by Terry Wieland
The subject of flinching is delicate, to say the least. There are all sorts of indelicate analogies one could use to put flinching in perspective, but let’s just leave it that most of us are reluctant to admit to it.
Is flinching a sign of weakness? Or, perhaps, a sign that our bodies and subconscious minds are vastly more sensible than we are, and instinctively cringe away from pain, just as we would turn away from an attacker? (The latter comparison ignores the minority that would whip out the heat they’re packing and sort it all out. But you get my point.)
And so, in the time-honored tradition of group therapy, let me get it started: I have an ever-growing problem with flinching, afflicting mainly my trapshooting, but also evincing itself with rifles and handguns. And it ain’t pretty.
Recently, it’s been happening once or twice a round. I call for a bird, swing on it, and then…nothing. I think I’m pulling the trigger, but in fact I’m lurching forward, the muzzle is arcing down, and the bird is sailing off merrily into the distance. Occasionally I recover and get the shot off, but most of those are misses.
The problem of flinching and what the Brits used to call “gun headache” have been studied for years, by shooting instructors, writers, and psychologists. Their conclusions vary, but we can sum it up by saying it’s partly physical, mostly psychological, and undoubtedly self-reinforcing. The more we fear we might flinch, the more we do flinch.
I should add here that there are different types of flinches, some peculiar to rifles, others to handguns, but we’ll stick with shotguns for now.
Nowhere is there greater acknowledgement of flinching, and fear that a flinch might develop, than in competitive trapshooting. That’s why you see the heavy guns, long barrels, muzzle brakes, and weird contraptions attached to buttstocks. It’s also why ammunition companies have devoted thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to developing competition loads that are effective on the one end, but soft as a maiden’s caress on the other.
It’s also why makers of top-end competititon shotguns have all developed release triggers for their trap models. For those who are unfamiliar, a release trigger is pulled and held before you call for the bird. As you swing on the target, you release it and the gun fires. Obviously, for safety, such an arrangement must be prominently identified as such, and most guns so-fitted have a large and colorful sticker somewhere to tell everyone to beware.
Exactly why release triggers work, I’m not sure, but they do, and I have several friends past and present who graduated (if that’s the word) to a release trigger. It’s sort of a rite of passage for older trapshooters, indicating to all that they’ve fired hundreds of thousands of rounds at inoffensive clays over the years, to the point of physical and emotional deterioration.
There are two physical culprits here. One is recoil, the other is muzzle blast. Frederick Courteney Selous, the legendary African big-game hunter, developed a flinch from firing large-bore blackpowder rifles early in his career, and it afflicted him for life. That was simply the result of too many foot-pounds, pushing back too suddenly on too light a gun, and punishing him mercilessly.
However, trapshooters learned long ago that even light recoil can eventually cause a flinch because the effects of recoil are cumulative. It may not be as spectacular as Sir Samuel Baker being spun around and flung to the ground with a bloody nose, as happened every time he pulled the trigger on “Baby,” his monstrous two-bore, but what it lacks in spectacle it makes in insidiousness. Cumulative recoil sneaks up on you, like old age. And, like old age, once it’s got you…
The other factor is muzzle blast. Your ear drums don’t like being assaulted any more than your shoulder does. Vicious muzzle blast is more a problem with rifles, especially in indoor ranges, but shotguns are noisy, too. Every range now insists on hearing protection, which is only common sense, but there are degrees of protection. On a trap field, simple plugs do the job while allowing you to carry on a conversation, but that may not be enough.
One way of reducing the likelihood of a flinch is to go to the biggest, softest, most noise-killing plugs you can find. Suddenly, you are in a world of almost complete silence. This not only helps with the flinching, it also aids concentration. All outside distraction is eliminated.
On the psychological side, I have found I am most likely to flinch when presented with what should be an easy bird. Just as I’m thinking “You’re a dead duck, baby,” my trigger refuses to budge and I lurch forward. Fear of failure, of missing an easy shot? I guess so.
There are so many forms of flinch, and so many causes, and so many possible and partial solutions, that everyone is pretty much alone with his problem. But, like other afflictions, the solution begins with admitting it exists.
If you admit to flinching and get more sympathy than laughter, you know that those guys are struggling with the same damn problem even if they haven’t admitted it. At least, not yet.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, distinctly remembers being 15 and pulling the trigger on a single-shot long-tom 12 gauge for the first time. Like Selous, the damage was lasting. At least he feels he’s in good company.