How to improve your shooting performance when injured or impaired
To minimize the risk of aggravating an existing injury, follow these steps before jumping back into shooting like a professional
By Taylor McCubbin, P1 Contributor
Injuries can creep up on us, or afflict us suddenly. Especially at risk are those working in the military or law enforcement fields, with typical challenges such as walking long distances with heavy loads, jumping out of airplanes and being injured in dangerous situations with unruly members of the public.
Typical injuries I see service members and police officers work through include back injuries, reduced stability holding a load, limited knee flexibility and limited hip flexibility. So how do we continue to perform even with an injury?
First, having a positive perspective and being able to work around the injury not only helps shooting ability, but it can improve your outlook on daily life. This is easier said than done, however, and must be worked on every day to see results.
The risk of aggravating your existing injury may not be worth the reward, so put careful thought into the steps you need to take before jumping back into shooting like a professional. For example, some slow and consistent mobility exercises to increase flexibility may be necessary to prevent further injury.
Many good shooting habits require relaxation, which is only possible if you aren’t gritting your teeth in pain because of the limits of your flexibility; however, there are ways around typical positions that can help you regardless of limitations.
Once you train individual pieces of your “anti-impairment strategy,” you have to trust yourself and believe that you are prepared, and can win no matter what.
Practice modified or unorthodox positions in addition to standard service positions such as the Weaver stance, the Isosceles standing position and whatever your firearms instructor told you was the “only” way to shoot.
Please heed these words: There is no one way to shoot. The more time I spend teaching and learning about marksmanship and firearms, the more I believe that. There are “best practices,” but sometimes you find they don’t work for you – the only constant is to strive for consistency itself.
Here’s one example that might work if you have a knee injury: when you’re told to get into a kneeling shooting position but find it incessantly uncomfortable, know that you have options. For example, if you don’t have flexibility in your rear knee to sit back on it, learn to lunge forward into your forward knee. You can even lay your rear leg flat (on the inside of the leg and foot) behind you to create more stability.
Try different positions with your support hand as well. Holding the magazine well may be your fallback position, but may not be the best one in this case. The key is to ensure you can consistently get hits with your chosen method.
The number one positional advantage is to use a piece of cover around you as a stabilizer. This requires practice and creativity; no two positions will be alike. Of critical importance (for the professionals in the audience) is to not get stuck in any position so much that you are immobile when the target of your lethal force maneuvers around you.
If you do have a long-distance target and time to make the shot, and you can settle into a position, the best way to maximize the above suggestions is to get natural alignment on target.
The typical way this is taught is to take a deep breath and check your point of aim (POA); when you’re on it, close your eyes, breathe again and be honest with yourself when your eyes open. If your POA drifted significantly, adjust your position to compensate, or so the doctrine says.
I would argue this is too slow and, under stress, you are unlikely to do this. You may be better off developing a sense of what a natural position is for you in terms of muscle memory (a consistent, repeatable habit you can settle into immediately), and getting as close to that as possible. How do you discover what this is? Practice, practice, practice.
Position is a luxury. With good fundamentals (trigger squeeze and sight alignment especially) you can be effective in almost any situation. Once you feel more comfortable applying the fundamentals, experiment with unorthodox or improvised shooting positions.
Losing use of a limb
In armed professions it is valuable to think ahead and have a plan for when things inevitably go wrong. I have never been shot, but I have heard from people who have been that a determined, mentally resilient individual can carry on fighting well after they have been injured. Many videos show the human body’s incredible ability to suck up bullets and keep moving.
If injured, your first priority is to end the fight, fast. This requires a high level of mental toughness and, while this article may help, it only works if you practice. Put yourself in stressful situations and put it to the test as often as possible. Teamwork is another topic entirely, but communicating and maximizing your resources as a team is part of this strategy.
Get some practice using one hand and your offhand to shoot. If you are shot or injured during the fight and lose functionality in a part of your body, you need to know how to compensate and keep fighting. There is an entire section of firearms training on how to manipulate your weapon systems one-handed, including reloading and fixing stoppages. For more on that, seek professional training.
Understanding how to build a strong fire position with one hand not only improves two-handed ability, but prepares you for the possibility of only having one useful hand. Possible scenarios could include: dragging a buddy while holding your pistol out and covering, losing control of one hand due to an injury, and being stuck holding a piece of equipment awkwardly and shooting with one hand. I have seen many students find they can shoot better (with pistols) one-handed, which is also a useful observation for your regular two-handed practice.
Always do this work with a reputable trainer. When entering unknown territory on the range, never attempt a new technique without a knowledgeable instructor walking you through it. You will learn faster and, more important, be safer.
Mindset and breathing
During a recent range practice, a student was struggling to adopt firing positions. He complained of a bum knee and back problems. “I just can’t hold this position steady! I haven’t shot in so long, I forgot how this works,” the soldier told us. After some advice to improve his position, he went from a 40 percent mark to passing with an 80 percent mark on his retest.
After he passed, he described to us that the critical piece of information that helped was nothing to do with position and hold; it was that we encouraged him to relax psychologically. We told him to be mentally calm and have a firm belief he could succeed. He employed this and shifted his perspective.
Mindset is a larger topic than the scope of this article. For more information on mindset and mental toughness when fighting through an injury, see my article here.
4 critical steps to success
The biggest draws on your body in shooting with an injury are your mental strength and toughness, your physical flexibility and your endurance strength. Here are four steps to ensure these critical elements are in place.
- Develop good mental habits for self-talk including replacing your negative responses to pulling a shot with “get your hits” or “stay focused.”
- Increase your flexibility ideally before you get injured. Do mobility drills and consistent stretching. This implies stretching correctly, and understanding the difference between dynamic and static stretching, as well as the use of tools like a foam roller to help you on your way to better range of motion.
- Increasing your endurance strength through long, slow movements can help with extended periods of stabilizing for a shot when under physical strain due to injury or impairment. Yoga and martial arts like Systema and Brazilian Ju Jitsu can help immensely.
- Know alternative holds and positions in advance, and be prepared to tap into your mental resilience and breathing techniques to keep fighting through your impairment or injury.
What’s your next step?
Form an action plan for prevention of or preparation for injury. Don’t discover you need practice with these techniques in the middle of the firefight.
To put this theory into practice, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to start your journey to being better prepared for shooting with an injury or impairment.
If you’re a veteran of police or military service and found these techniques worked for you under stress let me know! I’m interested in real information, not just my own opinion.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, and these are ideas I’ve come up with in my experience as much based on science as possible, but in no way are meant to replace your doctor’s recommendations.
About the author
Taylor McCubbin is a senior NCO infantryman with the Canadian Armed Forces. After spending 10 years in the Canadian army, Taylor has since specialized as a firearms instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force. While providing a high level of instruction to operational air crew and military police, he pioneered a specialized firearms program for airfield security teams.