Monday, April 21, 2008

Shooting on the Double

Kevin Baker is a friend of mine down in Tucson, and a great writer, blogger, and gunny. I'd say hes a great guy too, and I think he is, in fact I know few better men; but he's the first to acknowledge he takes some getting used to.

...Well, so do I; and besides, I don't rank my friends by their social quirks. Let's just say if you ever get the chance to hang out with Kevin, take it; but be prepared for him to be a bit... cantankerous is maybe the best term?

I'd guess most of my readers know him as the proprietor of "The Smallest Minority". If you DON'T read him already, you should... though to warn you, he and I are the top two contestants in the "most ridiculously long blog post" competition on a regular basis.

Recently, Kevin decided to get involved with the very active local competitive practical shooting scene down here; here meaning south and central Arizona that is. There are several leagues, and most gun clubs run events; plus we're home to some of the best shooters in the sport, like Rob Leatham, Brian Enos (semi-retired), and Matt Burkett.

I think everyone should try "practical shooting competition" (IDPA, IPSC/USPSA, GSSF etc...) at least once by the by. Even if you think the games are silly, they're good practice shooting on the move, from cover, and from positions you normally wouldn't get into on the range. The real world is mostly constructed of and populated by things other than shooting benches; and IPSC and IDPA help you to practice for that. Besides, they're just great fun.

'Course, I'm one of those folks who DOES get irritated with the "gamey-ness" of IPSC style competition (IPSC stands for the "International Practical Shooting Confederation; a group of affiliated international shooting organizations, of which the US affiliate is the USPSA - United States Practical Shooting Association); so, though I've tried it, and it IS great fun and good practice, I've never done much with it (though I'm thinking I'd really like to try three gun. It's like the pistol competition, but you've got pistol, rifle, and shotgun all in one).

I have done a fair bit of shooting with the IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association) however; because it is less game-like and far more defensively oriented... or at least it was. It will never reach the level of IPSC in terms of scenarios because of the way the rules are written; but over time (and as the prizes for winning get bigger) it too is becoming less practical and more spectacle.

It's kind of like how NASCAR started out with people racing their 'shine runner cars, then got to the factory "specials", and finally evolved into cars having nothing to do with the street. Both IPSC and IDPA started out as practical defensive shooting oriented competitons, with stock guns; and are evolving into highly stylized scenarios with highly specialized (and expensive) weapons... though much less so with IDPA, at least thus far; because the rules are written to discourage that from happening, and because IPSC has a 25 year head start.

All that said, I'm planning on getting back into IDPA, and maybe trying three gun with IPSC; because even for all my criticisms, it is still great practice and great fun. Even better, Mel wants to try shooting IDPA in the backup gun category with her little 3" carry guns (one of the things I love about IDPA is their secondary classes for revolvers, backup guns etc...).

Oh and it may be a game, but don't discount the skills and experience engendered by that game. I wouldn't want to be the man having to face an IPSC master class shooter in a gunfight. This famous clip from Miami Vice show's what an IPSC grandmaster shooter can do:

That isn't some hollywood trick. The "hitman" here is Jim Zubiena, an IPSC grandmaster, and movie stuntman. Zubiena actually re-wrote the scene with the director; because the director didn't understand (or frankly, believe) what Zubiena could do, until he saw it for himself.

For those of us familiar with IPSC competition, the scene is quite a fun inside joke, because Zubiena set it up just like a stage in a shoot...

Oh and also note, the sound guy who dubbed in the gunshot sounds is slower than the shooter. Zubiena shot a controlled pair, then a single (a Mozambique), in less time than the Foley sound for two gunshots took (gunshot sounds are faked on film because they don't sound "right").

So, the whole point of IPSC and IDPA shooting is combining speed with accuracy. A good competitor has to embody the Earp maxim "Fast is fine, but accuracy is final. You gotta’ learn to shoot slow…in a hurry".

Matches are shot in timed stages, each stage consisting of several different targets that will require you to move, shoot, reload, seek cover, and otherwise do things that would slow you down, and hinder your accuracy. Your time is factored in, and the longer you take, the worse you score. There are also penalties for various errors and procedural violations.

This is the general form of the targets you shoot at in IPSC:

The scoring is measured by zones; with the "A" zone giving the best score, and the outer zones being progressively worse.

The different stages in a competition may have different shot strings required to "neutralize" a target. For example, you may need to put two or even four (though that's rare) shots into a single target, or you will get points off (or even a failure for the stage) for a "failure to stop" or "failure to neutralize" etc...

Additionally, many stages will specify that hits in the D zone are not counted towards that total. In fact some stages may require that only "A" zone hits count, or even specify that hit's outside the "A" zone are a penalty. They may also cover up some of the target with a painted "hostage" silhouette; which if you hit, you get a penalty (usually a no-score, or the worst possible score on the stage; depending on which scoring model you use). Also some stages may put their targets in "body armor" (usually a t-shirt actually) and require more shots, or head shots, to neutralize.

That scoring per target, is spread across as many as 15 targets in a single stage, with as many as 4 reloads required; though that's uncommon (certain classes have magazine capacity limitations, and most stages only require a maximum of two reloads). The target count is usually limited to somewhere between two and eight for local competitions, because longer courses are more complex to set up, shoot, and score.

Importantly, you are being watched by a timer and referee at all times, to make sure you don't commit any scoring or procedural violations or safety infractions; which can have penalties from adding a few seconds to your time or docking a few points, all the way up to disqualification from an entire multi-day competition.

Oh and as I said, it's all on the clock. Every fraction of a second counts.

Please note that I am generalizing greatly here, as I'm trying to relate in a general way several different shooting organizations procedures; as well as reflect local variations. A lot of my readers are IPSC and IDPA shooters and will note the differences.

A "typical" stage at a local practical shooting competition might look a little something like this:
1. Start with your hands up in "surrender position" (as Mr. Zubiena was in the video above) , gun concealed, ready, in your holster, with no more than 10 rounds loaded; standing in a "shooting box" (an area, usually a square, you must stand in to shoot; for safety reasons) , with some kind of partial cover in front of you (a 55 gallon barrel).

Six feet in front of you and three feet to your left; there is a wall with a chest high window, three feet of wall, a doorway, three feet of wall, another doorway, three feet of wall, and then another window.

You can see one of your targets through the window from your starting position (the one you are "surrendering" to), and the edge of a hostage silhouette through the window.

2. When the buzzer sounds, draw from concealment and engage the target you can see through the window with two shots to neutralize. The target is partially covered by a hostage silhouette, and D zone hits do not count.

3. Move from your position to the shooting box in between the first window and doorway, engage one with two shots required to neutralize. The target is partially covered by a hostage silhouette, and D zone hits do not count.

4. From partial cover behind the first doorway, while remaining in the shooting box (lean around the edge of the door), engage two targets with two shots each required to neutralize. Targets are partially covered by hostage silhouettes, and D zone hits do not count.

5. Run across the two open doorways to the other shooting box, between the other window and door. Your head must be no higher than the height of the windowsills while crossing the doorways or you will incur a cover penalty.

6. Reload a magazine containing no more than 10 rounds, from cover, inside a shooting box (some competitions allow reload on the run, some don't). You may choose to reload either before, or after, you run across the doorways.

7. From partial cover inside the shooting box, engage two targets through the doorway, with two shots each required to neutralize. Targets are partially covered by hostage silhouettes, and D zone hits do not count.

8. From partial cover inside the shooting box, engage two targets through the window. The first target is not obscured, and requires two shots to neutralize. The second target is obscured by two hostages, covering the entire C and D zones, is wearing body armor; and requires three hits to neutralize, at least one of which MUST be inside the head area.

9. When your last shot is fired, unload your weapon, show clear, and holster it.

10. At all times you must engage targets in a logical order, nearest threat first. Failure to do so will result in a procedural penalty.

Any hostage hit will result in a DNF (did not finish) and maximum score penalty for the stage.

A failure to neutralize will result in a maximum score penalty for that target.

You must maintain cover at all times that you are not shooting, or moving between shooting boxes. You must maintain partial cover while shooting; and while moving you cannot be exposed for more than 3 seconds. Failure to maintain cover will result in a DNF and maximum score penalty for the stage.
Breaking it down; you're firing two shots on one target, moving to another box and firing two shots an the second target, repositioning and firing 4 more shots on the third and fourth targets. That's 8 shots, and presuming you're shooting a standard 1911 in a limited class (some classes allow protruding magazines, some do not), your mag is empty, and you may or may not have one up the tube.

Next you reload, and move (or move and reload), fire four more shots on targets 5 and 6, reposition, and fire two shots on target 7, and three on a target 8, one of which must be a headshot.

A total of 17 shots, on 8 targets, one reload, two major movements, and five different shooting positions.

Sound hard?

Well, that's because it is. It's a difficult enough skill to accomplish while you're standing still, never mind moving from cover to cover, reloading, and avoiding "hostages"; all under a clock.

The very best shooters in the world may be able to perform a scenario like I described above in 10-11 seconds, while scoring all "A" zone hits; or trade speed for accuracy, and drop a couple of C hits, to drop a second or two. The time difference on top competitors in the same class will often be down to fractions of a second; and to be competitive at all at the top levels, you certainly can't be more than a second or two off the pace.

Here's a video of Dave Sevigny, two time national champion, doing just that; on a similar stage to the one I just described; 17 shots on 8 targets in 9 seconds (with a running reload, which cuts about a second off your time).

I'm referring to the first stage in the video by the way. He shoots a couple of much more complicated stages after that:

A "mere mortal" who is simply good, and well practiced, might be able to that same stage the grand champion shoots in 10 seconds(the one I described that is, not the one Dave is running); in as little as 12 seconds, but more probably somewhere from 14-18 seconds. That would be a more realistic time from a decent competitor in a local or regional match. The spread of times in those classes is a lot wider as well, varying maybe as much as 4-6 seconds in between competitive shooters (and presuming no penalties).

A good shooter, who has never run a course like that before, but who has walked through it to prepare; and has practiced drawing and firing, and reloading quickly; might do it in 20-25 or so seconds.

Here's a video of few friends of mine casually shooting a similar stage, though with half as many targets, and starting from "low ready" (your gun in your hand, and pointed at the ground in front of you - another common starting position).

The action starts at about 1:30 in.

You can see that they can comfortably shoot the 8 shot string in anywhere from 5-8 seconds, without rushing.

Let's extrapolate that to my theoretical stage. First, double their time for double the number of targets. Then add in 2 seconds to draw, 2 seconds for movement and a mag change, and an extra 2 seconds to account for slowing down to make sure you don't get penalties on the obscured targets (if they were master class shooters it would be more like 1.5 seconds added total rather than 6).

Put that all together, and you get... 16-22 seconds; which matches up with their respective skill and experience levels. Robb and Combat are both experienced practical shooters, but do not actively compete. Kim, the narrator, is a very good shot, but doesn't do much practical or action shooting.

So it's not easy, but it's not very hard to do it at the most basic level either. The hard part is do it it accurately, and quickly, at the same time.

Most folks can manage to do it accurately with enough practice; after all we're generally talking about distances of 15 yards or less, and in some stages maybe as short as few feet.

Where most folks fall down, is on the speed. Either they try to go too fast, and they lose their accuracy, and make mistakes; or they have to (or feel they have to; which amounts to the same thing) slow down too much to make sure they put the hits where they need to be.

It's the Earp Maxim (as in Wyatt) again... go slow, but in a hurry.

This is where we get back to Kevin... or to Kim for that matter. Both have trouble being accurate and fast with two shots per target. Their first shot tends to be pretty good, but their followup is either place poorly, or placed slowly; either of which will lose you the competition (not a good thing on the street either).

Ok, first things first, you MUST be accurate. Accuracy is defined in this context as the ability to put a bullet where you want it to go, with as little deviation as possible. You can't miss fast enough to win; either on the range, or on the street.

Second, you have to understand what accuracy is in this context. In fact, context is everything when it comes to this subject.

In target shooting, accuracy is measured in fractions of an inch. Poor performance is a 4" group at 7 yards... or hell a 2" group at 7 yards (actually, in most forms of competitive target pistol shooting, 2" at 25 yards would be poor).

In practical shooting, things are a bit different. The "A" zone (which to be completely politically incorrect, but truthful - the shooting organizations don't like to talk about it this way because it makes the anti-gun people go insane) is meant to approximate the lethal zone around center mass on an adult male. It's about 6" wide and 10" high (it varies between shooting organizations), right in the middle of the thing; and that's where you need to group to score well.

Not coincidentally, shooting a living assailant in that same area is likely to produce a "good score" as well.

At any rate, scoring well in practical shooting isn't about those fractions of an inch. Adjust your expectations to match the parameters of the exercise. Anyone can learn to group their shots into a 6x10 oval if they're taking their time.

Now that doesn't mean you don't have to aim, or can ignore accuracy entirely. There's a basic principle, "aim big, miss big; aim small, miss small".

In practical shooting terms, that means if you're trying for very fine accuracy and don't quite make it, you aren't going to be too far off, and you'll still score well; but if you are just trying to get the minimum accuracy you need, and don't quite make it, well, you've missed by a fair margin, and you're outside the scoring zone.

Aim small, miss small.

Once you are confident that you can put the bullets in the zone, THEN you concentrate on getting faster.

Now, down to the specific case mentioned by both Kim and Kevin: two shot strings, which Kim referred to as a "doubletap", and Kevin referred to as his "splits".

Technically Kevin is correct there; at least as far as practical shooting competition is concerned. In competition, you aren't actually going for a true doubletap as such; but putting two rapid shots on target is the most fundamental shooting challenge in practical shooting. Almost all practical shooting competitions require you to do so on almost every target.

Ok, so why isn't a "doubletap" correct?

With a rapid fire doubletap, what you're trying to do is aim at the bottom of the A zone, control the muzzle rise (note, not the flip, the rise. Two different things.); and reset the trigger, then fire the second shot before that rise takes you out of the A zone (if you really know what you're doing, you can use that momentum from the second shot to carry your aim to the next target).

It's all one motion, and you only aim once; with your muscle control dedicated to keeping the pistol in control and on line as it rises straight and smooth.

The ideal doubletap should have two holes, separated by less than 2 inches, with the second hole slightly offset to the right for right handed shooters.

In this, grip and stance are absolutely critical. To do it right, you have to have them both damn near perfect; but it's certainly do-able. In fact Kevin (and everyone else for that matter) has seen me doing it at the gun blogger rendezvous (actually he's shot next to me and commented on how fast I was doubltapping, and how he was irritated by how slow he was).

It's very fast, and it's very effective for a defensive shooter; though it's not the most accurate technique. With practice, and the right gun, you may be able to get touching holes; but when you're that focused on grouping the tight (which in this case means making that second shot VERY fast), your placement tends to suffer a bit.

The thing is, doubletaps are a great technique in personal defensive shooting; but they aren't a great idea in competition.

The problem with a true doubletap, is that it's very difficult to be consistent, especially with a major power factor load. It's very easy to come off line or to allow the gun to rise too far, and end up with a B or C zone second shot. Even expert competitors who use the technique do it all the time, and just eat the C hits; accepting the small accuracy penalty for the small increase in speed.

A controlled pair is a little different.

Often you will see people, even instructors; use these terms interchangeably, but that is incorrect. They are two distinct techniques; and they produce two distinct results.

Most folks who say they are the same thing, think that it is so because they are only capable of performing one of them, and don't understand how the other one works (either way). Some ARE able to do both, and simply deprecate or dismiss one or the other.

Many instructors I know for example (most of the IPSC/IDPA types) are dead set against a true doubletap; for all the reasons I mention above. Others (generally the "combat shooting" types) think that since the doubletap is faster, and just as effective in a real combat situation, you shouldn't bother with the controlled pair.

I think they're both wrong; there are times and situations where either technique is appropriate; and practicing one will help you to become better at the other.

At any rate, the difference is simple in concept, but profound in execution and effect.

In a doubletap, you reset the trigger for the second shot; but not the gun. With a controlled pair, you reset the whole gun.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Not so much...

When you shoot a controlled pair, you start off the same way as with a doubletap. Set your grip and stance, and aim just above the bottom of your target zone; then fire. From there, everything changes.

When you fire a doubletap, all your efforts are to keep the gun in line vertically, without rising too much; while pressing the trigger as quickly as possible for the second shot. A doubletap should sound like a heartbeat; as if the two shots were "connected" to each other.

With a controlled pair, you reset the whole gun. When you establish your stance and grip, you want to set in your mind a "reset point" and a "flash sight picture". You are still concentrating your efforts on keeping the gun in line, and the recoil controlled; but you are NOT trying to fire a second shot before the muzzle rises too far. You let the muzzle rise, then pull it down again locking into your reset point and flash sight picture, before tripping off the second shot; and it is clear there are two distinct shots.

Yes, it's slower, but it's more accurate. More importantly, it's far more consistent; because it's far less dependent on perfect recoil and trigger control, and more on focus, technique, and practice. Not everyone can be accurate with doubletaps all the time (and even an expert wont be as accurate as with a controlled pair); but with training and practice, any reasonably decent shooter can get accurate with controlled pairs, all the time.

To illustrate what I'm talking about, go back to the Zubiena video above, and watch the slow motion section. You can see that Zubenia is resetting the gun to the exact position he started in; same angle, etc... in between shots. This is a controlled pair.

If he was doubletapping you would see one shot, a little muzzle flip brought down by good grip, a very slight raising of the arms, and then another shot; much faster than with the controlled pair.

An ideal controlled pair, when you aren't on the timer, should have two bullets through the same large and ragged hole, or through two touching holes; and very good shooters can do that quite frequently.

'Course, if you do that in competition, you're going slower than you need to be to shoot well enough to score. You've only got half the Earp maxim going. You've got the "slow down" part, but not the "in a hurry".

Once you've got your shot placement to where you want it with a controlled pair; and it's ingrained into muscle memory (it takes somewhere around 5000 repetitions just to begin to set an instinct level muscle memory, and from 20,000 to 30,000 repetitions to have it fully ingrained); that's where you can REALLY start to get fast.

At that point you aren't THINKING about your reset position and flash sight picture, it's automatic; and you can go just as fast as the gun, and your body will let you.

Here's a video of Jerry Miculek, multiple IPSC and IDPA championship winner, and the worlds fastest shooter; showing you just exactly how fast that is:

Jerry uses a revolver, because he is able to manually pull the trigger and rotate the cylinder, faster than a semi-automatic pistol can cycle.

Now maybe one in 10 million can reach the level of Jerry Miculek; but anyone can develop the "hard reset to flash sight picture" muscle memory.

Until you reach that point however, you WILL have to think about it; and that's what makes the difference between someone who can clear the course clean (all A zone hits and no penalties) in 9 seconds , and someone who clears it in 14 seconds.