One of the easily overlooked areas of good marksmanship is controlling your breathing. I really believe it’s one of those things that everyone knows they should get control of, but good breath control becomes one of the first marksmanship fundamentals to go out the window as pressure mounts.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the midst of a stage and didn’t even think about my breathing until after it was over. Then I try to go backwards and wonder if I did it correctly anyway, or if I did it wrong and it cost me a little bit of performance.
Here’s one of the interesting things, though: there are multiple ways to breathe when it comes to marksmanship. In this article, I’m walking you through some of the most common as well as introducing a combat breathing technique that you might want to try out.
Let’s get to it.
The Importance of Breathing
Aside from the whole needing to breath in order to live thing, good breath control is foundational to good marksmanship. So why is that?
Well, it has to do with consistency and uniformity. As you inhale, you increase the air pressure and tension inside of your chest. As a side effect, your chest also expands and lifts. As you exhale, and relax that tension, your chest falls and lowers.
Duh. Get to the point, Matt.
Good marksmanship is about consistency and uniformity.
Get down behind your rifle in the prone position and look down the sights. As you inhale and exhale, the sights rise and fall against whatever you’re aiming at. In effect, the amount of air in your lungs affects your natural point of aim (NPOA). So in order to achieve the most consistent NPOA from shot to shot, you need to have the same amount of air in your lungs each time.
One way to approach this is simply holding your breath for several shots in a row, but that’s not practical in the long term. On a nice relaxed day, you’ve only got 7 to 8 seconds of holding your breath before the CO2 buildup in your blood begins affecting your vision. That time decreases even more if you’ve been exerting yourself, as in any kind of run and gun competition.
So you have to breathe between shots, which means we need an effective way to get the same amount of air in the lungs each time. Let’s talk about some of those methods.
The Breathing Cycle
If you were to plot your breathing on a chart, it might look something like this:
In this little graph, the red portion of the curve represents the inhale. During this period, your chest is rising and internal pressure increases. The blue portions of the curve represent exhaling and relaxation.
The flat portions represent the natural respiratory pause. Without thinking about it, we all naturally take a 2-3 second pause between breaths, unless we’ve been under stress or exertion.
You probably never even think about it, but you do it. It’s probably not going to work if you try to pay attention to it right now, though. Your conscious attention is different than the autonomic nervous system.
As a marksman, you can leverage different points of the breathing curve for your shots. There are three different schools here, and none of them are really wrong. You’ll find that you have a personal preference most of the time, but might leverage a different style depending on the situation.
Option 1: The Relaxed Shot
The relaxed shot is my preferred way to do this. It’s the most common of the styles and easiest to teach. I think it’s probably the most consistent as well.
In this style, you go through a complete inhale/exhale cycle and then consciously hold your breath for 3-5 seconds during the natural pause. This is where you squeeze the trigger and make your shot.
Inhale/exhale again, then fire during the next pause.
This is what the Project Appleseed instructors call the rifleman’s cadence. Firing during these relaxed pauses offers you the highest level of precision because your body is relaxed with minimal tension.
But how fast should it be?
Timing of Breathing
I received an interesting question about this concept from a reader. Everyone seems hip to firing during these natural pauses, and even the amount of time the pause should take, but what about the inhale and exhale cycles?
The 2012 USMC Rifle Marksmanship Manual describes the inhale/exhale cycle as lasting 4 to 5 seconds, with the natural pause in between. That seems like a good place to start, but that’s not always realistic.
If you’re in the middle of a run and gun stage, you might be winded and taking faster breaths to keep up with oxygen demand. Trying to stick to long slow deliberate breaths, especially if you have poor cardiovascular fitness, isn’t going to cut it.
Another example of the “standard” breath cycle not working is a timed challenge, such as the Minuteman Marksman Challenge here at the site. In order to complete that event, you must fire one shot for every three seconds, minimum. That obviously doesn’t leave enough time for 4-5 seconds to inhale/exhale, then 3-5 seconds for the pause.
So the answer is really don’t worry about it. Your inhale/exhale timing is automatically controlled by the deep unconscious parts of your brain. The only thing you should worry about is the moment where you need to take the shot.
I like John’s advice here, and you can see my review of his book over here. If you’re doing casual marksmanship practice, then follow your natural rifleman’s cadence. But if the shot is important and needs to happen right now, then forcefully exhale to break the shot.
In his book, Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifle Marksmanship, Pete Lessler (AKA Colorado Pete in the comments around here) mentions breathing from deep within the belly rather than the upper chest.
This gives you more oxygen and disturbs your sight picture less.
Another tactic is to take two or three deeper breaths before doing the exhale prior to the shot. This oxygenates the blood a bit more.
Just be mindful of your available time. As John said, sometimes you just need to make the shot right now.
Option 2: Top of the Inhale
This breathing technique is practically the reverse of the relaxed version. Instead of firing during the natural respiratory pause, you fire after taking a deep breath and holding it for the shot.
To be honest, the only place I’ve ever seen this technique advocated is the USMC marksmanship manual I mentioned in the previous section.
The first line of that quote pretty much sums it up. This breathing technique is not conducive to good marksmanship, and is really a field-expedient method for snap shooting and firefights.
The reason this method doesn’t work is because it introduces muscular tension. In order to inhale, your body contracts the diaphragm muscle separating your abdominal cavity from your thoracic cavity. As soon as you introduce tension, you also introduce instability. There’s no way to guarantee that you’re hitting the same amount of tension each and every time you inhale.
The only benefit I can see for this one might be if you are using a standard two-point tactical sling, As you inhale, and expand your chest, you might temporarily increase the tension between the rifle, sling, and your body. That could stabilize the rifle for a second in order to get the shot off, but it won’t be as good as doing a proper shooting position and natural point of aim.
Option 3: The Half Breath
This is an older marksmanship breathing technique, and related to what used to be called the BRASS shooting technique. BRASS is an acronym for:
Each of these steps relates to one of the basic shooting fundamentals. Breathe is obvious, relax means to remove muscular tension, aim refers to a proper sight picture, slack means to remove slack from the trigger, and squeeze is the final trigger movement.
This is an easy to remember sequence of events. But what I found interesting was that the breathing step was a half exhale before breaking the shot.
As far as I can tell, the justification for this was that the half exhale maintained more oxygen in the blood, which could extend the pause. However, the suggested pause time is the same as the full exhale technique.
This pattern is also detrimental to marksmanship because it is inconsistent.
How do you know if you’ve perfectly exhaled 50% of your air each time? What if it was 40% this shot, and then 60% the next one?
This is why the full relaxed breath shot (Option #1) replaced the half-exhale method in most shooting literature.
Tactical and Combat Breathing Techniques
If you’ve been around long enough, you might have come across the phrase “Tactical Breathing” or “Combat Breathing.” They refer to the same practice, and are actually some really neat breathing techniques that you might want to try out.
However, keep in mind that this is not a marksmanship technique, but rather a calming method to help reduce stress and tension. That said, there’s no reason you can’t try and leverage it for marksmanship.
Combat and Tactical breathing comes from the world of mindfulness and meditation. I first came across it through the work of Rex Grossman.
The basic technique is to inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale out the mouth for four seconds, hold for four seconds.
Literature dictates to repeat this cycle three or four times to help trigger calmness, improve focus, and reduce stress. Part of this likely stems from the mind-body connection that you must maintain when executing the technique.
Even though combat breathing is not directly related, you could use the pauses to your advantage during marksmanship training.
Alright, let’s get to the bottom line here.
In order to achieve good and consistent marksmanship, you must learn to monitor and control your breathing. Of the four breathing techniques I presented (Relaxed, Peak, Half, and Box), the most useful one for everyday marksmanship practice is the relaxed method. Follow your normal breathing cycle for 3-4 seconds, exhale fully and take the shot during that natural pause between breaths.
Do not try and hold your breath longer to get a better sight picture. If you can’t get it within a few seconds, repeat the breath. This takes time, practice, and patience.
In situations where you need the get the shot off right now, try forcefully exhaling all of your air and then taking the shot.
The reason we want to do this on the exhale is because it’s consistent. And consistency is accuracy.
Alrighty, that’s going to do it for me. See you next time!
Way back in the 1700’s when I was a teenager learning to shoot, I was taught the half-breath method. In prone, I’d line up horizontally with the target, inhale, my front sight would go down below the target, then I’d exhale slowly as my sight rose up to the target, then I’d close my throat off when I was in vertical alignment, and press off the shot. Then I’d exhale the rest of the breath and start again. Worked great for prone. In the 1800’s when I was learning Okinawan karate, my sensei taught us to lower our heartrates by… Read more »
Hey Pete, now that you mention it, I do think I’ve tried to use the amount of air in my lungs as a way to quickly cheat the elevation on my rifle (as opposed to shifting the hips). Did you ever notice a difference between the half breath out and the full exhale?
The full exhale, when used in conjunction with natural point of aim, works best when you have the time, I think. When time is an issue, “cheats” can work great, IF you know exactly how to do them to get the results you want. Much of my early rifle shooting was a mix of things I realize now fall into the “Cheat” category, mostly things I figured out on my own, combined with correct techniques that were either taught to me, or onto which I stumbled by experimentation or chance (such as shooting against your ligaments). I got pretty good… Read more »
Hi Matt, this time again, the information you describe here can also be found in many other places on the internet, but IMHO your articles seem to nail the essence of the topic and to be more clear, to me. So, thank you. When I was young(er) I used to practice regularly at the range for some years, with different rifles and also pistols. Then I stopped for like 5 years, and now that I have started again, I realized I had almost no idea of the basic fundamentals of marksmanship. I always shot rifles sitting at the bench, with… Read more »
Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I am very much planning an article like the one you’re talking about. In the blogging world, we call that kind of comprehensive piece a “cornerstone article.” Before I write it though, I wanted to get all of the other articles written and laid out so that I have something to link to. The only question is how long its going to take to get there 🙂
You are a perfect candidate for a Project Appleseed clinic.
Project Appleseed seems interesting, unfortunately I live in Italy, so it would be a bit difficult to attend a clinic.
I just bought a kindle copy of the book, though 🙂
You should find it useful, as it covers all the topics (and more) you listed in your note above. Plus you’ll still have the anticipated content here. Any questions on this stuff, post them, I’ll be happy to help you out as much as I can. Have fun, you’re embarking on a great journey!
As far as using the correct respiratory pause and stringing shots…at 20:50 a really interesting phenomenon is described where the vertical stringing isn’t originated from the breathing but changing focus. My breaths are usually spot on, but I’ve been susceptible to changing my focus back and forth between the front sight post and the target resulting in vertical stringing. Until I saw this video, I thought I just didn’t “get” breathing and was trying to overanalyze what I could be doing wrong.
There’s other useful nuggets dispersed throughout it courtesy of the Army Reserve Shooting Team.
Hey Doc, the sight focus/alignment issue is also really good information. I’m planning another article on that topic as well. The art of marksmanship is really that there are so many little details to keep track of that it’s so easy to miss one.