Learning to shoot, part IIA….how to PRACTICE! (dry-fire section)

So, you’ve got the fundamentals down pretty well, you’ve got the basics of a safe, efficient draw and reload, you’ve practiced transitions, worked on your splits, done some practice with effective movement and a bit of shooting on the move…

…how do you get better without paying for more training?  In other words, how can you set up dry and live fire drills to give you the maximum improvement for your time?

Well, first you need to figure out what exactly you need to improve.  What are your goals?  Better competition shooting?  Better self-defense techniques?  What exactly are you trying to learn?  Creating a list of specific skills you wish to improve will help you organize your practice in an efficient fashion.

Here are a few skills that should be on everyone’s list, no matter how skilled they think they are–and these skills should STAY on your list, no matter how much better at them you get:

  1. Drawing to a close, high-percentage target
  2. Drawing to a distant, low-percentage target
  3. Emergency (slide-lock) reload
  4. Speed reload
  5. Transitions
  6. Trigger control:  freestyle, SHO, WHO

(These are NOT in order of importance, by the way.)  Now, obviously there are other skills that should be added, depending on what your goals are for practice.  However, no matter what your goals, you should be practicing the above skills.

So let’s talk about how to practice…

Brief discussion about practice theory, regarding the best way to ingrain habits:

  • Frequent short practices cause more effective retention than longer practices that occur less often.
  • Imperfect practice does not improve skill—and it may actually worsen the skill.
  • And yet, if you don’t push yourself, you will not get better nearly as quickly (and your “best” level will be lower than it should be).
  • Focusing consciously on the skill you are practicing will increase skill retention.
  • It is extremely difficult to consciously focus on a particular skill for very long.

For most effective results, a combination of dry fire and live fire practice should be done—in particular, dry fire practice on a continuing, regular schedule (multiple times per week) supplemented with live fire practice.

The goal of the dry fire practice is to ingrain proper technique, and push yourself.  The purpose of the live fire practice is to test your skill, monitor for dry fire practice errors or issues, and practice usage of those skills.  (Yes, you also want to push yourself in live fire—but pushing yourself too hard results in unsafe practice, and shooting yourself is not a good way to increase skill.)

Ben Stoeger has an interesting comment in his video Training to Win, discussing one of the shooters:

“He saw something in his technique that he needs to change.  So he needs to take that back home and dryfire and then he’ll be able to make that change.  You can’t really change anything out on the range. You only have time to fire maybe a couple hundred rounds, maybe you can only make it out once a week--all the repetition has to be done at home, he has to do the dryfire.”  [Emphasis added.]

And he’s got a point.  Unless you get to the range 3-4 times a week, AND have plenty of ammo, you simply aren’t going to get in that many reps of any particular skill drill.   Compared to what you can do with dryfire, live range work really should be for testing skills, and practicing skill chains.

At home in dryfire is where you ingrain those basic physical skills.  That’s where you do the reps to make your movements smooth, fast, and precise.  That’s where you work to make the changes, and do them enough times to make them automatic.

And only THEN do you go to the range to test what you’ve done.  For most people, your capacity to learn physical skills during dryfire is MUCH higher than your capacity to learn them during live fire.

So how can we optimize our learning in dryfire?  Well, first off—have the self-discipline to dryfire every day.  No, you don’t have to set aside an hour every day–even 5 minutes can count.  Try for three times a week of at least 30 minutes, and at least 5 minutes a day the rest of the week.

What do you do for that 5 minute practice?  Wall Drill. Freestyle, SHO, and WHO. (Strong-hand-only and weak-hand-only.) Don’t even need to have your holster or any other gear on, just need the gun, don’t even need to have a magazine in it. 10 reps freestyle, 10 SHO, 10 WHO. Then do it again (10/10/10) but this time, practice bringing up the gun from a low extended ready position. Then do it one last time (10/10/10) but this time, practice extending it out from a compressed center ready position. Whole thing gives you 30 reps of each shooting style, and 90 as-perfect-as-you-can-make-them trigger presses. Takes under 5 minutes.

And it’ll make a huge difference in your shooting, all by itself—BUT you have to concentrate on being perfect for the entire time. Don’t just do the reps to get them over with. Concentrate on what you are doing. Focus hard on that front sight. Watch what it does when the hammer/striker falls. Know what the sights did when the gun went click and afterward. 90 reps total.

Does this get boring?  Only if you let it.  You need to have the self-discipline not to slack off and blow off practice in the first place–but ALSO to make sure you pay attention and focus for that five minutes of reps.  If you are having trouble focusing, strap on a holster and do the wall drill by drawing from the holster, instead.  (Freestyle, SHO, and draw-transition-to-WHO.)   If you have time, periodically switch from holstered to extended low to compressed ready start positions.  Work that trigger press.

Okay, how about the rest of the time–those 30+ minutes of practice?

That depends on your goals, and how advanced you are at your skills.  (In particular, how efficient your movement already is, and how automatic your basic skills are.)  In general, there are roughly three levels of dryfire practice:  basic skills, chained skills, and multitasking.  And most people should NOT work much on chaining or multitasking until their basic skills are solid.

So let’s talk about how to practice a particular basic skill.  Basic practice progression:

  1. Practice it perfectly without time reference
  2. Practice it slightly slower than your normal best speed
  3. Practice it at your best speed
  4. Practice it slightly faster than your best speed
  5. Practice it perfectly without time reference

Let’s say a person’s normal “par time” on a draw from a holster to an A-zone hit at 7 yards is 1.5 seconds.  This means that about 85-90% of the time, that person gets the draw finished with a good sight picture and prepped trigger in 1.5 seconds from an audible start signal.  (The other 10-15% of the time, there is a fumbled grip or a lack of sight focus, or something similar.)  Basically, when the shooter is doing their job, they can complete the skill within the par time consistently.

So, in dryfire, this skill should be practiced something like:

  • 5 reps with a start signal but no par time
  • 10 reps timed at 0.2 above the par time
  • 10 reps timed at the par time
  • 5 reps timed 0.1 below the par time
  • 5 reps timed 0.2 below the par time
  • 5 reps with a start signal but no par time

You get a total of 40 reps, the first 5 and the last 5 of which should be perfect, 20 of which should be solidly correct, and 10 of which are pushing you to be faster.  In general, the above will take somewhere along the lines of 5-10 minutes.

After some practice, you are going to find that you are now hitting 85-90% of the drills at 0.2 below your par time.  So—time to reduce the par time.

So to do this, you need to keep yourself a log of par times for various drills.  Periodically, re-evaluate your par times and adjust them.  (Don’t adjust them each time you practice, unless your par time is too fast and it is making you sloppy.)  Unless something is ridiculously easy, don’t change a par more often than every 6-8 practices.

Now—when doing this, it is incredibly important that you are HONEST with yourself.  Did you really have the correct grip on the gun?  A proper trigger prep?  A clear, focused sight picture?  Just throwing the gun around won’t make you better.  (Matter of fact, unfocused dryfire practice will make you worse pretty quickly.  You’ll feel faster, but you won’t be able to hit anything, and your control will go downhill fast.)

So—pick three different skills and work on them.  That’ll give you about a 30-minute practice time.  Set your par times, log them, and make sure to track what you practice.  Keep a “comments” section in your logbook to add sudden insights, problems that crop up, or questions that you want to think about.  If you suddenly make a change that makes a world of difference, write it down!

Next time you practice, pick three skills—two of which you practiced last time.  (Practicing a skill once, then not getting back to it for another month doesn’t actually help much.)  Keep practicing, and rotate those skills.  Get in reps.  Remember, shorter practices that occur more often are better than long marathon practices that only occur once in awhile.

If you have 15 minutes, do a full drill on one skill, plus the Wall Drill.  Every day you don’t do any other practice, do the Wall Drill.

Now, there are plenty of other things you can do in dryfire practice, but this isn’t a book, so I’m not doing to type them all out.  For those interested in basic skills, Steve Anderson’s first dryfire book is a great way to start.  For those interested in chaining or multitasking, Ben Stoeger’s dryfire books are excellent also.

And after all that, go out to the range and check yourself in live fire.  (Discussion on that will be forthcoming in the next post.)

Other posts in this series:

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4 thoughts on “Learning to shoot, part IIA….how to PRACTICE! (dry-fire section)

  1. Pingback: Learning to shoot, part IIB….how to PRACTICE! (live-fire section) | Precision Response Training

  2. Pingback: How do you learn to shoot? (Part I) | Precision Response Training

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