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Free Pistol

50m Free Pistol is the toughest of the Olympic shooting events. Of course it may be a frustrating discipline to master, but when things go right there is no more satisfying feeling than holding ten shots within the 4-inch nine ring. Why not the ten ring? If that question entered your head you're either a hopeless optimist or have never shot much Free Pistol…

The rules for Free Pistol are quite simple. As the term would suggest, there are few restrictions on the pistol used. It has to be a .22 caliber rimfire pistol with open sights. The grip may not contact the hand beyond the wrist. There are no restrictions on barrel length, sight radius or trigger weight, although the pistol must be set off by the trigger finger of the shooting hand. A repeater may be used but one round must be loaded at a time. Match duration is a limit of two hours for 60 shots, with unlimited sighters (all of which must be fired before the first competition shot). Targets are the same as used for 25m Standard Pistol and the Precision section of Sport Pistol and Center Fire except shot at twice the distance. And as with all ISSF events we stand on our hind legs and shoot like real men (and women) – one handed.

For starters, let’s look at some of the pistols popularly used for this event. I won't go into every possibility or this article would take on the aspect of War and Peace. All of the following pistols are 22LR and are single shot. I am aware that some shooters have used 22 Short Rapid Fire pistols with some success in the past, but I'm going to stay with purpose-built precision pistols.

Beginner Pistols

Drulov
These Czech made bolt actions have been extremely popular throughout the Commonwealth and Europe as a club level Free Pistol. The Model 70 was severely lacking in the sight department, with opposing screw windage adjustment for the rear sight and pivoting height adjustment in the front sight. The Model 75 solved that problem with click adjustable rear sight, however still sported quite basic grips. The Model 90 was their most refined model, with an adjustable palm shelf on the grip. All had the option of a set trigger, although the earlier models were a little disconcerting to purists as the trigger “shoe” was actually a button. The Model 90 also changed that with a bent wire that gave more the feel of a conventional shoe.

Thompson Center Contender
While extremely successful in silhouette competition, the 22LR version is not user-friendly enough to be considered a serious Free Pistol contender (apologies for the pun). The lack of a real match grip and trigger make it difficult to control compared with even the likes of the Drulov, despite the fact that it’s a fine and accurate pistol for most applications.

Webley & Scott
Quite a British classic, this break barrel was extremely popular throughout clubs right up to the 1970s. Sights are a little basic and the trigger is really only capable of getting down to a pound or so with any safety.

Competitive Pistols

Hammerli
Hammerli has probably the most history in this event. Their 102 series started in the 1950s, and some of the 102-107 models are still seen on firing lines today. These were a Martini (falling block) single shot action with full wrap around grips and excellent sights. Some spare parts are getting a little hard to find, but they are certainly still a competitive option.
The 120 was a budget model produced in the 1970s. Being basically a lever-operated straight-pull bolt action, the standard grips were quite basic and the plastic trigger shoe was never very sturdily attached. For all this it shot amazingly well and embarrassed a lot of shooters using more expensive guns.
The 150 and 152 were the first of the models that sported under-barrel floating forends. A more refined falling block action than the 100 series, these guns were very popular internationally through the 1980s. The 150 was the mechanical trigger version, and the 152 was electronic.
With the 1990s came the updated 160 and 162. Again in either mechanical (160) or electronic trigger (162), this time the forend was made of a black synthetic. There was some buyer resistance to the plastic paddle, and a 160 Special was released as a no-frills version (no paddle) that seemed to enjoy a lot more popularity.
Latest in the line is not made by Hammerli but another Swiss company, SAM. The FP10 has an interesting counterweight system on swiveling bars. However this new model has done little to rejuvenate the glory days of Hammerli’s popularity within the ranks of shooters at international level.

Morini
The CM84E would have to be the most popular of the late generation of Free Pistols. Another falling block action, it features an electronic trigger with a built-in electronic safety. If the trigger finger is not breaking a beam in the trigger guard the gun will not fire. The barrel and sight radius is long, even for a Free Pistol, which means those shots that are on, are really on. Grips on the Morini are probably among the best of the factory grips supplied with any pistol.

Pardini
While none of the Pardini Free Pistols could be said to look attractive, they have certainly performed well over the years. The original was the PGP75 from 1979, a fairly clumsy looking bolt action having the trigger set lever protruding out the front of the stock. A twin weight wire straddled the front of the barrel and gave support for two underslung sliding weights back towards the stock.
The K50 was a tidier affair that was released in 1994. This time the sliding weights attached to a more substantial bar that was suspended above the barrel.
The current model is the K22. While it has only been on the market a couple of years, and seems to be prettier than its ancestors, it doesn't seem to enjoy the same level of shooter confidence enjoyed by the previous models.

Steyr
While Steyr have certainly dominated the past decade in air pistol events, their Free Pistol has not had the same level of impact. It promised much with an innovative falling block immediately in front of the trigger shoe (thereby giving an extremely low bore line) and levels of adjustability rarely seen in target pistols. While it performed moderately well, it never succeeded in knocking the King from its castle, that gun being next on our list…

Vostok
The Toz 35 is truly a remarkable pistol. For thirty years it has dominated the event, and unless somebody produces something special, there is no reason to suppose it won't continue to do so for some time yet. Basically it’s a Russian version of an early Hammerli. Nothing is particularly well made, machining is fair but not great and the factory grips are quite uncomfortable (the best add-on you can buy for this gun is a set of Morini grips). But the trigger, when set up right, is exceptionally consistent and the overall balance and feel contribute to it being a “forgiving” gun. Sight radius is not as long as some, and maybe this adds to the comfort level. Typically a good shooter with a Toz may not shoot as many tens as a similar shooter with a Hammerli, Pardini or Morini. It seems that the poor shots don't punish so badly, it’s far easier to shoot an eight (or worse) with the other pistols.
The MU55 (or MC55, depending on your alphabet) is not such a common Russian Free Pistol. Again, factory grips are difficult for most human hands to come to terms with. If not for Franck Dumoulin, winner of the 2000 Olympics in Air Pistol (and winner of the 2000 World Cup Final in Free Pistol with one of these pistols) I'd probably not mention this model at all. But it does have an avid following by a few devoted owners who swear by it.

Walther
Some time in the 1970s Walther released a Free Pistol with an electronic trigger. Not much good has ever been said about it, I believe the gun itself is quite a heavy lump, and unfortunately the triggers did give some problems.

There are of course other models I haven't mentioned, but I feel the likelihood of coming across a Luna, Pfuff or Green (or anything else exotic or rare) to be fairly low.

Tactics for Shooting Free Pistol

Pre-Match

Shooting a Free Pistol match is pistol shooting's equivalent of running a marathon. Admittedly it's more a mental marathon, but many competitors feel drained by the end of the match. It's important to be prepared both in mind and body for the trial ahead, and to be fully functioning by the time the first shot is fired.

Most major competitions are held in the morning. It's important to awake at least three hours before the match - four is better if you're not a morning person. This gives ample time for the body to be fully functional and to have digested breakfast.

I find it helpful to read over my shooting diary within about an hour and a half of the match. Not the New York phone book version with dates, weather conditions and scores, but the concise collection of thoughts I've written over the years that best describes how to shoot well. It's a means of positive reinforcement at a critical time. It also provides insurance against making repetitive mistakes that tend to slip the mind when we become more interested in the occasion than the task at hand.

A gentle warm up is also a good idea, starting about thirty minutes before you are due on the line. Just some mild stretching to be sure the muscles are ready and willing.

Some shooters also find it helpful to take their pistol and dry fire or simply hold at a wall in a quiet corner. This may be two hours prior, one hour prior, half an hour - it's really up to the individual. Trial and error will tell you if it's helpful to your own performance.

Preparation Time

Traditionally this is the ten minutes newer shooters use to set up spotting scopes, blacken sights, arrange gear and ammunition on the shooting bench and then kick around telling jokes waiting for the match to begin. It may seem that two hours is ample time for shooting sixty shots, but when that clock starts I want to be almost ready to fire my first competition shot.

Equipment can be set up before prep time starts. Ten minutes is about the right amount of time to become comfortable in your shooting position. You have the target to dry fire at as well as range conditions (bench height, lighting, temperature, etc) to become accustomed to. Dry fire at your target as if you were really shooting. By the time the command "Start" is called you'll be warmed up and have your mind and body on the job at hand.

Sighters

Using prep time constructively means you will no longer have to fire twenty shots in sighters to warm up. If my first few shots are on call I'll fire between three and six sighting shots before starting the competition. This gives me an added time buffer should things turn rough during the match - time to rest, regroup and restart.

This tactic does not work for all shooters. Another quite valid tactic is to fire as many shots as is necessary to feel comfortable before starting the match. If firing more shots helps to settle nerves, that's a very good reason for putting more sighting shots down range.

Try to avoid shooting 5, 10 or 20 shots - anything that can be mentally scored. If you shoot say a 93 for a 10 shot sighting series, I don't care what self discipline you think you have, you're going to make comparisons between your sighting series and scoring targets that are self destructive sometime during the match. Probably sooner than later.

A Match Plan

Don't assume because you have bucket loads of time to shoot your match that you don't need to plan and prepare for contingencies. Even in as sedate match as Free Pistol things can go wrong, take a long time to resolve, and leave you in a panic to complete the course of fire. Something as accidental as a cross fired shot is a good example. In itself it's not a big deal, but the time needed to regain match composure after any major distraction should be allowed for.

Some thought should be given to the number of shots fired between breaks. Of course there will be alternate plans should the wheels fall off. By thinking ahead you won't feel so much that you're making up the script as you go along. I've detailed this at greater length in The Importance of a Match Plan. If you remain more in control of your actions, you're sure to have more control over your own state of mind and of course the outcome of the match.

Setting Up For Free Pistol

I'd make the following recommendations to any newcomer to this sport. In time your experiences may send you on another course, but I believe they will initially help you avoid some of the more common mistakes:
- Don't set your trigger too light. You need to have enough weight to confidently rest your finger on the trigger, at ANY temperature you're likely to experience on the firing line. If set too light, on a cold day, you'll be too scared to even touch the trigger. I'd even recommend a heavy trigger, say 100 grams or more, just so you have more control over the trigger pull and are less likely to anticipate the shot. Just because a trigger is light does not mean it's easy to shoot better scores; in most cases the opposite is true (without getting ridiculous).
- If you're shooting with an adjustable wraparound grip, don't crank it closed so tight that you're putting undue pressure on your hand. This will make it difficult for you to regulate your grip pressure reliably. Adjustables are best, because the difference between your hand size will vary quite a bit from winter to summer, just be sure to adjust it so it gives support rather than compression.
- Be absolutely sure of your target EVERY time you raise the pistol. More crossfires occur in Free Pistol than any other pistol event. Because the targets are so far away the angle from your target to your neighbor's is not so great. With practice your body position will automatically bring your gun onto the correct target BUT as your body tires your NPA can also change. Check your target number as you raise, giving yourself time to bring focus back on your arm and then the sights before you commit to your shot.
- If possible, avoid the fashion of tilting the trigger shoe at an angle. For some shooters with short fingers this may be unavoidable, but even with a light trigger pull, all trigger force should be exerted in a straight line rearward.
- Don't be afraid to limit your use of your spotting scope. In this, the most difficult of the precision pistol events, it's easy to get carried away with minor details such as score, when ALL of your efforts are needed to be focused on technique. Sighting after 5 or 10 shots is not a bad idea, especially when learning the match. However, with changing light conditions this may not be such a good idea, since these changes might alter your point of impact.
- Lack of consistency is quite common in this match. If you follow a 90 with a 75, you can feel in good company because it happens to the best of them. Also be aware that your lapse in concentration was the cause. It punishes, and it doesn't take much of a lapse.
- At a major match such as the Nationals, wind flags will be planted downrange. If you have never used them before, ignore them. Wind will affect you as it buffets the body far more than it will affect the flight of the bullet. If you have enough wind to move the bullet a whole scoring ring on a pistol target at 50 meters, you'll probably have more trouble standing upright.
- Know your pistol. If you shoot an electronic trigger, have a spare battery and know how to replace it yourself - and have the tools on hand to do so. Toz firing pin springs have a habit of losing their oomph very rapidly; one minute you'll be getting an occasional misfire, the next you'll be getting an occasional ignition. It's a five minute job to remove the bolt and replace this spring OR the firing pin. If you can do this yourself you'll save a lot of stress and probably won't need any more time for a break and cease to function.

Finals

Free Pistol Finals are perhaps tougher than other Finals because poor fine motor skills will punish you badly. Getting nervous for an important Final is understandable, and inevitable.Your pulse rate will be high, adrenalin will flow and your hold will look shaky to say the least. The more worked up you get, the harder it is to control your trigger finger - even more so with an extremely light trigger.

Some shooters can control their level of arousal by self-induced relaxation techniques. I found that worked very well until I heard the command "Start!", at which point the wave would engulf me worse than before. We do tend to get less nervous as we became accustomed to shooting at a certain level, although if I had to do it all again I'd try to find a method that doesn't take so many years.

Learning from Experience

Elsewhere in the Hitchhikers Guide you'll find my thoughts on trigger release. Nowhere is it as important as in Free Pistol. If you can maintain and concentrate on a good sight formation, SOMEWHERE within your aiming area, and simply continue loading your trigger until it goes off - all by itself, you will have discovered the technique that works best under the worst of conditions. It took me more than 20 years and a lucky encounter with a Russian coach who knew what he was talking about to learn this. Otherwise I'd still be trying to somehow make the shot break when the sights crossed "that point" on the target.

Hopefully some of this might make some sense and steepen the learning curve for a few shooters.

Index of the Hitch Hikers Guide to Shooting Glory

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