Overcoming the flinch response: "Let recoil happen!"
We've all been there. Just as you’re ready to break the shot, you yank the trigger and shove the gun forward. The shot misses and you mutter a bit under your breath ...and prepare for the next shot.
What just happened is commonly known as flinching. This is a very frustrating experience for a lot of shooters who cannot seem to overcome this response. But what is flinch? Why do we flinch? And, most importantly, how can we keep ourselves from flinching?
Flinching is an unintended mental and physical response to a negative stimulus (i.e. recoil and muzzle blast) that results in a displacement of the shot from its intended point of impact.
There are several different root causes of flinch that we need to explore in order to better understand the mechanism of flinch.
One of the underlying reasons why we flinch is the human reaction of avoiding things that are unpleasant. Human beings naturally seek pleasure and try to avoid pain or unpleasantness. While the pastime of shooting is a pleasant one for most people who shoot, the physical report and recoil are not something that most people are accustomed to. The louder the report or the harder the recoil, the greater the tendency to flinch.
But this avoidance response doesn’t explain why people exhibit flinching who are not really afraid of noise or recoil. I have seen many tough people have problems with flinching who were in no way “afraid” of the gun. Others have been shooting for a long time and still can’t shoot well at longer distances or smaller targets.
Telling people to “get over being afraid of the gun” is simplistic and doesn’t really explain what’s going on for the vast majority of experienced shooters.
I believe that one of the primary reasons people flinch is associated with maintaining balance. As an experiment, try this: brace yourself and have someone push you lightly back as if it was recoil. As they continue to push you and you try to maintain balance, have them stop short without telling you when they are going to do it. Invariably, you will push forward to resist the push. This is an anticipation response of the body to maintain equilibrium.
This equilibrium response is a very powerful one that is embedded deep in the subconscious mind. Falling down invites injury and makes us vulnerable as well. Dating back to the days of the cave man, if we were to fall down when attacked or while fleeing a predator, it would place us in serious jeopardy.
After you have fired a powerful handgun a few times, you quickly learn what to expect and there is a strong tendency to anticipate (and then do something) as it is about to discharge. Typically, the shooter will shove forward as they are manipulating the trigger. If this occurs prior to the gun discharging, it can move the shot quite a bit.
When shooting firearms rapidly, experienced shooters develop a compensating shove just after the gun discharges. Col. Jeff Cooper describes this as “post ignition push.” Champion shooter Rob Leatham describes the difference between this and ordinary flinch by dividing it into two categories: pre-ignition flinch and post-ignition flinch.
Pre-ignition flinch is flinching at the same time that the trigger is pressed. This will move the gun off line quite a bit and will effect the shot dramatically. Post-ignition push (or flinch) occurs after the firearm has discharged. This can either move the gun fractionally or move the impact point of the bullet slightly if it occurs too soon during the recoil cycle, (about an inch or less at seven yards) typically down.
Flinching is a learned response. Watch a beginner shoot a firearm, particularly a handgun, (other than a .22 rimfire), for the first time and the first shots are generally very good. As the session goes on, you will generally see the beginner begin to flinch during the shooting in anticipation of the shot to come.
I prefer Col. Cooper’s description of post-ignition push as it is not really a true stress-induced flinch, but rather a natural compensating effect of the body to maintain equilibrium and will happen automatically provided you let recoil happen and don't fight it. Anticipating recoil and shoving as you are compressing the trigger is the flinch response.
If you have ever watched tapes of Ed McGivern shooting his wheelgun at high speeds, you will see him stumble forward at the end of the series. This was his way of putting his center of gravity forward into the gun while shooting to maintain control.
The third reason why we flinch is associated with the buildup of mental stress while trying to hit a target. Mentally, we are trying to concentrate on placing the shot where we want it to hit. We bring the sights on the spot we want to hit; we start to press the trigger. If it is a small, hard to hit target, we slowly bring the trigger back. Some shooters bring it back in stages. The anticipation builds as the trigger comes back. The point where the hammer is just getting ready to drop is where most people lose control and flinch in anticipation of the shot to come. There is a powerful urge to just get it over with so that we don't have to deal with the stress of the moment. This release of tension manifests itself in a general discharge of muscle and mental energy that activates more muscle groups rather than a more isolated, controlled release of energy. They "give in" to the urge and yank the trigger and push the gun off line at the critical moment when the hammer drops.
The last reason why we flinch is associated with trying to control the firearm at the moment when it discharges. A grip that is too loose and relaxed can be the culprit here. Typically, a shooter will convulsively tighten his/her grip in an attempt to control muzzle flip as they are pressing the trigger. I have also seen shooters trying to control the flip too much by attempting to drive the gun back as they are pressing the trigger rather than after the shot has been fired. Either way, the result is the same.
Flinching is made worse when we add other factors such as time stress or physical danger into the equation. Start factoring in making the shot under tight time limits, under the stress of qualification, competition or actual gunfight conditions and the flinch becomes much more pronounced.
The flinch response is manifested in various ways which we will catalog for future reference. The first is a shove forward from the abdomen, pushing the chest forward to compensate for the shove from recoil. This is a balancing/compensation response. Improper balance, i.e. a stance that is too upright with the center of gravity neutral instead of slightly forward, is something to be addressed here.
More subtle flinches involve wristing the gun up or down, blinking at the report, focal shifting of the eyes (losing focus of the front sight) and squeezing/tightening all the fingers of one or both hands at the moment of firing. These are more avoidance/controlling types flinch in anticipation of noise and recoil or to relieve the stress of the moment and just get it over with.
Yanking the trigger and pushing the gun sideways is typical of the stress response. We see the sights momentarily on the spot we want to hit and we yank the trigger trying to get the shot off while the sight picture is still there.
These flinches occur either separately or, more commonly, in conjunction with each other. It is very common to see a shooter yank the trigger and shove forward from the waist, resulting in a classic down and left hit for a right-handed shooter with a handgun.
In general, the harder the firearm kicks or the louder the muzzle blast, the more pronounced the flinch. Also, the faster you try to shoot, the more you tend to flinch. A person's mental makeup and personality tend to play a big part in how well they handle recoil and noise. Some people are naturally more sensitive to recoil and noise than others. Experience with firearms and gradually building up a mental/physical tolerance will help lessen the effect of noise and recoil.
Now that we have looked at some of the reasons why we flinch, let's discuss ways of reducing flinch. The first step is to accept the fact that you have a flinch. Don't let pride get in the way of performance. Flinching is not a weakness of character!
The next step is learning to hold still and accept recoil without allowing yourself to react to it. This is a learned response. Once you have assumed your stance and grip on the firearm you must learn to let recoil happen! What this means is that before you touch the trigger, you must be both physically and mentally prepared to accept recoil.
I have facetiously told many of my students that I am going to make bumper stickers with the phrase LET RECOIL HAPPEN! on it. It is very important to learn to hold both body and mind still while you press the trigger and let your body absorb the recoil. In order to do this you must learn to relax. Trying to excessively tense your body only makes recoil harsher and worsens the flinch. You must learn to grip the handgun without tensing the rest of your body.
As an experiment, stand with your hands extended out in front of you as if holding a handgun and tense every muscle in your body except your face and neck. Now have someone start tapping your hands with a closed fist. It will jar you right down to your toes. Now relax your shoulders, stomach, and legs while the person is tapping you. If done correctly, the feeling should be greatly reduced. What you are doing is letting your body absorb the recoil. You have turned a harsh, jarring punch into more of a push. You need to have just enough tension in your grip and stance so that the gun returns on target to the same point after recoil.
A very important concept to understand is to keep the same amount of tension in the body before, during, and after the shot. As you become more experienced, learn to isolate the tension and relax those areas not needed to maintain the shooting platform or control the firearm.
Much has been said about achieving a surprise break on the trigger. This involves letting the moment the gun goes off be a surprise to the shooter. I suspect experienced shooters will tend to agree with me, when I am shooting, I know when my gun is about to go off. I can feel the sear engagement about to break. There is no surprise break for me. I simply have learned to hold still and LET RECOIL HAPPEN. This is an exercise in mental discipline and relaxation.
Improper grip and stance exaggerate the effects of recoil and induce flinch. Getting the grip too low on the grip of the handgun accentuates muzzle flip by increasing the leverage the handgun has working against the shooter's hand in recoil. One of the most common mistakes I see in students is failure to set the tendons in the wrist, hand and forearms when shooting a handgun. Failure to do this greatly accentuates muzzle flip. This almost always leads to a convulsive gripping of the gun when the trigger is pressed.
Standing too upright or leaning away from the gun to compensate for the weight of the firearm increases the tendency to shove the firearm forward as you press the trigger to prevent loss of balance. If your center of equilibrium is neutral, rather than slightly forward, you will invariably start to shove forward with your body as you press the trigger. This, believe it or not, is one of the classic flinches. It is the body trying to maintain equilibrium.
To correct, move your center of gravity forward. Lean the whole body forward, not just from the waist. A little bit goes a long way. Once you have had a chance to shoot the gun and not feel like it is driving you back, then you will reduce this type of flinch response.
Putting checkering or skateboard tape on auto pistols allows more friction in the grip, making it easier for the shooter to maintain control of the handgun and allowing them to be more relaxed in the grip without allowing the firearms to slip during the recoil cycle.
With the trend towards smaller and lighter handguns and more powerful cartridges, I have noted an increase in flinching among students shooting these firearms. Weight is not a bad thing if it is kept in a range that allows for controllability along with ease of carry.
Remembering that the flinch response starts in the mind, one of the key elements in overcoming flinch is to use visualization. Before you start shooting, spend five minutes or so imagining yourself shooting the handgun while holding it still. See and feel yourself holding the handgun with a firm handshake grip while relaxing the rest of your body and your mind at the critical moment the shot breaks.
There are several drills that I use when teaching students that help them learn to control flinch. The first is the classic "ball and dummy" drill. This involves having someone else load the firearm with either live ammo or blank. The student's job is to learn to let the gun go off without anticipating recoil.
It is important to understand that this drill by itself is not enough to help the student control flinch. It identifies that there is a flinch and can help mitigate it somewhat. However, when the student knows that there is a live round in the chamber, then there must be additional training to help them develop the discipline to accept recoil without flinching unduly.
No one is immune from flinch. What helps is to understand the underlying factors that contribute to flinch and work to mitigate them. Everyone has their own level of tolerance to recoil and noise. Shooting is supposed to be fun. Find a load that is comfortable for you to shoot and that fulfills the requirements you have in mind and stick with it. Keep the weight of the gun in mind. Lighter is not necessarily better if you are sensitive to recoil.
If you want to go up in power, remember that the more powerful the load, or the lighter the gun, the more the tendency to flinch.
The more knowledge you have of the underlying mechanisms of flinch, the more you will be able to understand and deal with flinch. Overcoming flinch and loss of focus is a journey, not a destination. Everyone is subject to flinch at times, depending on what one is shooting and the stress one is under at the time.
The key is to become aware of flinch and then take steps to reduce it.