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Author: Jarel Jensen, MCS Founder & NRA Certified Pistol Instructor
Curing The Pre-Ignition Push – Part 1
Let’s talk about one of the most common problems that we see with the students in our classes, the dreaded pre-ignition push. You might also hear this called “anticipating recoil” or a "flinch" or “flinching”, but we prefer to call it a pre-ignition push since that’s a good description of what is actually happening.
We’re going to tackle the root of the problem and give you some specific drills to work on that will help you overcome this. But we need to warn you right now, this is not easy, and the longer you’ve been shooting pistols the more this may be ingrained in your shooting, and it’s going to take some work to cure it. We’re going to lay this out as a program that you can follow over a few weeks to take it one step at a time with practice, and come out on the other end with the best chance of eliminating the problem.
We’ll start with Step 1 in the process, which is recognizing the problem with firing hand tension, and we’ll introduce our first drill for you to work on. We’ll then follow up with some additional drills and ways for you to validate that you’re making progress.
Let’s start by describing the problem. Often what we see when reviewing slow-motion video of fast shooting, is a student will have his entire firing hand tensing up as he pulls the trigger and the muzzle is dipping down as he pushes into the back of the gun with his hand and arm. So how much of this movement does it take for it to be considered a problem? Well, the answer is ANY movement at all is bad, our goal is to have the trigger pull executed with zero movement in the sights, no dipping at all at the muzzle. Even a microscopic dip of the muzzle will pull the shot off-target, and the longer the distance of the shot, the farther off-target it will be. For a right-handed shooter, this often results in shots that are low and left of the intended aiming point.
Often, a shooter will see the end result of this issue as a pattern of shots on target when shooting fast, which is totally different from the pattern when shooting slow-fire bullseye shots. Many very good competitive shooters (B Class and up) can nail bullseye shots at even long distances with no problem, and even at a moderately quick pace can nail the shots, but they still have a preignition push that arises during the fastest shooting. Many shooters don’t realize that the end result of the errant shot they see on a target was being caused by a pre-ignition push, they often just think they didn’t aim well enough or something like that. We can tell you that a significant percentage of shooters have this problem, in fact it’s rare for us to see a newer shooter in class who DOESN’T have this problem. It’s a HUGE problem.
So if we know that this is bad and going to produce errant shots, why is it happening? At the simplest level, think about this as getting ready to pull the trigger, knowing the gun is going to recoil when it fires, and trying to “cheat” against the recoil by pushing into the gun as you fire. This is almost always a subconscious reaction, not something you’re doing on purpose, which is why it’s so difficult to overcome. Just like if you knew someone was about to punch you in the gut, you’d automatically tighten up your ab muscles in anticipation, in this case your brain is telling your body, arm, and hand to brace for the impact of recoil.
A lot of times people ask, “Well, if I know it’s bad, can’t I just decide not to do it and fix the problem?”. That SOUNDS good, and for maybe a tiny fraction of the shooters, they’ll have enough mind-control over their muscle reactions that they can simply decide not to do it. But from what we’ve seen with students, the fact that this is a subconscious reaction in the first place really means we need a subconscious solution to fix the problem. And that’s exactly how we’re going to approach the problem here, we’ll work on drills that re-train your subconscious system when you pull the trigger to focus specifically on the correct feelings and muscle movements in your hands and trigger finger, and eliminate the incorrect ones.
So we have a few key things we need to do here to tackle this, which includes:
- Reduce your firing hand tension
- (pyramid drill)
- Reduce the force that the trigger is being pulled with
- (fake trigger pull drill)
- Reduce any fear of recoil from your thoughts
- (reverse recoil drill)
Now, we need to challenge some common assumptions and maybe some ways that have been mentioned in the past for dealing with this issue. The sort of “classic” instruction for overcoming pre-ignition push comes from the bullseye shooting world, where one precise shot is fired at a time, with a lot of time to think about the trigger as it’s being pulled. Many people can really think hard about their trigger pull with this type of shot, and often you’ll hear instructors say that you should pull the trigger slowly and let the gun surprise you when it goes off so that you CAN’T anticipate the recoil. Sorry, but that’s just terrible advice. All that does is accentuate your fear of recoil and MAKES you focus on it. That’s the opposite of what we’re really trying to do. The other problem with that advice is it completely falls on its face as soon as you try to shoot faster, because you won’t have all that time to concentrate on every nuanced detail of your trigger pull. We want a solution that eliminates any pre-ignition push from every shot we fire from slow bullseye shots to lightning fast splits on close USPSA targets.
The other sort of common advice we see for shooters suffering from the pre-ignition push is to load dummy rounds randomly in a magazine so the shooter has no idea on any given trigger pull if the gun is going to fire or not. The theory is that when the gun cycles through to a dummy round, if the shooter has a pre-ignition push then they will find themselves pushing down on the gun and the muzzle dipping as they pull a dead trigger. We also think this is kind of garbage advice. The reality is that a really good shooter in that situation could be observed pushing into the gun slightly and the muzzle dipping, but that doesn’t mean they have a pre-ignition push, if they’re good what it means is that have an IGNITION push, which is not bad. A good shooter often does push back slightly into the recoil, which is totally different from pushing on the gun BEFORE the recoil. So the bottom line is doing that dummy ammo thing really doesn’t tell you anything of value or help you in any way. And just like the surprise trigger break, it really trains you to be even more afraid of the recoil, rather than training you to ignore the recoil.
Ok with that stuff that doesn’t work out of the way, let’s go with what DOES work. We’ll start with firing hand tension, which is a big problem for a lot of shooters. It all starts with your grip, and using the correct amount of tension in the hands. We cover this a lot in our classes, and we tell our students that grip is THE most important skill to master. It’s so important that if it’s not done correctly, you’re almost wasting your time working on anything else, it has to be right or everything is an uphill battle, especially when you start trying to shoot faster. Single bullseye shots can be fired with any kind of grip with little consequence, but as soon as you try to fire even 2 shots quickly, without a good grip you are in trouble.
Basically, a good grip starts with proper hand placement on the gun, starting with the firing hand high up against the beaver tail. Support hand placement is critical, and the meat of the base of the thumb on the support hand needs to be pressed into the grip of the gun with the hands firmly clamped so the gun absolutely cannot move inside of the grip. Thumbs should not be used as leverage against the gun, and can be pointed up or more forward.
So once we have the hands in the proper place on the gun, the next question is how much pressure should we be gripping with. This is where most people left to their own assumptions will get it wrong. Most people naturally will grip the gun as hard as they can with their firing hand and then grip lighter with their support hand. What we really want is the opposite of that. We want the firing hand holding the gun firmly but not as hard as you can squeeze. We want full dexterity in the trigger finger, and no tension in the back of the hand. Then we want the support hand in the proper position to have the meat at the base of the thumb grinding into the grip, and squeezing as hard as possible with that hand. That doesn’t mean pretty hard, it means as hard as you can physically grip the gun with your support hand, short of literally shaking or hurting yourself. People often ask for percentages of grip pressure between the hands, we think that’s dumb, just grip with your strong hand firmly with a nice loose trigger finger and no tension at the back of the hand, and crush the gun with your support hand. For individual shooters and different guns, you can play around with the direction of the pressure with the support hand. Some prefer more of a side-to-side squeeze with that hand, while others have better luck with a little more front-to-back pressure. Whatever works for you to achieve maximum grip pressure and friction against the grip of the gun with your support hand, that’s what you should do.
So now that we have the grip established properly and the correct level of hand tension in each hand, the trick is to maintain that while shooting. There is a natural tendency to tense up the firing hand further once you start shooting, and that’s what we’re trying to train away. We’ll often see this showing up as sympathetic movement of the thumb in synch with the trigger finger while the trigger is being pulled when we review slo-motion video.
This is just indicative of the firing hand tensing and releasing in conjunction with the trigger being pulled. We want to get rid of that completely so that we maintain the same tension in the firing hand the whole time while shooting. We like a drill we call the Pyramid Drill to help with this. Here’s how the Pyramid Drill works. It’s very simple to set up, all you need is a single paper target. All we’re concerned with is the amount of tension in your firing hand, and this is the primary thing we want you to focus on. To make things easy, just start from a low-ready position with your proper grip already established. Doing it from a holster introduces the risk that you might not get a good grip on your draw, so we want to eliminate that risk.
You can either start with a timer if you want, or just mentally cue yourself to start shooting. What we want you to do is fire a pattern of 1 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1 shots, 9 shots total, with a 2 second pause between each group of shots. So 1 shot, pause 2 seconds, 2 shots, pause 2 seconds, 3 shots and so on back down to a final shot of 1. Shoot the splits on the 2 and 3 shot segments as fast as you can, there should be no delay in those. So Bam……… Bam Bam……… Bam Bam Bam………Bam Bam……..Bam. That’s the cadence we’re looking for.
They key to make this work is to stay completely focused on the tension in your firing hand, not letting it get tighter or squeeze harder as you pull the trigger or in response to the recoil. If you have pre-ignition push, a lot of times by the time you get to the final single shot, you’ll feel yourself pushing into the gun as you fire that last shot. We’re trying to get you to perceive what it feels like when your firing hand tenses up, and varying the shot pattern helps to mix it up so your brain can pick it up subconsciously. Think about any stiffness you feel in your trigger finger, how hard your firing hand palm feels like it’s grinding into the grip, the tension at the back of your hand, etc.
If you look at the shot pattern you fired on the target, what you should see if you did it perfectly is a centered pattern on the point you were aiming at. If you see a trend of shots going low and left, if you’re a right-handed shooter, or low right if you’re a leftie, chances are you tensed up that firing hand and pushed into the gun, especially in the follow up shots on the 2 and 3-shot strings.
The other thing to pay attention to is that at the end of the drill, your grip feels EXACTLY the same as it did when you started. If you can tell the gun was shifting around in your hands while you were shooting, then your grip was not correct. This is why we mentioned earlier if the grip is not right, it almost doesn’t matter what else you do, everything will be compromised by the failure of the grip.
If you have the ability to video yourself shooting the drill, or have a friend who can video you, that can be a big help. Especially get a close-up of the gun from the weak hand side, and if you have a newer iPhone or Droid that can do slow-motion video that is a great way to see exactly what you’re doing. We use this in virtually all of our classes as a way to get shooters to see what they’re doing wrong so they can fix it.
So what we’d recommend for this is to do this drill at home in dry-fire FIRST before you go to the range to shoot it live. You won’t have the recoil to mess you up, so you’ll be able to focus exclusively on how the tension in your firing hand feels.
Once you can do it effectively in dry fire, then it’s time to head to the range and shoot it live. At that point you’ll be dealing with recoil, and any grip problems will show up and you’ll be able to assess your shot pattern.
So that’s a good starting point to tackle the pre-ignition push, give the Pyramid Drill a try and see if you can get a good sense of your firing hand tension so you know if that’s part of your problem or not. Chances are that IS a problem if you’re like most shooters. Keep working the drill to see if you can calm down that firing hand tension. You probably can’t get it perfect with just this one drill, but every little bit helps. In Part 2 we’ll tackle the actual trigger pull.