I see that? Well, maybe sometimes we need others to see what we don’t want to see. I really thought I had grip worked out but, no, Coach Pat showed me otherwise. Three steps forward, and then two back.

My guess would be that your “high and right” shots are a slight push with your palm in anticipation of the shot. I sure do exactly that sometimes. Anticipation pushes the shot up and right (for right-handed shooters).

But the fix is not in learning to avoid anticipation. Although that seems like the obvious solution, it’s not the one you want. There’s a better fix!

The best fix is to figure out how to make the gun going off be a surprise to you each time. Stated differently, if you don’t know when the gun is going to go off, then you cannot anticipate it. Ergo, no anticipation (shots go up and right) and no jerk (shots go down and left). [Reverse the left-right directions for left-handed shooters.]

So, how do you make the gun go off without knowing it is going to go off?

Ah, now that’s the real magic!

I like to think of learning to shoot as being a lot like it was when I learned to ride a bicycle. At first, I had to concentrate on keeping my balance and, until I could do that, Mom or Dad would have to hang on to the seat and run awkwardly down the sidewalk to keep me upright. But at some point, after many attempts, I ‘Got It" or rather, some part of my brain “got it” but not my consciousness. On that day, and even now, I couldn’t tell you what to do other than “keep your balance.” But, nonetheless, my body/brain knew how to do it. Oh sure, I was very wobbly for a while but, with more and more practice, I rode better and better and, before too long (and when Mom wasn’t looking), I could ride with my hands off the handlebars.


Everything had become automatic. I was riding the bike! Er, well, “I” wasn’t but somewhere inside, some part of me was doing it, but it wasn’t my conscious brain.

My brain would say, “Let’s ride over to Howard’s” and off I’d go on the bike.

My brain would say, “Let’s jump the curb!” and I would consciously yank up on the handlebars as the front tire rolled off the curb, but who was keeping us balanced?

My brain would say, “The street is slick with rainwater – slow down for the curve,” but who was keeping me upright?

Balance had become automatic and unconscious.

The conscious brain handles the exceptions, the unusual conditions, the special desires of the moment, but something else in the head keeps the bike upright and steady.

I’m convinced that shooting is the same way. Ultimately, everything has to become automatic, unconscious and you just “do it”, like riding a bike.

But to get there you have to shoot many thousands of rounds, watch yourself to see what you’re doing wrong, guess at the fix, try it, see what that screws up and then work at fixing that. And when you find a solution and a big part of your overall technique works, then you have to do it over and over so it becomes an unconscious habit.

“Look, Ma, no hands!”

“Look, guys, I cleaned a target!”

In the Bullseye list, watch for phrases such as “unconscious shot” and “being on automatic” and “let it happen” – I’m pretty sure this is what the top shooters are talking about.

Try this: stand at the line, get your grip right, assume your stance, find your natural point of aim and adjust your stance as needed so the sights are dead-on. I put my arm down, close my eyes, raise my arm and then open my eyes to see where my aim is and then I adjust my left [rear] foot to try and bring the sights dead-on the target.

And now here’s the hard part of this exercise – think of nothing, nothing at all until the shot goes.

Just stand there with the gun out, clear your mind and wait.

I know you’re supposed to hold the sights in alignment during that “think nothing” period but try it with and without aligning the sights – what’s important is that the gun will eventually go off if you’ve trained enough, if you’ve activated your arm and trigger finger often enough, if you’ve gotten to the point where, when everything is set, you shoot. It will happen and it’ll surprise the hell out of you!

Sometimes as I’m ready to clear my mind I tell myself, “Let the monkey shoot now.” And it always scares the bloody hell out of me that the gun I am holding suddenly goes off. But that’s what you want because, if you don’t know when it’s going to go “Bang”, there’s no way you can anticipate it!

And you want that to happen on every single shot.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

Dry-firing is a great way to practice the skills you will need to “ride the bicycle”. It ingrains the movements into that unconscious part of the brain that needs to be in charge when you shoot.

The “dead alibi” rounds – some call this the “Ball and Dummy” drill – may also be helpful but remember this technique is useful only as a test of your ability to release a shot without moving the sights.

Let me ask a question: When you studied a subject in school, how often do you take a test?

Using the “dead alibi” rounds is a good test and it will tell you if you need to study some more, but then put the technique away while you do the study (the practice). “Coach Pat” in Phoenix tells me I should “Ball and Dummy” each Slow Fire target but, to me, that just generates frustration. I know I’m jerking the trigger. What I didn’t know is how not to do it.

And the answer is, literally, don’t think about it. Just do it. No thinking. Just ride.

Later, when I think I’m holding the sights on target as I release the shot, then I can test myself with “ball and dummy” to see if I can pass that test. And I’ll use that technique occasionally to help me figure out what I am doing wrong, but then I’ll go and work on the solution a while before re-testing.

I’m just amazed how difficult this sport is to do well. It seems so simple – just align the sights on the proper part of the target and then release the shot without disturbing the alignment.


Final word: When you find that the practice and training for Bullseye is really frustrating, go and do something fun with your 41. I love to “plink” and my favorite targets are MacDonald’s ketchup packets taped to white paper plates on sticks [splat!], new cans of shaving cream [gush!], and old milk cartons filled with water [foom!]. With your 41, you can probably hit each of these at a greater distance than most other “plinking” shooters. I enjoy shooting at the junk and especially when someone else shows up and I see myself doing better (sometimes a lot better), I immediately feel recharged. I’m ready to go back and work on my precision shooting technique.

10s and Xs (and splats, gushes and fooms)!

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