Chris Sajnog and the Fifth Habit of Highly Effective Shooters

Breathing While Shooting: The Fifth Habit of Highly Effective Shooters

I remember being taught what many of you were likely also taught about breathing while shooting as a marksmanship fundamental…to hold your breath. At the time it made sense. I was being told this by an instructor who shot better than me and who was running the course of instruction I was attending. I was in the military at the time and being taught by some of the best shooters in the world. Specifically, I was told to, “Shoot during the Natural Respiratory Pause.” I did this for many years as a SEAL Sniper and never found any reason to question what I had learned.

Now before I get attacked by my long-range brethren over the breathing when shooting issue, there are times when this technique should be used and that is when taking long-range shots. What is long range? That’s a topic for a later discussion, but for now let’s define it as any range that is nearing the max effective range of [you + your weapon system]. For these distances, it is still important to use every fundamental to your advantage to ensure your round finds its intended target. But just as shooting during your natural respiratory pause helps in long-range shooting, it is extremely detrimental on a fast-paced battlefield.

How to Breathe When Shooting

We all know that breathing is an essential part of life, but it is also an essential part of shooting. When many of you learned how to shoot you were told to use your respiratory pause, but never learned how to breathe when shooting. This resulted, for most of you, in a habit of holding your breath while shooting. 

Chris Sajnog holding a rifle

What happens when you hold your breath? According to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, holding your breath causes lack of fine motor skills, eye movement, jerkiness, increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating and poor judgment…not things you want to have in the middle of a firefight! 

Remember that long range shooters use the natural respiratory pause so effectively because they have the luxury of taking time to line up their shot perfectly. Generally speaking, short range shooting happens faster. In order to use your respiratory pause effectively while firing at that speed, you would need to speed up your breathing. Hyperventilating can cause the same symptoms as holding your breath, because both bad breathing techniques interfere with your body’s chemical respiration process. So, bad news marksman. You’re going to have to learn to breathe when shooting.

Because of this misunderstanding many shooters have with this marksmanship fundamental, most shooters I teach are holding their breath as they try in vain to hit their targets. As they hold their breath, their vision quickly deteriorates and their hands begin to tremble. As their shot groups widen, they revert to what they were previously taught and try to hold their breath even more, making the situation worse. Holding your breath during a shot can have advantages, as any sniper knows, but if you don’t know to breathe when shooting, your shots get further and further apart and over several minutes, you get less and less oxygen, which deteriorates your ability to function as a marksman. Breathing when shooting is a deceptively simple and very important skill for any marksman.

Chris practicing breathing while shooting

Effective shooting is all about relaxing, and you can’t relax while holding your breath. Your eyes’ ability to focus on the front sight is also hampered while holding your breath, so it’s important to give your body the oxygen it needs by breathing while shooting.

So we know we don’t want to hold our breath when we shoot, but we do need to control our breathing. If you have been exerting yourself and are huffing and puffing like a three-pack-a-day smoker on a 5k, then you need to get your breathing down to control your sights. Breathing when shooting is all about timing.

How do we learn to breathe when shooting? The best way I’ve found to accomplish this is through a technique called autogenic breathing. This is simply taking a deep breath for a count of four, holding for a count of four and then exhaling for a count of four. Repeat this four times and it should help to slow down your breathing enough to take effective shots. You can do this as you’re getting ready to shoot or even while you’re shooting. Like many of my dry fire techniques, practicing this autogenic technique of breathing when shooting will train your brain and make it easier to find this natural repository pattern without thinking about it.

Breathing While Shooting

When you’re breathing normally you’re relaxed,  and you should continue to do just that while you’re shooting. Relax and breathe normally throughout your trigger pull, and you’ll find it much easier to acquire and maintain a good sight picture. This may feel unnatural or contrary to how you learned to shoot, and that’s okay. Learning to breathe while shooting is just another way you may have to retrain your brain to become a better operator.

Navy SEAL controlling his breathe while using a sniper rifle

One good way to know if you’re relaxed while shooting in the standing position is to wiggle your toes. The nerve that tells your toes to wiggle is the longest one in your body, if you can wiggle your toes, you’re relaxed. I wouldn’t do this the whole time you’re shooting, but it is a good way to check when assessing your breathing when shooting.

Try breathing when shooting the next time you’re dry firing or are at the range. Not only is it good for your body, but it’s good for your shooting as well. If you’re taking that long-range shot, go ahead and shoot during your natural respiratory pause. But if not, give your brain and your eyes some oxygen to let them do their jobs. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can search the Internet for any article on breathing and shooting fundamentals, and they all say the same thing. Good advice for those in the sniper community, not so much for the rest of the battlefield.

Let me know if you try breathing while shooting. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please don’t write and tell me it doesn’t work if you haven’t tried it just because you were taught something different at your last NRA course. Around here, we trust science, experimentation and training, not just someone else’s word. Give it a chance and then if you don’t like it, I’d like to hear your experience with it. I’ve never had anyone who it hasn’t helped, so I don’t expect too many of those comments. Learning how to breathe while shooting is an intuitive skill that anyone can learn, with a little effort. Breathing when shooting on the range should help you pave that path to perfection. Happy shooting!

Navy SEAL Shooting

11 Comments

  1. I’ve seen it too! I don’t know if I should laugh or cry…Hopefully they will read this and learn that it’s OK to breath when you’re shooting. Thanks for the comment Eric.

  2. Breathing on the range came to mind while reading/practicing breathing exercises for Hatha Yoga earlier today. Thanks for taking the time to write and share on this topic. Now I’ve got another good focus for the range next week! Gus, Austin TX

  3. Good, clear run down and explanation on this important aspect of marksmanship. I’ve never seen it expressed as a chemical formula though, nice work!

  4. I have been taught two different ways. I have been taught the natural respiratory pause technique, and I was also taught to exhale halfway–fire–then exhale the rest of the air in your lungs.

    The natural respiratory pause technique is simply the best breathing technique for me. I feel more relaxed, and the other way made me feel I was running out of breath after 10+ continuous shots. Maybe the other technique feels better to other shooters.

    This is a great write-up. I will refer this article to any naysayers I come across. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Mike! The NRP method is the way to go for a long-range/low % shot. With no way to accurately gauge where 1/2 way is, you’re defeating the purpose of shooting at the same point in your breath.

  5. This is to say the least, ” The most comfortable and successful ” experience I have ever had on my home range. Thanks so much. Great for driving too!

  6. Very useful information to add to a marksmans list of fundamentals. Appreciate the share brother I am actually trying to teach a friend the fundamentals and will definitely add this into my teachings and provide your link. Thank you sir for your dedication and hard work. Respect

  7. Thanks Chris. Very effective and useful. It’s very similar to something I do when playing golf or playing in golf tournaments. I always make sure I’m NOT holding my breadth and have a big exhale before I swing the club. In golf I say, “When the muscles are relaxed, pull the trigger and swing the club.” I guess you could say the same about shooting a gun at the range. Thanks again

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