Apr 15, 2010

Marksmanship Classification vs. Qualification?

When is an 'Expert' not an expert? What is the difference? The military, police and civilian shooters throw terms like "Sharpshooter" and "Expert" around and they do NOT always mean the same thing. Even within the NRA, Classification and Qualification are very different.
The normal rating scheme goes like this:
  1. High Master
  2. Master
  3. Expert
  4. Sharpshooter
  5. Marksman
Other organizations use a letter scheme instead. For example, USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association) Classification starts at 'D' class, up to 'A' class, then Master and Grand Master. The Amateur Trapshooting Association has D to A, then 'AA' and 'AAA'
Military shooting badges are worn on the dress uniform with this order of importance:
  1. Distinguished Rifleman
  2. Distinguished Pistol Shot
  3. Silver EIC (20 or more "Leg" points)
  4. Bronze EIC (any number of earned "Leg" points)
  5. Expert
  6. Sharpshooter
  7. Marksman

However, a civilian "Sharpshooter" rating is almost always much more difficult to earn than a current military "Expert" qualification! Because most public sector marksmanship training is originally derived from organized civilian shooting, the names are the same and have stuck. Here's the breakdown.

First, there are the the rankings used to describe Classification in competitive shooting, such as the Conventional events recognized by the NRA. Those rankings are only earned by competing against other shooters in events tracked by the NRA, specifically, the event has to be an Approved or Registered tournament. When a competition shooter talks about being a "Master Class" shooter (or "Sharpshooter" or "Expert") that's what they mean.

An "Expert" Classification earned this way (not to mention "Master", "High Master"/"Grand Master") through open competition is the most challenging rating to earn and requires the most shooting skill.

The Distinguished Rifleman or Pistol Shot badge is a different award earned by accumulating 30 "Leg" points over your competitive shooting career in Service Rifle or Service Pistol matches. Called Excellence in Competition, these points are only awarded at EIC events recognized by the Civilian Marksmanship Program, US Army, and/or US Marine Corps. It can be very hard to earn and is quite prestigious.

Winchester/NRA Marksmanship Qualification is a self paced program designed to let shooters improve their shooting skills and track their progress by successfully firing certain set drills on prescribed courses of fire. This program is entirely self paced and the NRA does not actually track or officially award the qualification levels. It's all pretty much on the honor system.

The self-paced program has value as it gives concrete goals to work towards and, more importantly, gives a way to track shooting progress. It was designed to prepare a marksman for higher level organized shooting, such as competition. However, a "Distinguished Expert" on a Marksmanship Qualification Program course is roughly equal to a high level "Sharpshooter" Classification in competition.

Lastly, is Qualification within the military and police departments. Despite sharing names, this is the lowest skill level of all. Most public-sector shooting courses were originally derived from organized civilian events. That's why the qualification and classification rating names are the same. However, while competition shooters have progressively improved over the decades and have made their standards more challenging, most military and police departments courses have allowed non-marksmen to handle training and have downgraded the standards. Thus, an "Expert" rating (not to mention Sharpshooter or Marksman) on an Army, Marine, or police qualification course is the lowest rating of all.

If you have never participated in organized shooting, the best recommendation is:

  1. Take a good entry level class or find a well organized shooting club hosting regular events.
  2. Try a self-paced Marksmanship Qualification program to give you a baseline idea of where your skills are at.
  3. If you are interested in really becoming a good shot, take up competitive shooting. Winning, high level competition shooters are the best marksmen. Shoot with them.

Apr 2, 2010

Competition and the "Bannister Effect"

The "Bannister Effect" will maximize your shooting skills!

On May 6, 1954 a British physician by the name of Roger Bannister was the first human in history to run a mile faster than 4 minutes. This feat is especially significant because prior to Bannister's run it was theorized by athletes and physicians alike that it was physically impossible for any human being to run a mile faster than four minutes. Yet, a month and a half after Bannister's record run Australian John Landy did it as well. By the end of 1957, sixteen other runners had broken the four-minute mile barrier.

In the space of about three years the "impossible" had been achieved numerous times by a number of people. Today, a four minute mile, while still exceptional, is not uncommon. The current record stands at 3:43:13.

People that were involved in this sport during the early '50's built up an imaginary barrier, but when Bannister proved the barrier didn't really exist other competitors were able to break it too. I like to call this phenomenon the "Bannister Effect".

The Bannister Effect applies to the shooting/marksmanship world all too often. The good thing about shooting is we already have our Roger Bannisters. Competition shooters, people who actively compete in organized shooting events, are the best marksmen in the world, period. Their techniques have been developed by free experimentation, without the artificial restrictions of a bureaucracy, and honed through hundreds of thousands of repetitions and practice rounds. They have broken the barriers. If you want to see what a real pro can do with a firearm, just watch G. David Tubb shoot across the course with a Match rifle or Rob Leatham with a iron-sighted 1911 pistol.

I can hear some of you ask already, "Who are these Tubb and Leatham guys?" My point exactly . . . .

The barrier in shooting ability isn't figuring out what can be done, because competition shooters already did that. The barrier is spreading the word so enough shooters know who the pros are and, more importantly, what they can do. If you aren't aware of competition shooting and you limit yourself to the same once-a-year sight-in before season starts or occasionally shooting with a few buddies, then you are shooting in a vacuum and will never better yourself.

If you have military or police experience your unit or department may have said you were "qualified." Your hunting buddies may say you are a "good game shot." But are you really, truly a competent marksman? Does your technique and ability stack up? Organized shooting events help you find out. By participating with others, you can gauge your abilities by directly comparing scores. More important, by participating in a national organization you and your immediate shooting buddies can go past the limits of your personal experiences and find what the best hunters and shooters are capable of.

The first issue is to find a metric, a system to measure shooting skill. Bannister wasn't trotting about; he used an established course, running one mile on a properly measured track, with timing done to within one tenth of a second. Current records are measured more precisely still.

Let's say a hunter finds out about HunterShooter events and learns a system for measuring field marksmanship skill. This is an important first step because we are now translating activity into a number and achieving accurate feedback.

The next step to have something to compare with. On a given Ratio Count Scenario the best Hit Ratio (HR) he and his friends can score is 2300. Now what does that mean? Based on this personal experience he would be justified to claim this is "good", and could make the assumption that it wouldn't be possible to go beyond 2500. But that is relative to the limits of his experience. This happens quite often among hunters and gun owners who don't regularly attend organized shooting events. This artificial barrier, the lack of "Bannister Effect", holds them back.

However, the active Participant isn't limited by personal experience. Because of regular participation in a national shooting organization this shooter will be able to find out what kind of performance the very best Participants in the whole country can achieve. There may be marksmen in another part of the country who routinely shoot the same Scenario with HRs in the 3000 range, for example.

The Bannister Effect begins. The imaginary barrier built no longer exists and the shooter can start to go beyond it. What are these other shooters doing different? How are they able to obtain these scores? And, more important, how can you use this information to help yourself?

Of course, this assumes you are ready to put forth the effort to improve. Simply knowing others can run a four-minute mile or shoot 3000 HRs is only the beginning. But it is a crucial starting point.

If you aren't willing to find out and test your skills in practice or, better yet, in a competitive environment, then your overall shooting experience will suffer and you will never even approach your true potential. Every track star since the 1950's proves this point.