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Measuring and Tracking Progress

Measuring and tracking progress is an important aspect of a skill development journey. It not only confirms skills are in fact improving but it can also help identify specific improvement opportunities while making one aware of their limitations.

A reader asks, “What metrics do you measure to track your progression? Or what do you do to measure your skill gains over time?” These are great questions that deserve some discussion. I’ll start by answering the questions directly and then explore my reasons for it with the hope that it will provide some insight that will allow readers to arrive at measurements that will help them.

The main measurement I collect in order to track progress is overall match scores. Each individual score tells me how I performed and how I compared to others that day. It also allows me to retrospectively ask, “Why did I end up with that score?” There are a lot of factors that go into a particular score, but part of the retrospection includes going through what I remember observing. Were my sights moving predictably or erratically? How did the gun behave? Was I getting the hits I wanted and attempted? How was my movement? What about my transitions? What were the contributing factors that helped my score? What are the things I noticed that prevented a better score? There is a lot of value in this retrospection as it helps me adjust my practice plans to seek improvements.

An individual match score by itself doesn’t really tell me how much I’ve progressed or whether or not I’m improving. For example, a worse than normal score, which one may interpret as a poor performance at face value, could be a result of the more challenging stage designs in the corresponding match or some other contributing factor such as competing with a gun that I am just starting to get familiar with. The opposite can also be true – a better than normal score could be attributed to less challenging stage designs. The interesting thing is that stage difficulty is relative to my skill level and my own strengths and weaknesses. At any rate, due to the number of variables that may change from match to match, I find that a trend line calculated from historical match scores is a better indicator of improvement.

While I match score measurement is by far my primary form of measuring and tracking progress, it’s not perfect. As I’ve already mentioned, there are a lot of variables that change from match to match. This means I have to rely on my observation skills and memory recollection to identify the specific things I want to repeat and the specific things I want to improve. The problem with that is diagnosis is sometimes speculative. For example I might have observed that my transitions felt slow. However, without an objective measurement to quantify transition times it may be possible that the feeling was a result of smooth transitions without tension. The exact opposite can also be true – transitions that felt fast might have been mistakenly perceived as fast when tension was present.

Match score measurement comes with another challenge that I sometimes take for granted and that is match availability. I am lucky in the sense that I can pretty much find a local match within an hour drive just about any given weekend. That works well for me, but I suspect that isn’t the case for several others. The good news is there are other ways to measure and track progress. More specifically, I’m talking about dry fire and live fire drill times and scores.

This brings us an indispensable tool that every person who is interested in improving needs to own: the shot timer. There are a couple of options to meet this need. The most cost effective option is using a smartphone app. I’ve been told they exist. I’ve also been told that their functionality is hit and miss. I also have attempted to find one and have come up empty handed. My preference is to use a traditional shot timer which requires an investment of roughly $125. Undoubtedly somebody will ask which shot timer I recommend and unfortunately I don’t have a recommendation. I own and use a PACT Club Timer III myself, but only because that’s the one that appealed to me the most when I decided to purchase one. I most commonly see shot timers from Competition Electronics used at the local matches I attend and by instructors at classes I’ve attended. Another tool I’ve grown quite fond of to help with measurement during my dry fire practice is the Mantis X10, but I would suggest getting a plain old shot timer first before investing in other training aids like the Mantis.

The question that naturally follows in my mind is, “Which drills?” This depends largely on what one is working to improve and there is a little bit of nuance to it. Regular readers have likely noticed that I’ve spent the better part of this year focused on pistol skill development. It should come as no surprise that the match measurement that I highlighted is from pistol shooting competitions and I’m going to stick with that theme here. However, it’s important to note that a similar approach can be applied to different marksmanship skills and competitive disciplines.

There are several well known drills that can be used to measure and track progress. The par times and scoring methods may change but they all essentially provide a simple well defined course of fire that emphasizes one or more skills. The four that I work with most often are the Bill drill, the failure to stop drill, the immediate incapacitation drill, and the split bill drill. I don’t stick with these because I think they are the best, it’s just the four that I am most familiar with. They just happen to be four drills that Gabe White tests in his Pistol Shooting Solutions course which stuck with me after taking that class. I like them because they are simple to remember and measure.

I won’t get into the details of each of those drills because they are, as I said, well known and documented elsewhere, like in John Daub’s Drills, Qualifications, Standards, & Tests eBook which is available as a free download. However, I think it’s worth breaking one drill down and looking at what it helps us measure and how one can use it to track progress. So, let’s look at the Bill drill.

The Bill drill starts with the pistol in a holster while hands are in a surrender position. Standing seven (7) yards away from an IPSC or IDPA target. On a signal, draw and fire six (6) rounds as fast as possible only into the A-zone of the target. A shot timer should register all six shots. The target should have exactly six holes in the A-zone. It is worthwhile to note the overall time and the individual shot times especially when this drill is shot cold. Shooting a drill cold means it is the first drill fired in a practice session without warming up. Recording those detailed measurements and comparing them to prior cold drill performance is a good way to track one’s progress. Subsequent runs of the same drill in a practice session are more than fine and can be used to make adjustments to achieve better results. However, it is important to note warmed up drill times will generally be better than cold drill times because we tend to perform better warmed up, at least until exhaustion starts setting in.

In terms of the individual shot times, the first shot time of the drill measures the time it took to react to the stimulus, get the gun into play, and fire a first good shot. The times of shots two through six shows us our split times between good shots and also record our cadence or rhythm (or lack thereof if there is erratic deviation in times between the subsequent shots). This information can be used to help one focus on either improving their first shot time or improving split times and cadence.

Another important thing to note is the pattern of holes on the target. Were the holes in a nice tight group in the center of the A-zone? Or were they an oblong shape trending in a noticeable direction (like low and left)? The former pattern may indicate one may need to work on increasing the rate of fire by learning to work with coarser grained sight pictures. The latter pattern may indicate the need to work on grip or trigger manipulation fundamentals.

This is just one example of how measuring performance on a specific drill can help us not only track progress, but also help us identify opportunities for skill improvement to focus on.

Once again, this post is simply providing an example of how I go about measuring and tracking progress. What I’m measuring is driven by what I’m currently focused on improving and looking at measurement trends helps me track my progress. I am by no means an expert here. As such, there are likely better ways to measure and track progress which I may learn as my experience grows. I hope that the examples and discussion helps those who read this either get started with their measurement and progress tracking or at least provides some food for thought that may aid in the journey for improvement.

2 comments

  1. The only problem with using Gabe’s drills as your benchmark is that they all test the same skills: 7 yard draw. Something with more strings and more skills, like the FBI agent qual course, or the Rangemaster Core Skills Test, covers more of the full spectrum of skills any handgunner should be working on. B8 shooting at 15 and 25 yards should be part of any training program as well.

    1. That’s a good point and I do need to expand the drills that I use during live fire practice.

      One of things I failed to mention is that I have very limited access to ranges where I can set up and time my own drills. This poses a challenge for me, but we have to work with what we have to work with.

      The point I was trying to make in the post, which hopefully came through, was there is a lot of value in not just measuring and looking at over all drill scores, but looking at what made up the drill score to identify specific improvement opportunities.

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