The Goal

The Goal

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Has TR become an equipment game?

A comment on the Facebook UK Fullbore forum a while back interested me. A member of the forum commented that he couldn't stay competitive in fullbore because of cost, and he would be happy to see fully-adjustable stocks, right sights etc... banned from the sport. After some sober reflection, I disagree with his choice of examples, if not some of the sentiments expressed in his post. I do not believe that many of the flash new gadgets that are around have really increased accuracy and frozen out those who cannot afford them.

There is no doubt that costs are rising and it is putting people off the sport; however I don't think the problem is the equipment of shooting, rather I believe it to be the variable costs. Had he singled out increases in the cost of ammunition or targetry as having priced him out of the sport, then I would have agreed wholeheartedly. I don't believe that the equipment necessary to compete has fundamentally changed in at least a decade and you can still be competitive with largely second-hand kit.

I have seen little evidence that the use of an eagle eye leads to any reduction in group sizes for people of moderate or good eyesight (but if you've got some then I'd be very pleased to see it and will publicly revise my opinion on this blog.Either that or mercilessly demolish the analysis. One of the two.)  I could be persuaded that they assist the seriously visually challenged. When I made comparisons about a decade ago, I found that my group size was unchanged when swapping between the two. I freely admit that these were not statistically significant as I didn't fire enough shots or perform any kind of detailed numerical analysis. I swapped to a 30mm foresight with a 0.5 Eagle Eye in 2010 because it enables me to have the target and a readable target number in the sight picture at the same time at long range. That said, perhaps I have just exchanged the occasional crossfire at long range for the occasional crossfire at the shorts as I did in the NZ Championships at Trentham in January because I now can't read the target numbers at this distance! A certain former World Long Range Champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist is known for not using an eagle eye, as are a number of the other very top shots.

Similarly, I have serious doubts as to the advantages of having a fully-adjustable stock. They have been on the market since the late nineties (if not earlier) and yet I can't remember a single member of the World Championship-winning 2007 and 2011 Great Britain Palma Rifle Teams having used one and there are only one or two shooters on the 2015 Palma Team who use one. Similarly, only one of the people in the mix during Glasgow 2014 was using one. If there is some inherent advantage in having one of these, then it certainly isn't showing up at the top of the sport. I use a UK-made clone of a Mastin stock, not particularly cheap but less than half the price of a Gemini.

It is certainly true that without the right kit, you're not going to be competitive; however the kit required hasn't really changed significantly in a long time. I qualified for and shot in the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games, as well as on the 2006, 2007 and 2011 Great Britain Rifle Teams using a second-hand Swing Mk. III in an original "paddle" stock. I do admit to having put a new set of RPA Trakker sights on the rifle when the time between backlash fixes became intolerably short, and my shift to a Barnard in 2012 came about because of worries about malfunctions and a lack of spare parts, rather than a lack of faith in the accuracy of my two Swing rifles.

Better optics? Not convinced here either. While I know of a lot of shooters who have spent a fortune on Leica scopes and fancy scope stands, there are still a decent number of people who operate very effectively with much cheaper options. Having said this, I do admit to having splashed the cash on a Kowa TSN821-M and Ewing prone rifle scope stand back in 2005, but I was living in Atlanta at the time and it cost me approximately half the price it would have in the UK (850 bucks vs. 850 quid when the dollar was 2:1 against the pound.) Up until then I used my father's 60mm scope and the folding stand he had an Bristol University smallbore club back in the sixties.

The one area where I have spent a lot of cash over the years and felt that is has made a difference is on shooting jackets. They are remarkably expensive and can have a quite an astounding effect on the accuracy of one's shooting. Again, though, it is not necessarily the case that a vast amount of money need be spent.  Fit seems more important than the precise material, given the number of people who shoot year-in, year-out with delightfully antiquated canvas. An increasing number of people are having their existing jackets retailored by leather shops, tailors and shooting jacket specialists rather than buy new ones. Also jackets made of canvas and cordura are probably as good as those made of leather provided that they are correctly fitted. Even if you do choose to spend 400 odd quid on a custom-made leather jacket, provided that you don't put on or lose too much weight, there's a good chance that it will last you 5 years or more.

I don't think that it's possible to buy yourself medals in TR (yet) simply because the amount you need to spend to get the right kit is not that high and the odds are still immensely stacked in the favour of those with the skills. You still need to point it in the middle, hold it still and squeeze the trigger gently. Long may it continue.

Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Using SCATT to Improve Your Training

In my last post I talked a little bit about the idea that fullbore shooters should train more and practice less. Since about 2008, I've used dryfiring and SCATT as a major part of my training schedule, firing as many as 2500 shots on a SCATT in a season. I'm pretty sure that it has helped with my technique, but also with my ability to hold a position for a decent amount of time. It is a useful tool to enhance your training, but people do have some odd ideas about it or at least unrealistic expectations of what it can do for them. It's a great tool, but mindlessly banging away at it without some critical thinking isn't really making the best use of your time (although it may be better than not training at all.)

I've jotted down a few guidelines to help you use SCATT effectively during your training:
  • SAFETY FIRST. Double check your rifle is unloaded before starting. Keep all ammunition locked away when using any shooter training system
  • SCATT is good for training in muscle memory, identifying errors in technique and making comparisons between different bits of kit
  • SCATT is less good when trying to disentangle the problems with someone's technique when they have lots of separate faults
  • Go into each SCATT training session with an aim in mind and give training sessions your full attention
  • Do lots of SCATT and do it regularly
  • Use the same target (e.g. ICFRA 1000x) consistently to allow for meaningful comparisons to be made, but do not think of SCATT as a v-bull machine
I've found the major benefit of SCATT to be the ability to train for little or no cost all year round. In my view it is good for reinforcing good technique through constant repetition and the visual feedback that it gives you. It can also be useful for identifying and then addressing specific areas of technique, which the trace shape and various data can help to identify. In particular, it is great for allowing you to make a good comparison between different techniques, positions or bits of kit without having to spend a prohibitive amount of time and money on live firing (more on this in another post later.)

I have found SCATT a bit less than useful when working with beginners or people who have several errors in their technique. It just seems to be very hard to disentangle the effects of the various problems and diagnose the precise nature of the issue. In many cases all you can say is that they're not holding the rifle very still and trigger discipline is poor. Using SCATT to try and build sight picture and positional awareness seems to be time better spent with beginners.

It can be very easy to get the SCATT out with a view to just aimlessly clicking away with no real goal in mind and then to lose interest and not focus on technique. Repetition of an action many times burns the technique into your muscle memory in such a way that you can reproduce that action without thinking about it. If you lose focus on the right technique and errors start to creep in then that is the technique that you'll execute when you're under stress (e.g. During a competition.) Going into each training session with an aim in mind, even if it is just to fire 30 really great shots will help to reduce how often this happens. Sometimes you will have a session planned and inertia will set in. At this point: Stop; go read  Susie Cornfield's book on Her Majesty The Queen's Prize; watch the Karate Kid; do something which will increase your motivation to train. Do not continue to fire away with bad technique.

I've heard SCATTs compared to having treadmills, rowing machines etc... at home. Bought and then left to moulder quietly in a corner until the owner flogs them on eBay in embarrassment at how little they got used. Don't be that person! Shooter training systems can cost anything from GBP700 to GBP1200 and it's a terrible waste to buy one and leave it in the corner. Use it at least once a week and get your money's worth. To assist with this you really need to have all of your shooting gear and the SCATT somewhere handy so it only takes a couple of minutes to set up and get going (except the rifle. Please keep that locked up securely when not in use, the police take exception to it being left stood in the corner by the front door. At least in the UK and NZ they do.) Regular use will keep that muscle memory ticking over so when the start of the season comes around, you're ready to start hitting the vees when others are still trying to remember which way round their sling goes and work out why everything feels so awkward.

On a final note, it's worthwhile using the same target for all of your shoots so you can use the numbers to make meaningful comparisons. I use the ICFRA 1000x target. That said, don't confuse the ability to shoot a 50.10 on a SCATT with shooting a 50.10 on a real target. SCATT is a useful training tool, but it isn't a perfect model for how things work in the real world.

SCATT training. Note that I have not centred the group as I'm not trying to use SCATT to get a score. Image edited to minimise the amount of whitespace

* Please note that SCATT is just the specific brand of shooter trainer system that I happen to use, the RIKA and Noptel systems are also apparently very good, and I will use the term "SCATT training" for any dry firing augmented by the use of a similar shooter training system.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Training vs. Practice

For much of my 25 shooting career I was pretty mediocre, managing the occasional possible or bar in the meeting; however I just knew that if I could somehow master myself and my technique then I could do much better. It felt like there was a good shooter inside me fighting to get out. If this describes the frustration that you feel about your shooting, then you should probably read on. I can't promise "one weird trick" to make you effortlessly qualify for the next Commonwealth Games or gain your first shooting place on the Palma Team, but I can give you some pointers. The good news is that achieving such goals is within your grasp; I absolutely believe that pretty much anyone can do it. The bad news is that unless you're very naturally talented, it's going to take quite a lot of hard work.

Looking back, there seem to be two key points in time where I've made major leaps in performance, each of which correlates with some lesson that I've learned. These haven't been about the specifics of technique; although both of them resulted in changes in technique which later improved my results. Nor have these been about increasing the volume of livefire practice that I've completed, and although the amount of shooting I have done has increased, that has been a consequence of improved performance and the increased number of invitations to tour or shoot in matches that I have received as a result.

Rather, these lessons have been much more general in nature. Think of them as philosophies that have informed my approach to my shooting.

Lesson 1 - Work out what you're doing wrong. Stop doing it wrong. Start doing it right.
Believe it or not, it took me about a decade in shooting to work this one out. It sounds very simple, trivially obvious even, yet when people have asked me for a critique of their position or some other aspect of their technique, and I have made comment about one flaw or another I have often received the answer, "But I've always done that. I don't think it's a problem."

It's incredible that such self-deception is possible but I believe that it is relatively common. I was certainly guilty of it for quite a while (see my post One Weird Trick for details.) Note that the person in question knows of the problem, very often they know that it's contrary to the principles of marksmanship, but still they do not perceive that it's a probable cause of poor performance despite the evidence to the contrary. The real issue very often lies not knowing that there is a problem, but in acknowledging it and acting upon that knowledge.

Lesson 2 - Stop practising. Start training.
The 2007 Palma Team tour was a critical turning point for me, not because I shot brilliantly as an individual and then earned my first Palma Match cap as a shooter. Actually, I shot mediocre groups in the DCRA meeting and the Individual WLRC. As a result, the Captain made the entirely correct decision  that I was to be reserve for the Palma Match and plotted both days. While I was delighted that I could still contribute to the team's success, I was gutted that it wasn't as a shooter. In my post-season analysis, I realised that I wasn't learning very effectively, spending most of my time banging rounds down Century and Stickledown ranges. I needed to focus less on practising, and more on training.

As a result of this lesson, I began to do a lot more dry firing, SCATT and visualisation. During my practice sessions, I spent more time on creative exercises. One particular favourite is to mix a few dummy rounds in with lives in a cloth bag and not look when loading, which gives immediate feedback on flinch and follow-through. Speed shooting is also a useful exercise, and a real area for improvement for me as anyone who has coached me can probably tell you. I also spent less time on the range in the following year, but my results improved. Since that time, I've expanded the range of activities that I do to train effectively to include cardio, stretching and other physical activities. I'll talk about some of these in future posts.

In the 2011 GB Palma Team Brochure I defined practise as "...the constant repetition of existing technique, often flawed..." and training as "...a schedule of highly varied exercises designed to identify and address flaws in technique planned around achieving a defined goal." My guess is that many, if not most fullbore shooters, do not train effectively and certainly do not have a defined plan to improve and yet they expect somehow to get better. How is this reasonable?

Take the time to make an honest appraisal of your shooting, and use the lessons you learn to build yourself a new plan to train, rather than merely to practise.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

This One Weird Trick Can Eliminate Flinch

It is probably fair to say that my first tour with the Great Britain Palma Rifle Team to the World Long Range Championships at Connaught Ranges in 2007 was not a roaring success. While I came an acceptable 39th in the individual WLRC, my position in the DCRA Grand Aggregate was miserable, I didn't make the Governor General's Final and I was first reserve in. Every. Single. Goddamned. Team. Match.*

The long and the short of it was that my usual technique had degenerated from an extremely consistent and barely-controlled flinch into an inconsistent mess of a flinch. On my return from this tour, I decided that I should probably do something about this. I knew that good trigger control was critical to achieving consistent results and yet I managed to lie to myself about this, kidding myself that it really wasn't that big a deal and my technique was fine.

Normally, I'm a strong believer in the non-existence of silver bullets; however in this case I really believe that this one weird trick eliminated my flinch in the space of about 25 shots. There are a couple of different variations on the theme but it all really boils down to firing a few dozen shots not knowing whether there's a live in the chamber or a dummy/snapcap/empty.

I had tried having someone else load for me with a snapcap, but with the Swing Mk. III I was using at the time I could hear the difference between a live round and a snapcap being loaded. To get around this I made myself ten dummy rounds, each of which was identical to my normal handloads except for a) having an already fired primer, and b) the large red handwriting indicating that this was a dummy round. Otherwise they were completely indistinguishable from a live round, to the point of containing the same charge of the same powder.**

The next time I went to the range, I dumped the dummy rounds into a cloth bag with 20 live rounds and then shot a couple of 2+10s without looking at the rounds as I loaded the rifle. At the start my technique was close to what was normal for me at the time; however I got the fright of my life the first time I pulled the trigger on a dummy round: my position was beautiful, centred perfectly on the vee with only a tiny wobble, but all hell broke loose when the trigger broke! The rifle waved all over the bloody shop before coming to rest neatly back in the middle despite the complete lack of recoil.
This was something of an eye opener.

My composure eventually regained, I continued to shoot and seemed to take a lot more time over triggering, and the next time a dummy came up the rifle wavered only a little. The third time, the rifle didn't move when the firing pin went *ping*. It looked very much like I had cured myself of my flinch. Certainly, the last time I had a misfire (sometime in 2014) the rifle did not waver in the tiniest degree when the trigger broke.

It is worth emphasising at this point that in general my muscle memory felt like I was triggering correctly, just very quickly; however it was clear from the results that this was wrong. But when I consciously tried to squeeze the trigger more slowly, I simply could not do so no matter how hard I tried.

There. You know the secret of my success, or at least how I eliminated one bad habit. If you have a flinch or even a suspicion that your trigger discipline could be better, try this one weird trick and let me know how you get on.

* NB - I freely accept that the team hierarchy made exactly the right decision and that this was fundamentally my fault for not shooting well enough. Own your own performance biatches.

** If you are going to do this, please, please, please ensure that they are stored separately from real ammunition (but still under lock and key, as they may technically consistute a live round under UK law) and are clearly labelled as dummy rounds which contain real powder. Alternatively, use the same mass of an inert filler such as semolina.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Creedmoor Hardback Jacket Review

Creedmoor shooting jackets have been gaining popularity over the past few years and were used to great effect by a number of Commonwealth Games medallists in the fullbore event at Glasgow 2014. They work out slightly cheaper than the competition (particularly if you're used to flying to Switzerland to have the jacket custom-tailored) and are clearly capable of producing the goods at the sharp end of fullbore. The bottom line is though, would a Creedmoor work for me?

After a slightly dodgy season in 2014 where I had real problems holding any kind of group consistently, I decided that it was time for a new jacket which would fit my rather slimmer frame. Training for and running two half marathons had melted away over a stone (6.5kg) and my old Truttmann jackets weren't cutting it any more, even after some radical alteration by a skilled tailor. After a bit of thought and conversations with a few top-flight shooters, it looked like a full leather Creedmoor Hardback Shooting Coat might be the way to go. After a bit of worry-warting, I bit the bullet and ordered one from their website on August 11th and after speaking to a few other folks, promptly amended my order to request a few alterations to the basic product a day later. Creedmoor's team were more than accommodating, and promised to make the desired alterations. Fast forward a couple of months and the jacket had arrived in New Zealand; however I had to wait until our big move to Auckland to give it a go, and it wouldn't be until January that I'd get a chance to bang some rounds down with it.

First Impressions
Having opened up the package and taken the jacket out, my initial impressions were favourable. The quality of the leather was pretty good, the finish of the stitching was neat, and the rubber on the elbow and shoulder pads felt grippy. I also checked that the modifications were in place that I had been advised to make by Tony Sultana (a Creedmoor import agent in Australia who I met during the 2011 WLRC) and all looked to have been made exactly as requested:

1) Reversed Buckles - For reasons unknown, the buckles on the Creedmoor jackets are set up on the lefthand side of the jacket (from the point of view of the wearer) which means that right-handers shooting in the modified Estonian position get them in the ribs. Ask for them to be swapped over.

My first impressions of the Creedmoor Hardback Shooting Coat were positive.
2) Long Sleeves - I'd been advised that the sleeves are quite short and to get sleeves 2 inches longer than standard.

3) Modified Compression Straps - The default straps on the right shoulder are a bit wimpy and need an upgrade. I asked that they use the same straps for the shoulder as for the sling hook.

Chunkier shoulder compression straps.

4) Adjusted Sling Hook - The strap for the sling is a bit far back on the shoulder by default, so I asked for it to be moved forwards slightly.

Sling hook on the front of the shoulder.

5) Positional Upgrades - These are zips in the sides of the jacket. They make getting it on and off a bit easier. No more "Truttmann Shuffle" on the back of the firing point.

6) Ventilation - Panels of loosely-woven nylon which make the jacket more breathable and less sweaty in hot weather. Important in the Southern Hemisphere.

Positional upgrade zips for standing and kneeling/sitting in highpower, or easier entry/exit in fullbore! Also, not the ventilation panels.
Probably the most significant worry I had was about the right shoulder. I'd seen lots of people shoot in Creedmoor jackets in Canada, the USA and the UK and they all looked to have a loose, baggy right shoulder with a lot of excess material. The cut of the jacket made this feel like it might be a problem for me also, but that would have to wait until I got a chance to do some SCATT and livefire with it.

Fitting and Dryfire
Not having all of our possessions from the UK in NZ (most of them were still drifting their way across the ocean) I picked out one of my tighter-fitting hoodies and used that in place of a more normal shooting jumper. Fortunately I did remember to air-freight over my glove, sling and hat.

Putting the jacket on properly for the first time with a view to doing some dryfire, I was interested to feel how stiff it actually felt, and the level of support that the quilted back would give. My key goal for the session was to work out how much tension I would need in the chest and shoulder straps to give a good level of support without interfering with my natural position or breathing. Even though I had gone for a 36 inch chest I still needed to tighten the chest straps to a surprising degree and, as I had worried, the shoulder felt quite loose when standing up, so I needed to put a high degree of compression into the shoulder straps also.

As is normal for such a session, there was quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing from trying the jacket in the prone position to removing the jacket and adjusting the straps before getting back down into the aim. After about eight or ten iterations I felt that I had found a sustainable and natural-feeling position, and did a 20 shot dryfire session. I didn't have the SCATT available at the time, so wasn't able to make a quantitative comparison with my best form using either of my two Truttmann jackets (I'll probably do this for a future blog post) but it would have to be good enough, as the NZ Nationals down at Trentham were looming fast.

While I had wanted my first time out with the jacket to be on the range with my new club at Clevedon, near Auckland; however it was straight up into the Masefield 300 yards shoot down at Trentham. The Masefield is roughly equivalent to the pre-Grand shoots in the UK, as they do not count for the NZ Championship, which is concurrent with the Ballinger Belt series. Very often when making a change to equipment, and particularly something so fundamental as a jacket, what feels good when dryfiring turns out to be less than ideal on the range, even wholly unworkable sometime. Fortunately, it seemed that the position I had worked out suited the range as well as my living room carpet and I squeezed in a solid 35.5 ex 35.7 with only a few minor niggles.

Probably the most significant of the niggles was the removable towelling collar, visible at the top of the photo below, which I could never seem to get right. Sometimes there are little sequences of actions that can deal effectively with these niggles, such as putting the jacket on in a certain way like left arm first and then the right, but in this case nothing seemed to work. No matter what I did, it always ended up tucked inside the collar of the jacket and not hanging out over it. In the end my perseverance came to its limit and I removed it. That said, I don't think it's a bad idea per se, it maybe just needs a little alteration. I'm going to try putting in some more Velcro on the outside of the jacket to hold it in position more firmly. I'll let you know how I get on.

The removable towelling collar proved troublesome and I discarded it at the Kiwi Nationals.
My big worry about the shoulder proved unfounded in either individual shooting, where I shot through without removing the rifle from the shoulder, or in the team matches, where some decidedly tricky conditions meant that I had to put the rifle down to rest during some of the more wayward patches of wind. The material seemed to deform consistently and form a 'pocket' in the right place in the shoulder, and I experienced no issues with variable NPA (natural point of aim) or fall of shot. My zeroes were very consistent throughout the ranges, and the vast majority of my sighters were converted.

Getting in and out of the jacket was initially almost as difficult as with my old Truttmann jackets, but I soon worked out a trick to this: undoing the positional upgrade zips made the jacket a bit more flexible and easier to get into. Doing them up just before getting down tightened everything back up nicely.

Shooting at Trentham. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Richard Rowlands.
I was very happy with the performance of the jacket overall and will continue to refine my position and technique with it. I ended up 3rd in the Ballinger Belt and 5th in the NZ Grand Aggregate a couple of points off the lead, despite firing a shot on the wrong target at 300x in the first day of the Ballinger series. All (of the very few) shots lost to elevation I can conclusively say that I knew where they had gone and why, and points lost to wind corresponded very well to the conditions.
Shooting in the Ballinger Belt Final at Trentham. Maybe I need to think about mat position more carefully! Image reproduced with the kind permission of Richard Rowlands.
Will a Creedmoor work for you? I can't say for sure, but given the solid built quality of the jacket and the recent pedigree of performance behind it, it's got to be a contender if you're in the market for a jacket. The mixed leather/Cordura and Cordura-only models will bring the price down further. They do have a couple of issues, but these are minor and can probably be rectified fairly easily. Keep an eye out for them on the ranges and go ask other shooters what they think.

Disclaimer - I have no commercial relationship with Creedmoor or any of their agents. All thoughts are my own.