Breathing for the Rifle Shooter

Today we’re going to learn how to breathe.  Good thing too, because you kind of need to do that to survive.  Actually I’m going to discuss how to breathe to achieve your best accuracy while shooting your rifle.

You might wonder why it matters how you breathe while you’re shooting.  Hopefully you understand by now that consistency is very important for precise shooting.  This also applies to the way your lungs support your position.  You might have noticed that when you’re in position and you breathe, your sights move up and down.  This is evidence that the amount of breath in your lungs affects the elevation of your point of impact.  Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), inconsistent breathing typically manifests itself on the target as vertical dispersion (stringing).

A simulated target from an imaginary shooter with inconsistent imaginary breathing.

Another factor that’s affected by your breathing is how much oxygen is in your system.  Obviously, you want to be at your best when you break the shot.  That means that your vision should be at its best, your trigger finger at its most tactile, and your mind in a state of calm concentration.  Holding your breath will not facilitate this ideal state of being your’re looking for.  In fact, the longer you hold your breath, the worse it will get.  Generally the accepted window of time from inhaling to your vision beginning to degrade from reduced oxygen is five to seven seconds.

Based on what I’ve written so far, you can likely infer that what you’re looking for is a consistent volume of air in the lungs and an ample supply of oxygen in your system.  You can accomplish this by firing during the natural respiratory pause.  Let me explain what that means.  Your diaphragm is the muscle that is responsible for your lungs taking in air.  This muscle is located in the area of your solar plexus (where your ribs meet below the sternum).

When the diaphragm contracts, it causes your lungs to expand and take in air.  When it relaxes, the natural elasticity of the body causes the lungs to expel the air.  No pushing or tension is needed to get that air out.  This is your natural respiratory pause.  Some air will still be in the lungs, unless you contract your abdomen to push it out.  If you listen to someone’s breathing while they sleep (I recommend that you do NOT try this with a stranger- ask me how I know!) you should get a good illustration of what the natural respiratory pause is.

Let’s apply this to shooting.  Say you’re in the prone position.  You’ve slung up, gotten your position just right, found your NPA and you’re ready to fire.  Inhale.  You’re reticle should drop.  Now relax and let your breath escape naturally until it stops on its own.  The reticle should rise.  If your NPA is truly on, your reticle should rise and stop exactly on your target.  You should now break the shot within 3-5 seconds.  If you go longer than that, take another breath and start over.  If you wait too long, you’re likely to have trouble focusing your vision, you’ll feel panicky and rushed, and your trigger finger may not perform its duty as well as you’d like.

Now you know the proper method of breathing for optimum accuracy.  What if you are in more of a hurry and the demand for accuracy is less pressing?  Then just do what you need to do that will work to get the job done in the time allotted.  This is rifle shooting, not dogma.  One method may not apply to all situations.  Just use your head.

Military Prone

“Prone” in the context of using your rifle, generally means that you’re on your belly.  Military prone is the older standard in which both legs are straight, and the body lies flat.  Olympic prone involves rolling over slightly to the support side and drawing the firing leg up (I’ll elaborate in an upcoming article).

Military prone tends to work well for people who don’t have too much in the way of a “beer gut” and are relatively flexible in the rotator cuff and hip.  This makes it ideal for children (who aren’t parked for hours daily munching snacks in front of a TV), fit people, and me.  I like military prone.  It’s an incentive for me not to become obese. 

One advantage of military prone over Olympic prone is that it’s a little lower, in case minimizing your target profile is your thing.  Another is that it involves less contorting of the body to get into position.  Other than that, there’s really not much difference between the two positions. 

To assume the military prone position, lie on your belly with the rifle, at approximately 30° away from the target, such that your firing side is slightly away from the target.


I’m going to tell you ahead of time: MAKE SURE YOUR MUZZLE STAYS CLEAR OF THE GROUND AND OUT OF THE DIRT.  Cradle the forend lightly in your support hand.

Put the flat of your support arm, not the elbow, in contact with the ground directly under the rifle (or as close as possible).

                    Not on the elbow, silly.  That hurts and isn’t very stable

                               Remember this?  That’s the flat of the arm.

 That’s the flat of your arm (well actually mine) contacting the ground in the prone position.

                   Try to get the elbow directly under the rifle.  And I see you…

Put the butt of the rifle in your shoulder pocket.  The butt will likely be lower in the pocket than with other positions.  The general rule is that the higher the position, the higher the rifle butt fits into the shoulder, and vice versa.

Place your firing hand on the rifle such that your trigger finger will be able to correctly actuate the trigger straight to the rear with no other part of your trigger finger touching the rifle.  Plant your firing elbow on the ground.  Get a good, CONSISTENT, cheekweld.

As for the rest of the body, make it flat.  Your heels should be down; if they’re up they’re going to move; movement messes up your natural point of aim.  Shoulder width seems to be a good width for the feet.

                             Are ya tryin’ to get yer heels shot off mister?

                You want your feet flat for the best consistency and accuracy.

To adjust your NPA in unsupported prone, move your hips.  Listening to good music may cause unexpected rhythmic changes in NPA.  To lower your NPA, move your hips forward.  To raise your NPA, move your hips to the rear.  The move your NPA right, move your hips to the left.  To move your NPA to the left, move your hips to the right.  You can experiment moving any part of your body to effect an NPA change, but I’ve already told you that here.

To get into position quickly from a standing position:

Squat down and plant a hand on the ground:

Extend the legs.  It’s like a one-armed squat thrust with a rifle!

Now just enjoy the time you’re spending with your rifle.  Or you can shoot it:

I don’t have any 10 shot groups yet.  I’ll post one with the bipod prone article later in the month.  For now, here’s a 5 shot group from 100 yards:

I think that with the prone position I’m starting to be limited by the rifle’s capability for precision.  We’ll know for sure later this month when I post some groups…

Introduction to the Prone Position

For a rifleman, the prone position is like a warm, fuzzy, comfortable, perfectly worn-in little blanket.  It’s the first thing you look to use whenever the opportunity arises.  The prone position is steady, offers a minimal target profile (yielding for incoming bullets, which always have the right of way), gives you a chance to lay down and rest while cuddling with your rifle.  Who could ask for more?

The prone position in rifle shooting, generally speaking, means that you are lying on your belly whilst shooting the rifle.  There are a couple basic variants of this, which I will cover in detail as the month progresses.  We can divide the variations into 2 basic categories, supported and unsupported.  I will cover 2 unsupported positions, “military” prone and “Olympic” prone.  I will also cover 1 supported prone position using the bipod as a means of support.

What conditions would lead a shooter to choose the prone position?  The first would be that there is ample time.  Assuming the position takes time enough to get on your belly.  The second requisite for using prone would be that the terrain is accommodating.  Moderately tall grass, a slight intervening rise between you and the target, cover or concealment that’s taller than about a foot, or a few inches of mud or pooled water could put the ixnay on the onepray (refer to your PigLatin dictionary for translation).

“Why would a rifleman favor prone,” you ask.  Because it’s as accurate as we can make a shot come out of the rifle without placing it in a rest on a bench and taking the human out of the equation.  Because there’s more of you in contact with the ground than in any other position, the ground is doing more of the work for you.  I don’t know how to break this to you, but the ground is more stable in most cases than you are.  Now don’t you feel stupid for asking the question?  Good, because that was the one exception to the saying that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”.  With prone, instead of having to worry about your hold, you can consider things like distance, wind, target identification, leading a moving target, breathing, trigger control, holdover, etc…  All these factors will work to contribute to your success.

This investigation of the prone position will round out the coverage of what I have been calling the “orthodox” shooting positions.  This month will also conclude, for the most part, what I consider the basics of riflecraft.  If I left anything out that you think is important, or if you don’t understand something I’ve written about since the inception of the blog, please feel free to leave a comment.

What I’ve covered so far marks the end of where I’ve been stagnant for a while, and the beginning of an explorative phase of my personal journey of riflery.  I’m a bit ahead of myself, however.  In the rest of this month, I’ll also be covering breathing, trigger control, concentration, follow through, use of the .22 trainer,  and physical training for the rifleman.  I’ve stepped up my writing game, so some of the aforementioned articles are more in-depth and lengthy.  I think you can handle it.   Stay tuned…