Shoot Like a Pro: Overcoming the Flinch Response

August 02, 2016 3 Comments

Shoot Like a Pro: Overcoming the Flinch Response

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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 many 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.

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 lightly push against you. As they continue to push and you try to maintain balance, have them stop suddenly without giving you warning. Invariably, you will push forward to resist the push. This is an anticipation response of the body to maintain equilibrium.

After you have fired a powerful handgun a few times, there is a strong tendency to anticipate 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.

Why We Flinch

When shooting firearms rapidly, experienced shooters develop a compensating shove just after the gun discharges. Colonel 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 affect 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 (typically down) if it occurs too soon during the recoil cycle.

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 in anticipation of the shot to come.

I prefer Colonel 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; this 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 for 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. If the target is small, we slowly begin pulling the trigger. The anticipation builds as the trigger is depressed. The point where the hammer is just getting ready to drop is where most people lose control and flinch in anticipation of the shot.

There is a powerful urge to jerk the trigger 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. This results in yanking the trigger and pushing 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 tight time limits, the stress of qualification, competition, or actual gunfight conditions and the flinch becomes much more pronounced.

The Flinch Response

The flinch response is manifested in several different ways. The first is pushing the upper body forward to compensate for the shove from recoil. This is a balancing/compensation response.

More subtle flinches involve wristing the gun up or down, blinking at the report, losing focus of the front sight, and squeezing 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. Jerking 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 jerk the trigger and learn 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.

Reducing Flinch

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 reacting 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.

It is crucial to shooting accurately 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 exaggerates 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.

Another important skill you need is the ability to keep the same amount of tension in the body before, during, and after the shot. As you become more experienced in this, you will 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. However I suspect that, like me, most experienced shooters know EXACTLY when their gun is going to go off. I can feel the sear engagement about to break–there is no surprise break for me. I have simply learned to hold still and LET RECOIL HAPPEN. This is an exercise in mental discipline and relaxation.

Proper Grip and Stance

Improper grip and stance can 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. Your dominant hand should be as high on the back of the gun as possible to decrease the amount of leverage that recoil has to work against you.

Another simple way to improve your grip is to put skateboard tape on the grip of your pistol to create more friction. This makes it easier to maintain control of the handgun and allows you to be more relaxed in the grip without allowing the firearms to slip during the recoil cycle.

Proper stance will also improve your ability to accept the recoil. 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 this problem, move your center of gravity forward by leaning your whole body forward from your ankles. 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.

As a side note, with the current trend towards smaller and lighter handguns I have noticed an increase in flinching among students shooting these firearms. It is helpful to recognize that weight is not a bad thing if it is kept in a range that allows for controllability along with ease of carry.

Mindset and Training

Since the flinch response starts in the mind, one of the key elements in overcoming flinch is to use visualization. To do this, spend five minutes imagining yourself shooting the handgun while holding it still. See and feel yourself holding your 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 there must be additional training to help them develop the discipline to accept recoil without flinching unduly.

No shooter 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. 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 unwanted flinch responses. Overcoming flinch and loss of focus is a journey, not a destination. Everyone is subject to flinch at times depending on what they are shooting and the stress they are under. The key is to become aware of flinch and then take steps to reduce it.

Ron Avery, co-founder

Tactical Performance Center

3 Responses


August 03, 2016

The way I got over my flinch was snap caps. I bought a 5 pack of them and loaded them all into my magazine randomly with live rounds. Once the hammer fell in a snap cap I was able to recognize my flinch clear as day.


August 03, 2016

Great article- This type of condition is not limited to shooting sports. It can be seen in all competitive types of sports. It may not be called “flinch” or any number of other names. However, it is virtually the same thing.

One thing I learned in other sports- When you have a physical response to an uncontrollable mental condition; use another physical stimuli to overcome the one that you wish to change. For example, Put a rock in your shoe that annoys you without causing pain. Tie a string around your wrist that is tight and bright. Tight enough to feel without causing a loss of circulation. Bright enough that you notice it slightly out of your peripheral vision. Your goal is to take your subconscious reaction of flinching and turn it into a conscious response that does not interrupt your performance. One other thing that I learned from basketball sports- Practice with your eyes closed. Don’t use a target (basketball hoop and backboard) and just shoot at the backstop (berm). Let your other senses focus on what you are doing (shooting). Let your mind absorb what is happening physically versus using all 3 senses. Take one sense away and the other become more heightened.

Jeff Gilliam
Jeff Gilliam

August 03, 2016

thank you very much. very very good information and helpful

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