The fundamentals of marksmanship are the building blocks upon which an accurate shot is taken and like building blocks they have to work together. Even if just one of the fundamentals is not properly applied then overall accuracy is going to suffer. Breathing is probably the most important and at the same time most misunderstood fundamental of marksmanship. Issues with poor accuracy that can be attributed to poor breathing technique usually manifest themselves as vertical dispersion on target. This is because as a person inhales and exhales the sights rise and fall accordingly so if the shot is broken at the wrong them then it could impact high or low of the intended point of impact. That being said there is a right way and a wrong way to breath when shooting for accuracy with some misinformation passed on through the ages.
I think almost every shooter at one point or another has heard the age old technique of taking in a breath of air and letting half of it out and then squeezing the trigger. However, there are some issues with that and that primarily has to do with how do you consistently let out half a breath because accuracy is all about consistency. Let’s say you take in a breath of air, let some of it out and then hold your breath to squeeze the trigger. On the next shot you take in another breath but was the same amount of air as before? Did you really let 50% of the air out of your lungs or just 40%? You’ll see there is no way to be consistent when attempting to use the breath in, half out, and hold your breath again technique so consequently your accuracy is going to suffer.
Additionally if you hold your breath too long then your body is going to start battling for what oxygen is left in your system. Breathing supplies oxygen to the blood and brain so that we can maintain our ability to see, process information, concentrate, and generally maintain control of our bodies. However, if that flow of oxygen is interrupted then carbon dioxide begins to build up in the blood stream so the starts to beats faster, our vision starts to degrade, and our ability to concentrate becomes affected, thus affecting accuracy.
The best chance at obtaining accuracy and precision when shooting then is to maintain a steady supply of oxygen breathing as we always do and break the shot at the natural respiratory pause (NRP). As the name implies the NRP is the moment in time between inhaling and exhaling which typically lasts just a second or two. If you can visualize waves on the ocean, the natural respiratory pause would be like the trough between two waves. The key though is that the NRP is consistent, we know when it’s going to happen and that provides the perfect opportunity to break the shot. When shooting prone, or just about any other position, the NRP is also the point in time when all of the oxygen is out of lungs and our bodies are relaxed helping to provide that steady position, another important fundamental of marksmanship. However, I feel like I should caution you about trying to extend your natural respiratory pause for too long, some say you can extend it out anywhere from 3-15 seconds. If you do that though, you are more or less holding your breath, preventing the body of getting the vital oxygen that it needs and we run into the same situation I mentioned above. If you find that you’re not ready to break the shot when you reach your NPR just breathe normally a couple of more times and do it again but don’t push a bad shot.
The natural respiratory pause is just a moment in time, an optimal moment that provides the best opportunity for putting a round where we intend it to go. Sometimes though stressors occur that causes the body to react and puts our ability to properly apply the fundamentals of marksmanship in jeopardy. What causes stress can vary from person to person but for example it could be the mental and physical stress of a competition stage or that surge of adrenaline that can happen during a hunt. The body is going to react in similar ways though, the heart is going to be begin beating faster and consequently your breathing is going to quicken as well as it tries to supply more oxygen. Of course, heavy breathing, a rapid pulse rate, and tired muscles don’t create the best environment for accuracy so the shooter has to start implementing some breathing techniques to help get it under control.
While it may sound a little cliche but it can be as simple as utilizing some deep breathing techniques to help lower the heart rate and steady your breathing. In some circles this is called Combat or Tactical Breathing but whatever the name the desired result is the same. What has worked best for me is taking in a deep breath through the nose for a few seconds, pause, and let it back out slowly out of my mouth. I do a couple cycles of this and I’ve found that my breathing and heart rate are down to a point that I can effectively break the shot during my natural respiratory pause. I’ve used this technique with success during USCA 2-Gun and DMR competitions where there were portions we had to sprint down a trail and shoot or shoot off of barricades. This technique can be modified as necessary to fit the situation because there will be occasions when speed may take precedence over accuracy. You’ll have to find a way get your breathing under control to balance speed with accuracy, I find myself having to do this when shooting multiple targets during pistol stages.
You may also have to modify the technique a little depending on what conditions you are shooting in. If you are shooting in a cool wet environment or in the winter it’s important to keep breathing through the nose, especially if you are using optics. If you breath in through your nose and breath out through your mouth then the condensation can fog the back of the ocular and obscure a good sight picture. Breathing in and out through the nose may extend the time it takes to get your breathing under control but it will be directed down and away from the optic.
The techniques I’ve discussed here are not the end all be all but they should help you maximize your chances of accurately hitting your target in a variety of conditions. If you take anything away from this article I’d like it to be to always keep breathing, don’t hold your breath, just keep breathing and apply the fundamentals. It’s also equally important to practice these techniques and mix it into your training routine so that you know what to do when the time comes. The last thing you want is to be half way down a trail during a stage, breathing heavy, your heart is going 100 miles an hour and you’re trying to remember how to breathe.
Shoot safe. Be happy.