Ball and Dummy for Dummies

How’s that for a fantastical, controversial headline? One of the most venerable, long standing drills for assessing and addressing the trigger jerk, the “Ball and Dummy” drill turns out to be basically worthless…. if used improperly.

I’m going to venture into the land of opinion, but in this case, my opinion is based on my experiences teaching other shooters high speed weapon manipulation skills. You may definitely have a different opinion (and you’re welcome to it, too). Bear with me – you might pick up a new tool for your shooting toolbox.

The premise of the Ball and Dummy drill is that you load a magazine or cylinder with a random number of live rounds and dummy round (that is, rounds with no powder or primer, so they won’t go bang) and have the shooter work through those rounds. Ostensibly, if they have a trigger jerk, it’ll show up when they hit a dummy round – instead of remaining rock steady, the gun will jerk down and away from the shooter’s strong hand as they pull the trigger. You can also have the shooter focus on their trigger control using this method, treating each round as if it were a dummy and they don’t want to see the gun move at all when it clicks.

That’s all well and good… except it ignores kinesiology entirely. Have you ever seen a very experienced shooter encounter an unexpected dud in the middle of shooting a quick string? The gun appears to do exactly the same thing that it does when the shooter has a trigger jerk and they hit that dummy round. But did it?

Try this sometime (but not with a magnum class, high recoil gun – you don’t want to drop it). Grip the gun loosely with just your thumb and middle finger, and fire a round at the target. Make no effort to re-align the gun with the target. Where did gun finish up? Probably pretty high, and opposite your hand? This is what the gun does in recoil. Contrary to the urban legend that’s been posited by some folks that the gun will return itself to point of aim if you just “let it”. False. Sorry. What happens is, we’ve told our bodies that we want the gun to return to point of aim as quickly as possible, and our bodies have learned exactly how much muscle pressure to apply and when to apply it in order to make that happen. Over the thousands of rounds we’ve shot, we’ve built a pretty solid motor control program to manage recoil. The “recoil management” part of this program is open loop – it happens without feedback or adjustment to stimuli (you then run a different but related program to re-align the sights on the target following the recoil cycle – that’s a closed loop program). When the body thinks it’s going to fire a live round, it plays a program that involves pulling the trigger then immediately invoking the “recoil management” program. Following the break of the trigger, your body automatically pulls the gun back down onto the target. If the round doesn’t go off, the resulting body movement looks exactly like a trigger jerk to the casual bystander.

The difference is…. trigger jerk happens before or as the trigger breaks. Recoil management happens after the trigger break. Are you good enough to see the difference in someone else’s shooting? In your own? I got a clue for you… you aren’t, at least not for the typical use of this drill (more on that below). So, how to diagnose trigger jerk if Ball and Dummy isn’t so good?

As a trainer, you will notice that the shooter generally can’t shoot a good group, and that the rounds will tend to trend low and away from the shooter’s strong hand (so, the classic low/left for a right handed shooter). If you watch their face while they shoot, you will generally notice them flinching. Sometimes subtly, sometimes very frankly with eyes closing hard. If you’re trying to diagnose yourself, are you seeing the sights lift and (possibly) the muzzle flash when the gun goes off? If not, you’re closing your eyes and are almost certainly flinching and thus jerking the trigger.

Trigger jerk is a normal response to an explosion going off between your hands. Let’s face it, shooting a handgun is an abnormal act, and something we’re not built to do by default. We have to train through that natural response. Ball and Dummy can be a good drill for starting to get a feel for how it looks when the gun goes off and your eyes stay open IF you focus hard on a smooth trigger press and you are proceeding slowly and with no concern for recoil management. If you try to go fast or try to control the gun, you run the risk of confusing yourself between trigger jerk and the recoil management motor control program. That’s a lot of IFs … but it’s still a useful drill if used in context.

Unfortunately, then what we tend to see is the shooter can force himself to remain steady when shooting a slow Ball and Dummy, but as soon as we pick up the pace, they’re back to jerking on the trigger and flinching, and we’re right back to square zero.

There’s a better way. It’s called a timing drill. I’ll write about that specific drill sometime soon (I promise!), but the basic premise is this: dump a full magazine into the berm as fast as possible. Sounds silly? Ok, it’s maybe not that simple. You want to have an aiming area on the berm, but not a specific target. Your goal is to observe the movement of the sights as they move during recoil. This drill is useful for a number of things, but for our purposes here it puts the shooter behind the gun watching the sights in a condition where they simply cannot either flinch or jerk the trigger. Try it. I challenge you to flinch or jerk the trigger while dumping that magazine as fast as you can. You might do it for a shot or two, and you might trigger freeze if you’re tense. If so, take a deep breath, let it out, and continue. Rinse and repeat a few times. Then go back to doing what you were doing. That usually fixes a flinch and jerk.

After that, depending on the shooter’s trigger control skills, they’ll be shooting a group either centered up, or in some other spot. Working trigger control drills from there usually gets them centered up on the target from there.

Dummies do have their place in things like failure drills, of course. But don’t take that muzzle dip to mean trigger jerk!

So… let’s stop this insanity of using Ball and Dummy as the panacea cure for all things flinch and trigger control related. Keep it in a very limited context and it’s useful, but only as a drill for trigger control, and not as a diagnostic!

About the author


USPSA Grand Master, NRA Instructor, http://re-gun.com/about/

Permanent link to this article: http://re-gun.com/2011/04/ball-and-dummy-for-dummies/


2 pings

  1. Karl says:

    Bill Rogers (Rogers shooting school) uses ball and dummy differently than most. He alternates ball and dummy so that the shooter _knows_ that a dummy is coming up after a live round. Because the shooter knows the dummy round is coming. he/she tends to concentrate more on trigger press. Random ball and dummy is good for proving to someone that they are indeed jerking/flinching, maybe not as good for fixing the problem.

  2. DaveRe says:

    Karl – I think Bill’s use of Ball and Dummy is spot on. In fact, I used a very similar method to work on my own flinch many moons ago.

    For reasons I specified in the post, though, I don’t like using it to identify (or prove to someone that they have) a flinch or trigger jerk. I could just as easily use the drill to “prove” to an unsuspecting student that they have a flinch or jerk when they really don’t, simply because of their “timing” on the gun. It’s a little difficult as an instructor to pick out the difference between pre-ignition flinch and post-ignition timing – for a novice shooter, it’s even harder to tell the difference when they’re pulling the trigger, too. All they really see is the gun takes a nose dive, either way.

    I could see that once you’ve identified a flinch, you could throw that at them to “convince” them, but I submit that doing so is potentially teaching them the fallacy that any dip in the gun represents a flinch or trigger jerk. If they also have built some modicum of recoil control, you’re also potentially sort of fooling them, because part of the dip might be their timing, not jerk – and that ties back into the fallacy, so when they see *normal* effects of recoil control in the future when they run across a dud or a dummy, they’ll get neurotic that they’ve got a flinch again. That can probably be avoided through proper explanation and teaching?

  3. Gerhard says:

    Hi DaveRe, I have veru successfully applied the ball and dummy method, although I did not know what it was called at that time. I find various different versions or presentations of this method and the one I felt worked best is this.
    I. The student is given dummy round or what ever reperesents the dummy to feel and check out, he is told that he is going to fire dummy rounds, and later live rounds
    2.After the student has handled the dummy round in the beginning he does not SEE or Touch any further rounds The instructor loads one dummy at a time and ALWAYS out of sight of the student( behind the students back,) (please dont come with safety issues this exercise is meant for qualified people ) The correct shooting technique is explained to the student while the student fires dummy rounds. (Touch any further rounds )
    3. After the studen has reached a stage where he fires dummy rounds correct, the instructor inserts a live round and takes note of the students reaction, the student will be nervous, heart rate increase, but the instructor immediately retuns to the dummy r nds, until Heart rate drops, then back to a live round. This is called the weaning process, from nothing to full shots.
    4. As the exercise progresses less dummy r nds are used until he fires live rounds only applying the same correct shooting technique
    P.S. I am in an advanced stage of the psychological effect of this teaching method.
    Regards, Gerhard

  1. DR Performance says:

    Ball and Dummy for Dummies http://bit.ly/hs5hzo

  2. xre says:

    RT @drperformance: Ball and Dummy for Dummies http://bit.ly/hs5hzo

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