Precision Rifle Marksmanship - Breathing

Feb 17, 2014


Written By - Greg Dykstra
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This particular precision rifle fundamental is the only one that our body does automatically with no thought or action required by us to accomplish. From the time we are born, each of us instinctively knows how to breathe, even though we are alive for 9 months prior to us ever being able to take a breath. If our bodies had the ability to breathe without our bodies moving, the need for this article wouldn't exist. Yet as most of you are aware, it is very difficult to breathe without moving. If our body is moving, then so is the rifle we are attached to. It would seem rather self evident that we need to breathe, so stopping isn't an option. In this article we will discuss the specifics of what happens to our body during the breathing cycle and how that can affect our ability to deploy a precision rifle.

If you were to ask 100 people how to breathe properly when firing a rifle, you'd likely get 50 different answers. It seems that everyone has a slightly different view on how they should breathe and how it affects their shooting ability. In order to learn how breathing affects our shooting, we must first understand how breathing affects our body. Lets take a close look at exactly what is going on when we breathe. 

The breathing cycle is defined by the inhale and exhale of air. When we inhale, our diaphragm muscle contracts and moves down toward our waist. This essentially creates a vacuum in our chest cavity, which allows our lungs to expand as they draw in air through our nose or mouth. Think of your lungs as balloons. When the air reaches our lungs, it is drawn into our blood stream. At the same time, carbon dioxide is released into our lungs. When we exhale, the diaphragm is relaxed, which moves upward like a rubber band and pushes the carbon dioxide out of our lungs. The key thing to take away from this is that we expend muscle energy to inhale, yet must relax in order to exhale. Keep that in the back of your mind as you read this article. 


Once our blood is oxygenated, it travels throughout our body, providing our cells with what they need to continue operating. The most important destination for this oxygenated blood is our brain. If the flow of oxygenated blood to our brain is interrupted for long enough, we die. If oxygen is entering our blood normally, but our heart is not pumping it fast enough, we die. If our heart is pumping fast enough, but we are not getting enough oxygen into our blood, we die. Getting the message here? Our heart, our lungs, and our brain are tied together very tightly. What affects one, affects the others. The instinctive automatic functions of our brain are what causes our breathing cycle to operate. If we run, our cells consume more oxygen, our lungs need to convert more air, and our heart needs to beat faster in order for supply to meet demand. This is one of the miracles of life. Everyone's body will naturally and automatically do these things when we decide to subject our bodies to physical stress. The harder you push yourself, the faster your breathing cycle becomes. So now we know how it works, and that it is automatic. If it is automatic, can we influence it? If we can, do we want to


Movement is exagerated for demonstration purposes

When in the prone firing position which was discussed in the previous article, the majority of our torso is in direct contact with the ground. When we inhale, our chest cavity expands. This takes more effort than if we are standing due to our chest being pressed against the ground by gravity. As our chest cavity expands, our body is pressed away from the ground, creating vertical movement. Think of tires on your car. If you deflate them, your car will sit lower, but if you inflate them, it will sit higher. Our entire chest cavity is basically one big balloon. It expands and contracts, getting larger or smaller, based on the frequency demanded by our breathing cycle. Notice the two images above. There is substantial vertical movement between the bottom and the top of the breath cycle. If the rifle and shooter have successfully achieved joint NPA, how can we maintain the alignment of joint NPA to the target if our body is moving?Answer: We can't. Well this presents all kinds of problems. If we stop breathing, we die. If we continue breathing, our chest will move. If our chest moves, and the rifle doesn't move with us, we violate NPA. If we bring the rifle with us, we lose joint NPA to target alignment. 

a. Your Brain Runs the Show.
Breathing is an automatic act which is controlled by your brain. There are sensors all throughout your body that report back to your brain on the condition of your bodies systems. If you get something in your lungs that isn't supposed to be there, a sensor reports this and your brain initiates a cough. If you aren't getting enough oxygen, your brain will speed up your breathing cycle and tell your heart to beat faster. This effect can be neutralized, and the key to controlling your breathing is controlling your brain. 

b. Mind Your Thoughts.
Your brain will react to various stimuli differently. Emotional reactions can cause your breathing cycle to change. If you get scared, your heart rate and breathing cycle increase. If you are sleeping, your heart rate and breathing cycle are doing just enough to keep you alive. The power of thought is probably one of the most underestimated forces in the universe. This is one of the primary mechanisms which we have in controlling our breathing cycle. If you think of calming things, you can get calm and slow your breathing cycle and heart rate. If you think of stressful things, you can get worked up. More on this later. 

c. Stay Physically Fit. 
If you physically exhaust yourself, your heart rate and breathing cycle go to max RPM. Your heart will be trying to pound its way out of your chest, and your breathing cycle will be extremely fast. You can mentally push past a great deal of this, but if you keep pushing physically, everyone's body will simply collapse at some point. The more in shape you are, the more work your body can do with the oxygen available to it. Obviously this matters more when you get up and get moving around with your rifle and introduce time constraints. If you have plenty of time, then you can lay there behind the rifle as long as is necessary to relax into your breath cycle. 

d. Learn to Breathe. 
We may instinctively breathe since the day we are born, but that doesn't mean we know how to breathe. Rather than try to re-invent the wheel, I'll point you to the source of my breathing technique. Let Every Breath..., by Vladimir Vasiliev. At the core of nearly all martial arts, you will find a breathing technique. Well Vladimir Vasiliev is one of the authorities behind the Russian martial art of Systema. I have trained under Ken Good, and I'm here to tell you, Systema isn't playtime like most other martial arts. It is the only one that I've found that specifically addresses gun-play. Vladimir comes from a background of Russian special forces, and Ken Good is largely responsible for the hand-to-hand and close quarter combat techniques which are used by our elite special forces units today. Training with Ken was an eye opening experience, and I immediately set out to apply what I'd learned to the precision rifle discipline. The Systema breathing techniques have had the most immediate effect, but the entire Systema martial art can be of benefit. Buy the book and learn to breathe. 

e. Natural Respiratory Pause
When you exhale, there is a delay between when all of your air is gone, and you begin to draw another breath. This delay is called your natural respiratory pause. At this moment, your chest is as relaxed as it can be. There should be no tension felt anywhere throughout your chest cavity. All of the muscles required to breathe should be completely relaxed, and your body should be resting on the bone support provided by your rib cage and arm bones. 

Now that we have some preparation out of the way, lets move on to the technique itself. 

Step #1 - Breathe Naturally 
Do not molest the breathing cycle. You are never allowed to stop breathing. Not ever, for any reason, unless you are dead or underwater. Whatever your breathing cycle happens to be, that is where it NEEDS to be. Don't fight it. Never stop breathing or interrupt your natural respiratory cycle for any reason. If you exert yourself, you'll be breathing faster. That's good. That is an indication that your body is working correctly. If you can use breathing and relaxation techniques to slow your breath cycle, then do so. However, sometimes time and situations may not allow you the ability to adequately slow your breathing for a shot. This can be dealt with, but only if you keep breathing. Do not try to extend your natural respiratory pause. The key word there being "natural." It's not natural to extend that pause! It will last as long as is necessary, dependent upon how much oxygen your body needs at that specific time. Holding your breath will hurt you, not help you. It will never help you to hold your breath, unless you are under water, or in a smoke-filled building. That being the case, you are probably not proned out behind a precision rifle! 

When you stop breathing, it sets in motion a series of automatic events in your body. I'll skip the doctor version of this and just focus on the things that affect our shooting. The first thing that happens when you stop breathing is that your lungs begin to fill with carbon dioxide(CO2), which will create a burning sensation. Just because you stopped inhaling air, doesn't mean you body stops dumping CO2 into your lungs. When the CO2 levels in your lungs reach a certain point, your diaphragm and muscles between your ribs will start to involuntarily contract and spasm. This is a natural reaction to them having forcibly stopped the motion they've been repeating over 19,000 times per day since birth. When your subconscious brain senses that CO2 is building up, it will be trying to force your diaphragm to get moving and do its job, while your conscious brain will be telling it to stop. This is a violent tug of war from a neurological standpoint. Everyone has a different tolerance for how much CO2 their lungs can fill with before they will be unable to hold their breath any longer. Eventually you will be unable to stop your diaphragm from completing it's motion causing you to breathe. What I've just described can take seconds or minutes depending upon the individual. The world record is something like 17 minutes. Most people can hold their breath for at least 45 seconds to a minute. However, just because we don't automatically die from holding our breath, doesn't mean that nothing is happening to our bodies. When you start to hold your breath, your body immediately begins prioritizing where your oxygen goes. It goes down the list of organs required to keep you alive, and the most important things get oxygen first. 

The first to be neglected are your eyes. Your eyes will start to flutter, and not focus properly. There have been many instances where people reported breathing exercises helped their eyesight, and the affect was immediately noticed. With adherence to a breathing technique regimen, their eyesight improved permanently. Eyesight is a pretty important factor in precision rifle deployment, wouldn't you say? Holding your breath for even a couple seconds can begin to have a negative effect on your eyes. The longer you hold your breath, the worse it gets. Our eyes do not have a direct impact on keeping us alive, so they are at the top of the list. 

The next thing to be affected is your muscles. This is especially true for the muscles in our extremities. As our muscles lose their oxygen source, they begin to fatigue. They will become restless and involuntarily twitch. It likely goes without saying that having your trigger finger involuntarily twitch would be a bad thing. The longer you hold your breath, the weaker and harder to control your muscles will be. While in a firing position, you will need some muscles to some degree. The more energy you use, the more oxygen you need. When holding your breath, there is no new oxygen, so your muscles will basically have too work harder to maintain the same level of force. On a long enough timeline, the muscles will simply stop working, just as if a battery has been completely drained. 

After that, it starts to get bad. Most everything else in your body is pretty much required equipment to stay alive. There are other organs that will start malfunctioning, and inevitably your heart, lungs, and finally your brain will stop working correctly if the supply of oxygen is not restored. Once your brain stops working correctly you will lose the ability to concentrate and your judgment will become impaired. None of these things are good... so lets just keep that breath cycle going at the rate our body determines shall we? 

Step #2 - Move Naturally 
Here's a little morsel that I'm happy to call my own. To date, I've not heard this talked about or written anywhere else to any degree. Try to keep an open mind! Oh, and if someone has shared this before, I'll gladly concede the discovery. Earlier in this article we defined a problem with joint NPA to target alignment which is created as our chest expands during the breathing cycle. The solution to this problem is to adhere to joint NPA, and control it's relationship to your reticle alignment. As I instructed in the previous article on the zero force firing position, you were to attach yourself to the rifle when all the air had been released from your lungs. This is where that becomes important. If you attach yourself to the rifle at the natural respiratory pause, then you effectively have synchronized the moment when you will be at your most relaxed state with your reticles most upward position on the target. As you breathe in, your chest expands, raising you off the ground. If your rifle is attached to the shoulder pocket in such a way that true joint NPA has been achieved, then the rear of your rifle will also be lifted upward. If the rear of your rifle moves upward, your crosshair will move lower in relation to the target. Most shooters will fight this natural movement, and try to keep their reticle centered on the target. Resist the natural urge to do this. You want to allow the reticle to move naturally in complete cooperation with your breathing cycle. An example of what you should see is shown here: 


How much movement you see is entirely dependent upon your body type, how hard you are breathing, what position you are in, and what type of support you have. This effect will usually surface to some degree regardless of what position you are in. If the rifle has front support and is attached to your shoulder pocket, then the reticle will move down as you inhale, and back up as you exhale. Once I discovered this, it was as if an entirely new world opened up to me. Any rhythmic sound we hear or motion which is visually presented to our brains has extraordinary psychological ramifications. You don't have to do a lot of research on hypnosis to find that rhythmic presentations are a key aspect to that method of tapping into the subconscious mind. When you get to looking at it, relaxation and breathing techniques have a lot in common with hypnosis techniques. I practiced this technique for a few months, and found myself with a level of relaxation behind the rifle that I previously had not thought possible. 

When you breathe naturally and your body moves naturally, but you fight the reticles location against that natural motion, a series of bad things begin to occur. Along with violating joint NPA, it takes muscle effort to fight that motion. You expend energy to keep your shoulder pocket motionless while the rest of your chest is moving. When you expend this energy you eat up oxygen, which requires your body to increase it's intake. Thus, causing your breathing cycle to elevate. Most shooters do this without even thinking about it. If you pay close enough attention to the source of physical stress while attempting to resist that movement, you will feel tension in your shoulders, back, neck, and chest. The very places that you do not want tension. The farther away from the rifle you can keep muscle tension, the better. Conversely, if you allow the rifle to move naturally with your body, you can stay completely relaxed. This is a desirable condition. 

Obviously if the rear of our rifle is moving up and down, our contact with the rear bag will be ever-changing. In the previous article we did not discuss rear bag manipulation beyond that of setting the rifle's NPA. This article is not adequate for addressing rear bag manipulation either, so we will simply touch on the basic concept that is affected by maintaining joint NPA while breathing. Essentially, if you've done everything correctly to this point, the rifle will be making firm and stable contact with the rear bag during your natural respiratory pause. This is also a desirable condition. We will expand on this in a later article regarding rear bag manipulation. 

Step #3 - Relax 
Seize this opportunity to get in tune with your bodies natural rhythms. Not only can you feel it, but you can see it through the rifle scope. There are countless techniques to become relaxed. Physical and mental exercises are at the core of these relaxation techniques. Ever see some ripped-out special forces-type guy in a yoga class? Well he's either sight seeing, or working on this type of mind control training. It all has merit folks. A relaxed mind can produce a relaxed body, and that's the end goal of what we're trying to achieve. I would encourage all of you to research breathing techniques, and specifically those applied in Systema. If you choose, continue researching Systema itself and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how many parallels you'll find with proper precision rifle mindset. If you don't want to look into Systema, try Yoga. As I said before, there is no point in re-inventing the wheel if there is nothing to be gained. Other disciplines have spent centuries concentrating on mind and body manipulation. We should learn from them, and apply it to our daily lives. 

We'll stop there. 
 ...and we still haven't fired a shot! Are you starting to understand that proper application of a precision rifle is more about what you let happen than what you make happen? Obviously we have a long way to go as we travel through the fundamentals of operating a precision rifle. Hang in there. In the next article I promise you'll get to press that trigger! Thanks again for reading, and I hope this has been of some value to you.

Older Articles:

Precision Rifle Marksmanship - Zero Force Firing Position

Precision Rifle Marksmanship - Grip Technique

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No part of this website or any of its content may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the express prior written permission of Primal Rights, Inc