To breathe or not to breathe that is the question. Or maybe the question is what is the proper breathing technique when shooting or how long do you hold your breath if at all? William Shakespeare’s similar “To Be or Not To Be” question from his play in which Prince Hamlet gives his Soliloquy about his life’s decisions seems to be applicable to us shooters. Do you hold your breath or not when you shoot a gun? If you breathe… what techniques are optimal for you to use. If you do not breathe and have a respiratory pause, how long should this last? Do you fire your shot at the end of your exhale when your lungs are empty or when you inhale and your lungs are full of air? What are your breath options when shooting?
Certainly, breath control is a critical element of the fundamentals of firearms shooting and precise accuracy. If the shooter breathes while trying to aim, the rise and fall of his/her chest causes the firearm to move vertically and disrupts the sight alignment and sight picture. So to eliminate this motion, is it necessary for the shooter to STOP BREATHING while firing a shot? Or if you do continue to breathe, do you shoot upon total or partial exhale or upon inhale when the lungs are full of air? Are the type of shooting you are doing and the level of precise accuracy needed considerations? Certainly there is a difference between combat, close-quarters defensive shooting and range precision shooting for long distance. You have to recognize that this is a very individualistic and personal decision based on your situational awareness and variables in the unique shooting situation. Your bad decision in the heat of a defensive gunfight can get you killed, e.g. if you stop or pause your breathing during a combat situation and wait a long time before taking your shot. You may not have the time during closeup, self-defense combat to fire your shot while pausing to breathe. There are at least two schools of thought about this.
One school of thought about breathing while shooting believes that you should NOT hold your breath or pause while shooting. They believe that stopping breathing even for just a few seconds to fire a shot starves your brain and reflexes from the much-needed high oxygen level that enhances your reaction time, muscle responses, movement control, concentration, and thus your accuracy.
Another school of thought believes that you should most definitely pause or hold your breath when firing the shot. They advocate pressing the trigger at the end of your exhale or when partially through your exhale when there is a Natural Respiratory Pause (NRP.)
To me, there are 4 Options for Breath Control when shooting for you to decide among:
- Take a few deep breaths to relax, clear your thoughts, and focus on the aiming fundamentals; inhale; then pause your breathing when your lungs are full of oxygen; and take the shot;
- Take a few deep breaths to relax, clear your thoughts, and focus on aiming; fully exhale; then pause your breathing when your lungs are empty of most oxygen; and take the shot;
- Take a few deep breaths to relax, clear your thoughts, and focus on aiming; exhale partially (about 50% of air exhaled); then pause your breathing when your lungs are about half full and half empty of oxygen; and take your shot;
- Do NOT pause or hold your breath at all, breathe normally, and take your shot while breathing.
Which option do you favor, why, and in what situations? Do you change your breath control in different situations? Let me share some of my thoughts and help you decide for yourself. Your decision and thought process are very important, but I’ll tell you which I use and why later. The Natural Respiratory Pause is a key concern for me.
Natural Respiratory Pause (NRP)
When shooting, a shooter takes normal breaths in and then exhales until he/she reaches a point called NRP. NRP is the time period when the shooter is completely relaxed in his/her respiratory cycle.
The natural respiratory cycle of inhaling and exhaling lasts about 4 to 5 seconds during normal breathing. Between respiratory cycles there is a NRP of about 2-3 seconds (a brief pause), but this pause can be extended up to 15 seconds for some shooters when firing a shot. The shooter’s physical condition, medical limitations, situational scenario, physiological factors, and lung capacity affect the duration of the NRP. This brief pause or holding of the breath should last as long as the shooter feels comfortable with it… a very personal factor that should not be dictated by anyone but the shooter. A big caution is that holding the breath longer than is comfortable will cause a reduction of oxygen that can affect vision, reflexes and reactions, directly impair vision, cause shakes and muscle tremors, and affect the shooter’s ability to focus on the sights for accuracy. Involuntary movements of the diaphragm will occur that will interfere with the shooter’s ability to concentrate. You want to have a consistent volume of air in the lungs and an ample supply of oxygen in your system. You can accomplish this by firing during the NRP.
Arc of Movement (AM)
AM refers to the unavoidable body movement (including breathing) and motions that occur while attempting to shoot a firearm. The AM is the extent of lateral horizontal and front-to-back variance in the movement that occurs as depicted by an arc or half-moon shape, like above. It is not possible to ELIMINATE all motion and the AM, but it is possible to greatly reduce it through practice and technique. The nature and extent of the AM changes within the time being devoted to aiming and delivering a shot. For example, when the shooter is initially acquiring his vertical and horizontal sight alignment and has not yet had time to relax his body and be comfortable with the pistol, the extent of the movement is relatively great and so is the AM. As the body becomes relaxed and comfortable and the aiming is more precise, the AM minimizes. Breathing and the amount of oxygen in the lungs directly affect AM and accuracy. After a certain length of time, the minimum AM begins to increase, because the muscles begin to fatigue, and the shooter does not have enough oxygen in his/her lungs to continue holding his breath. When this occurs, the shooter must begin his/her smooth pressure on the trigger while not devoting too much attention to the AM as long as it remains at the minimum level. The focus is on continuing to apply pressure on the trigger and intensely concentrating on keeping the sights in alignment. The resulting two to ABOUT five-second period is the most favorable time for firing an accurate shot by most shooters. There are considerations for achieving a comfortable NRP.
When the shooter breathes normally, he can pause briefly, focus on his/her aiming point, apply trigger pressure, and take the shot. I believe that it is easier to achieve an aiming point when breathing STOPS briefly or is paused because the movement in the shooter’s chest, abdomen, shoulders, and body generally is reduced. Remember, it is NOT possible for all movement to stop, but it can be minimized. Keep in mind that focusing on the front sight and aiming, applying trigger pressure, and taking the shot all occur DURING the shooter’s NRP when the breath is briefly held. This type of breath control is usually for the shooter who is in above average physical condition because he/she can hold his/her breath longer more easily.
Some shooters have trouble extending their NRP beyond three seconds when intentionally delaying their shots for that perfect target hit or other unintentional or medical reasons. At the end of the cycle and long NRP they begin to experience shakes and wobbles which affect accuracy. Some novice shooters often tend to hold too long, over-staring the sights, holding their breath until blue in the face, and probably inducing a flinch just to be rid of the chambered round. Consider this breath control technique for shooters that have trouble extending their NRP and/or holding their breath too long. As the shooter approaches taking the shot, he/she applies initial trigger pressure and decreases (NOT STOPS) his breathing rate to a slower, less deep rate. He starts settling into his aiming point as his breathing rate decreases to the NRP. He/she can obtain a proper sight picture during this shallow breathing because he is not moving as much. He then pauses (holds the breath briefly), achieves his final aiming point, and applies continual pressure to the trigger until the shot breaks. Again, holding your breath longer than is comfortable will result in a lack of sufficient oxygen and may cause negative fundamentals applications and poor target hits. If the shooter has too much air in the lungs, he/she will feel the pressure and it will interfere with their ability to hold steady. If the shooter completely empty the lungs his/her arm will begin to shake in about 5 seconds or so.
Whichever of the first 3 Breath Control Options above you choose, you must breathe after each shot and establish your comfortable RHYTHM for shooting and breathing. So shooters must establish their personal natural point of aim and stop breathing briefly (duration varies by personal factors) at your NRP. So you have surmised that I use Option 3 above… because that is what I am most comfortable with. It may not be appropriate for you and that is certainly an acceptable decision for YOU. Another footnote to my choice of Option 3 is that this is the breathing technique that I use for range shooting and precision long-distance hits, not for combat self-defense encounters where time is very limited, I want to STOP the threat, and to not necessarily place all shots in a very exact spot. When firing rapid fire shots, it may be necessary to take small short breaths to produce a respiratory pause between each shot. Again, your personal decision and be certain to evaluate your alternatives, variables, and situations carefully, since your life depends on it.
A Breath Control (BC) Technique
Here is the BC Technique that works for me in slow-fire (non-combat) scenarios. Consider it to see if it works for you. Certainly, it depends on your proper grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, hold control, follow through, and deliberate application of the fundamentals. Remember, your BC technique is a very personal decision and method that considers all your unique physical and mental conditions, characteristics, understandings, and preferences.
- Breathe naturally and inhale and exhale routinely 2 times for about a 6 second total respiratory cycle each time before you extend the firearm to get yourself relaxed and comfortable so you can focus on your aiming (for ME- inhale through my nose for about 3 seconds and exhale through my mouth for about 3 seconds per cycle);NOTE: More natural and relaxed breathing means more oxygen in your blood and that means more comfort, less movement for better accuracy, and more time for your NRP.
- Take a very deep, controlled breath moving from down in your diaphragm, relaxing your belly outward on your inhale and inward on your exhale, up to your abdomen to further enhance your focus on your breathing;NOTE: “Belly Breathing” is using your diaphragm (a sheet of muscle located between the thoracic and abdominal cavities) to draw oxygen into the lungs upon activation. When it contracts, it moves down into the abdominal cavity, pushing the belly out, increasing the capacity of the lungs while lowering the air pressure, thus spurring the influx of oxygen.This “autogenic breathing” belly technique is being taught to many law enforcement and military forces around the world and consists of a very deep, belly breath: breath in for a four-count; hold for a four-count; breath out for a four-count; hold for a four-count; and repeat three times.
- Exhale this deep breath about 50% of the way out (draw belly and navel in during exhale) and then HOLD YOUR BREATH no longer than about 5 or 6 seconds (for ME) at this NRP (lungs have some air in them for comfort, relaxation, and motor skill functioning);NOTE: With oxygen levels low, brain power becomes focused on preserving core life functions over fine motor skills.
- Fire your shot during the NRP.
In summary, the goal of BC is to minimize body movement produced by breathing, which can impair shooting effectiveness. For this author, taking a proper and brief breath at my relaxed moment with a comfortable duration just before a slow-fire, non-combat shot works. This may not work for you, so carefully consider your options and situations for BC. Essentially, all BC does is pause the shooter’s respiration while executing shots to minimize movement. So, consider pause breathing while pressing the trigger and breathe normally at other times.