How to Stop Flinching When Shooting a Rifle

Flinching when shooting a pistol or a rifle is a more common problem than you realize, and can sometimes be hard to cure if the shooter has had enough experience that the flinching has gone from reflexive reaction to habit. But take heart — there are a number of things that can contribute to flinching, and many of them can be easily dealt with.

This section might be a bit sparse for a while as, for some bizarre psychological reason, I do not flinch even a little. I’ll flesh it out as I hear more from people — if you have any hints or tips that you’ve found work for you, please e-mail me and let me know!

Some of the causes of flinching when shooting are:

  • Inadequate ear protection,
  • Fighting the natural recoil of the handgun,
  • Anticipating the shot, and
  • Being intimidated by your handgun, which can indicate that you’re either intimidated by shooting, or are using too powerful a handgun.


1. Stop Flinching With Adequate Noise Protection

The loud bang of the gun is by far the easiest of all of the causes of flinching to cure.

Guns are loud devices, especially at an indoor range, and if your ear protection isn’t adequate, the sheer noise can make you nervous about pulling the trigger.

There are a number of options for ear protection for the prudent shooter. And here I have to state that ear protection is an absolute requirement whether you are indoors or outdoors, whenever you use your gun.

Of course, you can’t stop to put on your muffs when you are protecting your home against a home invader, but in absolutely all other cases, using some form of hearing protection should be considered mandatory.

Foam Earplugs

how to stop flinching when shooting a rifleThe cheapest are the ubiquitous little foam cylinders that can be bought for pennies at most ranges. They are made of a very compressible kind of foam, and are about an inch long by a quarter inch wide.

You roll the cylinder as thin as you can get it, then insert it into your ear canals. As the foam expands back to its original size, it fills the ear and blocks it.

I have to admit that I’m less than fond of these since they almost never stay in my right ear, for some bizarre reason. But for many people, they are ideal, and since they are cheap and do not put pressure on the jaw (a problem with muffs), they are often the best cure for flinching.

Many outdoors stores that sell ammunition and firearm-related equipment have packs of these for sale by the gross, so they are certainly plentiful.

Ear Muffs

how to stop flinching when shooting a pistol

These are often more complicated than they sound — from the simple foam cups on the metal headband to high-tech white noise suppressors that shield you from the sound of a handgun discharge while still permitting you to carry on normal conversation. Depending on the money you are willing to spend, you can go as low- or as high-tech as you wish.

One problem that I have had with the muffs in the past is that I also have a joint ailment that results in my jaw not seating quite properly. This condition, called TMJ, is actually rather common among many people. If your jaw does not seat properly when you wake up in the morning, or if pressure on your jaw where it joins your skull on either side causes migraines, then chances are you, like me, would not be a good candidate for muffs.

The constant light pressure of the shooting earmuffs gives me headaches, and causes my jaw to lock, so that I must remove the muffs every few minutes or so to “click” it back into place.

Plainly, this is not an ideal solution for flinching. But for many people who are not afflicted with TMJ, the muffs are the best cure for flinching — you do not have to insert anything into your ear, and if the foam cylinders do not stay seated properly, the muffs are an excellent solution.

My Own Anti-Flinching Solution

So, you ask (or maybe you don’t, but we’ll assume here that you’re so captivated by my experiences with ear protection that you do), if the foam plugs don’t stay in my right ear, and I can’t wear the muffs, then what manner of ear protection do I use?

The answer is that it is a more homemade one that works beautifully for me, but since it is not manufactured, I cannot recommend it for anyone else but myself since there is no set of instructions for these kinds of plugs. The way that I make these do-it-yourself earplugs is to take a square of bathroom tissue and fold it into four square sections, and then fold it into a point, as in the following diagram:

I then wet the paper and roll it into a small blob from the point. This creates a perfectly shaped piece of moist material that I can wedge into my ear canal, and which I’ve found blocks sound much more completely and comfortably than the foam plugs or the muffs.

If you do decide to try this out, bring an approved set of foam plugs or muffs with you so that in case it does not work, you will have them to fall back on. I’m not interested in getting sued by someone who tries it, goes deaf, and then acts as if the ringing head they got when they shot their .44M wasn’t a clear enough sign that they shouldn’t rely on this method. (Sarcasm mode off.)

These must be removed and re-moistened after an hour or so, just to make sure that they keep their tight seal.

2. Don’t Fight the Bounce

At first, I did not realize that this would be a problem until it and its solution was mentioned to me by a coworker with whom I sometimes shoot at the range near my place of employment, wurzel keir. (His name doesn’t come with upper-case letters. :-)) If you find that your shots tend to cluster low despite careful aim, this might be your problem, and the reason why you flinch when shooting.

A handgun, when discharged, will normally bounce up a bit in your hand from the recoil. This is normal. Of course, you want to make sure that you are gripping the handgun firmly so that it doesn’t bounce clear out of your hands, and to make sure that you have a good mastery of the device, but there is nothing that will prevent this slight rotation of the gun and your wrist from occurring. It’s okay — there is no way of shooting whatsoever that will keep the gun completely rock-steady in your hand as it fires. Let it bounce up a bit.

If you fight this tendency of your wrist to rotate up, you will be subconsciously pushing down on the gun and will likely push your aim downward without realizing it.

If you still have problems with this, think of it this way — by the time the barrel of the gun has bounced up slightly with discharge, the bullet is already away — who cares if your wrist rotates 30 degrees or so at this point?

Of course this sort of attitude makes more sense when discussing shooting for accuracy, but self-defense considerations are often more tactical than worrying over whether or not your wrist rotates after you shoot.

There is no reason to maintain the gun completely unmoving, and your goal is not to prevent the thing from moving in the slightest when using it. Again, let it bounce up a little. You want to make sure that the bullet goes where you want it — and you only want to keep the gun steady as much as you need to to accomplish this. Don’t waste energy fighting the thing’s natural mechanical tendency to recoil, when you will not have the strength to do so at any rate.

This can also make shooting less tiring for you since you are not expending energy and tensing your muscles fighting the handgun’s natural recoil. Don’t fight the gun — just clear your mind, point, and shoot.

3. “Did it go off ye–” *BANG!*

This can seem a bit odd to a new shooter, but it is something that cannot be overstressed — do not anticipate the “break,” the point during the trigger pull at which the hammer will fall and cause the gun to fire. This is a sure recipe for flinching since you are sitting there waiting . . . waiting . . waiting jeez when is this damn thing gonna–*BANG!*

The secret to good aim is to not think so much about when the bullet is going to leave the gun — just concentrate on a good, smooth trigger pull (don’t jerk back on the trigger by degrees and wait to see if the gun will fire yet) and let the gun discharge when it is ready. This way, you do not anticipate the “break,” and you are not cringing waiting for the bang.

There is also a slightly more psychological reason not to anticipate the break — when you do so, a good part of your thinking mind is taken up with just waiting for the gun to go off, and this is therefore a fraction of your mind that is not occupied with keeping the gun steady, concentrating on your aim, or getting a good “sight picture” (a good picture of your gun’s sights against your target). Good aim with a handgun is composed of a number of things that are all best done without thinking, none of which are guessing when your handgun will fire as you squeeze the trigger.

Clear your mind. Concentrate instead on keeping a good solid grip, placing your hands properly, keeping good body posture, getting a good sight picture, and let the gun worry about the exact moment of discharge.

Flinching with a hand-held Howitzer

If you aren’t used to shooting or are a relative newcomer, one of the problems you may have run into is either being a bit intimidated by the handgun’s discharge (loud, pushes you back a little, makes holes in things, etc.) and perhaps using the wrong caliber of handgun. The first is fairly common among women shooters since we have been raised to get squeamish around anything that has a Male Aura of Mystique[tm] around it, and the second may or may not be present.

The first, intimidation from shooting, can only be cured by knowledge and familiarity with the handgun — a handgun is not inherently dangerous. It is the hand that holds it and the mind of the possessor of that hand that determines whether or not the gun is a danger to those around them through malice or negligence. Keep shooting, keep going to the range, and keep reading as much as you can about handguns. If you can, get together with some girlfriends and go shooting on a weeknight as a night out for you and them — go to a good restaurant afterwards, or see a movie. Make it a pleasant social event. This can help you associate going to the range with pleasant things, and this will relax you when you go.

It’s not a substitute penis, although some men think that, but hey — most of those types of guys think the same thing about their computers! If Joe Sixpack thinks “penis” when he sees a handgun, then it’s not the gun’s fault. Joe Sixpack just has a little dick obsession. It’s not Male Mystique. It’s just a machine, and it’s not even one that needs batteries or an electric cord! Anyone can learn to use it. Just keep practicing, keep reading, and let yourself enjoy your trips to the range. If you can’t go to the range with a group of girlfriends, try hitting the Baskin-Robbins on the way back. Works great for me! 🙂

The second problem — using the wrong caliber of handgun — often comes from unfamiliarity with handguns and with which ones are the best choice for you. Paxton Quigley, in her book Armed and Female, mentions that the first handgun she bought was one that was recommended to her by a sales clerk at a gun store, and while it was a fine machine, it was the wrong choice for her as a beginner. I’m more than willing to bet that it was too powerful although I don’t know for sure.

When you are first starting out, if you aren’t lucky enough as I was to know someone with access to a large number of firearms, you often don’t have a chance to try out more than one kind of firearm to see which ones fit you best. And if you run into an overly macho sales clerk at the local gun store (a breed of irksome primate that I must confess I’ve only rarely encountered myself), you might get a gun sold to you that is far too powerful for you as a beginner. Thus, picking up a .357 Magnum and shooting .357M’s out of it as the first gun you ever fire can leave you thinking, “Holy SH*T!”

For a beginner, good calibers are the

  • .380 (for autoloaders), which isn’t terribly powerful but is fair enough to get by, and often light enough not to make you cringe when you fire the thing;
  • .38 (for revolvers), which are stronger, but the guns themselves are often heavier, and while a heavier gun seems to be the wrong choice for a beginner, it will often recoil less and seem a bit steadier in your hand (I’ve found that revolvers in general are better for this since they don’t have a slide banging back and forth on the top of the gun);
  • .357M shooting .38’s — I know, I said that starting out with a .357M was a bad idea. They are great guns when you shoot .38’s out of them, though, particularly as a beginner. They are heavier than most .38’s since they are built like tanks, and this can often make them feel steadier and recoil less in the novice’s hand.
  • For more about the right gun to choose, see the section on selecting the right gun for you.

None of the above problems are automatically part of being a novice shooter. Often, they depend more on who first introduces you to shooting — if you are unlucky enough to have a boyfriend or husband who thinks it’s a laff-a-minute gas to make the little lady shoot his .44Magnum first time to scare the socks off of her, or if you run into a sales clerk who isn’t up on the best choices for novices, you could wind up flinching more than usual. If, however, you start out with a thoughtful mentor who is interested in preparing you for shooting and encouraging you to improve, you might be able to shoot that .357M without worrying since you’ve been prepared for it properly. While shooting one is hardly the “singular act of courage” that Paxton Quigley calls it, it can be a bit much for the beginner.

This is the situation that I was in when I first started shooting — the man who taught me the basics of shooting, Ron Moore, was very thorough and encouraging. He brought along a large variety of handguns the first time I went to the range with him and Cindy — a .22 revolver, a 9mm autoloader — his duty weapon of choice, a .357M revolver (I later purchased the same model for myself), and a .45 autoloader. After having shot the .22, I felt ready to work up to the larger calibers. The slide banging back and forth still jarred me a bit regards the two autoloaders (which makes the revolver the best choice for the novice), but at that point, I was inured enough to the recoil of the .22 and prepared by Ron’s instruction that shooting the .357M was more like:

*ka-BAAAAAAM!* “Oh, I like this one!” *ka-BAAAAAAAAAM!*

Had Ron not brought several handguns with him so that I could get used to shooting with the smaller ones, and had he not prepared me for the recoil of the .357M, my reaction would likely have been far less positive. (And I should also add that I shot the .45 auto once and promptly put it right back down, so I still wasn’t entirely used to the recoil of very powerful handguns. I’d like to try that .45 again someday, though.)

“How can I tell if I flinch?”

This isn’t as obvious as it seems; when your hand gets pushed back a bit from the recoil of the gun, you may wonder how much of it was the gun, and how much was your flinch. And even if you don’t think you flinch, you may be surprised to find that you do.

Happily, there is a very quick, easy way to test whether or not you’re flinching. This was how Ron tested me, and I’ve gotten several e-mails from people who have said that this technique worked well for them as well. You must use a revolver to test yourself in this fashion.

Go to the range with a friend, and have them load your revolver — but not in each chamber! Out of six chambers, only put two or three rounds in, and put them in at random — not empty/round/empty/round/empty/round. Then, have them hand you the revolver, and just pick it up, aim it carefully, and pull the trigger. Sometimes gun will discharge — and sometimes it will just click harmlessly as the hammer falls on an empty chamber.

The secret lies in the fact that you won’t know which is which (don’t peek). And if you aren’t sure, and pull that trigger, and your hand jerks back when nothing comes out of the muzzle, then you know you have a flinching problem.

Again, this can seem a lot more obvious than it is — there are several times when I’ve seen shooters who would swear up and down that they aren’t flinching learn otherwise when they jerk backwards or blink on an empty chamber. This was also how I learned that I do not normally flinch for some odd reason. And once you learn that you have the problem, then you can start considering what to do about it.

In summary:

  • Use proper ear protection so you aren’t cringing in anticipation of the ringing in your head. This is not an option.
  • Let your wrist rotate up a bit — don’t fight the gun.
  • Just concentrate on smoothness and keeping a nice sight picture, and let the gun worry about the precise moment of discharge.
  • Choose the right caliber — avoid shooting very powerful cartridges at first until you feel more confident or have had a good teacher who can prepare you well.

Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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