Keys to Good Shooting



Steve Light


In most sports, body conditioning is an absolute necessity.  For example, the need to condition the body to improve strength or speed is obvious for such sport activities as football, track or swimming.  However, the need to condition the body to maximize shooting performance is not obvious and generally is not practiced by skirmishers.  Thus , this critical element of shooting does not receive enough serious attention by skirmishers.  I content that body conditioning is very critical to good shooting.


A shooting training program that is designed to improve your shooting skills is essential to maximizing your shooting performance.  A man would not enter a long distance race without first spending many hours in conditioning his body for the race.  Why is shooting any different?  In the January issue of The Skirmish Line, I described the human side of the shooting equation as being equal or perhaps more important than equipment in achieving maximum shooting performance.  Therefore, efforts to improve your shooting skills will result in better shooting performance.  This article will discuss the parts of the body that need conditioning for improving your shooting skills and performance.


Conditioning the body for improving performance must be directed toward the required skills of the specific activity.  Therefore, let’s describe the shooting scenario for an understanding of what we expect of the body in shooting a Musket.  The body must be able to hold a nine pound Musket steady long enough for the bullet to exit the muzzle while the sights are still on the bullseye. The brain, eyes, and muscles must be coordinated to prevent any undesired body movement between the moment that the brain tells the finger to release the trigger and the exact moment the bullet exits the muzzle.  Although the body conditioning requirements for the shooting activity just described may seem small when compared to the same requirements to play football, body conditioning for shooting is extremely difficult because the major conditioning requirement involves the precise coordination of the mental, muscle, eye, and nervous system functions.  Also, during shooting, it is extremely important to keep your body functions as calm as possible since you want to keep your body from moving and wobbling.  This is an extreme demand on the body that is unique in the sports world.


Although this article is primarily addressing training from the viewpoint of body conditioning, your training program must also include practice either by dry firing or actual range practice.  It takes many hours of practice to tune the body to function smoothly for shooting.  There’s no short cut or any other way to become proficient with a Musket.  As a beginner, you should practice about eight hours a week of actual shooting.  When  you become proficient with a Musket, less time can be spent but weekly practice is still needed.  Compete in as many competitive matches as possible since they are the best practice.  Start your practice in early February and continue thru the shooting season.


The following paragraphs will describe the body functions that require conditioning to achieve maximum shooting performance.  A caution is in order for all shooters!  I do not recommend anyone starting a conditioning or exercise program without getting a physical checkup and your doctor’s approval.  The major body functions that are important to shooting are:


  1. Muscles
  2. Cardiovascular and respiratory systems
  3. Nervous system/mental control/physiological
  4. Eyes


Thus, your training and conditioning program should address improving all of the above body functions as a total system and not just one of the functions.  It helps to lift weights to strengthen the arms but maximum  shooting skills can be obtained only by  systematically conditioning all of the body functions that are critical to shooting.  Mental control, muscles, nerves, cardiovascular and respiratory systems are all so intertwined that a weakness of one will cause poor shooting regardless of how well you condition another.


A.  Muscles



Upper body strength is needed to hold the Musket steady and a strong back, legs, and knees are required to hold the body erect and motionless while shooting.  A very noticeable improvement in your shooting performance can be realized by increasing your muscle strength and stamina by performing on a regular basis various muscle strengthening exercises.


A modest weight lifting program that is started in January and continued through the shooting season is an excellent way to strengthen the muscles.  Upper body strength (arms, shoulders, and chest) can be strengthened by performing two or three times a week such weight lifting exercises such as curls and presses.  There are many good books on weight lifting exercises and it is not necessary to detail them in this article.  You should start out with small weights and gradually increase them as you progress from week to week.  Use just enough weight so you have to strain to complete a set of 10 curls or presses.  The object of the weight training is not to become muscle bound but to tone up the muscles to increase your strength and stamina.  The added strength will enable you to hold the Musket and front sight on the target momentarily without wobbling too much off target.


It is also important to include exercises in your weight lifting program to strengthen the back, legs, knees since they are the fulcrum and support for holding the body erect and steady while shooting in a standing position.  Presses, squats and sit-ups are good exercises to strengthen these areas of the body.  Also, jogging is good for the legs.  You must exercise on a regular basis to do you any good.  For example, a good schedule is to lift weights for about one hour each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Jog each weekday and practice your Musket shooting on the weekend.


Many athletic training programs use what is called an overload technique.  The concept is to train using equipment that overloads the body more than is actually required for the game.  For example, the baseball player practices with a heavier bat than the one used during the actual game.  This training overload technique can be applied to Musket practice.  For example, practice dry firing with a weight tied to the end of the Musket.  Use your ammo cartridge box with the strap looped over the muzzle end of the barrel. Fill the box with one pound lead weights.  Progressively add more weights as you get used to the weight while dry firing.  Practice dry firing several times a week using the same sight picture and lock action as you do in competitive matches.


C.     Cardiovascular/Respiratory Systems



The body’s engine (heart) must be at a slow idle if you are to be able to remain relaxed while shooting.  A person whose cardiovascular and respiratory systems are in good shape will be able to keep the engine’s speed slow under pressure conditions.  Shooting under pressure causes the heart to pump faster because of the added tension placed on the body.  If the pulse rate is above normal under nonpressure situations, then it is likely to accelerate while shooting.  As the heart rate increases, so does your breathing.  The higher heard and breathing rates are counter productive to achieving maximum shooting performance.  Therefore, your body conditioning program for shooting must include exercises to improve your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.  You can improve these systems by performing on a regular basis, various aerobic exercises such as jogging and swimming.  I jog about 1-1/2 miles five days a week for cardiovascular and respiratory conditioning during the shooting season.  Also, I avoid smoking to improve the efficiency of my respiratory system.


A.     Nervous System


The nervous system, which consists of the brain, autonomic nerves, spinal cord, and network of nerves, control our entire body functions, e.g., muscles, breathing, stomach/digestion, blood pressure/heart rate, etc.  Thus, if the nervous system is not functioning properly, then the parts of the body that are required for shooting will not be able to perform to their maximum potential.  It’s a simple fact that you cannot shoot well if you are nervous.  It logically follows that the individual who is competitive and dedicated to good shooting will attempt to identify what makes him nervous and take steps to prevent nervousness during shooting.


An understanding of overcoming a case of bad nerves for a healthy person is to realize that it is not the nervous system that gets nervous during shooting.  What causes nervousness is an outside force that places tension or stress on the nervous system.  Such tension upsets the nervous system and causes various body functions to act abnormally.  Examples are tightness in the stomach, higher pulse rate, shaky knees/legs, and poor muscle coordination that produce unwanted muscle reaction, e.g., flinch.


The following paragraphs will describe the major outside forces that create tension.  Also, some suggestions will be provided on how to minimize nervousness.  It is certainly beyond the scope of this article and the qualifications of the author to solve chronic nervous disorders but most healthy shooters can improve their nerves and learn to relax while shooting. 


The nervous system can be adversely impacted by three major areas of outside influence:


1.      Mental

2.      Physical condition

3.      Physiological


  1. Mental


The shooter’s mental attitude, if negative, can cause tension and anxiety that will lead to nervousness while shooting.  If an individual is fearful that he will not shoot well in front of a crowd or in a must win situation for the team, the likely results are stress on the nervous system.  The more the shooter is convinced that he will do poorly, the more likely he will.  Also, avoid any hang-ups or phobias that will cause bad shooting.  For example, many shooters will convince themselves that they cannot hit a particular target or that they will shoot badly on a given range.  A shooter must have a positive attitude about his shooting ability.  Any doubts about your ability, equipment or hang-ups on a particular target, will cause stress to be placed on the nervous system.


Your conditioning program must also include mental control.  A flinch is the body’s reaction to the anticipated recoil of the gun.  A flinch is most obvious when the gun does not go off.  The shooter does not tell the body to flinch but it does so anyway, subconsciously, as a protective device.  I flinch as I believe most shooters do.  The trick is to hold the Musket long enough on the target for the bullet to exit the muzzle after your brain has told you to release the trigger.  Only after the bullet has exit the barrel can you flinch.  You must constantly remind yourself to hold longer and follow thru.  Keep exerting mental control to preclude unwanted body reaction and movement.  I have to constantly remind myself not to move my left arm because I have a tendency to drop the arm before the shooting goes off which causes the shot to go low.  Dry firing is an excellent training method to practice mental control to prevent the flinch.  An even better way is to use a mixture of live and blank percussion caps in the cap box while practicing actual firing.  Try it sometime and notice the mental thought that goes into keeping the flinch under control.  If you have a bad flinch, then a body conditioning program that reduces nervousness and practicing dry firing are a must to improving shooting performance.  Practice until you have mental control over your muscle’s reaction to  the recoil.


2.      Physical condition


An individual that is in good condition (physically and mentally) can withstand more stress of a competitive situation.  Improving muscle tone, cardiovascular and respiratory systems will help cope with a stressful situation.  One of the best ways to ease a nervous condition is to get yourself in good physical shape.  Relaxing on the firing line can be accomplished by keeping the pulse rate at a moderate level and by proper breathing.  Many techniques that are used to control tension involve a combination of breathing and meditation exercises.  If you are nervous on the firing line, then inhale and exhale deeply and slowly prior to starting to shoot.  Your mind should be free of any distractions or thoughts of how well you will or will not do.  During the shooting event, breathe normally and concentrate solely on your shooting motions.  With a little practice, this exercise and keeping in good shape should help you to relax and free you of any tension while shooting.


3.      Physiological


Although it is not my intent to outline a health course for skirmishers, it is a fact that conditioning the body for an sport, including shooting, should include proper nutrition and health habits.  A healthy body will be in a better condition to combat stressful situations such as competitive shooting.  Also, any physiological disorders such as an upset stomach or body fatigue will act upon the nervous system to cause nervousness.  Avoid foods or liquids that cause digestive problems during a shooting match.  Digestive problems will cause bad nerves as the body reacts to combat the problem.  Also, if you believe smoking is hurting your shooting by degrading the respiratory system, then stop smoking.  If you believe eating certain foods or drinking certain liquids are harmful by causing nervousness, then avoid these items.  The point is that each individual should map out his own health plan to suit specific deficiencies and to improve the nervous system and body for improved shooting.


4.      Eyes


Although the eyes are not too susceptible to conditioning their importance to good shooting demands proper care and action to correct poor eyesight.  It should be noted, however, some medical opinion holds that the eyes can be improved by conditioning exercises.  The book, Better Eyesight Without Glasses, by W. H. Bates, M.D. outlines various meditation exercises that are suppose to improve the eyesight.


The eyes have the impossible task of trying to focus three items at the same time, that is, target, front sight, and rear sight.  Even with good eyes, some amount of fuzziness occurs.  The fuzziness of the sight picture gets worse as the eyesight deteriorates with age.  However, poor eyesight can be corrected to a tolerable level for shooting with prescription glasses.  For example, I am near sighted and have difficulty seeing the target.  Therefore, I wear corrective lens which clarify the target.  However, the corrective lenses for distance viewing have a tendency to blur objects that are close such as the rear sight.  Last year, I ordered a stronger pair of glasses but couldn’t use them for shooting because they blurred the rear sight.  Thus, I had to return to the older and weaker glasses as a compromise.  I opted to see the neither the target or sights with 20/20 vision, but was willing to accept a slight blur on the target and sights.  You should keep this problem in mind when you are selecting corrective lens.


There are several other considerations when ordering shooting glasses.  Generally, gray/brown sunglasses should be used on bright sunny days and yellow or clear glasses when the lighting is poor.  You can also order prescription lens that change with the lighting conditions, e.g., the lens darken when the lighting is bright and becomes clear when it is poor.  The optical center is usually in the middle of then lens.  Because shooters tilt their head when sighting the target, they are looking thru the top left corner of the lens for right handed shooters.  You may want to have the optical center moved to the top left corner to get maximum benefit from the lens.


Some shooters use an optical attachment on their glasses.  The attachment consists of a peep hold and is attached to the lens by a rubber suction cup.  The peep hold can be ordered in a fixed size, or adjustable to any diameter from .020 to .155 inch.  You can order a Merit Iris Shutter Optical Attachment from the Merit Gunsight Company, Sequim, Washington 98382 for about $25.00.  The aperture on the lens will sharpen the rear sight but it does take longer to find and sight the target.


Another item relative to the eyes that is very controversial is whether to sight the target with one or two eyes open.  I frankly don’t think it makes much difference.  I shoot with one eye closed based on habit rather than any specific design for better shooting.  The proponents of keeping both eyes open argue that  it helps to reduce eye fatigue and aids in peripheral vision.  Again, there is no consensus on this issue and each shooter should try shooting both ways to determine which is the most comfortable and effective.


An interesting article is in the March 1980 issue of the American Rifleman.  The article, “Do the Eyes Have It?” by Frederick S. Daniels suggests that the dominant eye is more important than the dominant hand in shooting.  Most shooters have a dominant eye and for right handed shooters, the dominant eye is usually (the article states that this is the case for 85% of the population) the right eye.  This condition is called ipsilateral hand-eye dominance.  You can determine your dominant eye by focusing your finger on an object.  Close one eye.  If the relative position of finger and object did not change, then the open eye is the dominant eye.  If you are right-handed and your dominant eye is the left eye, then this condition is called contralateral dominance.  The article suggests that ipsilateral people are better shooters than contralateral people.  Further, the article suggests that beginning shooters may improve their shooting by shooting with the same hand as their dominant eye.  If you are a contralateral person, then the article is suggested reading.


Another controversial subject is whether to use an open or peep type of rear sight.  I prefer a peep sight because you eliminate a major task for the eyes of maintaining the same alignment of the front sight with the rear sight.  When using an open sight, you must keep the front sight aligned in the “V” notch in the same relative position.  The shots will vary if the front sight position is moving up and down in the “V” notch.  On the other hand, when using a peep sight, the eye will automatically center the front sight in the center of the peep.  When using a peep, you just have to concentrate on keeping the front sight on the center of the target.  However, with an open sight, you must concentrate on the center of the target and aligning it with the “V” notch.  Thus, the task for the eyes is easier using a peep sight.  However, a peep sight is not without some disadvantages.  A peep sight reduces your field of vision, takes longer to sight the target and it is harder to see the target on a cloudy day.


In summary, the major point of this article is that conditioning the body to improve the body functions required for shooting will result in better shooting performance.  I strongly recommend that the competitive shooter start (after the Doctor’s OK) a dedicated training program that includes the elements which are described by this article.  You will see an improvement in your shooting and besides, it’s good for your health, if you don’t over do it.