Visual Patience

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get a post up here. Work has been busy and I’ve spent most of my spare time loading up test loads for the .308, .270 and .223. Now if the weather ever breaks and I can get to the range, I’ll be able to write some posts about that—and my new Magnetospeed 3 Chronograph! Sadly, I’m on the road for most of the next 6-8 weeks so it may be a while.

But today I want to talk about something that I’ve been struggling with in my handgun shooting. As with many things, when you’re learning to do something, there are a lot of individual skills that come together to make you good at it. I spent nearly 20 years learning to mix live audio. Each time I felt like I had a good handle on one thing—gain structure for instance—I learned there was something else I could work on that would make me better—compression perhaps. So it is with shooting.

Since I returned from Tactical Performance Center in September with a whole new grip, and then learning a new, improved stance in November, that has been my focus. Now that those skills are becoming automatic, I’m finding the thing that is holding me back is visual patience.

This target was from two weeks ago. The red dots indicate shots where I was not visually patient. Yellow is starting to break focus.

Give Me Patience…Now!
The concept of visual patience is not original to me; I think I learned of it first from Steve Anderson. He describes it this way, “Sometimes we want to shoot the gun more than we want to hit the target.” For me it manifests itself in two ways. First, when I bring the gun up on target, I want to pull the trigger as soon as the gun stops moving. That’s the fastest way to get a low first shot hit time. The problem comes when it doesn’t matter if the gun is actually on target or not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll draw and bring the gun up and shoot…really quickly sometimes, but find the shot in the -1 or (horrors!) the -3 zone. This happens because I’m really not looking at my sights, I’m waiting until the gun is more or less in my field of view, more or less pointed at the target and I want to shoot the gun.

Sometimes, the sights are close, maybe canted a little left or right, but I see the front sight. On a 5-7-yard target, that’s not a problem. On a 15-yard head target, it’s a big problem. In fact, I lost 10 seconds on a stage the last IDPA match I shot because I had practiced in my mind a cadence I wanted to shoot. The stage required 4 shots to the body, then one to the head on three targets at about 15 yards. So I rehearsed; bang…bang…bang…bang……bang. I figured the extra pause would give me enough time to get the gun up to the head box and break the shot. I missed the first one. Thankfully I saw the miss, and slowed the second one down. But on the third target I went back to my rehearsed cadence and missed.

I wanted to shoot the gun more than hit the target.

It Should Have Been Easy…
For me, hitting the 6” x 6” head box at 15 yards is not a super-hard shot. I’ve practiced that in the past, and I hit it more times than not. It’s not easy (yet), but it’s well within my skill set. However, to make that shot, I need a hard sight focus, and smooth trigger press. What I did on targets 1 and 3 was bring the gun up to my field of view and press the trigger. I couldn’t even tell you where the sights were because I didn’t bother to look at them. So I missed.
And here’s where visual patience kicks in. A miss in IDPA-land is a 5 second penalty. On a stage with a raw time of about 15 seconds, adding 5 seconds is bad. Adding 10 is really bad. In fact, while I ended up in the top 10 overall for stages 1-3, on stage 4, the stage in question, I was 18th. I lost nearly 10 places in the rankings on that stage with those two misses.
Here’s the thing; if I had taken .5 seconds to confirm my sight picture as I pressed the trigger, I’m confident I could have hit at least a -1 if not a -0 hit (my second target head shot was -0). So, worst case scenario, I spend an extra 1 second aiming, and let’s say I drop them both in the -1 zone. That’s a total of 3 seconds onto my 14.53 second raw time, for a final tally of 17.53 seconds, which would have put me in 9th spot overall. Had I landed both in the -0, I’m in 7th. That also would have moved me up to 5th overall, beating one of our club’s faster shooters. But I wanted to shoot more than hit.
It Feels Like Forever

The problem with being visually patient is two-fold. First, that .5 seconds it takes to confirm the sight picture feels like 5 seconds when the timer is running. It’s really crazy how time slows down once the timer goes off, but everything feels soooo….slowwwww. It’s such a skewed perspective that I came off one run that night and the guy entering the scores said, “Man, nice run!” It felt so slow to me I just said, “Meh, it was OK.” He said, “Dude, you’re the fastest in the squad.” It takes a lot of mental discipline to slow down and see that sight picture. And it feels like it takes forever.

The other problem, especially for someone who is advanced in age such as I, is that with my less than young eyesight, I’ve learned how to body-index shoot very well and very fast out to about 7 yards. I’ve spent probably hundreds of hours dry-firing and getting to the point that I can look at the target, swing the gun in and press the trigger and get -0 hits pretty repeatedly. If I’m out, I’m -1, but I’m doing it so fast, it doesn’t hurt me much.

However, when the distance stretches out beyond 7 yards to 10 or 15, I really need to use the sights. That means I have to pull my focus back from the target to the front sight as I prep and press the trigger. Because I’m so used to see-shoot, going to see…shoot is a challenge. It’s even worse when the evil match directors give us a starting target that is at say, 3 yards with a second target out at 7 or 10 yards. My draw to first shot at 3 yards is in the 1.20’s most days and I don’t see the sights at all; I see the outline of the top of the slide coming into view as I press the trigger. At that distance, my split time will be .2 or less (probably .17 or .15) But if the next target is at distance and I need to slow down and take that extra .3-.5 seconds to make sure the gun is on target before I press. Moreover, I need to dial my splits down to .3 or .4 to make sure the gun settles before the second shot. Am I capable of doing all that? For sure. Do I remember to each time? Not every time.

This target was this weekend. I pulled it back to 4 yards to reinforce success. Sometimes you need a win. The misses are closer and there are fewer of them. Next week, we’ll go back to 5 yards.

Fixing It
I haven’t come up with a sure-fire way to fix it, but one thing I did notice at the last match was that I am looking at the target as I shoot to see my shots. That pulls my focus away from the front sight, and it’s easy to mis-align them. At 5 yards, it’s not a big deal. At a 15-yard head box, it’s a problem. At 25 yards, it’s a big problem. The good news is, with my prescription lens on my right eye, I can’t see hits at 25 yards anyway…

But, I’ve started doing a drill I learned from Rich Guerrero at The Nashville Armory. It’s called the negative space drill. It’s intent is to keep you from looking over your sights to see your hits. But I can use it to focus on the sights instead of the target. Basically, I took a standard IDPA practice target and cut the -0 zones out of the body and head. Run it out to various distances and start bringing the gun up for shots. If I make a new hole, I’m doing it wrong. The ideal negative space target will have nothing but those two big -0 holes cut in it. I didn’t get there this past weekend, but we’ll keep going.

My goal is to pull my focus back to the front sight when I’m making those longer shots. Since there’s no target there to gawk at, I see the sights clearly. And if I’m looking at the bullet trap at the end of the range, I’m doing it wrong.

I’m also working on shooting smaller targets at greater distances. I started shooting the zero dot drill (four 2” circles) at 2 yards, and I’m now out to 4-5. The small targets force my focus to the sights and trigger pull. It doesn’t take too much to be off a 2” circle. But since that’s not challenging enough, I’m also shooting 1” circles at 3 yards (currently). I can hit them—but I need to be patient.

Well, if you’ve had the patience to stick with me this far, thanks! This concept is a work in progress for me and I by no means have it solved. But I figured if it’s a problem for me, it may be an issue for you. I didn’t even know it was and issue until I heard Mr. Anderson talking about it on his podcast, That Shooting Show, and I’ve been working on it ever since. If you’ve struggled with this concept, leave me a comment below; I’d love to hear some other perspectives.

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