Instructors and students alike enjoy learning new skills and techniques in their evolution with firearms. Unfortunately and inevitably, previously learned skills tend to take a back seat when it comes to visiting the range for a practice session without a practice plan.

Shooting skills, like many other physical activities, are perishable. The finer points of performing these skills diminish over time if we do not use them regularly. We must practice to keep the mental, visual and mechanical processes aligned and in tune with each other.

Use It or Lose It

The old colloquialism “use it or lose it” applies significantly to shooting. Accurate shooting — much less while moving or otherwise multitasking in combat or competition conditions — isn’t something that most of us do every day.

Another trap that befalls shooters of all levels is spending more time practicing their strengths than their weaknesses. It’s good to review your strengths to keep them sharp, but the weaknesses need a greater amount of attention so that they eventually become sustainable strengths.

Prioritize Your Skill Sustainment Training Time

Students often ask me what they should practice in order to stay proficient. The answer can vary greatly depending on each student’s primary interests and goals.

Each individual should set a personal proficiency goal for every practice session. A list of required supporting skills should follow. Further, have the student separate the skill list between essentials and those skill sets that are merely desirable. Prioritize available time and resources to cover as many essentials as possible, with some selections from the list of desirables.

It is important to combine skills as they would be used during practical application to ensure a seamless flow of proficiency. Ultimately, the programming should be an automatic response to a stimulus requiring such action. This could be as simple as drawing and engaging a series of targets while moving off the “X,” combining relevant skills to complete the task successfully in minimal time.

Have discipline when deciding the number of repetitions of each skill needed to complete the practice session as planned. It’s easy to get stuck on one drill (or portion of a drill) that the student is having trouble mastering. This leads to spending unallocated time trying to fix an issue — which takes time away from other drills on the docket.

Diagnostic and Development Sessions

Diagnostic and development sessions are designed to troubleshoot deficiencies in previously learned and validated skill sets. Conduct these additional sessions to support training plans, separate from the general skill sustainment exercises. If a student isn’t performing a specific drill to expectations during a session, just take notes relevant to the deficiency. Then formulate a plan to revisit the subject of deficiency later as a stand-alone skill diagnostic and development session.

Essentials, Desirables and Simplicity

Marksmanship — the ability to hit the intended target as many times as necessary to accomplish the intended result — is omni-important. Practice to blend a series of essential, foundational, individual handling and firing skills with the basic tenets of safety. Ideally this should happen in a smooth, fluid manner to accomplish the mission in the most effective and efficient way. The main objective of shooting is to hit your intended target, so prioritize marksmanship as an essential sustainment skill.

Likewise, performing the basic handling of an emergency reload will solve most issues when a gun fails to fire and should be considered an essential as opposed to a desirable skill. Immediate action drills, by contrast, could be allocated as merely desirable — if time and performance allow.

To keep sustainment practice simple, a marksmanship exercise originally fired with both hands could be applied using the dominant hand only. A third exercise could be added with the non-dominant hand firing the same drill. Simple changes such as these may be classified as essential or desirables, depending on the end goals of the shooter. The overall simplicity in these changes saves time and material, validates skills, and leaves time for additional skill-sustainment practice.

Final Considerations

Skill sustainment should include all facets of learned skills considered necessary for the prescribed goals. Recording performance levels during practice will reveal areas that need improvement through diagnostic and development plans and will also indicate achievement of the desired training goals.

Time constraints, verbalizations, varying light conditions, multiple venues for movement and cover all add relevant challenges to skill sustainment.

It is always good to revisit foundational skill levels. As we accrue experience, the basics take on a greater meaning. After all, speed and advanced techniques aren’t much more than precise and accurate application of the foundational techniques.

Good instructors are good students as well — always looking for better ways to perform and communicate their instruction. How they sustain their individual skill sets leads their students by example in maintaining and maximizing performance.