Breathing whilst shooting
Breathing is the most natural thing for a person to do and each person usually breaths without any conscious thought. The human body also adapts the way it breathes to suit different situations. For example breathing becomes fast and deep when the body is physically exerting itself and is slow and shallow when at rest. Breathing will unconsciously be changed to match each activity the body engages in. However some activities require that breathing is paused for a few moments, this might be because the person is unable to breath due to location, swimming underwater perhaps, or because breathing prevents the person from being perfectly still for a short period of time. The need to be motionless in the final moments of aiming and firing a shot requires a conscious control of breathing by the shooter.
The topics covered on this page are:
- How breathing affects the body and the shot
- How much air should be in the lungs when breath is being held?
- Lungs half full
- Handy tips for breathing
How breathing affects the body and the shot
When a person breathes their chest expands and if they are lying flat on their stomach each breath taken raises the body up off the ground a little bit. If the person lying down is holding a rifle the breathing motion will be transferred to the rifle – and the task of aiming precisely is made a lot more difficult with a moving rifle. This is why, for a few seconds, whilst aiming and firing a shot the shooter must hold their breath. To minimise the movement in the rifle when breathing the shooter should raise the right knee (for a right handed shooter) as this has the effect of raising the diaphragm allowing for expansion and contraction of the lungs without the body lifting significantly up and down.
Do not hold a breath for too long, after approx 5 seconds the oxygen levels in the blood start to reduce which will have an immediate effect on the shooters vision. If a breath is held in the lungs for too long then physiological affects begin to occur as the level of Oxygen in the lungs becomes insufficient to meet the needs of the body. These affects will impact the ability of the shooter to accurately focus on the rifle sights and the target.
How much air should be in the lungs when breath is being held?
The commonly used phrase for the amount of air a person should hold in their lungs whilst taking a shot is to have the lungs “half full”. The reason why holding a breath with either full or empty lungs is not a good idea can be demonstrated in a simple exercise: (do not do this exercise within 30 minutes before shooting because it will have a negative impact on aiming.)
The shooter should take a deep breath and hold it for about 20 seconds. At the end of this time they should think about the physical and mental experience they have just had. Common experiences are:
- The mind is thinking about the breath being held for as long as possible and this distracts from other tasks such as aiming.
- The body experiences discomfort as the diaphragm attempts to push upwards and expel the air from the lungs – this causes a ‘straining’ sensation at the base of the lungs.
- After the person has released the breath they immediately take another deep breath to help raise the oxygen levels in the blood and the body’s whole focus for a few seconds is on breathing.
In the next part of the exercise the shooter should breathe all the way out, empty the lungs, and then stay like this for about 20 seconds. The common affects of this are very similar to holding a full breath as done previously
- The body will try to breath in thus forcing the person to focus on not breathing – this makes it difficult for the mind to focus on anything else
- Discomfort as the diaphragm tries to draw breath into the lungs
- As soon as the person is allowed to breath again the bodies main focus is getting air into the lungs and expelling the build up of CO2 in the blood.
The exercise just described shows the physical affects of holding too much or too little breath in the lungs. There is an additional affect which was not shown by the exercise but also impacts the shooter. A simple task can take a person 15 seconds to complete. If the same person is asked to complete the same task but whilst holding their breath they will try to complete the task more quickly and this will likely cause mistakes to be made.
When firing a shot the shooter needs to remain focused and relaxed throughout, anything that caused them to rush or loose focus will prevent the shot from being as good as it could be.
Lungs half full
There are two difficulties with trying to get the lungs half full; one is that the human body does not have a gauge which shows how full the lungs are so there is no easy way to tell if the lungs are 1/3, ½, 3/5 full or any other amount. The other difficulty is that each shot taken should be with the same amount of air in the lungs, and whilst not being able to tell how much air is in the lungs even once, trying to get the same unknown volume of air exactly right for every shot appears to be impossible.
Fortunately shooters have a visible indicator to show how full the lungs are and it is a fairly accurate measure. The indicator is the sight picture.
When the supported rifle is aiming directly at the target breathing will have a visible affect on the sight picture. To be able to see the affect of breathing it is important that the shooter is lying comfortably behind the rifle and is naturally pointing at the target. The target should appear in roughly the centre of the foresight without the shooter having to physically strain to hold the rifle in position. As each breath is taken the rifle will pivot around the point at which it is supported by the stand/sandbag, this pivoting can be seen as the sight picture will appear to move up and down in relation to the target. As the lungs fill with air, the butt of the rifle, which is touching the shoulder, will rise as the body rises off the ground. This causes the muzzle to angle down and the sight picture will be aiming low on the target. Likewise as the lungs empty the butt of the rifle will drop causing the rifle to angle upwards and the sight picture will be aiming high on the target.
When the sight picture changes with each breath the point at which the target is in the centre of the foresight indicates when the lungs are half full.
If the general body position does not move between shots then the shooter has a visual gauge of how full the lungs are for every shot they take.
- If the target is in the centre of the foresight when the lungs are either full or empty the body position should be moved forward of backward so that the target is in the centre of the foresight midway between full and empty lungs.
- Always fire the shot after breathing all the way in and half way out. If the breath is held whilst breathing in the body will have less oxygen in the blood and the duration the shooter is able to hold their breath will be greatly reduced. Always hold halfway through the outward breath.
The Information and images in these sections are taken directly from the early chapters in Smallbore Rifle Shooting: A Practical Guide (with permission from the author)
The book goes into each topic in greater depth than we cover on this site. For more detailed information on the book and how to get hold of it click here
Practice Exercises for breathing
Click here to visit our section on practice exercises for breathing