Captain - Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   Jul./Aug. '10



I have to confess that I have never been more than a low average hand with a rifle. Once in a while I would be spot on and win a match, but I was never all that consistent. But when it came to pistol shooting, I could strut my stuff. I often took home the turkey, the trophy, or the money. And it was usually because I used advice I received from a mentor, Hawk Boughton, who could do it allóknife, hawk, rifle (I watched him split a playing card as neatly as a pair of scissors could) or pistol.

There are among us those fortunate souls who possess both flintlock and percussion guns. I have used both types of ignition and long ago turned to flinters. Nothing wrong with percussion cap guns, itís just that I personally am more comfortable with flints.

So, lets get to the action of pistol shooting. There is nothing more harmful, I think, than jumping right into the middle of it. To really understand something you have to begin at the beginningóeven if you are sure you already know all of that and to go over it again will be just a waste of your time. SO PAY ATTENTION!

If you are going to get instructions, get them from someone who carries certifiable bona fides. Get a professional or champion: someone with a long list of credentials. Learn about types of guns, powders, balls, rifling and sights. Learn about diet and conditioningóthat is if you are planning on being serious about shooting one of those front stuffer devils. Make sure you are going to be comfortable with the ignition system of you choose. Percussion caps are faster than flints and less of a bother. Maintenance and repeatability donít mate up to the flint system.

Diet and conditioning are just as important as the gun you obtain, perhaps more so. Practice with you pistol is important but practice without the ability to hold the gun steady shot after shot for hours isnít going to do you much good. It might seem like a little thing of no importance, but consider that if you are not overweight your heart rate is around 70 beats per minute as opposed to slightly overweight which averages 80. A runner or swimmer will typically have a heart rate of 55 or 60. You can achieve much the same thing by eating a healthy diet and riding a bike or walking/jogging every day. Smoking, excess caffeine, sugars and lots of red meat are not going to help. The higher heart rate will make it very difficult to keep a steady aim. Find out what is a healthy diet and follow it and live 20 years beyond your unheeding friends and discover how many high scoring events you can pile up. Now donít get carried away and become so skinny that you canít stand still in a moderate wind: determine what your weight should be and get yourself there.

I know that there are many (myself included) who have an idea of what a buckskinner should look like. As a kid I read the Leatherstocking books, Zane Greyís Spirit of the Border, Betty Sane, and the Last Trail and a lot of James Oliver Curwood and the ilk. But I am no longer a kid. I have learned that safety gear is not only prudent, but is now accepted at any rendezvous or shooting match that is worth its salt. If you arrive at a shoot that doesnít allow them, run the hell homeóthese are people you donít want to be around! Wear shooting glasses and ear protection (I prefer earmuffs over those little foam thingysóthey are more comfortable for me and I can hear verbal things better). Likewise, wear colonial or other cloth clothing rather than leather and big hats. The looser cloth material allows for better movement and a broad-brimmed hat tends to get in the way. Wear some boots (the right ones can still be period correct) because they give better purchase and wonít beat you up over a long day of shooting the way mocs can. In your boots you should be striving for soft leather, wide soles and heels. Pointy toes ainít gonna help you and narrow heels are liable to dig into the dirt and mess with you. Your shooting glasses will protect you from powder residue, flying bits of lead and locks. The darker ones will strain your eyes over a dayís shooting but the choice is up to you. I prefer the yellow ones because they heighten the light and donít fatigue me. Dress for the weather you are likely to encounter. Long johns can be a blessing in early morning cold weather and can easily come off if it warms up.

When it comes to the actual firearm, comfort and fit are key. Get a set of grips that fit you. If you are going to be shooting more than one gun, get grips that can go on all of them. That way, no matter what you are using, flint or percussion or what not, you will have the same grip (and no excuses).

I havenít heard for a long time the praises of a gunsmith who makes great pistols. Iím sure they are out there, but mostly Iíve been hearing about rifles and smooth-bores. The advent of factory made, more affordable, guns has limited the trade of gunsmiths, Iím afraid. And thereís nothing wrong with getting a factory pistol you can afford. But with whatever decision you make, buy the very best you can scrape up the money for.

Since we are talking about pistols for competitive shooting, it is time to talk about caliber. It doesnít take a .58 or .60 to hit a target. But those larger bore guns can over time beat you up. A .45 or .50 take much less powder, have less recoil, are lighter, and shoot just as straight and as far. It just so happens that the one I have is custom made, and is .54 in flint, and I have won some pretty tough competitions with it. Go figure. But if I were ordering one today it would be a .45. Iíve matured a bit in the 40 years Iíve had it.

If you have a factory pistol, you should do the same thing as if you had ordered it custom made: get the rifling down to what is going to maximize its performance. Given that pistols work a lot better with fast twists of the rifling, say a turn in 16 to a turn in 22, if you order one you will need to specify it. Thatís why pistols made from a cut off rifle barrel section donít do as well. They just arenít fast enough twists. Check out the factory brands for one that conforms to the tighter twist. Then there is the matter of rifling. The square sided grooves many factory guns have will cut your patches and collect fouling. Get them lapped down so they are only about .005 to .006. Compared to rifles, pistols are low velocity guns and donít need anything deeper. This dimension grooving will give much better service such as easy loading and cleaning.

If you have a choice between fixed or adjustable sights, go for the adjustable ones every time! And remember, a barrel of 4" will shoot just as well as one of twelve (my experience) and give you a steadier sight. The longer the barrel the more magnified will be tremors and jiggling of your sights.

Now, sighting a pistol is a different animal than sighting a rifle. With a rifle the shooter is normally fixing a sight picture by focusing on the target, then the sights, a three point process that nonetheless makes the target the primary focus. A pistol is not a rifle. The major objective is to put the front sight exactly in the middle of the rear sight. The target is a mere blob out there, then when the aligned sights fall within the darker portion of the blob, the shooter is ready to let Ďer rip. The thing to remember is to focus on the front sight, being sure it is sharp within the notch of the rear. The target becomes secondary. It sounds counterintuitive I know, but go try it. A good practice is to leave the unloaded gun wherever you spend the most time away from work (perhaps, generally in front of the TV at home). Practice by picking up the gun and aligning the sights without using any object on the wall for a target. In this manner you will learn how to quickly align the sights and will be able to see and control sight wavering. When you get really good at it go out to a favorite shooting spot and try out your new skills.

I think it is now time to speak of a couple of important, but controversial things: barrel length is one. Get the one that is most comfortable for you. You normally hold the gun in the tightest grip that works for youónot one that is going to wear you out, or that makes you tremble, or that cocks the gun over one way or the other, but that steadies the thing for a clear sight picture. If you find you are not hitting where you believe you are aiming, take the gun home and go back to aiming it at a blank wall. Concentrate on your form and study where the gun is: is it off to one side or the other? Are the sights in any way misaligned? Is your wrist out of alignmentóleft or right or up or down? Is your grip the same each time you put it up and on the wall? Are the sights moving around too much? Is your grip such as to fit around the back of the handle to take up the recoil and is the heel of your hand backing up the gun so that the gun is also held tightly between the thumb and the trigger finger with no pressure to either side to disturb sight alignment? Study what is going on and correct whatever needs correction.

If you have followed the diet and physical conditioning advice, you will be able to hold a clear sight picture for about 10 seconds. That ainít gonna happen if you are overweight, a smoker, or had some caffeine before the shoot.

Trigger pull is something most of us have had drilled into us since childhood. Squeeze smoothly until it goes off. Use the entire hand, not just the finger. Donít jerk, donít let the action pull the barrel out of alignment. Most of it is good advice. Take as much of that advice as you can and try this: When you are practicing aligning the sights on a blank wall, make sure the gun is not loaded and the hammer is down, and then put your finger on the trigger just as you do at a shoot. Apply pressure to the trigger as you normally do. If the sights move in any direction, move your finger on the trigger in the direction the front sight is moving and apply pressure again. Readjust your grip until the front sight stabilizes. Then continue practicing until you are sure muscle memory will stay with you and the entire process becomes automatic. Hands are different from person to person. When holding the gun you will realize that there is only one grip that is right for you, that fits your hand and your fingers.

How much pressure you apply to the trigger is not as important as to keep it steadily increasing in a smooth, even, manner through the entire process until the gun goes off. If you are remembering all that advice you received from the favorite uncle, your father, or a valued friend, and the sights waver completely off the blob of a target and you let up on the pressure until the sights come back on and then again apply pressure, you are not going to hit the target. What will happen is that you will jerk the trigger and wonder why you missed. You have to accept the fact that you cannot hold motionless on the target. Just let that barrel do what it is going to do and concentrate on sight alignment and trigger pull until it all becomes automatic. Then you will begin to be able to hold motionless on the target for a few seconds. To even do that will require that you develop a good stance. (this goes on forever, doesnít it?)

Thereís no secret to a good stance. You get your feet about shoulder width apart, keep your legs straight and your head up. If you shoot one handed, turn your head slightly to your shooting arm, align your feet and body with the target, lock your elbow and keep your wrist steady. Donít bend backwards as if to counter-balance the pistol. Keep your other hand tucked into a pocket or back behind you in your belt. Take a couple deep breaths, control your breathing so you donít upset the sight picture. You can only hold your breath this way for about 20 seconds and even then the lack of new oxygen affects your vision and muscle control. So time can be important but not so much that it psychs you out.

If you are going to shoot two handed,. Spread your feet apart to a comfortable distance that yet supports your upper body (usually about shoulder width), use your non gun holding hand to steady your gun hand, lean into it just a bit, keep your head up so your eyes align with the gunís sights, keep you finger off the trigger until you are happy with the sight picture, then drop your finger to the trigger and let muscular memory take over.

There is a lot of advice out there as to how much powder to use. A factory gun usually comes with a book of directions. They usually tell you to use 25 to 35 grains of 3FFF powderóno more. One of the benefits of loading correct amounts is that of less fouling so that you donít have to clean between each shot to maintain accuracy. Nevertheless, some experienced shooters will sometimes tell you itís okay to go up to 50 or 55 for longer distances. Donít try it! Set your target at 25 yards and begin with 25 grains. It should function just dandy. Then move the target to 50 yards and load the same amount of powder. It should still be right on. But play around with it to determine what load your gun likes. You will find that it is happy somewhere between 20 to 35 grains and there is never any reason to violate this load regardless of the gunís caliber. There is no need to see if it likes those magnum loads. Doing so can wreck you gun, not say your hands and eyes. And it doesnít do much for your accuracy, either. Folks who tend to overload often complain that their gun doesnít shoot well. Well, duh! Overloading a gun often results in some of the powder burning outside the barrel. When that happens the force of the powder is applied to the ball unevenly, affecting the direction in which the ball will travel. Continued overloading is really bad. Repeatability is shot, as is accuracy, and sometimes results in barrel damage. (As you can see, this is an item that applies to rifles as well as pistolsóI cringe when someone tells me that they shoot 120 grains during hunting season).

Be confident that you are going to do the best you can and that you will be successful.. Donít be thinking about the last shot or the next one. Fire each shot by itself so you can give it your full attention. Concentrateóthatís a key not to be forgotten. The whole thing can be summed up easily: anyone can shoot a pistol but good pistol shooting is simply applying the fundamentals of lining up the sights and squeezing (not jerking) the trigger. It is summertime so get out there and practice, practice, practice.


                                              I remain, Yr Svt.

Bill Cunningham


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updated  07/10/2010   

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