It happens, I think, to every man that at some point he discovers that an idea he thought was his own is only an outgrowth of some idea he took in during his youth. I know that many of my own ideas about nobility of character come from Hegel and Nietzsche. My ideas about what things “really are” come from Plato.

And much of how I teach people to shoot comes from Cicero.

Stand steady. Feet shoulder width apart, your dominant foot slightly back, weight evenly balanced.

Grip the weapon firmly with as much meat on the grip as possible. Your support hand should dominate the receiver but not interfere with the slide.

Raise the weapon to your eye; don’t lower your eye to the weapon.

Focus on the front sight, with the target a blur beyond it.

Squeeze, don’t pull, the trigger.

To remind you, gentle reader, I dropped out of college after two years because Plato suggested that the philosopher’s education required a few years as a soldier. I enlisted and spent three years as an infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division.

While I was in the army, the skills I had developed hunting with my grandfather and uncles was refined further and I was exposed to handguns. The classic .45 at first as it was being phased out, and then the 9mm M9.

Those of you who were in the military in the mid-1980’s might remember how poorly those .45s were maintained. The barrels were wrecked, moving parts were stuck and stable parts moved. It was simply a given that aiming them was a pointless exercise.

Then…those sweet, sweet M9s showed up. You could put 16 rounds into a target reliably, though the old school insisted the 9mm round was little more than a bee sting to a Soviet infantryman all hopped up on Afghan hashish and atheist propaganda.

During our familiarization with the M9, I earned a spot on the Battalion Pistol Team. Being on the team meant that when my peers had difficulty with the M9, they were often sent to me for pointers and instruction. (After I left the 10th MTN, I became a police officer, a BPA, then an Air Marshal, so even when I got to my national guard unit, I was coaching my peers in shooting.)

You see a lot of bad habits when you teach firearms. Some of them are awful (I tend to “milk” the grip if I’m not paying attention) and many are just a nuisance (I sometimes look at the target while I’m aiming.)

The habit of looking at the target while aiming or in-between shots is almost universal among people who shoot poorly. And it is a hard habit to break I have proven to myself after 35 years.

My coaching for this habit is always the same:

“Ignore the target, this isn’t about the target. Stand. Grip. Sight. Squeeze. That is all you have control of. All of that ‘out there’ is the universe and the universe does what it wants and isn’t any of our business. All we control is what we’re doing right here. We do everything we can right here and don’t get involved with what the universe is doing.”

Of course, behind a rifle we don’t try to control the wind and the humidity and the slope of the ground but we observe it and let it influence what we do “right here.” A handgun is simpler: wind and humidity isn’t why your round hits paper four inches left of where you swear you were aiming.

I was pretty sure no one else was teaching this way. The ego, that need to succeed, applies pressure to some people that interferes with the unconscious part of many tasks, shooting among them.

I experience it, too. Put a weapon in my hand and say, “I bet you can’t hit…” and my ego answers and becomes involved. It’s no longer me and the weapon; it’s me, the weapon, the target, the crowd, the Universe.

Lucky for me, my ego is under my control.

That then becomes an important part of learning to shoot and fight and write poetry and play rugby. “Know what is in your control, rein that in as tightly as you can, and then disregard those things that you cannot control.”

Recently, I was re-reading Cicero and stumbled across what was probably the first time this idea was presented to me.

 “Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”


Cicero is saying here that all of life is like being at the range. 

You are wasting your energy if you are too caught up in those things you can’t affect much less change.

In every endeavor, we must engage with an obvious consciousness of our goal but no real attachment to the outcome, only a commitment to handle everything within our control as good men, just men.

It helps, too, I think to understand that our ego is one of the things we must rein in, bring under stricter control and train it to stay out of the way of our efforts.

Then, just as the Stoics recommended a degree of reflection and meditation as ways of preparing the psyche for the stresses of dealing with what is “out there” beyond our control, I do, too.

The virtues of the Stoic Way must be pursued by those of us who would deal intimately in questions of life and death and suffering.

Your hand will never be more steady than your mind.

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