Competition

Ben Stoeger’s Practical Shooting Fundamentals

Looking to level up your USPSA game? Ben Stoeger's Practical Shooting Fundamentals course is a fantastic 2-day class that is as much fun as it is instructive that is sure to put a competitive shooter on a path to improvement.

I’ve struggled for a little more than a week now with figuring out how to start this after action report regarding Ben Stoeger’s Practical Shooting Fundamentals class which I had the opportunity to attend recently. This struggle, I suspect, comes from my attempts to succinctly describe what I took away from the two day course in a few sentences before getting into the details. However, every attempt has resulted in either complete writers block, where I find myself starting at a blank page for a good chunk of time, or it ends up with a stupid long opening paragraph where I ramble on about a myriad of things without a describable theme. So rather than attempting to craft an elegant opening to this report, I’ll just start by saying this course is like several other courses I’ve taken while simultaneously being unlike any other course I’ve taken. Yeah, I’m aware that doesn’t make any sense. Bear with me as I try to explain.

This class, according to the course description, works on developing fundamental USPSA skills and learning to apply them to stage environments. The course description further indicates the course is not intended for new shooters. Rather it’s designed for shooters who already shoot USPSA matches and are looking to improve. It assumes students are already familiar with the USPSA scoring system and safety rules.

In many ways, the class reminded me of Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solutions course in the sense that it’s an advanced course where students work on bringing together shooting fundamentals and refining those fundamentals in order to map out a path to push beyond their speed and accuracy limits in order to improve them. An additional similarity is that in both courses students get an opportunity to identify bad habits and work to unlearn them. However, Ben’s class is completely different in the sense that it focuses on applying the shooting fundamentals and weaving them in with USPSA competition fundamentals with the goal of becoming a better USPSA competitor.

On the surface, someone who has not been exposed to competitive shooting might read my comparison and think the difference is subtle. I’ll admit that even with my previous IDPA competition experience, there was a small part of me that was thinking “shooting is shooting, it can’t be all that different” when I signed up for the course. I suspect the only reason a small part of me was thinking that way was because I hadn’t been exposed to USPSA and I wasn’t familiar with the scoring system. However, having now taken the course and also having shot a single USPSA match, I can say that the improvement goal results in a different approach to drills where shooting skills are applied uniquely.

For example, in a defensive pistol class the focus is on shooting to stop a threat and moving to stay alive whereas in this class the focus is on shooting and moving to maximize a score. Yeah, both require shooting and moving. However, the way one shoots, transitions between targets, the order in which targets are engaged, and how one decides to move and where to move is not the same and in some cases antithetical to shooting and moving with a different goal in mind. This is because the contexts are different and therefore so are the concerns.

Well, I’ve managed to write another long-winded introduction to this after action report. But unlike my previous attempts, this introduction will stay. Let’s move on.

Those unfamiliar with Ben Stoeger should know that Ben is an extremely well accomplished and active USPSA shooter. He is also a passionate instructor who travels around helping other people improve their competitive shooting skills and has also authored several books to share his knowledge. I found his teaching style to be very interesting and perhaps a bit rare. In many ways, it felt like I was hanging out with a shooting buddy who wants to go work on skills to prepare for the next match. There was structure and plan, but it was informal. There was plenty of jovial jesting combined with the delivery of golden knowledge nuggets. Perhaps part of this was the context of competitive shooting which is fun, but I attribute most of this Ben just being Ben. It reminded me of the cool and hip high school teacher that students hoped they would get when class schedules were posted and those who got a seat in that class ended up learning lessons they would continue to recall much later in life.

Watching Ben shoot as he demonstrated drills and stages was like nothing else I’ve seen in person. As expected from a top level competitive shooter, he was fast and accurate. Yes, he made difficult drills look easy. But it was more than that. His demonstrations were so fluid and relaxed they seemed virtually effortless. Funny enough, it looked as if it required a lot more effort to demonstrate how not to shoot and what not to do. It was somewhat surreal.

Before getting into the course details, let’s get the gear I used out of the way since it’s something readers end up asking about:

This class was held at KR Training in Lincoln, Texas. However, Ben teaches this course and others at several different locations. See Ben’s training schedule for more information.

Now, let’s get into what we did.

Day 1

Class started at 9am. The morning was a brisk 36ºF with plenty of moisture in the air and a looming prediction of rain with an expected high of 39ºF. It was uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the class was on.

We started in the classroom, where it was warm, but we were only there for a few minutes. Just enough time to fill out liability waivers and review the training facilities safety brief.

Geared up and ready to go, all of the students (it was a smallish class composed of fourteen students) lined up on the firing line about 15 yards or so from an official IPSC cardboard target for the first drill. The drill consisted of firing ten shots without any time pressure. That was all the instructions we were given. After the first string, we stopped and checked out our work. Ben asked the class if we were happy with our work. I’m not going to lie, I was happy with seeing ten holes in my target even though most weren’t A-zone hits. The brief moment of contentment was shattered when Ben pointed out that without any time pressure there is no reason for shots to land outside of the A-zone if we took our time and properly applied core pistol shooting fundamentals: grip, sight picture, and trigger control. He was right. I knew that. So we repeated the drill and, even though my groups were better, I still managed to punch a few holes outside of the A-zone.

My takeaway from the first drill was simple: I have to keep working on the basics until I can consistently get all A-zone hits without any time pressure because that is the foundation on which speed will be built upon. I’m not sure if that was the point, but that’s what I walked away with.

The first drill was followed by a series of Bill drills at distances of seven, ten, and fifteen yards from the target. During these drills we focused on reactive shooting. Reactive shooting is the practice in which the shooter breaks the next shot when they see enough of the sight picture to make a good shot. “Seeing enough sight picture” is a concept that deserves a longer discussion to explain thoroughly, but it essentially boils down using the roughest sight picture required to address the difficulty of the shot. That might be noticing the flash of color from the front sight or a red dot for easier shots or waiting for a perfect sight picture for very difficult shots. One of the things that stuck out was the difficulty was presented as relative to the shooter’s skill level rather than a defined target size or distance as I had previously understood this concept.

We worked on several other things while shooting Bill drills. This included working on keeping a firm but relaxed firing hand grip while using the support hand to apply crushing pressure. The goal of this was to minimize the diminishing impact of the firing hand grip pressure and tension on trigger finger dexterity. Eliminating unnecessary tension was a recurring theme throughout the entire two days of instruction. Along the same lines, we worked on not fighting the gun during recoil and instead working to maintain a consistent grip on the pistol while maintaining visual focus on a precise spot on the target. This approach leverages one’s own body mechanics and physical indexes to naturally let the gun precisely return to where it needs to be for additional shots while avoiding over corrections.

Another recurring theme that was introduced at this point was: don’t slow down, fix it. The name of the game is speed. Go as fast as one can until accuracy starts falling apart (while being safe), then identify the things that need fixing or improvements in order to achieve accurate hits at that speed.

After some time, we shifted our focus from reactive shooting to predictive shooting. Predictive shooting involves shooting without reacting to the sight picture and allows the shooter to push for and achieve faster split times. This isn’t shooting with aiming. Rather it requires the shooter to trust their hands and skill to do the work between shots. It also requires the shooter to be intimately aware of their skill level in order to know predictive shooting can be applied to push speed on a stage.

To work on predictive shooting, we ran double drills at various distances. The drill consisted of drawing the pistol on a signal, establishing an acceptable sight picture, and firing a pair shots at a predetermined pace without reconfirming the sight picture for the second shot. At each distance we can dial up the pace between shot pairs up and down in order to figure out what we can get away with at our current skill level. While performing this drill an emphasis was placed on grip technique, applying good trigger control, and maintaining visual focus on the target.

The rain started picking up around this time so the class relocated into the classroom where we worked on our draw under time pressure. With some reduced size targets set up on a wall, Ben had us draw to a good sight picture while attempting to beat a par time with the shot timer which kept reducing. If I recall correctly, we started with a par time of about 1.5 seconds and ended up drawing against a part time of 0.7 seconds. As time pressure was increased, students experienced increasing tension in their arms and shoulders. As such, additional attention was given to reducing unnecessary tension. The more relaxed one remained, the more fluid the draw was and therefore faster draws were achieved.

At this point, we took a lunch break which gave the rain some more time to pass or let up. During this break, I also took a moment to put some masking tape over the front of my red dot sights since I struggled with maintaining visual focus on the target during the shooting drills in the morning. I’ll write a post on this technique in the future to explain in detail how it helps correct the bad habit of getting “pulled into the dot”.

The rain had let up a bit when we headed back outside. The focus for the afternoon shifted to shooting multiple targets. There is quite a bit going on when working with multiple targets especially when the targets vary in size or distance. This involves switching between reactive and predictive shooting techniques while continuing to consistently apply fundamental shooting mechanics. At the same time, a heavy emphasis was placed on how to transition between targets effectively and efficiently.

Transitioning between targets, to the casual eye, isn’t complicated. It involves acquiring and sustaining visual focus on a precise spot on one target until it no longer needs to be shot, then shifting visual focus to the next target, and finally allowing the pistol to naturally move in line with the new visual focus. However, there are a lot of things that one can do to muck this process up. one example of this is forcing the gun into alignment with the new visual focus which can result in over-driving the gun past the visual focus which means time and energy is wasted in order to realign the gun or resulting in a shot that impacts outside the desired area of impact. Another error might be failing to visually focus in a small precise spot on the target and “painting” the target with shots as soon as an acceptable sight picture is available on any part of the target. The primary culprit for these sorts of errors, once again, comes from unnecessary tension.

We ran a few different live and dry fire drills that allowed us to work on transitions and identify errors. One drill involved shooting a bill drill on a near target then transitioning to a further target and firing shots at it. This particular drill allowed us to play with switching between predictive and reactive shooting techniques. Another drill involved starting with the pistol aimed at a near target, firing a shot on a signal and transition to the rear target with no additional shots fired. A third drill was set up using five to six different steel targets of varying size and distance and quickly shooting them on a signal.

We ended the day a little earlier than planned as the rain continued and the range was quickly becoming a muddy mess.

Day 2

The second day started on the range at 9am. While the day started out at a brisk 39ºF, we were looking at warmer temperatures, which peaked at 52ºF, sunny skies, and no more rain. There was still a bit of mud on the range, but things were drying and improved as the day progressed.

The class started with running a timed stage which was set up in the shooting bay to the left of the main shooting bay we used the prior day. The stage consisted of 14 different targets most of which were either IPSC or USPSA cardboard targets, a handful of steel targets, and even some no shoot targets. The targets were positioned around walls, through ports, and behind cover. The stage wasn’t particularly large, but it required a use of the transitions we worked on the prior day and movement (which we focused on later in the day). The stage was a particularly fun way to start the day and was available for students to practice in between their turns for the movement drills that were run in the main bay throughout the day. The initial run served as a baseline to measure improvement as the day progressed.

Once every student had a chance to run the stage, Ben shifted focus to working on short distance movement skills. Due to space required to perform the movement drills in a safe manner, the main shooting bay was set up with two drill stations. This meant that only two students could run the drill at a time. As I previously mentioned, students were encouraged to shoot the stage for practice while waiting on their turn to run the drill.

The flow for the most part of the day consisted of Ben describing the drill, demonstrating how the drill is run well, demonstrating mistakes to avoid while doing the drill, briefly explaining what the student should focus on while executing the drill. After the drill was introduced, two students manned each of the two drill stations and were instructed to “dry fire the drill” several times before going “hot”. A heavy emphasis was placed on the dry fire component of the drill which helped the student understand what to focus on. For example, during the short movement drill the dry fire component focused on practicing visual focus and transitions, identifying where and how to move, paying attention to the movement and placement of the gun during movement, and then refocusing on the visual focus and transitions for the remaining targets. A key takeaway here is that dry fire should be “slow and perfect”, instead the dry fire should be fast and deliberate to help identify potential improvements. It should get your heart pumping and your body warmed up.

In addition to working on how to move during this drill, a heavy emphasis was placed on establishing and maintaining a stable and well balanced athletic stance. This stance provided the foundation on which all movement started and finished from. Not to mention we were constantly reminded to avoid unnecessary tension.

After several minutes of dry fire, the drills were shot on a start signal several times before the targets were taped up and the next two students got a turn. Ben shifted his focus from one student to the other each time the drill was run. This allowed Ben to provide direct and personalized feedback to help each shooter figure out how to improve from their current individual skill level.

The personalized individual attention was, in my opinion, the most valuable aspect of this course. Don’t get me wrong, every single drill was valuable. However, having a shooter of Ben’s caliber look specifically at your individual execution and then pointing out little details that we may be unaware of and could be holding us back. This also includes specific things one can do to address issues identified. When a run went well, Ben encouraged the student to push harder and go faster. Honestly, the feedback and individual tips were phenomenal.

After working on short movement movement, the two drill stations were reconfigured to run a drill that focused on long movements. This drill started with statically shooting a few targets, shifting visual focus to where we needed to move to, start moving to the next position quickly, then transitioning to the short movement technique in order to engage the remaining targets.

That drill was followed by lunch, which was followed by two additional drills that focused on engaging multiple targets while moving in the afternoon. Like all the previous drills, each drill required the use of the skills presented in prior drills and added something new on top. It started on day one with grip, acceptable picture, and trigger work. That was followed by visual focus and transitions. The second day added stance, stability, and movement. The organization and presentation of drills and techniques was excellent and fun.

We closed out the last shooting exercise with another timed run of the stage with our peers watching. I’m certain my times were the slowest of the bunch, but that didn’t matter as I was pleased to see about a 20% improvement on how I ran the stage at the start of the day to how I ran the stage at the end of the day even though I was both mentally and physically exhausted.

As parting gift, students were given a copy of Ben’s Breakthrough Marksmanship book which covers many of the same techniques explored in the course in addition to step-by-step instructions for several of dry and live fire drills.

Closing Thoughts

This was a mentally and physically demanding two day course that rivals the demands of Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solution course. To date, this course has the highest round count of any course I’ve attended so far. It’s also the first pistol class I attended with a focus on competitive practical shooting which felt unlike any other pistol shooting training I had previously received. I think the course description is spot on when it says that this course is for shooters who already shoot USPSA and are looking to improve their game.

There were many takeaways from this class. Some of them re-enforced things I had previously learned, such as one has to make the time to practice in order to improve. Others refined and expanded my understanding of certain techniques and altered my approach to practice. For example, I already develop practice session plans to focus on improving a small predetermined set of techniques. However, now I will add a goal context to help further refine how those techniques are developed. For example, my future practice sessions may place more emphasis on speed over precision as I prepare for a USPSA match or I may place an emphasis on precision over speed if I am preparing for an IDPA match because in both of those contexts the goal is to become more competitive in order to eventually win. Additional takeaways include things I need to learn or unlearn, for instance I need to unlearn the habit of slowing down in order to get better hits and learn how to avoid becoming tense under pressure.

As a suggestion, folks who are planning or would like to attend this course in the future should consider picking up a copy of Ben’s Practical Pistol book and read it beforehand. In and of itself, the book presents a lot of the techniques covered in the course in an easy to consume and understand fashion and can be beneficial to help one improve. Having read the book myself, I found myself thinking to myself “so that’s what he meant in the book” several times while receiving his instruction. It wasn’t that I had misunderstood the content in the book as much as it was that I had not understood it to the same extent I did while taking the class.

Overall, the course was as much fun as it was instructive and I have no reservations in suggesting it to anyone who wants to be a better competitive shooter.

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