Be sure to check out Part 1 of this classic SSUSA article on Silhouette Champion Lon Pennington.
Exhibiting the reserve that’s so common of a true champion, Lon didn’t understand why we wanted to talk to him about silhouette shooting technique in the first place. He says he’s never really had to think about shooting, and that most of what he knows is just “common sense.” But we found his common sense approach to be full of advice of the sort that we don’t often get the chance to pass along.
As you’ve realized after reading the first installment of this two-article series, Lon doesn’t attempt to perfect his shooting through technique analysis, but he has worked out a few things that you might want to try.
“For freestyle, naturally you want to get into a stable position with your knees together and your feet spread apart. And you want to have both the forend and the back end of the gun against your leg and side and your elbow down on the ground. Place your hand under your head so it’s supported, and you’d like to be looking straight through the gun. It’s important that you’re comfortable. A lot of beginners hold too much tension in their bodies; relax as much as possible so that you’re not straining or fighting to hold your position."
"Finding a freestyle position is really just a matter of getting in tune with your body. Creedmoor looks steady when you’re shooting big targets, but when you get into the tiny shoot off targets, you’ll definitely see some movement. I hold the gun clamped up against my leg using probably more pressure than many people do."
"In standing, I put a little torque on the gun to help me hold it better. I’m twisting just a little bit counter-clockwise with both hands as if I were trying to unscrew the forend from the breech."
According to Lon, hitting all the targets is just a matter of lining up the sights and squeezing the trigger. The following advice may help you do better, and will also help insure that you have time to do it.
"I shoot quickly. On full-sized targets freestyle, I normally fire my 5 shots in 1 to 1.5 minutes. That gives me more time in case something goes wrong. If you have to make just two sight corrections, someone who’s dawdling along may run out of time and there’s no reason for that. You don’t need to take your 2 minutes, divide by 5, and portion out all your shots equally."
"By loading and unloading fairly rapidly you’re eliminating wasted time and getting right back to the shooting, and that’s what I like. You won’t want to rush yourself, but if you can eliminate wasted time, you can still have a reserve without changing your shooting speed."
"I also have a problem with eye fatigue. Sometimes I need to take time to blink a few times and get the fuzz off the sights. The amount of eye fatigue, for me, seems to boil down to the actual time I’m focused on the sights. When you first see a decent sight picture, touch it off. You don’t have to see it over and over. Your vision is more accurate when your eyes are fresh and that’s when you’ll see your best sight picture. Don’t second-guess yourself."
"I do take more time in standing and frequently need the full 2 minutes. I can get onto the target as well as I’m going to go about as fast as I can in freestyle, but because of the wobble to contend with, it takes more time to release the shot."
"In standing, I suppose that I have an average hold and better than average trigger control. When I wobble off the target, I simply stop the squeeze rather than letting off completely and starting over again. I let up a little bit and then when the gun comes back on the target I increase the pressure a little more, and I may have to do this several times. Sometimes I hold for too long and have to take the gun down and start over. This is another time when it’s good to shoot more quickly. I usually have enough time so that I can take one of the five down and start over again."
“Although I’ve never really thought about what I actually do when I shoot, one thing I really got out of Brian Enos’s book was this whole business of follow-through. Previously I have made the statement that I didn’t think follow-through was really pertinent to silhouette shooting. To me, follow-through was what you do after the shot goes off, and what you do after the shot goes off doesn’t really matter."
“But the way Brian describes it really explains what I’ve always done without realizing it. This is a real loose adaptation, but the idea is that the shooter must pull the trigger without disturbing the sights, and that the shooter should not separate lining up the sights and squeezing the trigger into two distinct functions. A shooter thinks, ‘Aha, now the sights are right so I’ll pull the trigger…’ and very likely will then disturb the sights in pulling the trigger. So your sight picture has to be coordinated with pulling the trigger; you’re watching your finger move the sights. This is one of the most important things for the beginner to understand. With the size targets we’re shooting, it’s hard to understand why more people don’t shoot 40’s, and I’d guess that this is one of the main reasons."
“And of course you have to have good enough eyesight, but it doesn’t take perfect vision to shoot a 40 with iron sights. I have 20/17 vision when my eyes are at their best, but I’ve shot a lot of matches when my vision couldn’t have been better than 20/40."
“Something that I have learned is that if my right eye simply will not focus well enough, it’s possible for me to switch and shoot with my left eye. In the NRA championships in 1986 on half-sized Unlimited, I shot literally half those targets with my left eye. I had eye trouble at that match, but I shot two scores good enough to win. I can’t use this trick standing because of my stance angle. In standing, I always use a technique called ‘drooping’ where I slightly close my left eye. I do this to keep my left eye from trying to become dominant, which it seems to do when my right eye becomes fatigued."
“Here’s another tip: do not take a hot gun and load it when they give the ‘load’ command. You have 30 seconds to load the gun when they give the command, and you frequently see shooters throw in a round so that it sits in the chamber for the full 30 seconds. With a hot gun on a hot summer day, they’re possibly affecting the point of impact of that round. I try to shoot my first round as if it were my second round. I get into position on the load command, and then wait until I’m ready to get into my normal cadence before I load the first round. There are people missing targets and stretching cases because of this.”
Sights and Hold
Most of Lon’s technical concerns deal directly with the gun’s sights and how he uses them.
“I use a 6 o’clock hold—on the chickens and turkeys, I cut the leg right off the bottom; I generally see a little daylight under the body with pigs and rams, and I tend to hold slightly more under the shoulder of the pig since that’s where its largest target area is."
“But what I’m really seeing is a fuzzy blob sitting on top of a very clear front sight. If the sight is clear, a little fuzz on the target won’t hurt you."
“There are times when the targets are fuzzy and then you really rely on the front sight focus—you can’t go home to bed and come back and finish the match. I really don’t think it’s important to see the target clearly, and if you’re having trouble getting the fuzz off of it, save your eyes for the sight. In this sport, you’ll lose a lot more targets to bad sight alignment than you will to sight placement."
“When I shot the 80x80 on half-sized targets, I went to double aperture sights like what you’d find on a target rifle. I only shot that one match with them because I had trouble maintaining a zero from one day to the next for some reason. Plus, I couldn’t see the smallest shoot off targets through the apertures; a half-size chicken became literally invisible at the shoot off distances, so, I went back to a blade and post. My theory with the apertures was that when my eyes started to get fuzzy I could still maintain alignment, and that part worked."
“I like wider front sights than most shooters use. 0.125 inches is my preference. Obviously if you go too wide you might have trouble centering a target, but with a 0.125 blade there is no problem centering even a shoot off target. I’m not really looking for a specific relationship of how much the sight covers the target or anything like that, it’s just that I feel that the wider sight gives a fuzzy eye an advantage in maintaining elevation because you have a wider platform to align front and rear. If you have a narrow sight with a little fuzz on it, that can create a problem in holding elevation. For rear notch width, as long as you can see a light bar on each side of the front sight, and if you can see that the intensity is the same on both sides, you’ll be able to maintain windage alignment. But if the light gap gets too narrow, it may add to the fuzz."
"For a scope, I use a 4x or 7x with a duplex reticle. A scope is just an aiming device and I don’t think that any more power does anything for me in the standing position."
Lon also cautions against taking Kentucky Windage (holding off the target to compensate for wind or improper zero).
"I move the sights so that I can hold in the same spot on every shot. Trying to hold off the targets leads to misaligning the sights and losing your reference, and it’s really hard to accurately see the amount of holdoff you’re getting. If you know your gun, you shouldn’t have to guess. You may get different amounts of movement with each click, so you should test your sight so you’ll know what you can rely on."
The “mental game” is an area of study that’s at the forefront for many shooters. And for good reason—no matter how good your technique is, you’ve got to be able to apply it at the match when you need to. Following along with his ideas on his own technique, Lon uses a pretty simple “mental strategy.”
“I don’t have any sort of ‘mental’ preparation before I shoot or during shooting. I do all my match preparation by just getting my zeros. I do get nervous at major matches. The nervousness doesn’t show and I’ve been accused of having ice water in my veins, but I’m really just a quivering mass of protoplasm out there sometimes …"
“In Silhouette shooting, there is no way you cannot know where you stand, so I don’t think it’s ever possible to ‘forget the score’. When you’re aiming on your last one or two rams, it’s hard not to get excited about the prospects of winning or landing in the shoot offs. But I know what I need to do to hit any target out there—line up the sights and squeeze the trigger—and that’s all I’m aware of. I seem to lose my ability to think in a match; I’m kind of a robot out there, on autopilot. I crossfired at the ’85 Internationals and sat up so hard when I realized what I had done that I injured my neck; I couldn’t believe I made that kind of error."
“I don’t want this to sound like I’m bragging, but I expect myself to hit all the targets. I know what it takes to hit each target, and when my guns are zeroed and my loads are right, I know that there is no reason I should ever miss. The miss is the exception. If I miss, I know I made a mistake."
“When I’m shooting full-sized targets with an Unlimited gun, I don’t feel any emotion in hitting the targets. But when I hit difficult targets, I definitely get a sense of satisfaction. If I’m at the Internationals and hit five turkeys in one minute with my revolver, or am in a shootoff and start hitting those tiny targets, I get a lot of satisfaction from that. That’s why I like to shoot the revolver and like to shoot the half-sized targets; hitting the targets is very rewarding. If the only satisfaction in the whole procedure is walking up and getting your trophy, then it’s hardly worth it."
"Expecting myself to hit all the targets may sound like it would add pressure, but, for me, it takes the pressure off. I prove to myself what I can do and what the gun can do when I go out beforehand to get my zeros, and what I learn tells me that it’s no big surprise when I hit the targets in a match. Knowing that takes the pressure off. I suppose you could say that I don’t worry about hitting the targets, so I don’t worry about missing them either."
While most of us have to try to lose out technical baggage so that we can perform to our abilities, Lon’s just never had it weighing him down. The desire to hit all the targets has developed his technique; the knowledge that he can hit all the targets constitutes his mental game. Hitting all the targets has made Lon a champion, but more importantly, just desire made it possible.
Conventional: MOA chambered in 7 TCU; 10-inch barrel.
Revolver: Dan Wesson VH8S chambered in .357 SuperMag (aka .357 Maximum)
Unlimited: XP100 chambered in 7 BR; custom stock; Hart barrel; Williams Target receiver sight or 4x Weaver of 7x Burris IER scope.
.22: Thompson Center Contender; 10-inch barrel.
Be sure to check out Part 1 of this classic SSUSA article on Silhouette Champion Lon Pennington.