I sat down (at my computer) for a (virtual) conversation with Peter Lesser, who frequently comments on the blog under the moniker “Colorado Pete”. He has a new rifle shooting book due out next month (see sidebar ad on the right), and I thought it would be interesting to know more about his thoughts on shooting.
RS: Would you be willing to explain the processes in your life and in your shooting experience that brought you to the point where you are now in your skill with the rifle?
PL: Simply, a life-long love of rifle shooting. I was fascinated with firearms as a child, and when I reached my early teens I began reading everything I could about guns and shooting. I went through the BB/pellet gun phase that many boys do. In high school I joined the school smallbore rifle team and also the local NRA junior smallbore rifle shooting club. I got my first real learning experiences there and loved every bit of it. In later years I got back into bullseye competition in NRA highpower rifle shooting, using an M1 rifle in service rifle category, and took a training class from Col. Jeff Cooper, whose writings I’d discovered at age 15. If you love it, you’ll pursue it. I found I loved helping others to shoot better as much as I loved shooting, so that led the way towards becoming an Project Appleseed rifle marksmanship instructor, which in turn made me a better shooter.
RS: I spent a couple years with Appleseed as well. For me it was akin to going to high school. I was still a relatively fresh shooter and it really rounded out the basics. You came into Appleseed with what I assume was a pretty mature set of skills. With that perspective, how well do you think the program teaches the fundamentals of riflecraft?
PL: They teach it much better than I was doing before I went there! The only thing I would add is to teach the surprise break on the trigger and more of ‘how’ the loop sling works to hold up the rifle (both of which I do when I give that part of the instruction). I think Appleseed is the best, cheapest, and fastest rifle instruction I’ve ever seen. The regular shoots are limited by the 2-day schedule, but their Rifleman Boot Camp goes far beyond that, and I think it is extremely worthwhile either way.
RS: Do you think newly minted Riflemen are aware of how much more there is to learn? It really seems as though there’s a fork in the road at that point, given that our time is finite: stay roughly at that level and teach, or continue trying to further one’s development as a shooter.
PL: If their only rifle exposure is Appleseed, they may have no idea what else there is out there. On the other hand, if they read a lot about rifle shooting, or have shooting buddies engaging in competition, then they may have a pretty good idea of the various paths to follow from there.
RS: What have been your most memorable and formative learning experiences in riflecraft?
PL: Four steps: 1) The smallbore (.22 rimfire) bullseye shooting as a teen. Tremendous fun. That gave me a basic though incomplete grounding and showed me I could actually shoot well within the boundaries of that activity. In 1975 at the high school team state championship, I shot a perfect score to become the individual state champion – the only time I was ever top dog (it’s been all downhill since!).
2) NRA Highpower bullseye forced me to really buckle down and study position shooting principles. This was probably the biggest learning experience of all. Shooting from standing at 200 yards and prone with sling at 600 yards with iron sights, among other things, really puts you to the test. Holes in targets don’t lie.
3) Col. Jeff Cooper’s General Rifle 270 class. I had already earned expert rating in highpower bullseye before attending, and thought I knew my stuff, but this class put those skills to work in a more practical, field-oriented way quite different from the more regimented, formalized routine of bullseye. It was a fascinating eye-opener.
4) Becoming an Appleseed instructor. If you want to really know something, try teaching it to a variety of different people. This has made me a much more organized and efficient teacher, as well as giving me experience with a wide range of individual differences and issues students have in learning to shoot.
RS: That’s an interesting sequence. What it looks like upon casual observation is that you started out with a discipline that is rather carefully controlled and precise. In you next two stages you introduced a bit more “noise”, by which I mean that there were more factors to influence the shot, whether internal or external. This leads to the type of shooting that I think of as “the art of the rifle”. The problems become more complex and the number of potential solutions to a problem really make it interesting. What are some of the best ways to gain proficiency and to keep oneself sharp in this type of “general” shooting?
PL: First, range practice with strict attention to fundamentals on paper targets from various positions and various known distances without time pressure, to confirm the shooter’s skill. You absolutely must know every detail of every strength and weakness you have. Self-knowledge makes for correct decisions.
Second, practice on targets at unknown distances against the clock, starting from the standing ready position. A buddy helps here, to run the clock, and perhaps call out which of several available targets at different distances to hit. This takes target selection control away from the shooter and puts it into his surroundings, just like the real world. It also takes away from the shooter the temptation to dawdle. The clock adds another external pressure that most casual shooters never seem to practice with.
Third, go hunting. A lot. Small game seasons last a lot longer than big game. Applying a .22 rifle against rabbits and squirrels with a .22, if possible in your area, will pose a surprising array of challenges to solve.
RS: Are there any avenues you had wanted to explore that for whatever reason you could not? Are there any that, in retrospect, you think would have been of significant value to your abilities as a rifleman?
PL: I wouldn’t have minded exploring the longer-range aspects a bit, but either I never had the interest when I had the money for the specialized equipment, or, I never had the money when I had the little bit of interest. That goes for either a scoped ‘tactical’ sort of rifle or full-blown NRA long-range bullseye, like Palma competition.
RS: Do you have an overriding context that best fits your approach to shooting?
PL: First, fundamentals are everything. A highpower master shooter once quoted to me what a champion shooter told him: “Good shooting is good execution of the fundamentals. Great shooting is great execution of the fundamentals.” It is critical that a student of marksmanship take this to heart. Fancy equipment or looking cool won’t do it for you.
Second, I shoot to have fun. I am not a particularly competitive personality; I competed to have fun, to learn to be better, and to gauge where I stood against some folks who were better and more competitive than myself. If it’s not fun, you won’t do it, or think about it, or want to learn and improve. Also, every person has a motivation for doing something like this. Being able to shoot well is a skill that is important to me, for my particular reasons. Your reasons may vary.
RS: What about context in terms of application? I get the feeling that you don’t have much interest in either CQB, or extreme long range. Do you think that the terrain that you hunt in, or the animals you hunt, for example, steered you toward certain style of shooting, unconsciously or consciously? Or did you develop your shooting and seek an application that you knew you would excel in?
PL: As you say, the type of critter and terrain I hunt guided my pursuit of style. I am at heart a rifle hunter and bullseye multi-position shooter. The skill sets developed in the latter apply well to the former activity. Stand-up CQB or long-range prone over a bipod simply don’t exist in my favorite practical activities. Not that I dislike them or think anything is wrong with them, I just don’t do them as a matter of interest, except for very occasionally the former with an M1, and some prairie dog popping from a portable bench.
RS: You mentioned the problem of people thinking that fancy equipment is equivalent to learning. It seems to me that this problem is rampant, and is not limited to the shooting sports. Has this always been a problem in your opinion?
PL: All the way back to Og thinking he’s better and cooler than Ug, because Og has a bigger rock or wooden club than Ug. I am convinced it’s a ‘guy thing’ ingrained in our genes.
RS: Are there any trends in shooting right now that don’t make sense to you, or that you think are a waste of time to a shooter’s development?
PL: Two things: the equipment race, and jumping into the ‘deep end’ of any application before rigorous work is done to really perfect the fundamentals. Again, the guy with the high-dollar rig on the bench shooting little groups, who really needs to attend three Appleseeds in close succession, because at the first one he’d barely stay on the paper from unsupported prone, or who would totally fail at a rifle bounce.