Curing a Shooting Slump
By Troy Hoepker
Dealing with a miss is frustrating enough, but dealing with several misses in a row is maddening at times. Shooting firearms is a bit like anything else that takes hand-eye coordination, good balance and proper mechanics. Sometimes one simple thing is all it takes to correct a problem and get you back on track. Other times, its mental and getting out of your own way seems impossible. The more you try and force it the worse things seem to get. We all go through slumps every now and then. Let’s examine some ways to get the monkey off your back the next time it happens to you!
Have you ever settled in behind the trigger and found that no matter what you seem to do, shots aren’t falling on the target the way they have in the past or the way you know you are capable of? It happens. Sometimes you can’t get settled or completely comfortable. You can’t seem to hold steady, or a wind or other factor seems to be an annoyance that you can’t shake. Then you get frustrated. Your timing is off, your not seeing the target clearly or you feel your form suffering. The madder you get with each shot, the worse it gets. It happens with all forms of shooting. Bow shooting, pistol, rifle or wingshooting. Our own frustration builds.
It’s hard to shake out of a situation like that. I’ve found that when this happens, it’s sometimes better to pack it in for the day. Start new again at another time with a fresh attitude and a clean slate. Shooting is mental and the more frustrated we get, the more tense we become only making our shooting worse by the minute. Even before packing it in for the day, you can try just walking away from it for several minutes to clear things out to see if that helps. But taking some time to step away from any slumping shooting situation can definitely help.
Have someone you trust with knowledge of shooting watch you. They may be able to see something that you are doing that you didn’t know you were. It may be something simple such as your grip of the pistol, your anchor point with a bow, or your body position as you fire at airborne clays. You may have developed a bad habit that you never knew of. It can be helpful to have an educated eye watch you.
Get back to the basics. Another thing we can do is making things easier and work our way back up to harder targets. Grab a .22 rifle and do some plinking. It has a way of restoring confidence and bringing back the fun at the same time. For a lot of us, we started by squirrel hunting with a .22 in our hands. The forgiving recoil of a rimfire round can also be just what’s needed for repetition work of proper form. In the same train of thought so can doing some dry firing of your pistol. Overly anticipating the recoil for a right-handed shooter will often cause your shots to be low and to the left. Dry firing a pistol equipped with a laser sight will illustrate this clearly when there is a bit of a recoil anticipation issue. Jerking the trigger too much will likely result in shots being pulled to the left. Seeing the problem and diagnosing it is easier with a dry fire drill. Even the slightest bad habit can develop quickly and unnoticed when shooting a high volume of pistol rounds. So getting back to the basics of a dry fire or lighter ammo can help solve such problems.
While we’re on the topic of handguns, remember that you want two things to happen as you pull the trigger. A smooth and steady trigger pull straight back and an index finger that moves independently from the rest of the hand. Good trigger control is imperative to consistent accuracy and any sideways pressure on the trigger as it is pulled rearward can lead to inconsistent grouping. Sideways pressure on the trigger often accompanies thumb rotation clockwise as the trigger breaks causing the shot to pull to the right for a right-handed shooter.
This sideways pressure can be caused by too much or too little finger on the trigger. If you’re putting too much finger on the trigger, the bend of the distal joint can pull on the trigger causing your shots to drift to the right. This is called “snatching” the trigger. If you have too little finger on the trigger or too much of the tip of your finger on it as you pull, you’ll be “pushing” the trigger to the left as you send it rearward, causing your point of impact to move to the left and likely a bit upward.
Through dry fire practice you can cure these problems. Try pressing the trigger as far rearward as possible without letting the hammer fall, and then release it. Repeat this drill over and over. It’ll improve your feel for the trigger of your particular firearm. Another good drill is the penny drill. Try placing a penny on the front sight of the pistol. Then take your aim as normal and dry fire the gun. Your goal is to have the penny remain in position on top of the front sight through the whole process.
Sight alignment goes hand in hand with trigger control for good pistol accuracy and as much as one would think that something as simple as knowing how to look down the gun’s sight properly is easy, there are some things you may be doing that could be throwing off your shooting. Dry fire practice is also a good time to retrain yourself to properly align your eye to the sights of you handgun. With the gun unloaded, punch out the gun to your line of sight. Next, find the proper alignment of the front sight within the notches of the rear sight. Make yourself stare intently at the proper alignment for 30 seconds at a time. This will burn the image of proper sight alignment into your mind. Then repeat this drill over and over, gradually moving through the drill quicker and quicker. Hopefully you’ll find that proper sight alignment comes quicker and quicker each time and begin to feel more natural. It’s also a good drill to get yourself away from focusing too intently on the target instead of your sights, which can develop into a problem you hadn’t realized before this drill.
Vary your training routine. Instead of taking every shot with your rifle from a shooting bench for example, lay prone for a while, try kneeling shots, sitting shots and off-hand shots using correct positioning. The same thing can be done with a handgun. Using some new shooting techniques from varying positions can introduce a little fun back into your shooting routines and get yourself into a great state of mind after a slump.
At the rifle range, when groups are starting to look more like the pattern of an improved cylinder shotgun pattern than what a rifle target should look like, first examine your equipment. Make sure that everything is lock solid. Check your rings on your scope to make sure nothing has loosened up. Check the focus of your sight picture through the scope. Sometimes a little tweaking of the focus adjustment ring can bring things sharper into focus and improve your shooting. There are things with firearms that we don’t always think about that make a difference such as the poundage of your trigger pull or the amount of fouling of a barrel as we shoot that should always be taken into consideration as well. Before getting frustrated, make sure you’ve thought of these things as potential reasons for poor grouping.
Sometimes however you can just sense that your poor shooting is all on you. Shooting is partly mental. To help your mental side, bring that 100-yard target in closer for several shots. Try it at 25 yards for a group of 5 shots and once you’ve pounded the bulls-eye a few times at that range, work your way back out to the desired range and hopefully at the same time you’ll be working your confidence back up once again also.
Fundamentally, when shooting a rifle there are several things you could be doing that you aren’t aware of, decreasing your accuracy. For one, make sure your point of aim is focused on an exact point. When shooting at a dot, or a broad circle, we have a tendency to chase that reference point with the crosshairs unless we focus those crosshairs on one exact point. So if you’re shooting at a circle point of aim target, instead of trying to put the crosshairs in the middle of that dot, level the horizontal crosshair line underneath the dot almost as if the dot is sitting right on top of that horizontal line. The same can be done with the vertical line of the crosshair. By using this method, the dot will appear to be cornered on two sides by the center post of the crosshairs. Remember that anytime we try and block out visually our point of aim by covering it with the crosshairs, no matter what it is, you’ll naturally chase that object, creating movement.
A tiny amount of movement is all it takes to throw your shots off even when that movement is minor. That’s why making sure we have the proper breathing pattern is essential. It’s also something that can be easily overlooked. As you take in breath, you may notice that the crosshairs rise on your target and when you exhale the crosshairs will drop. So it’s important to break the trigger at the correct time in your breathing and that is usually on the exhale side. Control your breathing. Some shooters like to let half a breath out and then hold for a second as they break the trigger and some shooters like to break the trigger in the middle of a smooth and controlled exhale. Whatever your desired technique, make sure that breathing isn’t the reason for missed shots.
Check your body positioning. Are the insides of your feet both touching the ground with both feet pointing away from each other while lying prone? Is your elbow support stable? Is the shooting rest your using rock solid? Are you directly behind the scope and gun with your eye and your body as you fire? Are you following through by seeing your shot impact the target through the scope after you fire? Is your cheek properly welded to the stock? These are just a few things to make a mental note of, as any one of them could be a reason for consistently missing shots from your rifle.
Wingshooters can be subjected to shooting slumps as well and when they happen in the field in the form of missed bird after missed bird, it’s usually time to examine a few things. Try and evaluate whether or not you are consistently missing behind the bird or ahead. If you are doing one or the other it can help narrow down the problem. Then it’s time to shoot some clays to get back on track.
Make sure that you are bringing the shotgun up to your face and not lowering your face to the gun or tilting your head. Practice this technique with an unloaded gun as you swing to develop or redevelop that muscle memory if you think this is the problem. You’ll want to make sure you’re mounting the gun to your face at the same place every time. A good drill to do is to close your eyes and then swing and mount your gun simultaneously like you normally would when engaging the target. When you feel the mount is finished stop your swing as you open your eyes. You should be looking straight down the rail of your gun with only the front bead sticking up on target. This will help you realize if your mount is correct and doing the drill repetitively will help build muscle memory. Your feet too should be inline with your target with the back heel lined up with the front foot in a line straight to where you will break the target. Have you developed the bad habit of trying to mount the gun before swinging on the target? If so, get back to mounting as you swing which will be more natural and take less time. If you are consistently shooting behind targets this could be the issue.
Maybe you’re paying too much attention to the front bead and not where it should be on the target. Let your pointing instincts take over and focus harder on the target, letting your hands and body take over the natural instinct of finding it. If you’re aiming at the target too much and not pointing you’ll shoot behind the target as well. Try doubling your lead when experiencing a slump. Work extra hard on the pass through technique. As you swing through the bird you pull the trigger as your sight picture of the barrel passes through the bird’s head. Try to aim small to miss small by focusing hard on the head of the bird even going so far as to pick out the bird’s eye or the red patch on a pheasant’s head. Follow through with your swing after you pull the trigger. When practicing with clays switch to a lighter load to help reduce the recoil and practice shots with the target going away from you as well as passing by in front of you to help you with your timing.
Regardless of what you are shooting, stay positive. Tell yourself, “I’m going to break this target.” Forget the past and enter each time at the range or in the field with a fresh, confident attitude. Shoot your way through a slump by working the problems out until you find a positive consistency. Hopefully in no time you’ll be nailing your target every time once again!