Competition Guides

Recognizing and Adapting to Target Difficulty

There are several techniques and approaches to dealing good hits on targets of varying degrees of difficulty. Here is an approach I've adapted from others and added a quick trick to help gauge difficulty.

It’s pretty obvious that some targets are more difficult than others. It’s quite simple really. The further the distance to the target the more difficult it is. The smaller the target the more difficult it is. As simple as that is, I’ve struggled with adequately estimating a target’s difficulty for quite some time. In fact, it’s been one of the things that’s caused me to drop points or lose time in stages at local matches quite a bit in the first quarter of this year. However, I’ve adapted the things I’ve learned from recent course work and devised an approach that is yielding promising results.

I’m sure others before me have devised a similar approach. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a better system exists and is well known. I’m just currently aware of one. Or perhaps it’s just me and I have just been unable to intuit or consistently estimate a target’s difficulty. At any rate, it’s my ongoing attempt at taking the lessons I’ve learned from the instructors like Karl Rehn, Dave Reichek, the late Sean Hoffman, John Daub, and Ben Stoeger and working them into an approach that works well for me at my current skill level.

To keep things simple I like to classify targets into three difficulty categories: easy, moderate, or hard. Rather than trying to estimate the target’s distance or size, I use my thumb pad as a reference to compare it against. If the target is significantly larger than my thumb, meaning I can’t even come close to covering it with my thumb pad, from the distance I will be engaging the target is easy. If the target is approximately the same size as my thumb, then it’s moderate. If It is smaller than my thumb, then it is difficult. That’s it.

This has helped me immensely with stage planning and pre-programming the sequence of tasks to achieve the flow I am looking for when competing matches. Having a good idea of the target’s difficulty allows me to plan where my focus will shift as I shoot a stage (or a drill). For easy targets, I focus on pressing the trigger quickly as soon as the dot (or front sight) flashes in front of the area of the target I want to impact. For moderate targets, I focus on pressing the trigger carefully as soon as the dot (or front sight) settles on the area of the target I want to impact. For hard targets, I focus on feeling the trigger precisely press straight back after the dot settles (or after I have achieved equal height and equal light with the front sight on the target) over the specific area of the target I want to impact.

In essence, it is very similar to what one would do when using cadence to shoot quickly, carefully, or precisely. However, I’ve found that thinking in terms of quickly, carefully, or precisely results in some mental gymnastics that make my stage or drill planning less efficient and effective. This is because I have to map each of those “speeds” to a process. Of course, spelling out the entire process is a lot of work. So instead, I’ve come up with terms that I find to align to those processes “intuitively” (for me). So for easy targets, I tell myself to “send it” as fast as I can. For moderate targets, I tell myself to “see it” – that is to see the dot settle on the target and see it stay there while the shot breaks. For hard targets, I tell myself to “feel it” – that is to feel the trigger press as the shot breaks.

The other thing I like about this approach over applying the cadence concept is that it doesn’t force me into a predetermined rate of fire or pace to achieve a cadence. There is certainly a rate of fire change when transitioning between targets of different difficulty, but that is a side effect of changing mental focus and adjusting to what I need to see and feel rather than attempting to slow down or speed up to a specific pace.

This approach might look something like this in practice. Let’s assume we are about to shoot a failure-to-stop drill at seven yards on a IDPA cardboard target which has an 8″ A-zone circle in the body portion of the target and a 4″ A-zone circle in the head portion of the target. That drill consists of drawing a pistol after a start signal and firing two shots to the body and one to the head. At that distance, I would place one of my thumbs out in front of me about where a fully presented pistol would be and compare the A-zone areas. The 8″ body A-zone is significantly larger than my thumb at that range and therefore I would consider the first target zone as easy. The 4″ head A-zone is about the same size as my thumb at that range therefore I would consider the second target zone as moderate. Using the nomenclature that makes sense to me, I would “send” two to the body and “see” the head shot. In terms of flow, it might look something like:

  1. Visually on the specific spot of the body A-zone I want to aim at and hold that visual focus while listening for the start signal.
  2. On the signal, focus getting the gun out of the holster and on the target (where the visual focus is).
  3. Focus on pressing the trigger as soon as the dot flashes over the visual focus.
  4. Focus on pressing the trigger as soon as the dot flashes over the visual focus again.
  5. Visually focus on the specific spot of the head A-zone I want to aim at.
  6. Focus on pressing the trigger as soon as I see the dot settle over the visual focus.

How does this work when one doesn’t have an opportunity to wave a thumb over a target or if flow is disrupted?

That is a fair question. Turns out the size of a thumb is similar to the size of a pistol mounted red dot sight or the size of the back plate on the slide. As such, either one of those will work for a comparative reference point. Granted having a pre-programmed flow with previously evaluated target difficulties will generally result in better flow and faster shooting. However, taking a moment to compare the target and evaluate it in order to adjust the focus and attention to the shot at hand should yield better hits. At least, that’s what I have experienced so far using this method on complex stages where my stage plan went out the window.

I admit that this approach is coarse grained. Perhaps as I improve, I will add additional categories and phrases to better align to the five pistol shooting types as categorized by Brian Enos. Or perhaps, I will discard this approach all together and replace it with something entirely different. For now, given my current skill level, it will suffice and perhaps someone reading this post may find it helpful.

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