-By John M. Buol Jr.

The learning phases of skill development, as published by Paul Fitts and Michael Posner in Human Performance, suggests there are three stages to learning a new skill. A Cognitive phase identifies the component parts of the skill, an Associative phase, requiring training, practice, and feedback to perfect the skill, links these parts into a smooth action and an Autonomous phase, where the skill becomes automatic and involves little or no conscious thought. Learning physical skills requires the relevant movements to be assembled and accurate, consistent feedback to shape and polish them into smooth action.

This is why most active competition shooters are skilled marksmen and why many plinkers are not. Competitors make a point to break down their skills into pieces, conduct skill rehearsal (training and practice) regularly and correctly, with scored shooting events providing accurate, empirical feedback. Plinkers usually have none of this, but they can.

Let’s say a plinker decides one day to set up ten beverage cans. The deserted quarry used as a range happens to have a rail tie for a flat surface to set them on and he stands by a fence post closest to the old oak tree. His only rationale for selecting this was because it seems like a reasonable but challenging shooting feat and he happened to have empty beverage cans lying around and a convenient place to set them up. He tells his shooting buddy that he can probably knock down about nine or ten cans with ten shots from the offhand position. After the smoke clears, however, our plinker managed to knock down only three cans and winged a fourth with ten shots on the first try.

The humble aluminum beverage can has long been a plinking favorite. When combined with a bit of organized shooting it becomes a standardized target.

The humble aluminum beverage can has long been a plinking favorite. When combined with a bit of organized shooting it becomes a standardized target.

He isn’t pleased and answers the mandatory ribbing with, “Must be the gun.” However, he doesn’t just leave it at that. A quick once-over with the proper screwdrivers doesn’t reveal anything loose and a careful slow fire group from supported prone on a paper target confirms that the sights are still on. OK, maybe it wasn’t the gun’s fault…

Faced with the realization that he didn’t shoot as well as he hoped, our plinker vows to do better. He noticed how hard it is get the sights to settle on the can as the trigger is tripped. He can hold the can for maybe a second without too much problem and he can squeeze the trigger gentle enough to produce better than can-sized accuracy. Concerned he might be flinching and tossing some shots wild, our shooter tries a ball and dummy drill, having his buddy randomly load a dummy round somewhere in his next magazine for a slow fire group on paper.. On the “click”, both the shooter and his buddy confirm that he is not blinking his eyes or budging the muzzle. So it’s not flinch either, just a problem getting the coordination of the sights and trigger press together.

Plinking doesn't require formal set ups. As long as the course can be easily replicated for future range sessions, improvement can be noted. Shoot offs are a great way to inspire any shooter to take their shooting more seriously.

Plinking doesn’t require formal set ups. As long as the course can be easily replicated for future range sessions, improvement can be noted. Shoot offs are a great way to inspire any shooter to take their shooting more seriously.

Our intrepid plinker usually meets with his buddy for a range session every week or two. They make plans for next time and depart. Back home, he locates a spot on a bullet-safe wall that has roughly the same apparent size of the cans at the range. Our shooter plans to take ten careful dry “shots” at the spot every morning before work and every evening before going to bed. Even more important, he actually does it.

At the next range session, the plinker sets up his ten cans on the tie, walks back to the fence post next to the oak and tries again. He’s still only good for four hits out of ten, but was able to get an extra can on one run. More important, the shooting feels more natural, more coordinated. A few more sessions go by, with steady progress. Even on days where he didn’t beat his average, our plinker has a sense of improvement. Once in a while he finds himself getting cocky and rushing a shot, only to blow an otherwise solid string. As frustrating as they are at the time, even these bobbles prove educational because our plinker has become more aware of his shooting. He can sense a shot will be good seemingly before the bullet gets there and knows where the misses went and how they got there.

Plinking or Competition

A formal competition shooter uses standardized targets and, quite often, standardized courses of fire. She conducts consistent, regular practice intervals to work on problems and improve skills. Even with competitive formats using ever-changing, non-standardized courses, such as many practical shooting events, there is still consistency in feedback in the training regimen (which is where most of the time and effort is placed) and based on match results. Record keeping, such as a journal and match scores, maximizes feedback and proves the skills are becoming more consistent and automatic.

Steel targets that self reset and don't fall over are ideal, especially when power plinking with friends. The initial cost is more but they pay for themselves in convenience!

Steel targets that self reset and don’t fall over are ideal, especially when power plinking with friends. The initial cost is more but they pay for themselves in convenience!

In our example, our plinker used all the tools that serious competition shooters do. He had a standardized target. Discarded twelve ounce beverage cans aren’t fancy but they are the same size and shape. While our shooter never bothered to figure out the distance, he tests himself on a standardized course of fire as standing by the oak tree and shooting ten cans on the rail road tie is the same challenge every time. There were consistent, regular practice intervals. Our hero is practicing twice a day! Sure, each session is short and sweet, lasting only a few minutes, but they are done regularly. He meets with his friend for live fire “every week or two” to test what he learned in dry fire. Finally, there was record keeping and goal setting. True, nothing was written down but he kept records of sufficient detail all the same. “The first time I barely got four cans, last time it was seven and today I’m going for eight.” If this sounds similar to your plinking sessions, then you are more like a competition shooter and will likely see improvement.

I run several websites and blogs and get a fair amount of email. After writing a bit on why I don’t encourage plinking and feel that organized shooting is the best way to build solid shooting skills, one fellow took me to task. “At my range we have a six inch steel plate at 200 yards and I can hit it almost every time, even with my iron sighted AR-15. In fact, I can hit it just often and as quick as anyone else I’ve seen try it, so don’t tell me that plinkers can’t shoot.”

At this law enforcement class the “match” was a quick shoot off on steel, not unlike many plinking sessions, and the bracket was scrawled on an empty cardboard target box. Nothing fancy, but the students took the shooting seriously.

At this law enforcement class the “match” was a quick shoot off on steel, not unlike many plinking sessions, and the bracket was scrawled on an empty cardboard target box. Nothing fancy, but the students took the shooting seriously.

Another fellow chimed in, “Plinking can be used to develop a range of skills from manual range finding to quick shooting. We invent various competitive games as we go. ‘See that can at the bottom of the dune? First one to hit it wins,’ or, ‘Lets see who can hit all of the cans fastest. One miss and you’re out.’ Sure it isn’t organized, but the pressure is on to hit small targets at unmeasured distances quickly, accurately and with the first shot. It breaks the tedium of shooting paper targets and we take it pretty seriously.”

This is more than plinking. If you are paying attention and keeping track of the results you will learn something. Here we have self-described plinkers inventing various shooting tests and drills, keeping score and taking their shooting seriously. They have similar positive attitudes displayed by every good competition shooter, the only difference is their activities aren’t officially regulated by a sanctioning body. High level competition shooters like Todd Jarrett and Rob Leatham have describe themselves as “glorified plinkers.” While that’s gross understatement, it shows that shooting, even at professional levels, can, and should, be fun.

More noise equals more fun... sometimes. Combined with a simple, fun course of fire (and occasional ball and dummy flinch checks) dangerous game rifles can be used for plinking too.

More noise equals more fun… sometimes. Combined with a simple, fun course of fire (and occasional ball and dummy flinch checks) dangerous game rifles can be used for plinking too.

Bad Targets

To keep this drill up, a shooter would have to have a bags full of beverage cans, that are almost immediately destroyed, to be laboriously picked up to haul to the trash or recyclers. Even worse, the shooters have to run back down range after all the cans have been hit to reset.

If you like to plink, consider a self resetting steel target. One folding-chair sized unit can be set up and shot at all day. Yes, a good target costs more money than discarded beverage cans, but look at the total cost. To shoot a drill like our plinker only requires going down range at the beginning of the session to set the target up and at the end to retrieve it. For the rest of the day, the target resets itself. Our plinker is going down and up range after every string. Not only is he wasting his own time, he is wasting the time of every other shooter on the range.

More noise equals more fun... sometimes. Combined with a simple, fun course of fire (and occasional ball and dummy flinch checks) dangerous game rifles can be used for plinking too.

More noise equals more fun… sometimes. Combined with a simple, fun course of fire (and occasional ball and dummy flinch checks) dangerous game rifles can be used for plinking too.

I discovered this frustrating trend when using a public range in El Paso set up for bullseye competition, where the only target holders were at 25 yards. Being typical military-trained shooters with no competition experience they couldn’t consistently hit a target smaller than two feet in size and needed to go down range to paste every few minutes. Thankfully, I found out when the competitors came to practice and could post a half-dozen targets or more on the same sized frame and score with a spotting scope, spending most of the range time actually shooting.

People hear “competition shooting” and immediately envision goofy looking contraptions that only a plumber could love that look nothing like their “regular” guns and shooting accessories. They think that it all has to be slow-paced on motionless targets with tiny score rings, and a line full of shooters sporting odd garments that are almost as confining as the stuffy rulebook everyone is forced to adhere to. They don’t understand things like specific forms of conventional shooting, be it American or International disciplines, and dismiss all of it as the same.

Fads are another lure for new shooters. Figure a simple way to keep score, make a game of it and your plinking becomes “serious” competition.

Fads are another lure for new shooters. Figure a simple way to keep score, make a game of it and your plinking becomes “serious” competition.

Formal conventional target shooting disciplines don’t attract rank-and-file gun owners but these are but one form a shooting competition. Who says we can’t invent and shoot something else? Organized shooting will have to have some rules but all shooting has to have a few. How many safety rules do you follow when shooting and hunting? These rules can be kept to a minimum and can be established to address any type of shooting desired.

Hunters shun Three-Position rifle and High Power because “deer don’t have bullseyes.” Fine. Use a target that looks like a deer instead and shoot with the rifle you carry in the woods. Set a minimum number of rules to address safety and to take the realities of field shooting into account and, presto!, you have competition shooting for deer hunters. Call it plinking if you like but you’re an organized shooter – a power plinker – now.