In a bizarre sort of way, I actually look forward to the occasional rare misfire when shooting firearms. Also useful, are those brain farts every shooter has, when we line up on a target and squeeze the trigger on an empty rifle. It doesn’t matter how it happens, because a gun that goes click, when you fully expect it to go boom, is one of the most valuable events in a shooter’s year.
No, you won’t hit your target with a misfire or an empty gun, but what you’ve experienced is priceless in what it teaches. The catch is, you have to be paying attention to learn the lesson. And the lesson an unexpectedly empty gun teaches you, is whether you have a flinch.
When that rifle delivers an unexpected “click,” we need to do an instant replay in our heads and ask ourselves what the crosshair did at the moment of the click. Did it remain solidly on target? If you can answer to the affirmative, you’ve likely just established that you don’t have a flinching problem. However, if that crosshair, took a sudden dive, just as the firing pin dropped, it means you’re muscles tensed in anticipation of the shot, and you have a flinch.
What is a flinch? One dictionary I consulted says it means to withdraw or shrink away from something, as if from pain. It also means to tense the muscles involuntarily in anticipation of discomfort. That’s a great description of what happens when a shooter flinches. After all, there’s an explosion happening just in front of the face, a loud noise assaults the ears and we then get punched in the shoulder. It’s no wonder shooters flinch. Actually, it’s rather amazing that we can condition ourselves not to.
Most shooters will develop a flinch at some point in their careers. If you shoot only occasionally, that unfamiliarity will contribute to flinching. If you shoot a lot, the constant pounding will take it’s toll and make you more prone to flinching. It’s a no-win situation. The only thing you can do, is evaluate yourself regularly and go to Flinchers Anonymous when you lose control. Because, like an alcoholic, you’ll need to recognize and admit there’s a problem before you can be helped.
If you’re not sure whether a flinch is living inside your head, it’s easy to self-diagnose. The only thing you need is your firearm, some ammo and a few dummy rounds. With as few as one or two of these, it’s easy to set up a unexpected misfire. And you do need a misfire because the recoil of even a small rifle, is enough to completely mask a flinch.
You can have a friend load the magazine of your rifle with a dummy in the mix, or you can tumble a mixture in your pocket and load your firearm without looking. The only requirement is not knowing whether a live cartridge or an inert one is under the firing pin. Additionally, when dealing with rifles and trying to diagnose a flinch, you should not shoot from a fixed rest. The stability of a shooting bench or bipod, will also work to mask a flinch and that’s counter-productive.
So, from a prone or kneeling position, with no artificial support, take your best shot and simply pay attention to what the sight does when the firing pin drops on a missing primer. If you have a flinch, the sight will drop as you’re muscles tense in anticipation of the discomfort of a shot. If shooting with a friend, he can watch your muzzle too, as a sudden dip in its position is a dead give-away that you’re flinching.
Curing a flinch isn’t necessarily hard, but just like any kind of rehabilitation, it takes time and a multi-pronged approach. You should start with improving your hearing protection, because part of a flinch comes from the noise of a gunshot. Double up on hearing protection by using plugs and muffs, especially if your rifle has a muzzle brake. After that, get rid of the recoil. That’s done by improving your gun’s recoil management. MDT chassis’ add some weight, which always helps. But their design also yields a more straight-back recoil path, and their adjust-to-fit buttstock helps too. And if nothing else works, go to a smaller calibre and/or lighter loads. If they are legal where you live, nothing works better than a suppressor, as they serve to cut both recoil and noise.
However, cutting recoil and noise are the easy fixes; like always, the hardest part is fixing what goes on between our ears. There are no easy cures here, just time, repetition and focus. One interesting exercise for rifle shooters is to shoot from a kneeling position and have someone else pull the trigger. Just assume a solid shooting position, get a good sight picture and hold it while a buddy reaches over and gently squeezes the trigger. If you don’t know when the gun will discharge, you can’t flinch. I’ve seen people shoot better this way, than when they have control of the trigger.
I’ve used self-talk to help control flinching and it’s something you may want to try. Years ago when a flinch threatened to ruin my shooting I silently repeated the phrase, “It’s not loaded,” over and over before every shot. That’s a trick I still use whenever I have to shoot a nasty recoiling gun, and it’s just an example of the focus we sometimes need to bring to our shooting. You see, just being aware that we have the potential to flinch at every shot we take, should be enough to increase our focus on that shot and help us deliver it cleanly and accurately. Admitting to yourself that you have the potential to involuntarily tense your muscles in anticipation of a shot will go a long way to solving a flinching problem. The remainder is training the subconscious through gentle repetition.