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Practical Pointers to Ponder for Pistol Performance, by Ski

“You’ve got to work on that draw Ski,” barked my friend Tom.  He was already an experienced shooter and competitor in IPSC and KPDL (Kentuckiana Personal Defense League).  There are benefits to competing in IPSC events including emphasis on safety, accuracy, speed, and identification of “good guys” versus the bad guys.  It had to be painful for him to watch a “newbie” in shooting struggle along.  He was patient and persistent.  We became shooting buddies competing against each other in these organizations.  Tom is not only a natural shooter, but he works on each phase of competition and is ever looking for ways to save seconds in his style and performance.  As we practiced together he imparted many of his skills, not all though.  He had to maintain an edge on his new rival.

This article will discuss some practical skills for pistol performance regardless of competition or personal defense.  Grip, stance, draw, sight picture/sweet spot, cadence/transition, and mag changes are the areas I will attempt to address.  I will also try to include some sites that will give you a hands on look at some of these skills.  These skills can be applied to all handguns; however, I have done most of my practice and competitions with 1911 style .45 caliber single stack and double stack weapons.

A prefatory note regarding my holsters.  I use a CR Speed for competitions and for my concealed carry a Blackhawk Serpico retention holster.  So, regardless of holster, the same basic skills will be used.  In addition, if you are shooting on your own you will always be thinking safety.  Make sure the range is “clear”.  Think of the commands used during competitions….”Load and make ready”(pull your unloaded weapon from the holster and insert a loaded magazine.  Charge the weapon, put the safety on, and place back in your holster).  “Shooter ready” (at relaxed or surrender position), then the buzzer sounds.  Even shooting alone, I follow mentally the commands typically used in a competition: unload, show clear, slide forward, hammer down, holster.  In a self-defense situation what you have practiced is generally what you will do.  So, you want to have your muscle memory trained well in order to respond without having to think about what you’re doing when it comes to firing your weapon.  This doesn’t mean you won’t have to use split second judgment regarding your particular circumstances.  The 71 year old gentleman in Florida recently showed us that regardless of great skills, he was successful in preventing bloodshed by using his quick judgment in his intervention of an armed robbery.

When it comes to gripping your weapon, do be sure to forget as quickly as you can anything you have seen on television especially shows or movies from the 70’s thru the 90’s and beyond.  Actors typically are seen resting their shooting hand on the weak or support hand and firing.  You absolutely need to drop that style if you’re using it.  From a “surrender” or “relaxed” position, you will move your hand (for me my dominant hand is my right, so I will make reference accordingly) to the handle of the weapon.  On my .45 I make sure the web between my thumb and index finger ride high on the beaver tail grip safety.  The reason for this is to provide the best support as the weapon discharges and ensures proper extraction, ejection, and reloading of the weapon.  A weak grip can result in “stovepipes” in which the expended brass gets stuck in the ejection port and sticks up like a stovepipe.  Once the weapon is drawn the left hand is moved to the grip with the fingertips of the right hand butted up to or into the meat of the left hand just below the thumb.  The fingers of the left hand then wrap over the fingers of the right hand. Make sure to have a tight grip but not a ‘death grip.’

There are different stances that shooters make use of.  A couple of the better known are the Weaver stance and the isosceles stance.  I suppose I use a hybrid and you will have to develop the stance that fits your personal tastes.  In my relaxed or surrender position, I typically will have my feet right about shoulder distance apart and the left foot about 6 inches forward of my right foot.  Knees have a slight bend and weight is leaning slightly forward.  This gives me not only stability, but support for the recoil and reacquisition of the target.   If you’re a lefty, everything just goes in reverse.

Regardless of whether you are doing your draw from a surrender (hands up just slightly higher than the shoulders) or relaxed (hands relaxed at your side), you will still grip your weapon the same.  Now, upon moving the right hand to grip your weapon, you will be simultaneously moving your left hand to right in the middle of your torso.  As you remove your weapon from the holster, moving toward your left hand, you will now join the left hand before your arms are extended.  With the weapon maybe a foot away from your torso, both hands now gripped with the weapon, the weapon is extended.  You will not lock out your arms when you extend your weapon, but will leave a slight bend.  Your finger is NOT inside the trigger guard on the draw.  You will be moving your trigger finger to the trigger between the full gripping of the weapon and extension. So far, this has not been rocket science.  Do work on your grip, stance, and draw.  Compete and watch others as well as ask questions.  Watch various matches on YouTube and learn those basic techniques.  As you progress, do be sure to do “dry fire” practice.  The more you work on your draw, the more your muscles will “remember”.  You will increase in your speed and competence.

This might be part of your draw; however, I have chosen to make a separate issue of this.  As you prepare to draw you weapon, you will have your eyes fixed on your target.  Once the weapon is drawn and you are linking up right hand and left hand, you are going to bring your arms and weapon and sights up to the plane of your eyes.  You bring the sights to your eyes.  You are not watching the draw or grip.  That is automatic.  Your eyes are riveted on your target and you bring the sights to where your eyes are looking.  This is the sweet spot and as you look down range thru the sights, with sights aimed at the target, this is your sight picture.  You are always bringing the weapon up to the spot where you’re looking (sweet spot).  You are seeing the target thru the sights (sight picture). 

My friend Tom pointed out the idea of cadence to me and showed how a smooth cadence versus the typical “double tap” is faster.  He put up four IPSC targets arranged in a circle type configuration…i.e. the first target on the left at 9 o’clock position, second target at 12 o’clock, the next at 3 o’clock and the last at 6 o’clock.  He had me double tap and timed my performance.  Not bad.  Then he showed me by his example to eliminate the double tap (two quick shots in rapid succession) and pull the trigger in a more calculated and deliberate manner.  Instead of looking like: bam bam……bam bam…..bam bam.…bam bam…..it would look like: bam..bam..bam..bam..bam..bam..bam..bam.  See the difference?  So, I shot the same targets in a more consecutive, repetitive type of pattern without the distinct “double tap.”  I felt like I was going slower and was astonished to see that my time improved substantially.  I shot the stage once again using a double tap to the best of my ability to beat my non double tap time.  Not a chance.  So, Tom said try the way I showed you again.  I did and to my amazement the time was once again, unquestionably faster than my best “double tap” time.  This is cadence.  Give it a try and work on it.  The transition part is moving from target to target with your eyes moving to the next target as you polish off the previous target.  You have fired your first round and just as you’re firing your second round, you’re moving your eyes to the next target. You follow with your weapon movement to the “sweet spot” on the next target and so on.  So, in this manner you are “transitioning” from target to target in a smooth, but fast manner versus robotic and jerky movements.  To each his own.  You may find this doesn’t fit your style and that is all right.  In competitions, cadence and transition are areas where the competitor can pick up time.  Fractions of seconds are important and the difference between winning a stage and match and the alternative.  In real life situations those fractions of seconds could translate into life and death.

Changing your magazine is critical in competition.  In life or death scenarios I suspect a magazine change is going to be critical as well.  IDPA incorporates the use of the “tactical” magazine change or “retention” magazine change.  One would not be wrong to develop this style and skill.  This type of magazine change simply requires that rather than just dropping your empty mag, you retain it while placing a full mag in your weapon and tucking the empty or nearly empty mag in a pocket or your mag pouch.  IPSC rules do not mandate this particular style.  For me the situation will have to be the determining factor.  If it were a hot situation, I’m dropping the mag to maximize my speed and ability to continue to firing.  I can get that mag later.  The enemy is my main concern and I want to neutralize the bad guy and worry about the mag later.  If the situation were such that I could grab or retain my empty mag I would do it.  My double stack mags with extended base pads are expensive.  I suppose this could be an argument to go back to a single-stack M1911. 

Okay, your mag change is going to take practice and lots of it.  Here goes with the basic mechanics of the mag change.  As your slide locks open with the last round being fired, you will keep your weapon arm extended while pushing your mag release button.  Your right arm and weapon are going to be close to the position of your sweet spot.  Your left hand is already reaching for a mag once the last shot is fired.  The mag drops from your weapon or you can give it a slight flick, but ultimately you will rotate your weapon to a 1 to 2 o’clock position.  The weapon is angled for the insertion of the full magazine.  Upon inserting the mag and reacquiring your grip, operate the slide release which allows the slide to come forward and chamber a new round.  The ideal situation is to change mags before running dry.  This way you won’t have to waste time with the slide release.  Remember, seconds matter!! 

These practical pointers when practiced will help you develop your skills with a pistol.  With increased skill development and muscle memory comes confidence.  Hopefully none of us will be confronted with a situation that demands an armed response, but the next time you’re at the “movies”, you’ll be ready, if the situation arises.  Think of the different type of outcome if there was just one individual carrying a concealed weapon in the theatre in Aurora.  The following are a few videos that you may wish to access to get a visual of the skills I have just mentioned: