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Shooting Basics ...

We’ve all done it. Mysteriously misplaced holes appear in the target. The holes are low, below the bullseye, and usually fall left of the centerline. What in the world could cause that?

A flinch.

A flinch happens when your muscles clench suddenly in anticipation of the shot firing, yanking the muzzle of the gun downwards and off-target at the last possible moment. It can be made worse by firing without adequate hearing protection, or by firing large-caliber guns with unexpectedly solid recoil, or by firing guns that just don’t feel good in your hand. Every shooter on the entire planet has dealt with a flinch at one time or another. There are no exceptions. It’s the one universal experience all shooters share.

Sometimes a habitual flinch can be created with just a single negative experience. I’ve met more than one woman whose first exposure to shooting was when a jokester relative handed her a full-power .357 Magnum, or a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 3 1/2-inch full powered slugs, and told her to pull the trigger without warning her what to expect. Such a rough introduction to the shooting sports can create seriously negative opinions about shooting, and often leaves an enduring flinch.

Since every shooter has dealt with a flinch, most shooters have some method of coping with a flinch when one develops. It’s worth listening to experienced shooters at the range, and finding out what works for them. The only “solution” I would warn you away from is the non-solution of mechanically adjusting your sights so that the gun hits high and right when it is fired by someone without a flinch. That’s a range trick, not a solution.

 

Diagnosis

Diagnosing a flinch is not difficult. Sometimes you can feel yourself getting ready to flinch — that clenched, quivery feeling in your muscles right before the shot fires is often a telltale sign. Another telltale sign of a flinch is when you find yourself trying to yank the trigger during the brief, magic moment that your sights are perfectly aligned exactly in the center of the bullseye, rather than steadily increasing the pressure on the trigger while holding the front sight as centered on target as possible, without worrying too much about minor wobble.

The most certain way to diagnose a flinch is to fool your muscles into believing that you are about to fire live ammunition, when in fact you are going to dry fire the gun. Here’s how to do that.

In order to diagnose and then cure your flinch, if you have a semi-automatic handgun, you will need to purchase snap caps. Snap caps are inert ammunition-shaped objects you can put into your gun. They are the same size and shape as your regular ammunition, but usually come in bright colors. When a snap cap is loaded into your semi-automatic handgun and the trigger is pulled, all you will hear is a click.  Snap caps are not live ammunition. They cannot fire, nor will they cycle the gun’s action.

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Safety Note

Be very, very careful not to allow your snap caps to get mixed in among your defensive ammunition when leaving the range. That could be Very Bad.

This works best if you have two or three magazines. Fill the magazine with a couple of live rounds, a snap cap, a little more live stuff, another snap cap, and so on. Randomly mix the number and order of snap caps compared to live rounds. If you only have one magazine, have a friend fill it for you while you look elsewhere. If you have two or more magazines, fill them yourself and then shuffle them around so you do not know which one is which.

Using these specially-prepared magazines, on the range when the firing line is hot, safely load your firearm as you ordinarily would.

To accomplish the same task with a revolver, you can either randomly mix snap caps in with live ammunition in the cylinder, or you can randomly leave a few empty holes where ammunition would ordinarily go. Before you close the cylinder, close your eyes and gently rotate the cylinder. Close the cylinder without looking, so that you do not know how the ammunition is lined up in your gun.

Now your firearm is loaded partially with real ammunition and partially with fake ammunition which will not fire. The next step is to fire the gun. Line your sights up on the target, focus on the front sight, and steadily increase pressure on the trigger until the shot fires with a bang. When you get to a snap cap, instead of a bang you will hear a click. And if you have been flinching, you will graphically see the muzzle end of the gun take a deep dive instead of remaining steady as it should. 1

Having diagnosed the problem, it’s time to write the prescription for curing it.

 

Prescription: Dry Fire

The first and most important method of dealing with a flinch is lots of dry fire. Be aware that dry fire can be very dangerous.  If you have never dry fired a handgun before, please read the article titled “Dry Fire Safety” before you go any further.

What is dry fire? Dry fire is going through the motions of firing the gun when there is no ammunition in it. You can do this at home as long as you have a safe backstop and as long as you follow every single one of the rules for safely dry firing a gun.

If you are uncertain whether you can safely dry fire in your home, DON’T. You can always safely dry fire on the range. There is no rule that says you must always use ammunition at the range. It is perfectly safe and acceptable to dry fire there instead. No one will be surprised, because good shooters often dry fire at the range as one part of a regular practice routine.

Just as if you were firing live ammunition, you will grip the handgun properly, align your sights carefully, and slowly increase pressure on the trigger until the trigger’s break point is reached. You will keep your eye glued to the front sight and will continue to hold the trigger to the rear without lessening your finger’s pressure on the trigger for a full two seconds after the trigger has been completely pulled.

As you focus sharply on the front sight during dry fire, you may notice that your front sight wobbles a bit. This is normal and expected, not something to worry about or fight against. If you watch the front sight for awhile, you will see something interesting: no matter how badly your hand is shaking, the area on the target that is actually covered by your “wobble zone” is really quite small.

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Shooting Tip

Especially for firearms with long, heavy triggers, holding the gun very firmly from the beginning often often serves to counter the human tendency to pull the gun off target as the trigger is pulled.

As long as your trigger pull is smooth, every single shot will fall within that very small wobble zone close to the center of your target. But if you try to snatch the trigger back to get an absolutely perfect shot during the brief moments when your front sight wobbles across the exact, perfect center of the bullseye, your shots will land very low and much further away from the center.

Do not try to muscle the wobble away. The more you clench up, the worse the wobble becomes. And don’t try to race against it by snatching the trigger back. Simply increase the pressure on your trigger while accepting the wobble for the normal phenomenon that it is.

Even though you have accepted this normal wobble of the front sight, remember that you are still trying to hold the front sight as steady as you humanly can. Don’t allow it to dip or sway as a result of your trigger pull. If you find your trigger pull also pulls the sights out of alignment to the right or to the left, adjust the amount of trigger finger you have resting on the trigger. Grip the firearm firmly rather than loosely so that your non-trigger fingers cannot sympathetically tighten and “milk” the pistol while you are pulling the trigger.

As you pull the trigger, you may be able to feel the tension within the trigger mechanism increasing so that the pull feels heavier as the trigger gets further back. Do not allow this to slow down the rate at which the trigger is travelling to the rear. Instead, pull the trigger at the same speed during the entire process, increasing the pressure upon it steadily until the trigger breaks to the rear with a sharp click.

Never think about the trigger’s break point, or about the shot firing. Let the hammer fall surprise you, every time.

In order to keep themselves from thinking about the trigger break and to allow the trigger break to come as a surprise, many folks find that chanting “front sight front sigh front sight” helps keep their minds from trying to anticipate the shot.

This is an important step: after the trigger has broken to the rear, do not take your finger off the trigger for at least two full seconds. Keep the sights steadily on the target and continue holding the trigger completely to the rear while you count one-one-thousand-two-one-thousand.

Try to dry fire for at least five or ten minutes every day or so.

 

Prescription: On The Range

On the range, try to do exactly as you have practiced in dry fire. Get the sights lined up on the target, focus sharply on the front sight, and gradually increase pressure on the trigger. Do not think about the shot firing. Do not try to “grab” the magic moment when your sights are completely and perfectly centered on the bullseye. Instead, accept that the front sight will wobble a little bit, and concentrate on keeping it as steady as you can while you steadily put increasing pressure on the trigger. Do not try to figure out when the shot will fire. Let that be a surprise to you.

If you need to chant “front sight front sight front sight,” do so. Anything to keep your mind from anticipating when the shot will fire. You want the shot to be a surprise to you.

Practice good follow-through. After the shot goes off, continue holding the trigger completely to the rear while you line the sights back up and focus sharply on the front sight. Count one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand while you hold the trigger to the rear. Then and only then, release the trigger and allow it to come forward.

If you feel your muscles getting ready to flinch, take a deep breath. Then safely unload your firearm, and practice dry-firing right there on the range until you have settled down a little. Any time you feel ready to flinch, consciously relax every muscle in your body except the ones you need in order to shoot safely, and go back to dry firing until you feel ready to try it again.

 

Checkup

After you have fired live ammunition for awhile, it’s time for a checkup. Mix snap caps in with your regular ammunition again, as you did for the initial diagnosis. This time, you are simply going to shoot the gun and keep shooting it. Since you have been doing so much dry fire, you know exactly what the sights should look like when you pull the trigger on an unexpected snap cap — it should look and feel exactly as it does when you were expecting to dry fire.

By the way, it’s kind of embarrassing to find that muzzle dipping downwards so dramatically when you come across a snap cap while firing. The only cure I’ve ever found for that embarrassment is to conquer the flinch.

 

Prescription: More Dry Fire

Back at home, set up your safe dry fire area again. You need to practice dry firing some more. This time you are going to do something different: you’re going to try balancing a coin on the front sight while you dry fire. 2

Lay a penny across the top of the front sight so that it is resting there. Then dry fire as usual. Align the sights, focus on the front sight, and steadily increase pressure on the trigger while keeping the coin balanced on top of the front sight. Can you do it?

Practice until you can keep the penny balanced on top of your handgun during each and every trigger pull, without fail. Make a game of it: instead of using a penny, get a roll or two of dimes and use them. Every time a dime falls off, pick it up and put it into your penalty jar — and then get out another dime. When the jar is full enough, you can use the contents to buy ammunition or professional firearms instruction only. (No cheating …)

Continue to regularly practice dry fire, especially when you cannot get to the range for awhile.

 

Follow-Up Care: Regular Check Ups

Now that your flinch is under control, you should take your snap caps to the range with you from time to time, to check on your progress and to prevent the flinch from returning full force. Remember that you will need regular dry fire practice, too.

Most shooters have recurring bouts of flinch trouble. This isn’t unexpected or unusual. It only means that it is time to focus on the basics once again. And now you know what to do about it when it happens to you.

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Footnotes

  1. This is also a good time to practice your ability to clear a misfeed. The clearing sequence is often called Tap, Rack, Bang. When you encounter a snapcap or any other failure to fire in a semi-automatic handgun, tap the baseplate of the magazine to be certain it is firmly seated in the gun, rack the slide to clear the non-functioning ammunition out of the way, assess the target to be sure it still needs shooting, and then bang (pull the trigger again). See the article titled Clear a Misfeed for photos and a more thorough description.
  2. Not on edge! Lay it flat.