If you want to improve your shooting skills the Army has a plan that may help. Fundamentals are fundamentals and not much has changed over the past century. Circa 1904, the U.S. Army’s shooting manual stated something along the following lines, “Before any practice on the range is commenced, at least a month of dry-fire practice is required.” Not much has changed in the last century—shooters didn’t do enough of it then, and they still don’t.
The program is sound, but the execution is lacking. Shooting on a daily basis would be a potential solution, but who can afford it? Even if you could, pulling the trigger is as likely to develop good habits, as it would be to reinforce bad ones. It takes something more. For that, you need a coach or observer and live fire.
The Army’s solution focused on the rifle range, so we’ll continue along that vein. However, it isn’t the course that matters as much as the principles. So whether you prefer to shoot an AR, bolt rifle or pistol, you’ll benefit from a little trigger time feedback.
Today’s Army mimics the rest of society—shooters want instant gratification. As soon as the gun is zeroed, shooters want to immediately speed up the pace and start engaging targets. We must first learn to walk before we can run full auto. This means we need to master slow fire on static targets at known distances first.
The Army starts out by breaking the shooters into two-person teams. One shoots while the other coaches. You can learn more about your own shooting by critiquing the shooting of others. When shooting, you are solidly focused on the front sight, target, and surrounding elements or threats.
When coaching, you are looking at every aspect of the shooter’s form: stance, grip, whether they properly milk the last from the trigger before it breaks or the way they stomp on the trigger. You can then internalize what you have corrected about your partners shooting and start incorporating it into your own shooting routine (slow fire).
The Army drill goes something like this. First, set up as many clean targets as will fit on your backer. Your first groups should likely be dry-fire and move to slow fire from there. With a rifle at 25 meters/yards (with a proportioned target) lower-priced binoculars will suffice for the spotter to call the shots. With standard three-shot groups at 25m/yd, a .25-inch group equals 1 MOA at 100 meters/yards. You’ll be less affected at 25m/yd by environmental conditions such as wind as well. The standard is a group size of four centimeters or less (just over 1.5 inches). This equates to a scaled up target at 300 meters.
Once you are consistently printing appropriately sized groups, the zeroing process begins by making a change after each group until centered.
After this, the Army heads to the Remote Engagement Target System (RETS) range. The targets pop up anywhere from 50 to 300 meters, either singularly or in pairs and must be engaged in a specified time. While this may not be possible for the average shooter, your local rifle range may have a suitable substitute. Many ranges will have a steel silhouette range with targets at varying distances. Have your partner time you and call the call the next target to be engaged in random order.
To qualify on the 40-target course, a shooter must hit at least 23 targets, which brings us to the next point. It’s likely the readers of this article (The average American rifleman) would outshoot a soldier who qualified “Expert Marksman” by a ratio of about 3:1. To qualify for Expert, a soldier, a soldier would need to hit 36 out of 40 targets as I recall. I do not offer this to discredit Army shooters, but as a virtual pat on the back and acknowledgement of the skills of our readers.
While shooting, your subconscious should be completely focused on the feel of the grip and trigger through recoil; your conscious mind on the front sight, front sight, front sight (as has been beat into our heads) and the primary threat, as well as the secondary, tertiary and so forth. However, while in the coaching slot, you have the opportunity to check your partner’s form, stance, muzzle sweep, grip, follow through, etc. And then, relate that to the shooter—and your own shooting form, training and dry-fire practice. As soon as a target gets too many holes to discern the group change it. Ultimately, targets are cheaper than a few rounds.
Once a pair of shooters feels they are both ready, hang a target with quad zones or four separate targets. The Army starts with the shooter aimed and gives 18 seconds to engage all targets. I would modify this. While we are not quick draw artists — trying to do so can lead to dangerous situations — I would recommend starting from a low ready; safety engaged. Once the threat is presented (pop-up or rotating target) or the signal is given, engage all targets in a specified time.
Small Caliber Alternatives
With ever-shrinking wallets and the cost/availability of ammunition—avid shooters have started looking for low-cost alternatives. Check out a local bowling pin or 3-Gun shoot and see the swollen .22 cal. classes. While these alternatives have drawbacks on the grand scale, they can offer significant cost benefits for increased trigger time.
First, semi-auto handguns and AR manufacturers have stepped up and offer conversion kits to convert your standard AR to a .22 or smaller. While the recoil is somewhat different, the weight and feel is close to the same.
You could also spring for .22 clone. For instance, Ruger offers the SR 22; essentially an SR9 in .22 cal. Given the objective of marrying the muscle memory to the trigger, this is a viable alternative for civilians who have to purchase their own ammo.
Check with the manufacturer of your primary carry weapon. Sig Sauer, Glock, S&W all make .22 conversions for popular models. This option keeps you shooting the same grip and trigger you be using otherwise. It also provides the best trigger feedback.
ARs are so modular that you have a couple of options. First, you can buy a second upper in .22 cal. and throw all of the furniture you would normally dress it with. The second option is a bit more radical, but don’t discount it without a fair look. Crosman (yes the airgun company) introduced its MAR177 at the 2012 SHOT Show. The MAR177 fits on your AR lower and is weighted to feel like a standard AR. Because you are shooting your AR lower, you will be using the same trigger. This opens options for training.
When performing dry fire practice, you are going to feel similar recoil due to the short burst of air. Second, you can practice indoors—either dry or with the aid of an inexpensive pellet trap. Small caliber alternatives are not perfect solutions to the real world, but if it gets your finger on the trigger more often and the potential to see the results on paper, I’m all for them.