Optimizing the Non-Optimal

Day ONE of my military selection and training course INDOC.  The real training would begin in a few weeks but I was finally through the medical screening and cleared to take the physical fitness test.  I was excited!  This would be the first graded event of my military career and start my reputation as an operator.   My confidence was high since I had just done a personal record (PR) on this same test just a couple of weeks earlier.  Besides, I had trained hard over the summer knowing this day would come.  Time to rock this thing and let the cadre know I came to get down, Charlie Brown!

However, I soon realized this test would be much different from the day of my PR.  We had to jog to the pool to start, which was over a mile away.  No big deal.  Call it a long warm up.  Oh–I can only wear this old issued dive mask instead of my sweet racing goggles from my competition days.  I can deal with it.  10-15 men jammed into each swim lane.  What?!  It will be chaos for 500 yards!  Now I was getting rattled a bit.  Alright, done.  Time was not even close to the PR day, but not terrible.  Now a little break before the calisthenics….uh…nope.  Right into the pull ups.  No worries I thought.  I am a swimmer; I can recover fast enough.  Except we are doing pull ups on their command rather than storming through them.  ARRRRGH!  Right into push-ups and sit ups.  Ok, numbers are not nearly what I had projected earlier that morning.  Time for the run.  Now settle down and do like you have all summer in training.  Unfortunately, someone in the class did something stupid so now we are jumping in the ocean with all our clothes and boots on.  Now line up for the run, soaking wet.  Hmmmmm.  Didn’t quite PR the run either.

That morning, we all learned that doing anything under optimal conditions in the military is rare.  Whatever the task, swimming, hiking, shooting, or even academics, it will be done under heightened stress, in bad positions, on cold or hot days, tired, and probably hungry.  We would have to get over the issue and figure it out if we wanted to be successful.  Those lessons applied with marksmanship especially.  The shooter who can deal with the adversity of the real world will be much more successful, whether the target is a bad guy, trophy elk, or the winning score.  Along the way we discovered some truths that will help any marksman, not just the tactical guys.

First, you have to mentally prepare yourself for non-optimal conditions.  You have to know this fact and then ACCEPT it.  Your firing position is going to be on uneven ground.  The target paint will all be gone by the time you shoot.  That elk is moving.  The weather has been 33 degrees and raining for the last four days.  That guy is shooting back at you.  Whatever the case is, you really have to know that it will not be how you envision it the day before.  Like Tyler Durden says, “Just let go!”  When you can say, yeah, I am laying in cold mud but whatever…that elk/ stage score/ bad guy is too important for me to worry about mud right now, you are much closer to success.

Next, you have to master the basics.  This step really isn’t next.  It needs to have started long ago.  If the real world is going to throw infinite variables at you, you cannot have variables in the basics.  Work the trigger pull until you know it is perfect 100% of the time.  Not 99%.  Have a perfect grip.  Have your equipment dialed in.  Now when you find yourself on a shaky position, you aren’t worried about the position, and an inconsistent trigger pull, and your equipment, and your ammo.  Just the position.   Dry firing is vital to mastering the basics.  It will clean up trigger pull, natural point of aim, relaxation of muscles for stability, and even moving from position to position.

Along with the basics, incorporate adversity into your range sessions.  Shoot from odd positions.  Try some off-hand shots occasionally.  Shoot from tripods or rocks.   Get out of your comfort zone.  Once during an unsuccessful hunting trip, I was determined to at least get some shots in before we left.  However, the spot I chose fell off steeply to my left as I lay prone.  After fighting it and wasting a couple rounds, I stuffed my pack under my left hip bone.  Instantly I got stable and made some hits on the target.  I would not have learned that lesson had I not decided to shoot regardless of the terrain.  Practice as much as possible and don’t just shoot from a bench.  This applies to weather too.  Shoot in the cold, heat, wind, rain, and snow. Get yourself tired as well.  Do a set of push-ups or a walk up the hill or race your buddy before you send lead at a 600 yard target.  How did you do with heavy breathing or shaking legs?  Experience some of these conditions in practice before you are in a critical situation trying to take the shot.

Also remember that you are usually not married to a position.  Sometimes in competition or in tactical situations you are, but it never hurts to check.  I have watched many times when a shooter is forcing a marginal position that continues to degrade with each shot.  I see this especially when students are using a semi-auto precision rifle.  Having a full magazine at your disposal with just a pull of the trigger causes many people to get sloppy.  Keep that mental discipline to treat each shot as if it is the only one of the day.  Then decide if the position is really acceptable.  If not, reset, maneuver if necessary, and start fresh.   I found an effective way to clean up this issue on the line.  I only let the shooter have magazines of 1 round.  Sometimes, I will take away the magazines, requiring them to hand load each round.  The added effort really forces them to look hard at everything before pulling the trigger.  It works equally well with bolt guns too.

Next, look at your mental resilience and focus.  The military goes to great lengths to mentally toughen its personnel to deal with stress and adverse conditions.  Short of boot camp though, what can the non-military shooter do?  I strongly advocate pre-shot checklists, especially for distance shots.   A stable process will give you an anchor to focus on despite the circumstance, pressures, or “white noise.”   Mine goes something like this: 1. Dial DOPE, set parallax. 2. Line up on rifle. 3. Check cant. 4. Check muscle relaxation-shoulders, back, butt cheeks, glutes, hamstrings, calves. **Really check this—most of us are subconsciously tensed up all the time, particularly in the hips and hamstrings, and don’t even realize it** 5. Unwind bipod.  6.  Natural Point of Aim check. 7. Set trigger/ grip. 8. Fire.  It generally looks like that for any shot– prone, tripod, offhand, or something else.  Now there is no emotion or frustration to deal with, just the next step.  Bad shot?  Well, it is done so evaluate, learn from it, make a correction and move on.  Start back on the checklist if things are getting off track.

Successful shooting is not just about pulling the trigger and sending tons of rounds down range.  Technical skills, mental toughness, and discipline all play a role.  Work to improve all of those areas together and you will see much better results.  I heard a good quote once that really hits home with shooting in the real world.  “The difference between a black belt and a blue belt isn’t that the black belt knows more techniques.  It’s that he can apply the same basic techniques in any situation.”  Tired, uncomfortable, hungry, cold, injured, scared, excited, or whatever the circumstance, he has a perfect trigger pull, relaxed position, and mental focus on the task at hand.   Keep those end states in mind as you practice.  Pretty soon, nice, comfy shooting ranges seem less interesting and you will only want to shoot in those difficult situations.  Happy shooting!

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