PERFORMANCE PROBLEMS:  FLINCHING AND JERKING

by Dave France

 

INTRODUCTION

Involuntary body movements may occur while shooting firearms, either while the competitor is pulling the trigger (jerking) or after the hammer fall begins (flinching).  Flinching may occur when we feel the trigger move (after it is pulled out of the full cock notch in the tumbler or hammer).  Flinching may also start after we hear the sound of the round being fired.  These involuntary movements are the biggest obstacles to accurate shooting in both individual or team competition for some skirmishers (including me). 

 

In any type of firearm competition we may aim carefully, hold well on the target, and practice good trigger control; but cause the shot to miss because of an involuntary movement that starts after the trigger is released.  In my experience, if I see the barrel move to one side during recoil or rise higher or lower than normal during recoil, the shot will strike far from the point of aim.

 

The effects of involuntary movements are much more detrimental to accurate shooting with Civil War era firearms, due to long lock times and barrel times, as compared with modern firearms.

 

When we miss targets in the team events or shoot eights and sevens on paper targets, we are hesitant to blame involuntary movements as a major source of shooting problems.  We tend to reject flinching or jerking as a problem, and blame the light, poor trigger control, poor ammunition, or the firearm itself.  We may dismiss involuntary movements as a problem for several reasons:

 

·        There are several types of flinches resulting in errant shots that are not recognized as being caused by flinching.

·        If the problem is flinching or jerking, we must admit the solution must be something within ourselves.

·        We cannot always detect the involuntary movement or see the barrel move incorrectly during recoil.

 

If we practice good “follow through,” we continue to maintain concentration during the recoil of the firearm and may be able to see the barrel move incorrectly when flinching or jerking.  Severe flinches are easily seen, but a smaller movement may not be noticed. 

 

If we want to shoot our best, it is important to reduce the frequency of involuntary movements.  We can reduce the adverse effects of involuntary movements to a very limited extent by using firearms and ammunition that reduce barrel time and lock time.  However, significant improvement can only be affected by making an effort in training, in practice, and while actually competing.

 

SOME COMMON TYPES OF INVOLUNTARY MOVEMENTS

As noted earlier, the most common definition of flinching is an involuntary movement made after the hammer or firing pin is released (i.e.) after the trigger pull is complete.  On the other hand, jerking is generally considered as an unintentionally rapid movement of the trigger during the trigger pull.  Jerking has been described as a total loss of trigger control during which the finger seems to move on its own.  The jerk can occur during a slow squeeze of the trigger, or it may occur when the competitor is trying to “snatch a 10, jump on the trigger, or take a picture.”

 

In Competitive Shooting, (published by the NRA), the Russian author Yur’Yev refers to jerking when he describes problems that many would call flinches.  Perhaps, it is not important to distinguish between a flinch or jerk, since they both result from the same problems; and both can be controlled in the same way.  Also, they may both occur at the same time.  Yur’Yev theorizes that the competitor may jerk the trigger at the same time he flinches with his shoulder (Competitive Shooting, page 235).  Some skirmishers believe trigger jerking can occur, but deny that flinching ever occurs, or believe that flinching is a large movement that can be detected easily by the shooter.

 

Flinching and jerking both occur, and while some flinches are large movements, others are small and difficult to detect.  The small flinches result in many of the nines or eights as well as missed pigeons and pots in the team events.  During the musket or carbine team events, we have all heard (or said) something like, “I had a good hold, and it seemed like a perfect shot, but I missed.”  Many of those misses are due to jerks or flinching. 

 

A personal anecdote may illustrate how small flinches can create problems for the skirmisher.  At one of the national skirmishes, I shot a very small five shot group on one of the 50-yard carbine target bulls.  I could not see any sideways movement of the barrel during recoil, but the group was located about three inches from the center of the bull.  After I realized the target was going to have a very low score, I became less nervous and shot a good target with my last five shots (a forty-eight).  I did not alter my point of aim, and the light did not change.

 

Many times we blame a change in the light for a shift in impact point during a musket or carbine team match (sometimes even during one event).  Some blame a change in the light even when no change in the light can be detected by eye.  A more likely cause is flinching that is not severe enough to be detected during follow through.  Flinching may be caused when we become tired, nervous, or fail to concentrate.  

Consider Figure 1, an N-SSA musket or carbine target into which five shots have been fired.  Of course, we may fire five inaccurate shots into the target for reasons that have nothing to do with involuntary movements if the firearm and ammunition combination used is inaccurate or if we have problems with basic skills.  On the other hand, the poor shots may all be the results of involuntary movements.  However, it is uncommon to flinch or jerk so as to place the shots at different areas of the target during the course of shooting one target.  Refer to each shot numbered in Figure 1:

 

1)  The most common type of trigger jerk or flinch results in a shot at three o’clock.

 

2)  The same trigger jerk or flinch which results in a three o’clock strike on the target will result in a shot placement in the four or five o’clock area if the jerk is accompanied by a movement of the shoulder. 

 

3)  The writer Yur’Yev (Competitive Shooting, page 234) states that this type of flinch is actually a relaxation of the muscles supporting the firearm.  This occurs after the trigger is released (when the we feel the trigger move), or when we hear the shot, or even before the trigger is released.  I frequently have this problem, and can see the barrrel drop before the muzzle rises during recoil.  Others, including Denny Coleman (DSSA winner and expert carbine and musket competitor), have told me they can occasionally see the same type of movement, always resulting in a low impact point on the target.

 

Similarly, several skirmishers tell me that when they hold the firearm too long, they will relax their hold as they squeeze the trigger (before firing), resulting in a discernable barrel drop and a low bullet strike.

 

4)  For some skirmishers, a shot at the nine o’clock point of impact seems to be caused by tightening of the grip on the stock during the trigger squeeze.  Others, including me, seem to tighten the grip as they feel the trigger release.  One authority, Bud Salyer (Precision Shooting, April 1991, page 46) states this type of miss can be caused by improper positioning of the finger on the trigger, or dragging of the finger on the side of the stock during the trigger pull.

 

5)  A high shot can be caused by pulling the shoulder rearward after the competitor feels the trigger release in anticipation of the recoil.  I have this problem at times, and when I see the muzzle rise higher than normal, the shot always goes high.  The same problem can result in a hit at about eleven o’clock if, in addition to moving rearward, the shoulder moves to the right.

 

The discussion of Figure 1 should illustrate that many misses (some at locations not normally considered to result from flinches or jerks) can be caused by various involuntary movements.  Misses at any location may result from this problem.  And they all arise from the same basic source, and can be eliminated (or reduced in frequency) by the same corrective measures.

 

TRIGGER CONTROL

Many believe trigger control is the key to preventing flinching.  Trigger control is important for accurate shooting, but it is not the key to avoiding flinching.  Many sources discuss trigger control in great detail; a briefer summary follows.

 

We should concentrate on sight alignment primarily, not on the trigger control.  If concentration is primarily upon trigger control, accuracy will suffer.  However, concentration on sighting is not automatic, and failing to concentrate can cause poor accuracy.  We should not think of anything during the aiming and firing process except aiming and follow through, although we should be aware of trigger control.

 

Trigger control must be largely automatic.  We should practice enough, and spend enough time in dry firing to develop an automatic trigger control.  In driving a car, we make decisions, (turn right, stop, start, slow down) without agonizing over the decisions and without requiring our full attention.  Trigger control is not absolutely automatic, but pulling the trigger should become as automatic as driving an automobile.

 

It is possible to shoot well with a quick trigger pull at the moment the sights are aligned on the target or by using a slower pull (or squeeze).  The slower trigger pull is appropriate for beginners, and may help in obtaining the best accuracy since a too heavy pull can move the sights out of alignment.  Furthermore, many skirmishers cannot consistently pull the trigger quickly without flinching after the trigger is released.

 

Some authorities have written that if the slower trigger pull is used, the rifle competitor will not know when the shot will be fired, and he/she is unlikely to flinch.  In my experience this is not generally true, and has caused some skirmishers to believe if they concentrate and use a slow trigger squeeze that success in shooting will follow.  However, as noted earlier, we can have good trigger control but flinch after we feel the trigger release or when we hear the sound of ignition.  The tendency to flinch when using a slow trigger pull is aggravated if we do not concentrate well and if we are not ready for the shot.  If the shot occurs when we are not expecting it, we may be surprised slightly and fire an errant shot.

 

Some competitors find that if the trigger pull interval is too long, the tendency to jerk is more pronounced.  After the trigger pull begins, the time to pull the trigger should be limited to a few seconds.  Exactly how long depends upon the individual.  Practice and dry firing should be used to develop a consistent trigger pull.

 

REDUCING THE FREQUENCY OF INVOLUNTARY MOVEMENTS

A number of precautions can be taken by the skirmisher to reduce the frequency of involuntary movements.  Unfortunately there is no “silver bullet,” no one solution that will completely eliminate involuntary movements.

 

1  Develop a good holding ability.  Some skirmishers can hold their firearms very steady; they demonstrate that ability by placing all of their shots within or very close to the ten ring.  Holding very well is helpful in two ways.  It reduces the group size we are capable of.  And, it helps us alleviate flinching or jerking because we are more likely to squeeze off our shots carefully rather than hurrying a shot when the sights are on the target.

 

Good physical conditioning aids in holding the firearm well.  Both strengthening exercises and aerobic exercises are helpful.  All works I have read on shooting sports recommend exercising for shooting sports, including Steve Light’s article “Steps To Good Shooting” in The Skirmish Line, March/April 1983.

 

The choice of firearm for use in musket and carbine competition can strongly affect the ability to hold the firearm well.  Many skirmishers prefer muskets with long barrels or rifles with heavy barrels as do many participants in NMLRA and modern rifle competition.  However, some skirmishers cannot hold the a heavy firearm steady since the excessive weight may cause excessive muscle strain that contributes to flinching or jerking. A shorter, or shorter and lighter, longarm can be a help in holding well.

 

I can hold my very heavy Jaeger rifle very steady.  Yet, I flinch with this firearm more frequently than with the lighter rifles and carbines I use in N-SSA competition.  Other skirmishers shoot best with heavier firearms.  The important point is shoot a firearm that best fits your personal requirements.  Try different firearms, and you may find there is a firearm with a combination of length and weight that will prove easier for you to use than any other.

 

Many competitors prefer to extend the left arm from the body to support the forearm of the musket, rifle, or carbine.  And many shoot very well that way.  However, every work on rifle shooting I have read suggests that the best hold for the rifle can be achieved by supporting the left arm against the ribcage.  All the authorities, of whom I am aware, outside of blackpowder shooting sports, recommend the use of bone support for the rifle to reduce muscular effort.  Bone support refers to supporting the bones of the upper arm against the ribs.

 

Many authorities recommend using the natural point of aim for competition with rifles to lessen muscle strain and reduce the frequency of flinches and jerks.  To find the natural point of aim, we should begin before the actual sighting process.

 

·        Start by bringing the firearm to the normal shooting position, and look through the sights at the target.

·        Close both eyes while continuing to hold the firearm in position.

·        Relax the muscles holding the firearm as much as possible while maintaining the hold.

·        Open the eyes to check if the point of aim has moved from the target.

·        If the sights are positioned to one side of the target, move the right foot (or left foot for the left-handed skirmisher) to reposition the sights.  Repeat the process until the sights are positioned on the target with the minimum amount of muscle strain.

 

After practicing this procedure several times, the skirmisher will be able to locate his/her feet into the correct position without closing the eyes.

 

2  Make dry firing part of the training routine.  Authorities strongly recommend dry firing as an essential part of training for any shooting sport.  Dry firing should be used to train oneself to perfect the hold, sighting, and trigger control, and to make trigger control an automatic process.  In dry firing the absence of the sound and recoil provides the competitor with an opportunity to train the mind not to react to the trigger movement and recoil with a flinch.  It also provides the opportunity to detect any errors that would not be detected because of the recoil.  Dry firing is boring, but the emphasis on this practice indicated by competitive shooting authorities suggest that it should not be completely replaced by practice.

 

Each skirmisher requires a few seconds (perhaps only two or three) to bring the firearm to the shoulder and align the sights.  There may also be some additional time needed for the initial shaking or unsteadiness in the hold to dissipate.  After the skirmisher begins to pull the trigger, there should only be a short interval before the shot is fired.

 

One skirmisher told me that after many years of skirmishing he started counting to himself during the trigger pull in dry firing, and was able to develop the ability to fire most of his shots in one to three seconds after beginning the trigger pull.  He credited the shorter, more consistent trigger pull for improving his musket and carbine team performance because it reduced the tendency to flinch.

 

A useful addition or partial substitute for dry firing is practice with air rifles or pistols and with 22 caliber firearms. 

 

Yur’Yev in Competitive Shooting suggests that dry firing before a match is helpful and during a match after a bad shot.  Many skirmishers use the snapping of caps as a chance to prepare themselves for the team events. 

 

3  Practice regularly.  A schedule of regular practice is essential for top performance in any sport.  Frequent (at least once per week) short practices are better than longer less frequent practices.  Plan ahead for practices and try to practice while rested and not rushed for time.  Take breaks during practice if you begin to feel fatigued; you want to shoot well, not practice flinching or otherwise shooting poorly. Approach practices seriously and try very hard to shoot well and to learn from the practice.  Varying the practice routine will help to keep it fun.  I usually practice with friends, sometimes by myself, sometimes using the N-SSA musket and carbine paper targets, sometimes using breakable targets while timing each event, and sometimes at silhouettes of the targets used in the team events.

 

4  Don’t hold the rifle or carbine long enough to cause trembling or blurred vision.  After holding a few seconds (how long depends upon the individual’s physical condition) vision begins to blur.  At this point the tendency to flinch is also increased.   A skirmisher should learn how long he/she can hold without increasing the tendency to flinch.  When competing in individual matches with longarms, it may be helpful to rest a few extra seconds between shots even beyond the time required to reload.  The extra time gives the body longer to recover before starting the next shot.  I found resting between shots to be particularly helpful when I used heavy or long muskets.

 

5  Reduce the recoil and noise of firing.  Recoil is reduced by using a lighter bullet and/or a lighter powder charge.  The powder charge and bullet used by a large, strong skirmisher without a flinching problem may cause a severe flinching problem for the smaller skirmisher.  Reducing the bullet weight generally lessens recoil more than reducing the powder charge.  Some skirmishers use padding in the shirt or jacket or a pad under the shirt to reduce the recoil sensation.

 

However, reduced recoil alone will not solve all flinching problems.  Many competitors find they flinch occasionally while shooting a 22 caliber firearm or air rifle.  Furthermore, efforts to reduce recoil can be overdone; using a very light bullet and light powder charge can create other problems.

 

Effective earplugs reduce the sound heard by the skirmisher, and are helpful for some in reducing flinching.

 

If FFFg is used to replace FFg in a musket or carbine to achieve the same muzzle velocity, noise and recoil will be reduced slightly.   A complete explanation of the reason for this difference is outside the scope of this study.  Briefly, the difference is caused by the faster burning rate of FFFg.  The faster burning reduces the pressure at the muzzle resulting in less recoil and noise.  Faster burning also makes better use of the energy in the powder, so that less powder is required with an equivalent charge of FFFg.  A lower weight of powder also reduces recoil.

 

6  Avoid being overtired while shooting.  If a competitor is tired, the tendency to flinch is increased.  Starting the skirmish after a good night’s sleep is helpful.  Other things a skirmisher can do to avoid being tired are a matter of common sense.

 

7  Nervousness is a significant cause of flinching.  We have all heard of, or experienced, the target that is only one shot short of having an outstanding score, and is ruined by the last shot that is flinched out of the scoring rings.  Many sources provide information on how to control nervousness, including Competitive Shooting by A.A. Yur’Yev.  The short summary of some points that follows may help:

 

·        Build confidence by practicing regularly and competing frequently.

 

·        Concentrate solely on each shot.  Do not think about the next shot, the previous shot or the score.

 

·        It may be helpful to take all the time allowed for the individual event to help alleviate nervousness.  The best skirmisher I have known for remaining cool while shooting was Fred Andrews.  He seemed to work hard at shooting each target, and he frequently took nearly the full time allowed for each individual target, usually with excellent results.  In his prime Fred was one of the best individual competitors in the N-SSA.

 

·        On the other hand, at times some may find they can shoot individual targets best if they fire at the same pace or nearly the same pace they use in the team matches. 

 

·        Remember to have fun.  Remind yourself you are shooting for enjoyment, and shooting well increases the fun.  If a competitor allows anything to make him/her irritated or tense, he/she is more likely to flinch.  I find it relieves stress to talk with the other skirmishers on the line before the event or individual relay.

 

·        If scoping all the shots makes you nervous, try shooting without looking at the target after firing enough shots to adjust the point of aim for range conditions.  This has worked well for me at times.  But one must be careful to avoid the tendency to not concentrate well when shooting without a scope.

 

8  Follow through for each shot.  It may be helpful for the skirmisher to remind himself/herself to follow through during the aiming and trigger pull process.  Following through helps the skirmisher to see if he/she has a problem with involuntary movements.  It also helps to train the mind to continue to control the firearm during recoil.

 

9  Use firearms with a trigger pull that is crisp (no creep, no feeling of motion), light, and short.  Eliminating creep or the mushy feeling detected with some locks removes the sense that the trigger is moving.  If the skirmisher cannot feel the trigger move, the tendency to flinch is reduced.  A light trigger pull permits the skirmisher to apply less force when squeezing the trigger; as a result it is easier to keep the sights aligned on the target.  A short trigger pull reduces the time required to squeeze the trigger.  The reduced time spent squeezing reduces the tendency to jerk or flinch.

 

10  Using firearms with a faster lock time and short barrel time reduces the effect of involuntary movements on the impact point at the target.  The benefit of a shorter lock and barrel time is very noticeable to skirmishers who shoot modern rifles.  We find a flinch or jerk is much less harmful to good accuracy with a modern rifle than with a black powder firearm.  Unfortunately we cannot make our firearms duplicate the shorter lock and barrel times of modern firearms.  Only small improvements are possible.  Some things that can help:

 

To reduce barrel time

           

·        A shorter barrel

·        An increased powder charge

·        A lighter bullet (probably more effect than increasing the powder charge)

 

To reduce lock time

 

·        A lighter hammer

·        A stronger main spring

·        A reduced hammer throw (distance the hammer must travel)

 

Some unaltered, original or reproduction N-SSA long arms have only half the hammer throw of others.  Some skirmishers have their modified muskets and carbines to create a shorter hammer throw by making a new hammer or tumbler or by altering the existing tumbler.

 

CONCLUSION

Jerking, flinching, trigger control, and follow through are related.  Several authorities have written about subjects that relate to this article.  The most complete treatment is in Competitive Shooting by A.A. Yur’Yev (published by the NRA).  Another good treatment is in the excellent articles “Steps To Good Shooting” by Steve Light in The Skirmish Line in the January-February, March-April, and November-December 1983 issues.  Both of the referenced works are well worth the time to read for skirmishers who wish to do their best.