Last weekend, instead of sipping a fresh espresso and relaxing in my air conditioned office/reloading room/man cave, I was standing in the sun in the southern Utah desert shooting a blazing hot gun. The gun was blazing hot for two reasons; first, it was 110 degrees outside, and second, we shot a lot. Well over 1,500 rounds in those three days.
The class was Competition Handgun Mastery, taught by Ron Avery, Ken Nelson and five other instructors. It was an excellent class, though if I’m honest, I almost didn’t go back for days two and three. I did go back, and I’m glad I did. Learning is hard sometimes.
You may or may not know that I’ve been shooting practical handgun competitions for not quite a year now. I’m shooting primarily IDPA and a local defensive handgun “match” at my local range. I put match in quotes because while we do keep time, it’s more about developing skills than winning. While I’m doing OK at my local IDPA matches, I felt I could get better with some concentrated instruction. That’s exactly what this class provides. As I said, I learned a lot, and have a lot to work on. Let me break it down for you.
Day One—The Longest Day
We started pretty close to on time at 8 am. The class started off with an hour lecture in the barn we used as HQ. The lecture focused primarily on the firing cycle, and the fire control triangle of grip, stance and trigger. Like much of the information in the class, it wasn’t entirely new to me, but the way it was presented was. One of the best things about the class—in my opinion—is how hard the instructors work to translate the information in ways each student gets it. One of the things Ron said early on was learning a new skill is much easier if you can relate it to something you already know how to do. That theme played out over and over again.
At 9 am, we were on the firing line. The class was divided up into two groups; B-Class shooters and above (using the USPSA classification system) and C-Class and below, including unclassified shooters. I was in the latter group. One of the benefits of being in the short bus was that instead of standing out in the sun, we got to shoot behind the barn, which has awnings off the side, so we were in the shade most of the day. That was particularly important about 3 O’Clock when temps hit 110+.
We started with the fire control triangle, which meant building our stance, our grip and isolating our trigger fingers. My stance came together fairly quickly—it’s something I’ve worked on. My grip on the other hand… I think I had fired maybe a magazine and one of the instructors came over and said, “I need your right thumb up higher and your left hand higher. No, higher. Higher than that. Higher still. Like this…” That short exchange both messed up the rest of my day and will forever improve my shooting. I’m still working on getting it right, but when I do, the gun is a bullet delivering machine. I’ll come back to this later.
After working on the fire control system for a while, we took a break and moved on to movement. This was one of the things I really wanted to learn in the class. I know I am losing a lot of time in my matches because it takes me too long to get into a shooting position and start shooting. I was excited to get this down. The bummer was, because I was spending so much mental energy trying to get my new grip right, I completely blew the movement thing. I had a really hard time doing both. I know this is a function of being a little older than I was, and the fact that we can really only learn one new thing at a time, but it was still frustrating. I would maybe get the movement right, but then my grip would be off and the shots would sail off the target. Or my grip would be good, but my movement would be jerky. Or I’d forget to look at the sights. It was a hot mess. Then, it got worse.
After lunch (as I recall), we started working on exercises to help us shoot through ports. I really struggled with this one. We basically learned to build out platform so we could pivot and shoot an array. I got that, but we were trying to do it on a single target, and I just couldn’t get the movement down. I’m not at all athletic, so this was really frustrating. Then, it got worse.
They set up a few target arrays and three shooting boxes. The goal was to teach us how to move quickly between shooting boxes, come into the box with the gun up an start shooting as soon as possible. Mentally, I got the concept. Physically, I fared very poorly. I was still struggling to figure out my grip, and trying to move gracefully just wasn’t happening.
By the end of the first day, I was really questioning whether I should come back. I was hot, tired, sore and feeling like I wasn’t getting it. Did I mention that it was hot? Thankfully, I went back to the hotel, sat in front of the AC and cleaned my gun. I then went and had some pretty decent Thai food at Benja’s, and felt a lot better. On the way back to the hotel, I decided I would continue, and just see what I could learn. I’m glad I did.
Day Two—Making Progress
We opened the day back on the line working on fire control. This worked in my favor as I was trying to figure out my fire control situation. The grip was starting to come together, and my groups were just beginning to tighten up. We were encourage to have our notebooks close by so that when we did something that worked we could write it down. I took a lot more notes than I expected I would. We worked on one-handed shooting, which was also good as I’ve been working on that on my own. Later in the morning, we moved over to the sunny range and worked on our draw stroke, presentation and building our grip.
After lunch, my group headed over to Ken & JoAnn’s Awesome Flow Stage. This was a small stage made up of four target arrays to be engaged through ports while on the move. The idea was to put together all the movement and shooting techniques we learned up to that point. As you might expect, I didn’t do great. I did get better as we moved through it, however. Between my first and last run, I took 2 seconds off my time, which was significant since the second time was only about 6.5 seconds. Not the fastest of my group by a long shot, but not awful. As awkward as it was, it was starting to feel more natural.
We wrapped the day with some more lecture time which was a major knowledge bomb. The overarching topic of the lecture was how to break down a stage, but there was a lot more great information presented. We eventually went over and walked a stage, and Ron showed us how he would approach it. We were free to walk through it ourselves and start working out the movement. It was enlightening, to say the least.
I left day two feeling a lot better about the progress I had made. While I knew I was nowhere close to mastering all these new skills, I had things to take back and work on. Even my dry-fire practice was going to change. I liked it.
Day Three—It All Comes Together
We started day three off with—you guessed it—fire control. My groups were definitely tightening up, and more importantly, the gun was returning to target a lot faster and more repeatably. After some fire control work, we moved over to something that has always given me problems; distance shooting. We lined up on a 20-yard line and had to shoot head boxes and skunk targets. Skunk targets are a standard USPSA target with black painted on either side of the A-zone. This makes for about a 6” wide acceptable target area. Heads are 6” x 6”. Now, the last time I shot at 25 yards, I was missing entirely. I didn’t think this would go well. However, after some instruction on the right way to approach these shots, to my surprise, I was hitting 85-90% of the shots at the head box. And all but one of my misses was less than 1” out. True, it was still a miss, but that was better than I ever had done before. One the skunk targets, I also did a lot better than I expected. All of my misses were just into the black, and there weren’t that many of them. Like most things over the weekend, I didn’t master this skill, but I did better than I ever had in the past, so for me it was a win.
Next, our group moved over to something I have never done—shooting swinging targets. Swingers are activated by something, usually a dropping steel target. I had never shot anything like this before, and it is a huge credit to Rossen’s instruction that I hit the targets at all, let alone hitting A’s and C’s. I thought about spending more time on them later in the day, but we don’t shoot them in the matches I typically shoot, so I opted for more practical skills for me.
Later, we got to run the stages we walked the night before. I had a couple wild shots, but for the most part, I didn’t suck too badly. The most fun part was having Ron Avery running along behind me yelling, “In control!” the whole time. He must have seen me shooting earlier in the class; I have a tendency to want to shoot the gun more than I want to hit the target. His post-run walk through was highly instructive, and had it not been 110 in the shade, I may have run it again a few more times. But I elected to head back to fire control.
Back at the barn, they were running a target array through a port. This has been a trouble spot for me, so I shot it a bunch of times. After acknowledging the obvious that I’m not an athlete, Ken worked really hard to help me grasp the movement of the array. By the end, I got what I considered high praise from him, “That’s some IDPA love right there!” Finally, I was getting it.
Shortly after that, he spent a solid 30 minutes with me, one-on-one working on my grip. This was key because I sort of understood the grip thing, but had some questions. He kept coming up with different ways to explain it, demonstrate it and allow me to try it. At the end I did a full mag dump at full speed (5-6 shots a second) and all the rounds went into a ragged 3” hole at 12 yards. The gun felt like a laser beam. For me, that was the highlight of the class.
When I left the third day, I was glad I stuck it out. My hands were beat up, I was hot and tired and at lot of things hurt. But it was a good tired. As I said at the beginning, I have pages of notes full of ideas of things to train on. I have in no way mastered competition handgun, but I have a lot of tools that over time will make me better. My hat is off to Ron, Ken, JoAnn, Jeremy, Jeffery, Rossen, Glen and David for all their hard work over the 3 days. The class was a big investment in time and money for me, but I’m glad I took it. I’m looking forward to seeing my shooting improve over the next few months as I work these new skills. If you’re looking for some great instruction, I highly recommend TPC. Just maybe take a class not in the summer…