Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Turtle on the wheel

One of the coolest things when starting out with firearms — c’mon now, admit it — is watching someone empty an entire magazine down range in under four seconds and producing a very small target grouping. Some of you may think that the person has a natural talent, or that they were “born with a special gift” for shooting.

How can they possibly keep control of that 1911 and still put so many bullets into what seems like the same hole in the target?

I can tell you one thing; they didn’t get that way by practicing rapid-fire drills right out of the gate. They worked up to it by practicing for many, many hours. Forget about your John Wayne fantasies for a minute and realize that although yes, there are some people who are better than others at certain activities (like shooting), it’s not impossible to become a great shot if you practice the right way.

So what is the right way?

There’s a reason why the turtle always got the girls. He’s calm, cool, and collected. He takes his time and knows he’ll get there eventually. Your shooting practice should be the same. There is no reason to hurry. Especially, but not limited to, beginning students, the best way to practice is slowly; as slowly as possible. So that your body can learn what it’s supposed to do and internalize the positioning and movement so it’s automatic, you need to teach it. If you were going to teach a kid the alphabet you wouldn’t rip through the letters at 100 miles per hour, right? Learning to shoot properly is the same thing.

Breathing First

I’ve seen many books, websites, and videos starting with how to stand properly. They demonstrate the Isoceles, Weaver, and Modified Weaver stances before anything else. Though getting the correct stance is certainly very important, I don’t think it’s the most important, and certainly not the first thing new shooters should be thinking about. I’m going to break with tradition here and suggest that the first thing you should learn to do properly is breathe. Why?

Because breathing is the most important thing you can do in your life, save for possibly drinking water and eating.

Breathing is done from the diaphragm, not from the chest. When you inhale, do so from your nose and make sure that your diaphragm expands outward. In my years of teaching martial arts I’ve seen hundreds of people actually suck in their gut while breathing. That’s the exact opposite of what you should do! As oxygen fills your lungs, your lungs/diaphragm need to expand, not contract.

Once you have inhaled, hold it for one or two seconds, and then exhale from the mouth. When you exhale, don’t think about forcing the air out of your lungs. Rather, think about letting the air fall out naturally as a result of not holding your breath in anymore. Don’t force it; think about being breathed instead of breathing. Another way to think of this is “passive exhalation.”

By the way, this is how you should breathe all the time…

Find Your Grip, Find Your Stance

Now that you are thinking about your breathing and learning to breathe the way nature intended, you can find the grip and stance that works for you. I won’t get into the specifics of each since there is enough information available already to do your research with. (Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information about proper breathing out there, so you’re getting a freebie; you’re welcome.)

The Firing Cadence

Now that you have the pieces, it’s time to put them together and use our “slow and steady” method to practice shooting.

  • From the low ready position, inhale for three full seconds while raising your gun to begin aiming.
  • Hold your breath at the end of your inhale and start to get your sight alignment and sight picture.
  • Use passive exhalation and let half of the air out while taking up the trigger slop and finalizing your alignment and picture.
  • Hold your breath again (with the remaining air you have) and take your shot.
  • Fully exhale with passive exhalation as you bring your gun back to the low ready position. It should take three seconds to empty your lungs of all of the remaining air.
  • Repeat.

What you have done here is created a firing cadence (procedure/sequence/formula) that works off of your natural breathing pattern, not off of your “this is how fast my inner ego thinks I should shoot” cadence. When you integrate with your breathing cycle, you are working with your body and not against it. The key to the deep inhale is to keep the process slow, so you have time to make all of the small corrections before you take your shot. By concentrating on your breathing you eliminate becoming hyper-focused on minutiae that generally causes you to speed up your shots; minutiae that causes you to think too much, tighten up, and breathe shallowly.

Though it may seem that this “slow and steady” concept is really more about breathing than anything else, remember that the breathing is just one part of the puzzle. It’s just one of the parts you need as the means to the end. The slow and steady comes with the timing of your breathing pattern. Once you have the cadence down you can subdivide the process by doubling the number of shots within each cadence cycle, and then further subdivide until you are shooting quicker but with the same accuracy.