The Column, No. 6:

Thoughts about Flinching

By Chuck Hawks

Recoil (or kick) is the bane of all shooters. Recoil and muzzle blast cause flinching, which leads directly to missed targets. Anyone who shoots a lot and is honest will admit that he or she sometimes flinches. Some shooters always flinch. Flinching is the body's natural reaction to the knowledge that it is about to absorb a blow.

Boxers duck when they sense a punch coming, and it is considered good defense. Shooters are not so lucky. We are expected to remain motionless and just absorb the full force of the blow delivered when our guns go off. And we are belittled if our bodies inadvertently try to duck the blow by flinching. Flinching is somehow seen by many as faintly cowardly, like whining or wife beating. Certainly it is poisonous to accuracy with any firearm.

Flinching is mostly psychological, but also partly physical. Heavy recoil bruises the shoulder and may cause permanent damage over time, particularly to the joints. My right shoulder sometimes aches for several days after a long range session with hard kicking long guns, and my right wrist usually aches for at least a couple of days after a prolonged session with magnum handguns. (I am not complaining, for shooting has been a lifelong recreational activity and has brought a great deal of pleasure into my life. Baseball pitchers, after all, typically have far more severe shoulder trouble than do I.)

There is no question that muzzle blast can be literally deafening; always wear ear protection when you shoot. Not only will it help save your hearing, it also reduces flinching.

I can say from personal experience that loud, hard kicking guns are more likely to induce a flinch than milder weapons. And the more such guns are fired, the worst the tendency to flinch becomes. If you absolutely, positively, must shoot magnum loads, shoot them sparingly.

As a shooting session wears on and concentration begins to wane, flinching is liable to set in. It takes serious concentration on sight alignment and trigger squeeze, at least with a rifle or pistol, to shoot consistently good groups. Shotgun shooters must keep their heads down, focus on the target, swing smoothly without stopping, shoot the instant the correct lead has been established, and follow through. Either way, if concentration fails, flyers appear on targets, game is missed, and trap targets are lost. These are usually due to flinching. Fatigue makes it harder to concentrate fully on the job at hand, and your subconscious is more likely to take over and command your body to flinch.

All shooters should "call" their shots. That is, they should know where the sights (on a rifle or pistol) or the shotgun was in relation to the target at the instant the shot was fired. Anytime you call a shot good, but the result is a miss, suspect that a flinch was the culprit.

Flinching can take many forms. Perhaps the most common, and least damaging, is a slight twitch of the shoulder muscle as a gun is fired. Some shooters always flinch in this manner, and they can still be very good shots if they do so consistently.

More serious is a generalized contraction of the muscles of the shoulder and/or arms and hands as the trigger is released. This results in flyers or lost targets with long guns, or complete misses with a handgun. Ditto a reflexive pull on the trigger, rather than a squeeze, when a rifle or handgun is fired.

Those embarrassing "grounders" that hit about halfway to the target occur when the shooter's eyes snap closed and an inadvertent lurch forward with the upper body accompanies a yank on the trigger. Any semblance of accuracy disappears with such a flinch.

Another type is flinching is a subconscious reluctance, or inability, to pull the trigger. With a shotgun, the trigger pull may come very late, when the target is about out of range. With a rifle or pistol, you think you are squeezing the trigger, but nothing happens.

This has happened to me. If the gun doesn't fire along about when I think it should, I raise my head, lower the gun a little, take a breath, consciously try to relax, and start over. (I also check the safety!) In fact, all of the forms of flinching described above have happened to me at one time or another. I've been there and done that.

I have written more than once about recoil and flinching. A stock that fits properly helps to minimize the effect of recoil, and one that does not fit promotes flinching because it hurts when the shot is let off. Good recoil pads, like the Pachmayr Decelerator, help to soften the blow. The mercury or spring type recoil reducers that are fitted into the stock may reduce recoil--certainly they add weight to the gun, and that definitely does. Muzzle brakes can do a lot to tame recoil, but they intensify muzzle blast, which to many is worse. Sometimes, especially in the field, muzzle brakes are analogous to curing the disease by killing the patient.

Switching to a gas-operated gun reduces the effect of recoil by spreading it out over a longer time period. The total recoil remains the same, but the peak amplitude is lowered. Many trap shooters, who may shoot hundreds of 12 gauge shotgun shells a day during a tournament, have switched to gas-operated autoloaders for this reason.

I have also recommended relatively light kicking guns and loads in many of my articles, particularly those articles primarily intended for beginning shooters. In most cases the milder calibers and loads remain fully effective for their intended purpose. An obvious way to deal with the natural tendency to flinch is to shoot guns that kick less. This applies equally to rifles, shotguns, and handguns.

That seems clear to me, but apparently it is not always obvious to others. I have been accused of being afraid of powerful guns, and being overly sensitive to recoil. I suspect that both are at least partially true, but when I observe the horrendous flinches delivered by some of the "bigger is better" school of shooters when their firing pin falls on an accidentally empty chamber, I have to wonder just how insensitive to recoil they really are. (Normally, of course, the recoil of the gun covers the flinch.) Apparently they are not immune from the flinches!

I think that most shooters, even the best shooters, flinch. Certainly many top scoring trap and skeet shooters do, which is why release triggers, anti-recoil devices, light loads, and heavy guns are so popular on the firing line. Yet these shooters control their flinching and win competitively. They are not ashamed to take whatever measures are necessary to control recoil and thus minimize their flinching. There is serious money at stake at major shoots, and money won and lost tends to wonderfully clarify the thinking!

Certainly no one can solve a problem until they first admit that they have one. So come on, guys, 'fess up. Repeat after me: My name is ______ (Chuck Hawks) and I am a flincher . . ..

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Copyright 2004 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.