Training lessons from John Tate

I’d share a recent experience from which some new and old ideas were tried, and some lessons learned. They are noteworthy if only because, looking back on my 39 years of various levels of firearms instruction, this event ranks in the top 2 for challenges.

Two Navy experiences are worthwhile for context:

In 1977 I was training a sailor in the basics of Colt 1911 shooting. His name was Brian L***. On being told to load a magazine, Brian started putting the bullets in backwards. After a bit of correction, he shortly become one of our best shots: I think he was to stupid to flinch. The lesson: don’t be too quick to judge.

In 1994 I was training a junior officer in bullseye shooting, again with the 1911. He had a terrible flinch, anticipation … call it what you will. Days and days of dry firing, ball-and-dummy, “shooting a pencil,” frustration, etc. resulted in no change. Finally, an old gunnersmate said, “Let him shoot until he’s numb.” The Navy at that time had plenty of .45 ACP ball ammo. So we put this fellow on the range and had him shoot, nothing but shoot all day long, for several days … until he was numb. He quit flinching and became an acceptable shooter. The lesson: don’t ignore counter-intuitive options or very expensive remedies.

So, what of my recent experience. It was remotely similar the the 1994 sessions: wild, off the paper misses. Only one pattern: severe jerk/anticipation resulting in shots to the left. But some were 6″ to 12″ high.

Now this fellow is a 17-year veteran who last year qualified with me and shot in the 90s. But somehow, in the last year, he’d developed a hard-and-fast flinch. Ball-and-dummy-type experiments made clear to us both what was most of his problem. But he could not stop.

In preparation for this session, I had given him links to two training videos by Keith Sanderson detailing dry fire exercises in trigger control and follow-through. My student said he’d watched them. I’m not sure – but they clearly had failed to register or their methods to be practiced.

So I loaned the man a S&W 686, instructed him in McGivern trigger exercises,* and sent him home with instructions to dry fire “until you are too weak to pull the trigger.” The next day he returned and said he’d practiced trigger drills for a minimum of five hours. The next day: essentially the same flinch remained.

He shoots a Glock 21 (.45 ACP) with a standard weight trigger. I let him shoot my dressed-up Colt. At 15 yards, his first three shots were a nice group at the top edge of a 4″ bull. BUT, then he figured out the trigger and resumed jerking his shots 6″ to 12″+ off to the left.

There’s a complicating factor, a physical difficulty beyond the scope of this document, that made effective communications very difficult! The result: it took me a long time to figure out that what I was dealing with was more than mere inattention. However, I honestly think this form of distracted inattention was the root problem, and dealing with it was very instructive. For example, even with the profound and undeniable physical manifestations of his jerk (as evidenced by extensive ball-and-dummy work), there was no change. That is: time and time again, if he knew the gun was empty, there was no flinch; if he thought the gun was loaded, there was a horrible flinch … that is the muzzle would dip some two inches! Yet, instead of focusing on the flinch, he seemed consumed with: “But I’ve never had this problem before.”

What finally made significant, though far from fully remedial progress? (Here, for context, think divided attention FSFTs!) Aside from all the normal tricks of the trade (e.g., “concentrate on sight picture and a continuous trigger press”), I tried two additions:

1. Take your four fingers of your shooting hand and extend them straight out from your hand. Now bend your trigger finger as if to pull a trigger. Note that (a) the finger mainly pivots at the middle joint, and (b) the tip of your finger moves in an arc. For a right-handed shooter, such side pressure has the potential (however slight) to push the muzzle to the left. Now, in addition, what if the shooter has his finger (first section down from knuckle) resting on the side of the firearm frame/stock? This too could introduce slight (sympathetic) pressure to the left. So, in reverse order, (a) we tell shooters when placing their finger on the trigger, to keep a slight gap between their finger and the side of the firearm; and (b) more for awareness than effect, consider telling the shooter to pull the pivot joint of his trigger finger slightly to the right such that as a result the tip of his trigger finger moves directly, linearly to the rear, and not in an arc.

2. My 1911 has a serrated trigger. On touching the trigger without gloves, it is unavoidable to notice these serrations. I told our shooter to focus on these serrations – how do they feel? – study that feeling. AND, notice the slight side pressure experienced when trying to pull his pivot joint out to the right as discussed at 1.b. above, feel that slight sideward tug on the skin of the finger.

In summing 1 and 2, when combined with coincident mental focus on sight alignment and sight picture, what are we doing to the shooter’s mind? (Think divided attention.) Answer: Displacing some measure of awareness on the impending report & recoil of the shot’s discharge, and displacing that awareness with focus on other things. (And, as you may expect, as the shooter was dry firing or live firing, I was yelling mantras like: “Front Sight,” “Squeeze,” “Pull that joint out,” “Squeeze,” and so on.)

The main lessons from this session: When a shooter has a bad trait to overcome: (1) like any athlete in a slump, first return to basics, which includes being very flexible in finding “what works today.” (2) Don’t depend on one remedial technique. There are many available; have as many in your training repertoire as you can get. Each person’s mind is a different lock, and each may need a different key to unlock and free his hang-up. (3) As long as your student is trying, don’t you give up! The life you save may be a brother.

But, of course, there is more.

A well ingrained flinch/anticipation may be somewhat unconscious. We must reach into that subconscious and overwrite nature. Remember, it’s an unnatural act to have an explosion take place in your hand. Our goal is a palimpsest, as in ignored awareness. For the combat shooter, our goal is to have ALL the basics of good marksmanship instilled into one’s conscious and subconscious such that good shooting technique is as immediate and thoughtless as pressing the brake pedal when a child runs in front of our moving vehicle.

Someone recently said – “This must become second nature.” I challenge that. For the combat shooter, it must become first nature; a collection of reactions that are strong enough that, when faced with the supreme emotional distress of being in a fight for your life, and when the thoughtful decision to fire has been made, these motor actions will occur thoughtlessly, analogous to stepping on the brake pedal.

According to Keith Sanderson, the way to develop and maintain this nearly instinctive level of basic marksmanship skills is extreme repetition, primarily through dry fire exercises.

A concluding lesson learned from the training evolution that prompts this e-mail: before expecting to have any advanced, tactical firearms training, verify that the student(s) are in full possession of the basics! In most of the 1/2 dozen or so of the last few “advanced” firearms training sessions I’d planned, the majority of our time was spent (re)establishing basic competencies.

I often refer novice shooters and expert instructors to these short but superb videos: