SHOOTING PSYCHOLOGY - American Pistol Shooting (2015)

American Pistol Shooting (2015)

Chapter XIV


ON THE subject of shooting psychology, much has been said and little written, so that the novice as he advances in his study and practice of shooting soon comes in contact with problems which at first appear to be entirely of a physical nature but soon develop into mental obstacles of no small proportions.

While it is true that the physical and mental conditions affecting one’s shooting are very closely related, nevertheless there comes a time in the progress of learning this game when the physical problems such as aiming and holding are fairly well mastered in practice, and if it were not for the mental hazards that crop out and obstruct one’s advance, the attainment of success would be made much easier.

Not infrequently the degree of one’s success is measured by one’s ability to solve the mental problems of shooting rather than those of a purely physical nature. As one advances to the stage of competition shooting, the mental problems presented become increasingly difficult. Often the difference between the good competitive shot and the poor one is determined by his ability to solve these mental problems and to overcome the difficulties they present. The novice will probably find that as he begins his practice, the fundamental principles which he must learn are few but it is in the application of these principles that he finds difficulty. Most of his efforts will be required in training his muscles and nerves to hold his pistol steadily aligned on the target while he squeezes the trigger. At this time the physical effort required will be so great that all his energy, physical and mental, will be devoted to the work. As his nerves and muscles become trained and the problem of holding becomes easier and simpler, his mind then finds time to dwell on other details of his shooting not directly connected with the operation of firing, and perhaps he finds himself thinking of such things as the score he is going to make, or of the poor one he has just made or possibly of the actions of someone else on the firing line or in rear of it. With the beginning of qualification or competition shooting, it becomes more difficult to concentrate on the problem of aiming, holding, squeezing the trigger, and calling the shot, for the greater responsibility of making a good score is apt to be felt with its accompanied tendency to unnerve. A football player waiting for the whistle before an important game experiences a certain amount of nervousness which in practice causes him to fumble the ball, to forget his signals or which otherwise demonstrates itself by his nervous actions. After the whistle has blown however, and the first bodily contact is made in the scrimmage line, this nervousness disappears and probably is experienced no more during the game. The player was not required to exercise much will power or self control to overcome this nervousness nor did the nervousness materially affect his game. The pistol shot has the same cause for nervousness before an important match, and however slight this may be, it is greatly magnified at the muzzle of an extended pistol. Should firing be commenced while this condition exists, the effects of such nervousness will be quickly and conclusively demonstrated in the score. Unless the shooter through the exercise of self-control can soon overcome his nervousness, his score will quickly be ruined beyond hope of redemption. If his nervousness increases, the shooter may “blow up” with the subsequent lowering of his score, and his morale, as well as that of his team, if a team match is being shot.

The causes and remedies of this condition which affects perfectly normal, healthy men at most inopportune times and frequently for slightly apparent reasons, and which in shooting parlance has come to be known as the “buck” short for “buck ague,” are well worth study and consideration rather than the popular attitude which ignores them and treats the subject as of small consequence.

Recently, while sitting about a campfire during a deer hunting trip in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, the author listened to the experience of a member of the party which illustrates a case of typical “buck fever” the like of which probably gave the name to the disease. The story teller was a man of over sixty-four years of age, a rifleman of national reputation, who a few years previously had established a world’s record at the Camp Perry National Matches. A big game hunter all his life, he had shot many trophies so that the sight of game was a mere incident of little importance to him. The previous year while climbing the steep side of a Chelan mountain on the track of an immense mule-tail deer which he had been tracking in the snow for several hours, he suddenly saw above him through the thin foliage of a group of small fir trees, the antlers and partial outline of the largest buck he had ever come upon in his long hunting career. The left shoulder and part of the neck of the animal were exposed to view and the range was only two score yards. In his own words he described his actions: “I realized that there stood the finest buck I had ever seen, and that due to the thick cover, steep slope of the mountain, and the direction of the wind, the animal had not yet discovered my presence. The shot was easy enough for a child to make and yet as I raised my Springfield and tried to align the sights on the massive neck, my knees suddenly grew weak, my heart pounded like an air compressor and my rifle muzzle described circles and rectangles about the entire frame of the buck. Probably a realization that to fire under these conditions was fatal to my success was the only thing that saved me. I lowered the piece, breathed deeply and concentrated on controlling my palsy-like movements, and in what seemed minutes and probably were only seconds, I regained control sufficiently to aim and press the trigger while the sights settled with reasonable steadiness on the vital spot on the buck’s neck. The roar of the rifle as it echoed and reechoed among the mountains and the crash of the falling deer put an end to the ‘buck fever’ but the memory of those few seconds will remain with me as long as I live.”

To the target shot, the symptoms of the “buck” are unmistakable and usually manifest themselves by causing at first a feeling of unsteadiness and uneasiness which increases to the extent of causing one to desire to move about rather than sit still. In exaggerated cases when the shooter takes his position on the firing line, he experiences a sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach and a weakness in the knees which tremble and shake noticeably. A feeling of irritation and a tendency to lose control of one’s temper are also present at times.

The causes of this condition which closely resembles the stage fright experienced by public speakers when first appearing on a platform, may be traced to many sources, some of them apparently trivial while others are more reasonable. Certain marksmen when given team responsibility on a team that has a good chance to win an important match become extremely nervous as that event approaches, and fail to shoot well as a result. They will shoot well in individual matches occasionally, until they reach the point in their career when they are especially anxious to win a coveted cup or medal. Then their anxiety to win unnerves them and they go to pieces in the critical stages of the match.

There is a certain temperament which causes the possessor to be irritated to the point of losing his self-control so that his temper finally flares up at some trivial incident occurring on the firing line, and his score goes down correspondingly. I have in mind a rifleman who while preparing to shoot or during his match becomes decidedly agitated at most unexpected times and incidents. His mind is such, that in addition to watching the details of his shooting technique, he seems able to take in many, if not all, the minor events occurring in his vicinity, such as the remarks of spectators, the actions and exclamations of adjacent shooters, the instructions of nearby coaches to other contestants and verbal controversies between shooters and range officers. He is always too ready to snap up any remark, action, or suggestion within hearing that he conceives as being in the least annoying to himself or team. Such a temperament is a person’s worst competitor and until he can learn to control and subdue it, he will never become a really successful shot, especially with the pistol. This, in addition to the natural nervousness resulting from normal causes preceding and arising during a competition keeps him always on the ragged edge of an eruption. The mere thought of going on a competitive firing line upsets some marksmen, while others grow more and more nervous as they continue in a competition. In cases like the latter, this increased nervousness is frequently due to a poor start or to a very brilliant one. Either condition may upset certain temperaments and contrarily a poor start occasionally spurs on some men to greater efforts and better shooting as they approach the end of a match. Irritating, provocative, or annoying noises or comments overheard from the side lines, or the attitude and decisions of an over-zealous range official all have a tendency to keep one on edge and are the immediate causes of extreme nervousness at times, unless carefully guarded against. It might be well at this time to call attention to the fact that this form of nervousness is different from that experienced as one’s muscles become tired toward the end of a long match. Tired muscles and nerves cause unsteadiness in holding but this is due entirely to the strain of shooting and not to the causes which produce “buck fever.” Short periods of rest and relaxation, if time is available, may remedy this unsteadiness, but only the exercise of mental effort or will power will stop the effects of the “buck.”

While there is no panacea for this disorder, and what may be a remedy for one may prove ineffective for another, it is well to study the causes of the ailment so as to avoid them. In addition to this it is well to have in mind certain expedients which can be resorted to in an emergency when a touch of the trouble is present. It never pays to lose one’s temper over the fact that one is suffering from an attack of this kind, for this will probably only exaggerate the nervousness. Rather one should exercise all his self-control toward overcoming it. Being caused entirely by the agitation of the mind due to some exterior incident, the effect will be stopped only when the mind is again at ease. Therefore, the cause of the excitement must be expelled from the mind, and every mental effort made to concentrate on the immediate task at hand, usually that of aiming, holding, squeezing, and calling the shot. A coach may frequently assist by calling the attention of the shooter to something that will take his mind from his condition. A joke, a humorous reference to anything about the range or even a mild ridiculing of the shooter’s condition will sometimes relieve the strain by causing the one disturbed to laugh and relax. Sitting down, resting, and slow deep breathing for a minute or two sometimes have a wonderfully quieting effect on the nerves and heart action. But most important of all, if one could put out of his mind everything except the immediate operation of firing, he would find that the “buck” would at once disappear.

To accomplish this, one must first of all decide that he is not going to let anything disturb him mentally. It is a fundamental principle of psychology that interference with any behavior arouses emotion. He is not going to let his imagination run riot and cause him to ponder over the results of his shooting; he is not going to think of the effect on his team of his individual score, no matter whether it be good or poor; he is not going to anticipate the trophy he hopes to win; he is not going to think about the comments of his friends or rivals should he win or lose. He should avoid all controversies with range officials, scorers or competitors. If necessary to make a protest, he should do it in a quiet, self-possessed manner and accept the decision in the same way. He may assume that certain individuals, friendly or otherwise, will attempt by the power of suggestion and comments to “get his goat” and should therefore ignore their remarks or laugh at their strategy as being very crude. If you start poorly don’t worry about it but shoot each shot thereafter as though it alone counted. Nearly everyone has a bad string somewhere in his match and your competitor is having his troubles while you are having yours. Above all things do not take the matter too seriously as it is not a matter of life or death. Shoot carefully, work hard, but not too hard. Determine to make each shot good, and the closer you get to the end of your match the greater will be the necessity for the exercise of your determination and will power to prevent a relaxation of effort and subsequent wild shots. Your last shot may win for you so make it good. Realize that there is such a thing as the “buck” but also rest assured that it can be readily controlled if understood thoroughly. Side step as far as possible the numerous causes that bring it on and if still subject to it under certain conditions such as in competition shooting, put yourself under these conditions as frequently as possible until competition has no terrors for you. Seek every opportunity for keen competition until you reach the point where you prefer such work to mere practice and then your worth as a shooter will he recognized and your system nearly immune to the “buck.”


Sooner or later the novice will reach a time in his practice at slow fire when he finds that he is frequently able to hold his sights aligned on his target for a perceptible time but that he is unable to squeeze the trigger and fire the piece at this time. This condition is known among shooters as being “frozen” and is encountered most frequently by men who follow chiefly the slow or deliberate fire game. It is not due to the weight of trigger pull for its effects are felt when using either a heavy, slow trigger, or a very light set trigger. A number of years ago the author was a member of a pistol team which that year won second place in the National Indoor League matches conducted by the United States Revolver Association. The team was composed of a number of very excellent deliberate fire shots whose shooting was done with the .22 caliber long barreled target pistol with a minimum trigger pull of two pounds. About the middle of the season when everyone was shooting at his best, this condition of being unable to squeeze off a shot when the hold was perfect became very noticeable to nearly all the team and frequently members had to make several attempts before each shot was fired. This resulted in a loss of valuable time and frequently made it necessary for certain members to fire their last shots hurriedly in order to complete a match within the time limit, which was a minute a shot. This particular group affected were old experienced shots, most of them having devoted their attention largely to the deliberate form of pistol shooting rather than to timed or rapid firing. The development of the condition was brought about by a slowly acquired habit of shooting very carefully, deliberately, and with the emphasis placed on making a shot good regardless of the time required. The immediate psychological cause was mutual inhibition, or the partial checking or complete blocking of one nervous impulse by another nearly simultaneous impulse. This phenomenon is brought about when an individual lacks the decision or will power necessary to complete the operation of firing through a fear that his aim or hold is not perfect. During the firing of a shot, the marksman aligns his sights on the bull’s-eye, holds his pistol as nearly immovable as possible and then squeezes his trigger when the sights appear perfectly aligned. If at this instant he has perfect co-ordination of nerves and muscles his pistol will be fired and his shot will be a good one. To explain it according to psychology, at the instant the eye registers his perfect aim the proper external stimulus is given, his brain gives an impulse to certain nerves and the muscles with which they are connected; this impulse causes the trigger to be squeezed and the shot is fired. If a shooter can develop this habit of always squeezing without hesitation or fear when his aim is good he will eventually establish a strong path of nervous impulse which will develop co-ordination and assure him of excellent results in his shooting. Now, consider the opposite case. If at the instant the sights appear aligned correctly and the brain gives the nervous impulse to the proper muscles to squeeze the trigger, there is a doubt in the mind of the shooter, or a fear that perhaps the aim or hold might be better, there will then be a partial checking or a complete blocking of the first impulse by a nearly simultaneous impulse which acts along a different path or set of muscles and these prevent the squeezing muscles from firing the pistol. Thus exists a condition in which one set of nerves and muscles is attempting to squeeze and another checking the operation. If, through habit the inhibitory or checking nerves and muscles are developed, it will be very difficult for a shooter to get his shot off and he will have to extend and lower his arm many times before the shot is finally fired satisfactorily. Shooting under this condition requires a great deal more energy than when the shots can be fired on first attempt, and may cause a shooter to weaken materially toward the end of a fifty or sixty shot match.

To avoid the dangers of this habit, the best advice to the novice is to remind him that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The development of the habit can be largely prevented if understood and if at times it does cause trouble in spite of all efforts to the contrary then there are certain practical schemes that help to overcome it.

For one desiring to make a success of rapid firing after he has become reasonably advanced in slow firing, it is highly desirable to develop decisiveness in squeezing while practicing slow fire. No person can ever hope to shoot accurately in rapid fire who lacks the power to squeeze decisively when his sights appear to be aligned satisfactorily on his target. Realizing therefore the importance of this fact, everyone who hopes to reach a high plane in all-around pistol shooting should determine, when they begin practice, to get off their shots on first attempt without lowering the arm. Faithful practice and adherence to this principle will do more to prevent the development of pottering in shooting and the resultant condition of “freezing” than any other thing. On the other hand, toward the end of a long series of shots when tired nerves and muscles have about reached their limits of endurance and the arm has become shaky, it may be occasionally necessary to lower it rather than “pull” or “flinch” the shot. For more experienced shots who are afflicted by this “frozen” condition, the following remedies are suggested: During practice determine to follow the plan outlined above of getting your shot off on first attempt and note whether your scores suffer, also note how much less energy is required to fire a string of shots. To assist the squeezing impulse it will help some to hold in the left hand a small object such as a pocket knife, and when the sights are properly aligned to emphasize the act of squeezing by saying to oneself “now” and at the same time squeezing both the trigger and the pocket knife. If you become “frozen” in an important competition, as the author once did in an international match, it will help to overcome the trouble temporarily if you can lay aside your pistol for a few minutes and snap a few times at the target with a gun having a heavier trigger pull. Also exercise the muscles of the shooting hand by slowly closing and opening it a few times between shots.

At the pistol matches conducted by the International Shooting Union at Rheims, France, in 1924, the author sat behind M. Paul Van Asbroeck of Belgium while the latter fired his 60 shots in the International match of that year, and noted among other things that this celebrated deliberate fire shot who had several times previously won the World’s Free Pistol Championship, invariably got his shots off on the first attempt until toward the end of his shooting when, his arm becoming tired, he found it necessary to lower it occasionally without firing and make a second attempt after a short rest.

Plenty of snapping practice and a fair amount of rapid fire are also invaluable to a young shooter as a preventative to the development of pottering and the habit of “freezing” during slow fire.


The greatest obstacle the novice has to overcome when he begins firing is that of flinching. He will soon learn to aim, hold and squeeze well enough to make respectable scores but will find that he frequently gets erratic shots because he flinches. More annoyance, discouragement and failures in pistol shooting are blamable to flinching than to any other problems of the game. This phenomenon may be defined as the sudden, involuntary nervous reaction experienced while firing, which causes spasmodic movements of certain muscles which derange the aim and produce wild shots.

The normal reaction of one’s nervous system to a startling noise or blow is to cause the body to suddenly shrink from or attempt to avoid the disturbing action. The violence and rapidity of this reaction depends largely on one’s temperament,—the more nervous it is the greater the reaction. The nervous system not only reacts after a disturbance, but frequently does it in anticipation of expected injury. The sensation of heat as one’s hand unexpectedly nears a hot stove causes it to be involuntarily withdrawn before any harm is done. The tendency to shrink from the explosion of a large firecracker after the fuse has been lighted is involuntary. These are examples of the nervous system’s reaction to anticipated danger. Accordingly, when a novice begins firing, his system reacts to the noise of the discharge in his ears and the jar of the recoil on the muscles of his hand. The greater the noise of the discharge and the heavier the recoil the greater will be the effect of the reaction. At first the reaction occurs immediately after the explosion and recoil of the gun and in such a case the flinching does not cause an erratic shot as the bullet has left the gun before the flinch begins. After a few shots however, the nervous system may anticipate the effect and react just about the time the trigger is squeezed, causing the muscles of the shooting arm to spasmodically jerk the trigger or thrust the hand forward to meet the expected shock of recoil. In this case the reaction occurs before the bullet leaves the muzzle, deranges the aim and causes a wild shot. It is this form of flinching that is detrimental to the progress of the beginner and unless he knows how to prevent and overcome it he will continue indefinitely to flinch and his shooting remain mediocre, except that increased shooting experience and the gradual accustoming of the nervous system to the noise and the recoil of discharge will decrease the tendency. It is well to understand that flinching is not confined to the beginner but is quite prevalent among old and experienced shots, to a much lesser degree however. It cannot be blamed entirely to fear of noise or recoil but sometimes occurs to a pistol shot when through over-anxiety he attempts to hurry a shot. It occurs more frequently as a result of a disordered digestive system, due to indiscretions of eating and drinking or when mental worries combined with stomach disorders give one a case of “jumpy” nerves. At such times when the nervous system is “keyed up to a high pitch” very small incidents cause one to flinch badly. The proximity on the firing line of a careless shooter, who while loading points his weapon in your direction or who frequently makes startling exclamations or otherwise conducts himself as a nuisance, is likely to make one nervous and cause flinching. Hair triggers or very heavy, creepy triggers, because they are treacherous and uncertain, are very conducive to flinching and are a constant worry to anyone who is not thoroughly accustomed to them. They are especially bad for rapid fire, for it is very difficult to squeeze uniformly and get good co-ordination with them when firing rapidly.

If we consider flinching from a psychological standpoint and realize that it is more of a mental than physical problem, we will readily appreciate the advisability of preventing it by giving the mind so much to do during the operation of firing that it will not be able to think of or anticipate the effects of the explosion or recoil. This can be accomplished by training the mind to absolutely concentrate on aiming, holding, squeezing and most important of all in preventing flinching at least, on calling the shot. If a novice will bring himself to think only of these four essentials his mind will be so occupied that he will see only the alignment of the sights at the instant the explosion occurs and if he flinches at all it will be after the bullet has left the barrel. After the marksman has taken his firing position, aligned his sights, held his breath and begun squeezing he should put out of his mind everything except calling the shot until the explosion occurs and if he does this he will soon find that his flinches become fewer and his scores greatly improved.

To sum up, flinching will be prevented or reduced to a minimum by a careful observance of the following:

1. Keep the nervous system in a normal healthy condition by sensible exercise and diet.

2. While firing concentrate on aiming, holding, squeezing and calling the shots until the habits become mechanical.

3. Do not fire many shots at each practice period while learning the game or until the muscles and nerves become thoroughly accustomed to the noise and recoil. Too much shooting is conducive to carelessness and flinching.

4. Know your pistol, especially its cocking action and trigger pull and avoid treacherous and uncertain triggers and actions.


There is another psychological side to pistol shooting on which I wish to touch and that is the relationship between the weapon and the person using it. The technique of shooting—the proper stance, the correct manner of aiming, holding and firing the pistol—has been emphasized over and over and may be defined as the outward or visible technique of shooting. There is, however, another form of technique which could well be termed the inward or invisible technique and, as has been shown already, it bears an important relationship to one’s success in the sport. The point to be made is that we must not only have complete mastery over the pistol to obtain the greatest success in marksmanship but we must also have absolute control of it at all times to insure complete personal safety.

The pistol, either as an instrument for the development of skill or as a weapon for defensive purposes, is a splendid servant in the hands of him who masters it, but it is a dangerous enemy in the hands of anybody who is mastered by it. It might be compared to a spirited horse in the hands of its master: under control he performs and behaves beautifully; out of control he throws his rider. No doubt Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” became a very human personality to him long before he reached Europe, but the plane out of control would have meant his death. So it is with a pistol, for if one practices intelligently and faithfully until he masters the art of shooting it, there will come times—though they may be rare—when it seems almost human in the way it responds to impulse of mind and nerves. When these occasions occur it seems as though the perfect coordination that exists between man and gun causes the latter to function as though it were part of the body and mind and not as a separate external mechanism. There are however, occasions when an entirely different relationship may occur and then the gun becomes the master of the man. I will illustrate by two incidents recently told me by a friend.

“During the War my brother trained with a machine gun battalion and told me afterwards that he had become so familiar with his machine gun and his automatic pistol that he could almost take them apart and reassemble them in the dark. For some years after his return from France he kept his pistol at our Mother’s home and during one Thanksgiving vacation, while visiting there from the University of Wisconsin, where he was an instructor in history, he decided that he would get out his automatic and do some target shooting in a quarry nearby. Five minutes after he had secured an oil can, a rag and a hairpin from our Mother the pistol went off and he was instantly killed,—shot through the head. Of course we do not know what happened. There was, however, every evidence that it was an accident, and I do know that my brother was tired through over-study.

“Another incident was that of a young man in the literary department of a large publishing firm some years ago. He had come to the firm at a very high salary and with the understanding that he was to achieve certain results. He was there about a year or more when it became apparent both to the firm and to himself that he was not likely to succeed in what he had undertaken to do. There was no question that he worried very much and that at times his frail health was the result of that worry. One Saturday, while leaving early to go to his country home, he remarked to one of his associates that he was discouraged and that he felt that the best thing he could do was to resign. That afternoon, while out hunting in the company of two or three friends, he stepped over a low stone wall and carelessly dragged his gun after him. The gun went off and he was killed instantly.”

These two incidents are, to my mind, significant of something similar to what is called, in the game of chess, a blind spot in the brain. It is well established that even the great artists of chess have been known to leave a piece exposed or to overlook an open threat which would be obvious to the most amateurish player, simply, because in that fraction of a second, there is a blind spot which prevents the player from seeing anything. I wonder whether many of the accidents resulting from the careless handling of firearms are not the result of something similar.

The point to be made is that firearms are always dangerous to any person handling them who is below his normal powers. It is highly necessary that anyone using a pistol—or any other fire-arm for that matter—be at the peak of his efficiency in all departments of his being, so that he shall be master of the weapon and insure the most efficient results from the use of it. Conversely, it is apparent that when a person is below his normal powers, he is inferior to the weapon which becomes increasingly dangerous in his hands. He must, therefore, be master of it or he will be well advised to leave it alone, especially should he be worried or despondent. A lover of firearms may, in periods of stress and worry, be inclined to turn for comfort to those companions of many happy hours, his pistols, with the idea of attempting to get his mind off his worries and, not being as alert and careful with them as usual, accidents may result.