Shooting Strange Guns

I travel for a living. My job often sends me out on a Monday and home again on Friday but sometimes there’s a Sunday “out” or a Saturday “back” day. As such, it’s difficult for me to shoot the Tuesday evening Nighthawks here in Phoenix. Worse, I often miss the once-a-month 2700s on Sundays when an outbound leg starts with a mid-afternoon flight.

So, I try to find weeknight leagues in which to shoot at my destination. In so doing, I shoot at a lot of different ranges, experience the occasional “unique to this range” rules, and most enjoyably, I get to meet a lot of really nice people.

On occasion, however, I travel to places that aren’t particularly “gun friendly.” That is, the local laws either prohibit or otherwise discourage me from bringing my own guns. And some airlines are even more un-friendly in this regard.

But even when gun-less on my travels, I still like go to local events. The people are still friendly and it’s still a sport I enjoy even if I don’t shoot. I look at the guns and talk with the owners, watch how the shooter’s shoot (and note the consequent results) and enjoy my “night out” from work.

And as you might imagine, shooters offer their backup guns (and ammo!) to let me shoot on an almost unfailing basis. I’m more than a little embarassed to count up how often I’ve shot someone else’s gun and ammo only to leave them a dirty gun and empty brass. (I do try to sneak a couple of bucks to the owner to make up for what I’ve consumed but, having cleaned my own 1911s many times, I know there’s nothing I can do to compensate them for their time. I am truly grateful.)

But it does give me a chance to shoot a lot of different guns and, over that experience, I’ve started to form some opinions about how to adapt to different grips and triggers and, much to my surprise, I find that what’s important aren’t competition versus slab grips, dots versus iron sights or flat versus arched mainspring housing. But before I tell you “the secret”, let me tell you the routine I’ve developed for shooting a strange gun in Bullseye competition.

First, with a borrowed gun, one of my cardinal rules is to leave the gun with the same adjustments as when I started. If I need six clicks up, I’m always careful to crank six clicks down before returning the gun. And the same for the dot size: I’ve started shooting with a big orange dot but I try to note what the owner prefers and put it back that way when I’m done.

But for a competition grip, that pretty much means I can’t move the palm shelf up or down. There are no marks and it would be difficult to get it back to the original position. This means that “grip” is often less than ideal. Indeed, there is almost always some awkwardness and, in many cases, it’s just downright close to painful. I’ve shot some competition grips where my (big) hand could only be jammed in as far as my knuckles while leaving most of my hand hanging out the back. Other times, holding the grips felt like hanging on to a 3" diameter piece of pipe with no contact above or below my hand. (If I can’t hang on to the gun safely, I don’t shoot. This has only come up once.)

Ideal finger placement on the trigger is often impossible. Indeed, sometimes even a “reasonable placement” can be beyond my ability to control. If I can’t get my hand into the grip, odds are I’m just barely going to be able to reach the trigger with the tip of the finger. Or if the grip is like that of a broom handle, my finger will be all the way through the trigger guard and in danger of going well beyond the first knuckle.

All of that is noticed and dealt with before ever raising the gun to see how the sights line up with my eye. And in most cases, the gun is pointed off at some scarey angle or, at a minimum, at a target three or four positions away from mine. So I have to stop, try and adjust how and where the gun fits in my hand, and in some cases, horror of horror, I even have to bend my wrist to make eye, rear sight and front sight all line up.

Once that’s accomplished (and I shuffle my feet so I’m then lined up on my target), it’s time to learn the trigger.

“Learn the trigger.” Now there’s an understatement!

I have been utterly astonished at the variety of triggers I’ve experienced. Some guns have a lot of take-up, some have virtually none. Some have a long springy feel followed by a larger amount of resistance, others have virtually none. Some slide smooth as glass from there until the shot breaks, some feel like I’m pushing a red brick across a slab of concrete (fortunately there aren’t too many of those), and some have virtually no movement whatsoever before the break. There are the “gee, was that even two pounds?” triggers, the “is the safety still on or something?” triggers, and the “ooh, that was nice!” triggers.

I carry half a dozen 22LR dummy rounds so I can dry fire the target guns of that caliber since you aren’t supposed to dry fire many of them. And with the center fire guns, I always ask the owner, “May I dry fire it?”

But during a weeknight league, everyone isn’t standing around waiting on me to learn the gun. Instead, I get a quick “here’s how this gun operates” lesson from the owner and then it’s time for the first Slow Fire target. I will use up several of that first target’s ten minutes working out these details.

One of the hardest things to figure out during this time is how to move the trigger straight back. With different guns, my trigger finger lands on the trigger in different ways. Sometimes it is flat and at a right angle but, when the grip fits me poorly, sometimes all I can manage is a finger tip at a steep angle. Consequently, each gun requires a different way of moving the trigger finger in order to get that straight back direction.

Heavy triggers with big fat grips are particularly challenging because it’s hard to get the trigger finger “around there” and flat on the trigger. Instead, if all that can be managed is a finger tip at an angle, mustering enough strength to pressure it straight back can require an inordinate amount of effort. And that has to be done over and over throughout the evening.

At the Sunnyvale (California) Gun Club on a recent Wednesday evening, I had the privilege of shooting a Hammerli 280 with iron sights (thanks, Liz) and then a Masaki 1911 set up for wad ammo with a red dot (thank you, Norman).

For those who don’t know, the very, very, very best handguns are referred to not by their manufacturers but, rather, by the name of the gunsmith who worked on them. Well, Ed Masaki had brought this particular 1911 to utter perfection. His work is legend in the sport. Shooters wait years – I’m not exaggerating – for one of his guns.

The slide on this 1911 was bank vault tight and moved just as smoothly. Shooting the wad loads, the action was so silky I hardly noticed the recoil. If it hadn’t been for the loud bang when the round fired, I would have removed my hearing protection just to hear the gun cycle.

Both the Hammerli and the Masaki shot magnificently that evening. I shot a (respectable for me) 531-7 out of 600 with the Hammerli. That’s 88.5% with iron sights, well into my current SharpShooter ranking. I was happy with that.

Ah, but the Masaki was another story, I’m afraid. Perhaps I was over-confident. Perhaps I rushed through the preparations. Clearly, I didn’t dry-fire enough to figure out that straight back motion because it seemed that after every shot, the gun would turn to me slightly and say, “You pushed me left on that shot.” We (me and the gun) would hunker down for another shot but, again, the gun would sneer, “Nope, you flipped me a little bit left again.”

And just as I was tempted to crank in 2-3" right on the sight, everything would feel perfect and we would shoot an X.

“There,” the gun would seem to say, “you did me just right. See what we can do?”

But sadly, the repeatable fine control needed to shoot straight at 50 or even at 25 yards with that gun was beyond me that night. I knew it could be done, could do it every now and then, but doing it over and over again was more than I could manage that night.

So, what have I learned from all this, you might ask? Is it better to stick with one gun and learn to shoot it accurately before starting over with another gun? Or is there profit to be had in shooting many different guns and “dealing with” the issues and learning to shoot in spite of them?

What I’ve found is that in both approaches, the lessons to be learned are the same. Regardless of whether you want to shoot one gun or many guns, regardless of whether you prefer red dots or irons, slab or competition grips, roll or crisp or light or heavy triggers, the one (1) thing to be learned is the same.

The one (1) thing to be learned is to align the sights and move the trigger straight back.

Everything thing else can be adjusted, compensated, ignored, held funny, squished awkwardly, accompanied with long slow “effort noises” or whatever else might be needed.

Just align the sights and move the trigger straight back, that’s all.

Everything else is minor. Everything else can be imperfect. Everything else is irrelevent.

Align the sights and move the trigger straight back.

Don’t think, just do it.

That’s it. Straight back now…



There, see? You can do it!

Align the sights and move the trigger straight back.


Now, let’s try it again.

(Thanks, coach!)

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