Breathing Techniques: The Zen Side of Long Range Shooting

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.

Shooting in alternate positions  such as the sling supported as shown almost require breaking the shot at the natural respiratory for accuracy.  Holding your breath is not the way to go.

Shooting in alternate positions such as the sling supported as shown almost require breaking the shot at the natural respiratory for accuracy. Holding your breath is not the way to go.

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.

Look at breathing like a series of waves with peaks and troughs.

Look at breathing like a series of waves with peaks and troughs.

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.

Physical stress increases the heart rate and forces us to breath heavier to supply more oxygen.  Combat or Tactical breathing can help reduce the heart rate and steady breathing.

Physical stress increases the heart rate and forces us to breath heavier to supply more oxygen. Combat or Tactical breathing can help reduce the heart rate and steady breathing.

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.

Physical stress increases the heart rate and forces us to breath heavier to supply more oxygen.  Combat or Tactical breathing can help reduce the heart rate and steady breathing.

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.

Without applying proper breathing the chances of hitting a long range shot are greatly reduced.

Without applying proper breathing the chances of hitting a long range shot are greatly reduced.

About the author: Ian Kenney Ian is a lifelong firearms enthusiast and veteran of the Global War on Terror. For over a decade, he has been actively competing in precision rifle and action shooting competitions. Ian has also contributed to multiple online publications, covering general firearms topics, precision rifles, and helping to improve the skills of shooters.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Richard June 24, 2015, 5:47 pm

    I find it almost fascinating how people will do things that are not right and still try to justify their actions as if how
    dare you tell me I am wrong. It seems almost epidemic the number of times you see hunters taking 1000+ yard shots on
    animals and are successful and stick out their chests bragging “look what I did”. But how many times do they admit that they missed or wounded the animal and lost it or worse simply didn’t try to find the animal because it would have taken hours to get to the spot where it was shot at.

    In this case it is again “how dare you say that I am wrong”. A shooting range that shoots over a residence is wrong no matter
    whose home it is. Would anyone be allowed to open a range that shot over peoples homes – never. In addition from what I
    can see from the photo the target seems to be just below the far tree line or stated better just below the ridge line. Shooting/Hunting rule “Never shoot at a target that is on a ridge line, some one might be on the other side”. I am sure that
    the same “how dare you day that I am wrong” will be the the standard response. USMC 8541 Semper Fidelis

    • Scott June 25, 2015, 9:18 pm

      Good day,

      “Would anyone be allowed to open a range that shot over peoples homes – never.” There is a range in Switzerland which shoots[long range] over a freeway, oh sorry – I left this out, government sanctioned..
      Yes – it is allowed. Please consider the world instead of the best country in the world, you will sound more credible.. Good shooting to all.. Be safe..

    • Mark N. July 4, 2015, 1:40 am

      Assuming the targets are even visible, the shiny object near the tree line is a silo, and the target s(I think) are below and to the left of the silo. Further, with solid trees up to the tree line and then an even bigger ridge beyond, it seems that there is more than an adequate backstop, especially if this is a single property.

  • Andrew N. June 23, 2015, 8:01 pm

    I have noticed my heartbeat and the affect it has also. I noticed it one day with a great scope and a good set of muffs on a nice quiet day at the range. You could actually see a little twitch in the crosshairs coinciding with the heartbeat in your ears. I now try to “listen” for it and shoot between beats. I don’t know how much it helps, I’m not THAT good. It helps me concentrate though.

  • Justin G. June 23, 2015, 4:59 am

    I appreciate the author’s intention to promote marksmanship and further educate those of us in the shooting community. Unfortunetly though, I found it difficult to follow the topic due to the constant distraction by gramatical, spelling, and sentence structure errors. I am, by no means, one qualified to instruct others in this subject, nor have I found myself complaining about something so petty before this. I am also aware of the probability that I could be just acting kind of like a bitch for bringing this up. It becomes upsetting, to me, when I notice those representing the gun-owner community in any manner that might be construed or perpetuate a negative stereotype. I loathe the thought of giving any liberal, arrogant, anti-gun supporter the slightest opportunity for smug satisfaction after pointing out some mistake or flaw against us. I appreciate the efforts made by sites, such as GunsAmerica, who dedicate their time to providing such enjoyable and educational articles. I would assume that whomever the acting editor overseeing these articles’ publication would have more respect for the topic at hand than to allow for these types of mistakes. To the author, no disrespect intended towards you and I appreciate your efforts as well, but, spell-check does more than just check for spelling mistakes, nowadays. Good luck in the future and I appologize if I am being too petty about this.

  • Will Drider June 22, 2015, 7:09 pm

    I agree with the Author but there is also another part to it. In prone, you lock in position with sling on or other support.
    Align sight picture and adjust position so sight is aligned at bottom of exhale. Hold position, close eyes, take two normal breaths, at bottom of #2 exhale open eyes: if you position is locked in, you should be dead on. If not adjust psition and repeat. BRASS: Breath in-Relax let it out slowly-Aim-Slowly Squeeze the trigger. Leatherneck School of Marksmanship. Serving the U.S.A Since 1775. Semper Fi

  • Jim Isbell June 22, 2015, 10:43 am

    I completely disagree with the idea that taking a breath and letting half of it out is a bad idea.
    My father was the Small Bore Champion of California and taught that technique. The idea that you dont know how much to let out is bogus. It doesnt matter, the intent is to stop your body from moving, not to just get back to the same point on the target. After you stop your body from moving, you THEN get the sight picture correct. You are NOT waiting for the sight picture to correct itself! Then you listen to your heartbeat and you want the shot goes of BETWEEN heartbeats. As to running out of Oxygen, the body can to fine for several seconds without breathing, if you are taking more than 10 seconds after you stop breathing, you are taking way too long.

    • norma June 22, 2015, 11:15 am

      With respect. I was also taught this method but I can guarantee (with practice) no matter the person doing the same series of shots both this way and the natural point the author is discussing you will constantly find you have made better shots his way. Small bore champ … what distances? If you are shooting a couple hundred yards you can probably make great shots either way. If you are looking at 1k and further shots your half out plan erodes and accuracy is just not there in the same way. My best in long range? 1800 yards. US Navy quals 1984.

  • john June 22, 2015, 10:14 am

    I couldn’t agree more!

  • William June 22, 2015, 9:22 am

    I’d be one torqued off home owner if I was around when they began launching lead over my place. Yeah, I know the angle and elevation almost guarantees no “oopsies”. But in my opinion, that ain’t the point. What they’re doing is just plain dumb and disrespectful.

    • ngeddy1 June 22, 2015, 11:43 am

      Ever consider one of them actually living there? Too much Democrat Dust in your eyes… givem’ a good wipe and consider all the facts and possibilities… just because they have guns doesn’t make them stupid, irresponsible, and/or crazy… What you’re doin’ is just plain… well, you said it.

    • Methadras June 22, 2015, 7:52 pm

      Who the fuck thought that taking a picture of shooting over a domicile of any kind was as good idea? In fact, who are these two bone-heads that thought that this was a good shooting angle and why did no one speak up and say, “Uh, guys, this is a bad idea. Not just from a safety point of view, but from a perception point of view?”

      And then you ran the article with the picture in it on top of it? This is moronic on every level. Safety!!! Safety!!! Safety!!! This is not safe.

      • Dave Orchard June 24, 2015, 11:33 am

        Re. Methedras “comment”: I’de bet that these guys are shooting on a ranch of farm that one of them or a close friend owns.
        As for your insulting remarks and anglo-saxon explitive-enhanced comments: Please grow-up and try to find some couth!
        Also, please read NGEDDY1’s reply to another “go-off-half-cocked” person who doesn’t use his brain to it’s capacity.

        Dave Orchard

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