(John L, owner of Tactrainers Airsoft Target Systems)
I was recently promoted to Master class in USPSA Production Division. To me, that means that I am doing some things right, but still have a lot to learn and a long way to go in order to reach my potential as a shooter. I am pleased though, as according to USPSA’s latest annual report there are 8,915 classified Production shooters in the U.S. with 396 in Master class (and 118 Grand Masters). It’s especially satisfying to me because it says “senior” after my name in the results and has for several years.
We all know at least one person in the action shooting sports who is a “phenom” or “golden child”….athletic, good eyesight, fast reflexes, learns fast, moves fast, etc. They usually have lot’s of resources at their disposal in the way of family and financial support. This, combined with their natural abilities allows them to advance in the action shooting sports to the higher levels of classification in record time.
Well…….I’m not that guy! I started shooting USPSA in 1987. (Holy Smokes ! that means I’ve been doing this for 30 years!) Being just a regular guy with a family and a business, I was never able to shoot more than 2 matches per month. I don’t think we even had standard Classifier Stages back then, it was more the local decision as to what class you were in. For about the first 8 years I shot as many matches as possible and practiced live-fire as much as time and money allowed, spending countless hours behind my Dillon 550 and thousands of dollars on reloading components. I started to finish fairly high in the local matches.
My wife and I bought some property and built a house, which took me out of the shooting game for a couple of years. I became interested in learning self-defense skills and took up martial arts, then decided to check out IDPA since it was geared more to defensive principles.
Having a limited shooting budget, I started looking for a less expensive way to practice. I bought a .22 caliber upper for my 1911 and started shooting 500 rounds of .22 per week in practice. At that time a box of 500 .22 shells cost about $11 USD. I discovered the lack of recoil and muzzle flip with the .22 allowed me to stretch my abilities and shoot to my maximum potential in practice. This crossed over to shooting my .45 caliber 1911 faster with more confidence and I really didn’t notice the extra recoil in match shooting due to the excitement of shooting a stage. This would later help me make the connection that I could do the same thing with airsoft.
IDPA proved to be a lot of fun, I went on to qualify Expert in CDP Division after a couple of years and did pretty well in local IDPA matches. I started teaching shooting classes for some of the local competitors. That led to a temporary job replacing one of the Rangemaster/armorers in a large police department nearby. By now it’s 2005, I came full-circle and gravitated back to USPSA. I liked the challenge and creative freedom of Stage Descriptions that allowed me to shoot each stage any way I wanted, but I wasn’t very good at Stage Analysis. Many times I left the match feeling a bit humiliated but I pressed on and kept shooting.
It was around this time that I discovered airsoft guns. The first airsoft gun I fired was a wide-body 2011 SVI clone and the first time I fired it, ideas started swirling in my head. Immediately I started visualizing all the different ways I could use it to practice (indoors, day or night, whenever I had a few minutes to spare). I bought a single stack 1911 airsoft gun and started shooting scaled down paper targets, it literally changed everything. Much like practicing with the .22 caliber, I found that I could shoot to the maximum of my abilities with even less concern for cost or limitations of excessive muzzle flip and recoil. Plus, when I identified a weakness that I wanted to improve on, I could design a drill to improve that weakness and shoot it repeatedly (day or night) whenever I had a few minutes to spare, without the inconvenience and expense of loading up range gear and driving to a range for live-fire.
Soon I built a plate rack with a PVC Pipe frame and blocks of nylon for plates. Now I could shoot non-stop without changing or taping targets. I started shooting hundreds of bbs in each practice session. I was still practicing live-fire as well, but I started to notice that the same mistakes would produce the same results whether I was shooting live-fire or airsoft.
One thing that did improve was trigger control. Being self-taught, I had developed a flinch early on. That flinch would surface at the worst possible times, usually when I was pushing for speed or concerned with a difficult target in a match. The more I practiced with airsoft, the more my trigger control improved because I was building up so many repetitions of shooting airsoft with low recoil and muzzle flip. I began to relax a lot more and my accuracy improved without slowing down because I wasn’t expecting the gun to beat me up. I began to notice that when I shot in a tournament, it didn’t look or feel much different to me than practicing with airsoft…I didn’t notice much difference in noise or recoil because I was so focused on the things that are important….sights and trigger control. I didn’t know how to explain it at the time, but I was building some quality sub-conscious skills with all the repetition.
A good friend (Brad Holt who is a Grand Master in Production now) started practicing with airsoft around the same time I did, we exchanged ideas and practiced together. We split the cost on a big sack of 125,000 bb’s to save even more money. I wore out my airsoft 1911 and purchased an airsoft Glock 19 clone. I remember sometime in 2007 after wearing out a few more guns and using the last of those 62,500 bb’s and thinking “this is crazy, I’ve fired more rounds practicing with airsoft in my shop than most people will shoot in their entire lives”. We split another sack of 125,000 bb’s and started keeping track of how many we used.
I started going overseas for work in 2007 and wasn’t home much from 2007 through 2010. I did a lot of dry mag changes and a minimal amount of live-fire when I was away. I would practice with airsoft as much as possible and shoot as many matches as I could during the short times in between trips. By now the airsoft practice had evolved to using semi-reactive metal targets and included a lot of movement, entry and exit work on shooting positions, shooting on the move, etc. I was home in between trips for 8 weeks in 2010, I practiced for 5 weeks with airsoft every day before shooting the Hi-Desert Classic in Albuquerque New Mexico. There were some well-known Pro shooters in my Division but I ended up doing pretty well (10th in Production out of 29).
I thought “I’m pretty sure this is working!”
Fast forward to 2012, I was still officially a C class USPSA shooter. At this point, about 90% of my practice was with airsoft and I settled on a gun I liked (TM G-17), wearing out a gun every few months and using up to 10,000 bb’s per month in practice.
I had a large collection of magazines and a heating blanket to keep them warm in the cooler months to keep shooting when the green gas mags would not perform well in those temps. We would rotate magazines constantly in order for them to stay warm enough to function. Tactrainers now offers a conversion to compressed air for most Green Gas powered guns which eliminates all of those problems.
Brad Holt and I went to the USPSA Area 1 Championship match in St.George, Utah in 2012. Brad won the Production Division overall and I won C class. This resulted in a promotion to B class for me and slots for both of us to shoot in the Nationals that year.
I started Tactrainers Airsoft Target Systems because I believed so much in our targets and our methodology in practicing with them. We started out with the Metric Shape Target which replicates the USPSA target in 1/3 scale. Next was the Plate Rack in ¼ scale, followed by the Self-Resetting Popper, then a Mini-Popper, then a Mini-Metric. We came up with new products as needs presented themselves, usually to provide a solution to challenges experienced in competitions.
As most of you know, when you shoot a 1/3 scale target, you can shoot at 1/3 scale distances and see the same relationship of “sights over target” that you see at full distances on full-sized targets. (In other words, roughly speaking….”feet equals yards”….a 1/3 scale target at 10 feet looks the same behind your sights as the full-scale target looks at 10 yards….and the margin of error for accuracy is in equal proportions).
(Classifier CM 13-07)
By 2014, 99% of my practice was with airsoft on Tactrainers targets. I would fire a few live shots to demo when I taught an occasional class, other than that only shot live-fire in matches. In practice I used par times on a conventional timer most of the time, keeping a high percentage of the practice focused on accuracy and consistency since I had a tendency to shoot a little wild in a match. I developed many good practice drills with realistic par-times to teach myself to shoot at the speed that would support consistent accuracy. By using our Tactrainers Barrels and Hard-Cover/No-Shoots to create difficult shots, I learned to shoot with the purpose of hitting things and not avoiding things.
I learned as much as I could from Brad Holt, who mainly taught me to focus on the front sight before, during, and after every shot. I had always thought I was focused on the front sight but found out my eyes were doing a lot of unnecessary “focus-shifting” from the front sight out to the target and back again…..this was slowing me down and many times I was focused in the wrong place at the moment the gun fired. I decided to fix that and dedicated 2 weeks of tailored specific airsoft practice to address the problem. I forced myself to stare at the bottom of the fiber optic dot on my front sight and shot our Plate Rack over and over again. After two weeks of this, I found I could shoot for extended periods of time and not experience eye strain. My speed and accuracy went through the roof. My focus wasn’t shifting as much and I was calling shots a lot more consistently. This was literally the biggest single gain I have ever made in my shooting.
(Classifer CM 99-62)
I started to see exactly how the sights were aligned and where they were located, thus I stayed relaxed and my trigger control improved even more. There is no way I could have ever discovered this with live-fire…I wouldn’t have had the time or money, (not to mention access to a full-size plate rack any time I wanted) to run that plate rack for hours every day for 2 weeks straight in order to re-condition my sight focus habits. In discussing this with Brad Holt, he told me “I was practicing with airsoft one day and I saw “it” for the first time”…..(meaning he continuously saw the sight alignment and position as he kept a focus on the front sight blade and thus called every shot without effort)…….then he went on to say…”10,000 airsoft bb’s later, I saw “it” again! Now I see “it” pretty much anytime I want.
In early 2014 I shot a 91.5% score on Classifier 13-04 which put me into A class. I thought it would be a breeze to keep going and make it into Master class, but the curve is much steeper from A to M than it is from B to A. Before this I didn’t give too much thought to Classifier stages, just treated them like any other stage in a local match. Once I decided to push for Master class, I found that I needed a strategy.
I started looking at Classifier stages and learning more about USPSA’s classification system. I noticed that there are some Classifiers that don’t fit my shooting style and some that do. Since you’re shooting for an average of 85% of everyone in the U.S. who is tied for 100% on any given classifier stage, if the top shooters are just freakishly good at the skills required by that stage (as in 25 yard support hand, etc), it will be a tall order to shoot a high percentage score on a stage that doesn’t emphasize your strengths as a shooter.
My strategy was to go at the speed I would need to get an 85% score as opposed to shooting carefully for points (this way I would either score big or the score would be thrown out for classification purposes due to being more than 5% below current class). This cost me in the overall finish in local matches at times, but you have to make choices as to what your goals are. In the process, I came to the conclusion that I needed to learn how to shoot better overall, but also that I would need to play to my strengths to classify as a Master. I trained with Bob Vogel in a two-day competition skills class and later trained 1-on-1 with Ron Avery, both of whom are awesome and highly recommended…..now I was armed with world-class training that I could use in practice.
I started setting up practice stages with airsoft that duplicated a close and fast 10 yds live-fire stage (shot from 10 feet with airsoft) but included lots of Barrels, Hard-cover, and No-shoots to get comfortable running the gun fast and calling shots at full speed without regard for the obstacles. These stages are set up with varied spacing between targets and alternate between brown (2 hits each) targets and white (single hits on steel) targets to break up the rhythm and with a round count of 10 or 12 shots. 10 to 12 round count requires you to hold your focus together for a reasonable length of time but not so long as to slow you down too much. These are generic stages and not a duplication of any given Classifier stage, but they build the skills needed for shooting most Classifier stages that I am strong on. I usually start these facing uprange with wrists above shoulders to build a fast target acquisition on the first shot.
I would (and still do) run those practice stages 5 to 10 times a day. After developing par-times for stages, I like to run the correct par-time for 100% hits, this gets me in the habit of calling every shot instead of shooting to a time standard. This builds confidence and allows me to maintain accuracy when going full speed. I’ll mix in a warp-speed run about 1 out of 10 to stretch my abilities and see if I can call every shot at full speed.
If you have a decent selection of targets, the only limitation to practicing with airsoft is your imagination. You can set up entire stages with high round counts and lots of movement, short standards-type courses, or anything in between. Again nothing against dry-fire, but I read articles saying things like “you can practice moving and shooting, fast target acquisitions, transitions, etc. with dry-fire” but with dry-fire, you are really guessing if you are doing things right because there is no confirmation. With airsoft practice on Tactrainers targets, you aren’t guessing…you are actually moving and shooting, hitting things (or not) and getting solid confirmation of whether your techniques are working or not.
To summarize, the only skills that hold up under pressure and speed are sub-conscious skills, and sub-conscious skills (especially sight focus and trigger control) are only earned through ridiculously high numbers of repetitions. Although there is no substitute for match experience, as far as practice goes, you will get a lot more skill for your money overall by practicing with airsoft than any other method. Don’t misunderstand, I know dry-fire is worthwhile as well and I still combine mag-change practice with dry-fire. Live-fire is the only way to truly develop recoil/muzzle flip management, but recoil management is just one piece of the puzzle. Most people don’t have a live-fire range in their backyard and couldn’t afford enough ammo even if they did, that’s why for most people having a good airsoft set-up with a decent selection of targets will be the best way to get sufficient trigger time to develop the sub-conscious skills to take your shooting to the next level. It has worked for me and it will work for you too if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to get started.