An Interview with Peter Lessler, Part 1

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.

25 thoughts on “An Interview with Peter Lessler, Part 1

  1. Oh geez, not another push to buy a sling. Why can’t you push swamp land in Florida instead? Maybe you could interview a long range guy, and at least then we’ll get pushed to buy a nice bipod…

    • SLG, thanks for the invite, maybe I’ll visit on vacation someday. But now, I’m beginning to discover why getting older equals less tolerance for long cold winters – and I’ve ALWAYS liked winter! If things get bad enough here, southern WY is looking better and better! One of my friends has already decided to make that particular move.

      Drove up through MT back in ’94 on the way to Alaska, I’ve always wanted to see more of it.

  2. SLG,

    I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s been in my master plan since 1963 that you will live in CO. There’s nothing you can do to escape the will of Master Control.

    –MC

  3. so it reads like I really need to do an Appleseed bootcamp this summer. I’ve researched their organization in the past and it appears to be a great way to get range time and instruction for a low price. They get a lot of positive reviews.

    In addition, competition appears to be a great tool for growth with the rifle. I shoot IDPA frequently befause you don’t need the most expensive kit to compete and do well. Is there a rifle equivalent? I don’t have the funds to compete against people with ultra expensive glass and rifles. Would love basic iron sights competitions (like 3 gun heavy metal division).

    Thanks for the great interview. I will be purchasing the book.

    • Thank you sir! Professional-level training and competition are the best ways I know of to both learn knowledge and gain skills in the shortest time possible. An Appleseed boot camp would be a great experience for you.

      3-gun heavy-metal (“he-man”) class will do ya if you want simple equipment. The guy that invented it, the late great Eddie Rhodes, used to live not far south of here. I used to shoot against him frequently in the past. Great guy, phenominal shot. Sadly he died too young of heart failure almost exactly 3 years ago, at age 54. He is greatly missed. Before he invented that class, I used to dabble in 3-gun with heavy-metal equipment. He used to joke that he invented a class just for me. It is great fun, if your eyes can use iron sights.

    • You know, you might find some local ranges that have informal or semi-formal ‘field-shooting’ types of competitions with standard hunting rifles also. Ask around.

  4. NRA Highpower is what you are looking for.
    Entry level rifle recommendations are usually an off the shelf iron sighted AR15 set up like the military issue M16A2. Many different rifles will work. You probably already have something.
    Rulebooks:
    http://compete.nra.org/official-nra-rule-books.aspx
    Usually you can find good used equipment at the matches when someone upgrades to something different.
    That first barrel or two will be worn out before you can truly benefit from a top dollar specialist gunsmith prepped rifle. Starting off with a high end rifle would be a waste for the vast majority. There will be people on the line who have spend ridiculous amounts of money on their equipment but there will also be a few folks who always beat most of them with basic entry level looking rifles.

    APPLESEED: yes, it really is that good. I recommend you go as often as you can. If you show up at Boot Camp already shooting good scores you will receive a higher level of training.
    You will have no need to be ashamed of your performance at your first Highpower match after you have earned your Rifleman Patch at an Appleseed.

    Most of the Highpower Competitors have realized that coaching others improves their own scores. They are a very helpful group and will teach you all you can absorb. Appleseed Instructors also find a deeper understanding and better scores through their volunteer service.

    • Howdy RF!
      I second highpower rifle, if you can afford the basic kit of support equipment (mat, spotting scope, decent rifle, etc.). It’s a great learning experience for perfecting your position shooting. Not as dynamic as other activities, but it forces you to focus on your fundamentals.

      • I was trying to find a way to reach Peter Lessler, the author of Gun digest Shooter’s guide to handgun marksmanship. I am relatively new at shooting and I am confused by your statement on page 140 that a sign for flinching would be shots that are low. Yet on page 143 you say that shooting high could be a sign that you’re flinching – so I am confused. Would you kindly take the time to straighten me out thank you

        • Brian,

          I apologize for taking so long to approve your comment. I’m inundated with spam comments so I tend to ignore them to a degree, especially as I’m currently on “blog vacation” right now.

          I don’t know if we have different editions of the book, but I did not see the references to flinching on the pages you listed.

          In my experience hitting low would likely be from anticipating recoil and prematurely activating muscles to counter muzzle rise just prior to the actual breaking of the shot.

          My advice would be this: instead of concentrating on what goes wrong to screw up your performance, concentrate on doing it right to perform better. Watch the sight and maintain proper sight picture while pressing the trigger until after the shot breaks, and continue to maintain the fundamentals. Dry fire to get it worked out before taking it live.

  5. A nice post RS….. again another reason this is my favorite rifle blog. Good posts, good folks who offer good and interesting comments and advice. Looking forward to part 2 and yes have the book on ore-order Pete…. (-:

    Keep shooting straight and safe…. and have fun!

  6. I’m the poster that asked about the Appleseed bootcamp earlier. I started my journey into firearms as a handgun enthusiast that cared little for long guns. That has completely changed. I am learning that the long gun is a versatile weapon/tool that can both protect and feed everyone inside your home. I now do more research and reading on long guns.

    I will definitely go the NRA Highpower and 3 gun HM division. I respect technology, but I don’t want to be dependent on it as a shooter. I want to know my fundamental skills are improving not my ability to use equipment. Maybe they go hand-in-hand? I’m not of the level to say either way.

    I’ve stated before this is my favorite blog on the web. As a professional fighter I come from a field where we guard training methodologies and shun helping people outside of our “camp.” The gun world is completely opposite. The vast majority want to help you improve. They encourage and foster open dialog. The general pursuit of knowledge and ability is refreshing.

    The author has stated he has been looking for new content ideas. I would enjoy reading about Highpower match preparation and also long range hunting recaps. I’m eagerly waiting part 2 of the interview.

    • Thank you for letting me know what sort of content you would like to see. It really does help. I think I just came to the realization that for me “content” is synonymous with inspiration for some sort of direction to take my practice. Your ideas make sense.

      What I’m pursuing in the foreseeable future, instead of Highpower, will be what I think is loosely referred to as precision tactical rifle. I think that what RF said about not needing to show up with a super refined and expensive rig apply to that discipline as well, and perhaps many shooting disciplines. My rifle cost $750, the scope $500, and the rings were $125. I did add a $50 cheek pad. We’ll see how she does, but I think that, like RF said, I’m probably a couple barrels away from being competitive.

      I also come from an action shooting pistol background (USPSA). To me, it seems like Highpower is analogous to NRA Bullseye pistol shooting. I think that the precision tactical stuff is more analogous to USPSA or IDPA, as the approach seems more geared towards problem solving and the adaptability of the shooter to different situations that require different positions, approaches, etc…

      I would also like to start hunting. I think it is one of those glaring deficiencies in my shooting experience.

    • The precursor to my rifle marksmanship book was a highpower tutorial I wrote for a friend getting into competition 15 years ago. It is geared toward the M1 rifle, but still might be useful to you. If I can dig it up and modify it to be platform-generic and reflect some rule changes made since I stopped competing, I can send it to you, or to RS for posting here if he consents to do so.

  7. The high dollar equipment race, reminds me of my favorite competition when I was much younger. I had just a Browning Challenger 22LR, borrowed and unfired by me and the good doctor had a very high speed weighted and sighted target 22LR and special glasses, and I out shot him, won the trophy then so he could know it wasn’t a fluke, I did it again at a higher level of competition. He was a wonderful competitor but didn’t have his shooting skills – yet.

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