Follow Through

I went to the range yesterday, the 4th, for several reasons.

  1. First, it’s the official birthday of the United States and a little noise-making was in order. And delivering those noise-making shots into the black at 50 yards with several into the X-ring, just seemed like a really appropriate way to do so. Noisy, yes, and accurate. Deadly accurate. Oh yeah.
  2. Second, I needed the practice. My first half dozen shots would be right of center and it would take me that long for my brain to say, “Your finger is in the wrong place on the trigger.” (Oh yeah.)
  3. Third, I really needed to be out in the sunlight. I was still jet-lagging – big time – from a business trip to Singapore and wanted to get the full strength sun directly in my face to help reset my body clock.

When I arrived, another shooter was about half way down the firing line at the pistol range with a long gun leaning against the table. After setting down my box and equipment, I walked down to greet him.

As I got close, I could see it was a flintlock and my excitement rose; I absolutely love black powder shooting.

All the rigmarole they go through to ready each shot just amazes me. I love the details they need to manage and how the whole process puts them that much closer to all that’s happening when the trigger is pulled.

So, of course, I had to have him give me a demonstration.

And what amazes me most of all is, at the end when the cock falls and the flint strikes the face of the frizzen, there’s that decided gap in time before the gun goes “Whoosh!”

I was told that, for a proper load, the pause is about 1/30th of a second.

“Follow-through is utterly essential with a flintlock,” he added.

“You have to continue to hold on the aiming area well after the trigger breaks. It sometimes seems like forever.”

Thanking him, I went back to my position to prepare. With his slow reload and fire cycle, there was no problem getting a short break for me to carry my target out to the 50 yard line.

Then, as I began my own slow fire practice, I thought about what “follow-through” means for more modern weapons because, without that 1/30th second lag, it’s a lot harder to grasp what’s happening between trigger break and “Bang”, but no less essential.

You see, the delay is still there, albeit much smaller, and there’s still time to mess up a shot.

Specifically, when the trigger breaks on a contemporary firearm, there are a couple of milliseconds in that same period from break to “Bang.”

And in a couple of milliseconds, it’s easy to move the gun down and to the side with a jerk, or to push it up in anticipation of the recoil. Not much, mind you, but it only takes a tiny movement to move a couple of inches on the target.

When the sear releases the hammer, the hammer starts from a dead stop and then rotates through not quite 90 degrees. The hammer’s rotation shouldn’t have much effect on the gun’s position but, conceivably, it could cause the gun to rotate ever so slightly muzzle-up.

Then, the hammer strikes the firing pin and then the firing pin stop. That second impact is going to knock the gun ever so slightly muzzle-down.

That slight muzzle down then muzzle up force might balance out to zero, but that’s unlikely. Rather, it’s more probable that there’s a net offset, up or down, that’s pretty close to the same for each shot.

Once struck, the titanium firing pin rockets forward and strikes the primer at the base of the cartridge initiating the propellant.

Today, we use “progressive” powders – that means the burn-rate increases as the pressure increases, and the total burn time is real fast these days. But it’s not infinitely fast. It still takes time.

So, as pressure builds inside the case and the elastic brass is pressed outward slightly and grips the inside face of the chamber, there’s a little more time for the shooter’s jerk or anticipation to move the muzzle.

Eventually there’s enough pressure to overcome the crimping force of shell against bullet and the bullet starts moving forward. Then, according to one of Newton’s laws, that equal but opposite force of the propellant starts pushing to the rear. Now I’ll grant you that the mass of the bullet going forward is small in comparison to the mass of the gun moving backward but, again, the force is real. We call it “recoil” and the gun moves.

And because that rearward force is above the center of mass of the gun, the gun tends to rotate upwards. (That’s the primary reason to hold the gun as high as possible, to minimize that rotation.)

About one millisecond after the hammer strike, the bullet leaves the handgun’s short barrel and, as far as its trajectory is concerned, what the shooter does is thereafter irrelevant for that shot.

But what the shooter does next is not irrelevant for the next shot. In Timed and Rapid Fire, we have to get back on the target as soon as possible. And in that action, getting back on the target, that’s where we more commonly apply the term “follow through” with contemporary weapons.

So today, “follow through” is more often taken to mean “what happens after the shot”.

But watching the black powder shooter, I saw how his follow through applies to what I see when dry-firing, and how that in turn applies to what’s happening in those 2-3 milliseconds between the breaking of the trigger and the bullet’s departure.

So even though we think of “follow through” as what happens after the shot, it really starts earlier with the separation of sear and hammer as caused by the push of the trigger.

It’s now the day after the 4th and I’m browsing the net looking at flintlock pistols and wondering if some work with them would benefit my use of contemporary handguns and would that justify the expense?

Answers: “Maybe” and “Probably Not But That’s Never Been An Issue Before So Why Start Now?”

But regardless of all that, the “Whoosh!” and the huge cloud of smoke sure would be fun.

Happy Fourth of July, America!

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