I’ve discussed previously that dry fire is important, but also super boring. There’s techniques you can use to make it less mind-numbing and my finding is that keeping things practical as possible goes a long way in facilitating regular practice.
But what should you practice? This depends on your goals — if you want to become a very good competitive pistol shooter, your general practice regimen will be different from somebody trying to improve at benchrest rifle shooting. For this article, I’m going to highlight some general positions and scenarios that most pistol shooters (and many rifle shooters) can benefit from, which I refer to as “variances” — changes from your typical standing square to a target. They’re commonly encountered in the “real world” of defensive shootings and in the fantasy land of competitive shooting, so people who train with these small variances in mind have an edge.
Variance 1: Starting empty
We all practice reloading after emptying our ammunition, but how often do practice getting ammo into it in the first place? In this variance, place your firearm on an object (or inside one to simulate keeping it in a safe or case) with ammunition carriers nearby, and practice picking up the gun, loading it, and getting off your first shot.
Why practice it?
In shooting games, a starting condition with an unloaded firearm is common, and makes a surprising difference in some people’s performance. While many have an excellent reload because they’ve developed the muscle memory, fewer have trained to grab that same carrier from a different position and load it into a gun they don’t immediately have in hand.
In reality, depending on your local laws or in-home conditions, having a loaded and ready firearm close by may not be an option — it may need to be stored empty, but with ammunition nearby. If you intend to use it in the gravest of circumstances, you should be competent at loading it.
- Experiment with how you position your gun and ammunition carriers relative to your hands. Angle and condition can all make a difference. Until I practiced this variance, I had no idea how much faster I’d load an empty revolver with it was sitting open on it’s side as pictured, but it makes a huge difference.
- Don’t commit to a specific way to picking up a gun. Try using different types of manipulations with the weak and strong hand to get it off the table. You may find something more comfortable for you. The “traditional” way of propping a gun up off a table most IPSC users employ didn’t mesh with me, and I’ve found a different technique works best for myself. But you’ll never know if you don’t train.
Variance 2: Sitting
While being seated is easy, shooting from sitting may not be. There’s a lot of variables — is there a table or steering wheel in front of you? Is a target directly in front of you or beside you? Can you even draw your firearm comfortably and safely when you’re sitting? Sitting and shooting isn’t necessarily a cakewalk — some people do markedly worse shooting the same string or stage sitting as opposed to standing.
Why practice it?
How much of your day do you spend sitting? Given the quantity of time we spend on our asses, shooting from sitting should be an essential skill we’ve all developed, but a surprising number of people take it for granted as easy.
Shooting stages with a sitting start or spent sitting entirely are common as well, so if you don’t know how to clear your holster safely from sitting, you might be surprised with a DQ by sweeping yourself.
Practice this variance all kinds of ways; with a target in front of you, offset to the left and right, even behind you. Do it with an object blocking you from the front, like a table, or in a confined space like a car (you can simulate this by sitting in a corner).
- You need to practice sitting with all your gear on for the appropriate context: if you’re a concealed carrier, you need to have your ammunition and normal holster where you plan to use it all day and make sure you can comfortably access it. If you can’t, rearrange things or make other provisions.
- If you practice this enough, you’ll learn to make use of objects as a brace. A lot of pistol shooters don’t use the perfectly good rest supplied by a table sitting in front of them during stages because they aren’t used to it. If you train to take into account that small potential edge it can pay off in scoring.
- Learn when to remain seated and when to stand up. Sometimes, you can comfortably shoot in a pretty big arc without having to move much. Other times you’re better off just getting up.
Variance 3: Full hand
Can you use your pistol well one-handed? One of the biggest benefits of handguns is their ability to be operated single-handed, but not many people practice because it’s difficult and discouraging. But knowing you can put fast hits on a target with only one hand is a huge milestone in pistol shooting.
How about your defensive long gun in the house? That’s a skill rarely practiced that might come in handy!
Why practice it?
The obvious answer is also a practical one: sometimes, you need to hold a flashlight, or open a door. Other times, you need to ferry your small child out of harm’s way, but still need to hold onto your defensive tool. And, of course, there’s the bleak prospect of being wounded — or, similarly but less painful, maybe you can’t use one arm because of a recent operation or medical condition.
Any way it happens, competent one-handed handgun operation is a good skill to have, and knowing you can use a defensive long-gun one handed won’t hurt either. This is one of the most important real-world variances to practice. For competition pistol shooters, if you’re not training one-handed, you’re probably not too worried about scores anyway.
- Trying to use a defensive long arm one-handed might make you rethink your choice of gun or plans. If you’d planned to grab your gun out of the safe in the event of a crisis and can’t reliably hold it enough to manipulate a window or door because it’s too heavy, it may be the wrong choice.
- Practice opening doors without sweeping your hand. I’ve disqualified a lot of people for doing this!
- Practice using a handheld flashlight. There’s many schools of thought on the best way to do this, and you should know what works for you. Gun mounted flashlights are a tremendous advancement in civilian firearms, but things go wrong — you get somebody else’s gun somehow, or the light won’t work or breaks (maybe it even gets shot). While modern gun lights are wildly robust, you’re already training for a horrible scenario — you might as well not conveniently leave out one possibility because you have a lot of faith in your Surefire.
Variance 4: Modified Prone/Lying on Side
Our instincts and the evidence agree that getting low to the ground is a great way to avoid being shot. But we live in a society permeated with barriers that have a gap along their bottom: cars, benches, counters, and so on. All provide concealment and cover to a person who understands how to shoot from a modified prone position.
Why practice it?
This is another skill that is mostly useful for people concerned with real-life scenarios that involve defensive shooting. Learning to shoot lying on your side minimizes your profile, gives you stability, and can give you a huge advantage over a threat who’s not expecting it. But shooting in this position is unusual and it takes effort to maximize the advantages.
For competitive shooters, sometimes the stage designers are jerks and like to make you lay down in mud. Not much you can do here but get them back by beating their scores.
- I hated shooting in modified prone until I learned to use my middle finger to use the trigger on my rifle instead of my trigger finger. It’s way more comfortable for me in this position.
- Learning to drop down into this position safely with a handgun is helpful for saving time. Practice leading yourself down with different hands or knees and avoid hitting the ground with the gun to minimize chances of activating a magazine release or safety inadvertently.
Next time you’re dry firing and your mind wanders to anything else, consider switching up your practice by introducing one of these variances. It’ll bring your attention back to the task at hand (at least for a while), and while you’re at it, hopefully develop some real and valuable skill.