The Fifth Habit of Highly Effective Shooters – Breathing
Can I get some love?
I remember being taught what many of you were likely also taught about breathing as a marksmanship fundamental…to hold your breath. At the time it made sense. I was being told this by an instructor who shot better than me and who was running the course of instruction I was attending. I was in the military at the time and being taught by some of the best shooters in the world. Specifically, I was told to, “Shoot during the Natural Respiratory Pause.” I did this for many years as a SEAL Sniper and never found any reason to question what I had learned.
Now before I get attacked by my long-range brethren, there are times when this technique should be used and that is when taking long-range shots. What is long range? That’s a topic for a later discussion, but for now let’s define it as any range that is nearing the max effective range of [you + your weapon system]. For these distances, it is still important to use every fundamental to your advantage to ensure your round finds its intended target. But just as shooting during your natural respiratory pause helps in long-range shooting, it is extremely detrimental on a fast-paced battlefield.
A Breath of Fresh Air
We all know that breathing is an essential part of life, but it is also an essential part of shooting. Look again at the list above and you’ll find lack of fine motor skills, eye movement, jerkiness, increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating and poor judgment…not things you want to have in the middle of a firefight! Because of this misunderstanding, many shooters have with this marksmanship fundamental, most shooters I teach are holding their breath as they try in vain to hit their targets. As they hold their breath, their vision quickly deteriorates and their hands begin to tremble. As their shot groups widen, they revert to what they were previously taught and try to hold their breath even more, making the situation worse.
Effective shooting is all about relaxing, and you can’t relax while holding your breath. Your eyes' ability to focus on the front sight is also hampered while holding your breath, so it’s important to give your body the oxygen it needs.
So we know we don’t want to hold our breath when we shoot, but we do need to control our breathing. If you have been exerting yourself and are huffing and puffing like a three-pack-a-day smoker on a 5k, then you need to get your breathing down to control your sights. The best way I’ve found to accomplish this is through a technique called autogenic breathing. This is simply taking a deep breath for a count of four, holding for a count of four and then exhaling for a count of four. Repeat this four times and it should help to slow down your breathing enough to take effective shots. You can do this as you’re getting ready to shoot or even while you’re shooting.
Effective shooting is all about relaxing, and you can't relax while holding your breath.
Breathing and Shooting
When you’re breathing normally and you're relaxed, you should continue to do just that while you’re shooting. Relax and breathe normally throughout your trigger pull, and you’ll find it much easier to acquire and maintain a good sight picture. One good way to know if you’re relaxed while shooting in the standing position is to wiggle your toes. The nerve that tells your toes to wiggle is the longest one in your body, if you can wiggle your toes, you’re relaxed. I wouldn’t do this the whole time you’re shooting, but it is a good way to check.
Try breathing the next time you’re dry firing or are at the range. Not only is it good for your body, but it’s good for your shooting as well. If you’re taking that long-range shot, go ahead and shoot during your natural respiratory pause. But if not, give your brain and your eyes some oxygen to let them do their jobs. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can search the Internet for any article on breathing and shooting fundamentals, and they all say the same thing. Good advice for those in the sniper community, not so much for the rest of the battlefield.
Let me know if you try this out. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please don’t write and tell me it doesn’t work if you haven’t tried it just because you were taught something different at your last NRA course. Give it a chance and then if you don’t like it, I’d like to hear your experience with it. I’ve never had anyone who it hasn’t helped, so I don’t expect too many of those comments. Happy shooting!