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How to stop flinching, see the sights, and quit missing low-and-left

Discussion in 'Handguns: General Discussion' started by ATLDave, Jul 29, 2019.

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  1. ATLDave

    ATLDave Member

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    I. Why discuss flinches?

    The flinch is, by far, the most common and most serious marksmanship problem in handgun shooting. There are more pistol-shot targets at a typical range with a low-left pattern than without. It is ubiquitous among newer shooters.* For many, the problem persists for years. Some never overcome it.

    The flinch is particularly pernicious because its root cause - the blink - basically imposes a roadblock to further development. Improving one's handgun shooting is often a matter of making incremental refinements to a variety of techniques and fundamentals - there's always something to work on - but if a flinch is present and persistent, not a lot of headway can be made on other things until it is solved.

    As one might expect, a problem that is both common and serious generates a lot of threads. Unfortunately, these often begin with a vexed shooter posing the wrong question. They may ask about trigger control or sight alignment or even grip, when they are simply flinching and shoving shots low and left without any visual awareness. They will get lots of advice that is relevant to the question they asked (which was derived from their own self-diagnosis), but irrelevant to their actual problem. They get good medicine - for someone else's ailment.

    I thought it would be useful to have a post - and subsequent thread - that deals directly and unflinchingly (ha!) with this issue. I hope that it may help someone.

    II. Why I am writing this

    I'm not an expert in very much when it comes to shooting. I'm a passable USPSA/IPSC shooter, and I can hit things that casual shooters struggle to hit, but I'm not a national champ (nor am I likely to ever be). I know lots and lots of people who are better pistol shooters than me.

    But I DO know what it is like to struggle against a profound and persistent flinch - and what was required for me to overcome it. I know what it is like to be unable to consistently hold the A-zone of an IPSC target (or the -0 zone of an IDPA target) at 10 yards when under no time pressure. I know what it is like to fill target after target with a pattern that looks like a comet, with a few centered shots and a long, diffuse tail of many more shots trailing out to the low and left (I'm right-handed).

    I know a bunch of things that people told me or that I read online that were supposed to cure this problem. I know which of those things did not work (a lot of them), and even which made the problem worse (again, a lot of them).

    Fortunately, I also eventually learned what worked. I know that I have shared this information with a number of other people over the years who were struggling with a persistent flinch, and I have seen it work for them. I think this is a topic I know and understand well, from the perspective of both patient and physician.

    III. What is a true flinch?

    In handgun shooting, for purposes of this discussion a flinch is: A reflexive/subconscious anticipation of the shot firing that manifests in both a blink/fluttering of the eyes and a pre-ignition push of the gun opposite the anticipated recoil.**

    OK, let's unpack that.

    1. "A reflexive/subconscious anticipation of the shot firing..." We're talking about a phenomenon that begins without (and even against) a conscious decision. Our brains are pre-programmed from birth to protect our most precious sensory organs - our eyes. Loud noises and rapid motions near our faces are things that our brains - the very old parts of our brain, not the human-defining prefrontal cortex stuff - understand as needing to generate a protective response. This is happening at a reflexive, not deliberative/intentional, level.​

    After we've fired a gun a few times, our brain knows that, once the trigger gets pressed far/hard enough, the pistol suddenly takes on an apparent "life" of its own, albeit a brief one. It makes an instantaneously violent sound so loud as to be beyond what our ancestors would likely have ever encountered in their hunting and gathering. This explosively loud sound is accompanied by the sensation of the previously-inanimate object in our hands suddenly having a will of its own, moving back and up towards our face with a sudden drive that can be resisted, but not completely.

    Human brains are very good at noticing patterns, and then predicting future events based on that pattern (if you've ever tapped your foot or bobbed your head along with a song that you've never heard before, that's what you're doing). Given the virtually 1-to-1 correlation between the trigger and the big-noise-object-jumping phenomenon, our brains notice this pattern very readily. Once our brains recognize this pattern, our brains start to anticipate it. As the trigger gets closer to breaking, our brain starts to prepare for what it knows is coming (ignition, noise, and motion)... and it does it at a subconscious level.​

    2. "that manifests in [] a blink/fluttering of the eyes" Human beings relay 80-90% on visual inputs for information about the world. In prehistoric times, a blind hunter/gatherer was basically as good as dead. We are strongly disposed to protect our eyes, and our eyelids are a part of that.

    Unfortunately, as soon as we allow our subconscious to activate the protective effects of our eyelids, that shuts down the visual data coming into our brain. Now, we blink many times every minute just to keep our eyes lubricated/moisturized, and that doesn't seem to pose big problems in terms of our general awareness of the world... but most of the time, we're not trying to observe fraction-of-a-second events. Shooting is something that happens, though, in a fraction of a second. So losing our primary data stream for the duration of even a rapid blink can effectively blot out all record of the moment of ignition and what was happening with the sights in few hundredths of a second beforehand.

    It is this "redaction" of the record that defines a true flinch, and distinguishes it from most other bad shots. It literally blinds us as to our own actions, and what might be done to fix them. Once you are getting visual input, you will begin to make rapid and easy improvements in marksmanship, because you will be able to literally see your mistakes as you make them, and you will be able to self-cure the vast majority of them. It's like driving a car... if you kept blacking out on the road, not only would you have lots of accidents, you wouldn't learn anything from them and wouldn't get better as a driver. But if you were able to start maintaining awareness, you'd learn to drive acceptably well in short order.

    3. "and a pre-ignition push of the gun opposite the anticipated recoil." If all that happened was a closing of the eyes, theoretically we could still make the same hits. If the gun was aligned with the target, and then we kept it there and pressed the trigger, the bullet would go to the same place.

    But that's not what happens. The same subconscious reflex that closes the eyes causes some amount of force to be input to the gun in anticipation of recoil. For right-handed shooters, this will generally be a shove down and to the left.

    The special hell of the flinch is that, because we closed our eyes just before we began to shove the gun off the target, we don't see this happening. We decide to pull the trigger, we blink, we shove the gun, the gun goes off, we open our eyes (no need to anticipate it any more, the gun already did its noisy thing), and we are baffled and frustrated at yet another low-left hit (or outright miss).

    There are other more subtle marksmanship errors that cause occasional misses, including low-left misses. Desire to fire a shot while the sights are "perfect" and immobile, a focus on getting the next shot ready even while the prior shot is still underway, and failure to isolate the trigger finger's contraction from the rest of the hand - these are all other errors that can and do cause misses and off-center shots. But these are all different than a true flinch - and are comparatively easy to combat with conscious effort, as opposed to the brain-stem-driven flinch.

    IV. How do I know if I've got a flinch?

    There are several good ways to determine whether you've got a flinch. The most definitive way is to get some high-resolution slow-motion video of yourself shooting. With the quality of cameras on smart phone these days, this is very doable for most people. Get the camera positioned so that your dominant eye is in the frame and in-focus. Turn on the slow-motion camera (or have a friend do it). Shoot some shots. Watch the video. If your dominant eye is fluttering, blinking, closing, or squinting just before/as the gun goes off: you have a flinch.

    Another method common before slow-motion cameras were in everyone's pocket was the old ball-and-dummy drill. Have a friend load the magazine or cylinder of the gun with a mix of live and dummy rounds (or, if you haven't got dummies, just an unknown number of rounds). Shoot at a target. If the times when the gun doesn't go off you shove the gun dramatically downward and notice that you blinked as you did it, you have a flinch.

    Note: The ball and dummy drill is slightly too sensitive. Almost all shooters who care about recoil control will develop a timed push down against recoil... but they will push after the shot, and without a blink. It is unrealistic to expect the gun to stay totally still on a dummy (although many people will say that it should). What you are looking for is a big dip, usually with the muzzle dipping in an angular fashion (as opposed to a muzzle-level straight down displacement of the whole gun, which is more common with a post-ignition return-from-recoil input) and a blink. As I will explain below, the ball and dummy drill is not a treatment for a pronounced flinch - it's a diagnostic tool.

    V. How do I stop flinching?

    If you've recognized that you've got a true flinch, congratulations. A lot of people never make it that far. For some reason, people who are flinchers don't like to acknowledge it, even to themselves. Rather than recognizing that it indicates that they have good reflexes, they think it signals something about fear. Well, that attitude won't help them solve the problem. A simple recognition that you have a flinch is the first step to the cure.

    A. The eyes have it

    What next? To cure a flinch, there is one key insight that you need to have: The key role of the blink in the flinch. Shooting is, first and foremost, a visual activity. When we blink, we turn off our conscious awareness of where the gun is aimed... and the subconscious reptile-brain impulse to push against the gun's impending recoil takes over. Worse, because our eyes are closed, we cannot monitor the sights and we cannot even see the flinch in action. We just see shots straying far from the last point-of-aim that we saw, and it's baffling/frustrating. Once shooters manage to keep their eyes open and visual perception running well enough to see the push happening, they're pretty quick to stop doing it.

    B. A matter of trust

    OK, so can we just decide to keep our eyes open? Well, some people can. These are the people who quickly move through any flinch phase. But for those of us who struggle with a persistent flinch, the subconscious fights against the conscious intent to keep the eyes open. And it is fundamentally a question of trust.

    Remember that the blink reflex/anticipation in a flinch is a subconscious action. The fundamental problem is that your subconscious thinks that allowing the gun to go off while the eyes are open is dangerous. Our rational brains can recognize that the projectile comes out the other end, that we have enough grip on the gun to prevent it from whanging us in the face, that we are wearing eyepro against any small debris, etc., but our subconscious doesn't trust that. It wants the extra security of covering our precious eyeballs with eyelids.

    Thus, the long-term cure is to build up enough "trust" in your subconscious that the gun will not harm you just because it fires while your eyes are open. The bad news is that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. The only way for your brain to begin to "trust" that keeping your eyes open throughout the shot is safe is to accumulate instances of keeping the eyes open with no injury resulting. The good news is that every time that happens, the trust grows. The trust is not diminished by the gun going off with the eyes closed. So you're not going to damage your shooting by trying-and-failing to keep the eyes open on shots... you're only going to improve (on those occasions when the gun goes off and you see it go off).

    Your job, then, is to accumulate enough instances where your eyes are open at the moment the gun goes off for your subconscious to accept that this is a safe event and that it can knock that blinking stuff off. Different people's subconsciouses require different amounts of proof. I cannot tell you how many instances you will need. I needed quite a few, spread over multiple sessions. But there is such thing as "enough," and you can get them.

    C. Seeing it all

    So step #1 of curing a flinch is to pile up instances of seeing the gun go off. OK, how do we do that? Attention on seeing. Spend some time shooting without any concern over group size. In fact, shoot without any target at all. Just aim at the backstop and watch the gun go off. See how much you can see. See the brass eject. See the slide move or the hammer fall. See the muzzle flash (lots of people have never seen their own muzzle-flash!); with a revolver, see an B/C gap flash. Once you can reliably see the gun going off, you can focus your attention on the sights. Once you can reliably see the sights through the shot, then it's worth adding a target. Until then, don't worry about targets or groups.

    What if this is proving especially difficult? The good news is, there are a bunch of tricks we can use to try to mess with our perception and reflexes just enough to start piling up instances of seeing the gun go off.

    D. The bag of tricks

    • Maximize insulation from blast/flash/noise. Double plug (earplugs under muffs).
    • Find the lower threshold of what is blink-inducing, and shoot a lot of that. If a .22lr only induces a blink some of the time, shoot a lot of that until you blink 0% of the time with that power level. If an airsoft gun is enough to set off a blink, shoot that a lot. (I actually had a blink that was so sensitive that I did this... just the CO2 puff from an airsoft gun with a reciprocating slide would induce a blink from me. So I spent time in my house "firing" an airsoft gun that had gas, but no pellets, just to desensitize myself to it.)
    • Conversely, sometimes it helps to shoot a few rounds of something that has a lot more blast and flash. Shoot a few rounds of full-power 10mm and even +P 9mm will seem soft by comparison. Sometimes it just helps to reset levels of what your subconscious considers "a lot" of blast and flash.
    • Try firing 4-6 shots as fast as you can pull the trigger. You may time up the eyelid-flutter with the first shot or two, but you will eventually get out of sync (if you are really shooting fast) and see the muzzle flash. Every time that happens, it builds trust. You just need enough of those instances to start being able to keep your eyes open through single shots.
    • Try firing a gun with an unfamiliar trigger. If your brain is very used to "timing" the blink with a semi-auto's short trigger, you may be able to "surprise" it with a DA revolver pull. You may flinch once halfway through the pull, then re-open your eyes as the trigger stroke nears the end.
    • If the exercise of seeing the gun go off is proving very difficult, if you can, have an experienced shooter go stand next to you. Hold the gun in a firing grip pointed towards the berm, but with your finger off the trigger indexed on the frame. Allow the other person, standing safely to the side, to put their finger in the trigger. When you think the sights are aligned on the target, tell the other shooter you are on target. They will wait a short, but random period of time. You may feel your eyes fluttering as your brain tries to guess when the gun will go off, but within a few tries, your brain will guess "wrong" and accidentally see some shots go off. This can sometimes kick-start a willingness in the brain to "see" more with greater trust that nothing bad will happen just because the eyes are open at the moment of ignition. Chances are good you might shoot a really good group this way, too!
    • Don't give up. When I was working through my flinch, I went to the range with a 500 round box of .22lr ammo and shot it all out my .22 pistol. I did this once a week for several weeks. I gradually got desensitized to it. Then I started piling up reps with centerfire guns.
    • Have an experienced shooter check your grip. Grip has a huge influence on how the gun moves in recoil. An ineffective grip can make the gun jump around more, which is part of the input that makes your subconscious want to blink and shove the gun around. An effective grip can settle the recoil down quite a bit, and make it easier to trust that nothing crazy is going to happen when the gun goes off.
    • Try shooting with both eyes open. When you close your non-dominant eye, that tends to partially close the dominant one. Leaving both open will cause a double-image issue, but remember that our goal is to see the gun go off, not do a lot of precise alignment. Once you get the blink eliminated, you can decide whether you should be a squinter or a both-open shooter... but for now, do anything you can to keep your eyes open and relaxed.
    • Don't shoot into bright light. If you're shooting in bright conditions, wear tinted lenses. Again, don't pre-close your eyes at all. You want relaxed face muscles. Some people find it helpful to even slightly open their jaw/mouth. You want to be dispassionate, an impassive observer.
    There are other tricks I have not listed. Maybe others will chime in with some.


    E. Stuff that doesn't work

    I don't want to go into an exhaustive list of things that are unproductive, but I do want to address three things that are often floated as a cure for flinching - but are not, in my experience..

    Dry fire: Dry fire is awesome. I am a huge believer in it. I would say I dry fire at least a little 5+ days per week. There's all kinds of stuff you can learn in dry fire. But, remember, your brain is good at noticing patterns. Your brain knows that an empty gun doesn't go boom. It knows there is no flash or blast or recoil coming, so it doesn't feel any need to protect the eyes or shove the gun around. Lots and lots and lots of people can dry fire with perfect accuracy and have a horrendous flinch with live ammo.

    Ball and dummy drills: This is a diagnostic tool, and can be useful to get someone to "feel" how much force they are really applying in the pre-ignition push, but I do not think it is a method for curing a flinch. Worse, if done in significant volume, you can train a kind of "free recoil" shooting, which can be usable for leisurely-paced shooting, but is totally at odds with the kind of recoil control needed for any kind of rapid shooting (which most people think is applicable to self-defense).

    Focusing on trigger control: I suspect this works for a percentage of flinchers, but for many people an acute focus on the sensation of the pressure building towards the sear break generates an unbearable level of anticipation and cranks flinching into the stratosphere. This is good medicine for some other marksmanship issues, but is generally not the cure for a true flinch.

    Alright, that's all I've got to say about this topic right now.

    * Though, paradoxically, not necessarily among truly brand-new shooters.

    ** Note that not all pre-ignition pushes are a true flinch. Sometimes, they are simply a result of trying to aggressively manage recoil and fractionally mis-timing some recoil control input. Sometimes, they are a result of too much tension in the firing hand combined with an overall clenching action of that hand as the trigger is pressed. Compared to a true flinch, though: 1) the shooter will have the ability to see it happening and therefore have some chance of conscious correction; and 2) these will tend to be intermittent in nature, resulting in the occasional "flyer" or "thrown shot," as opposed to the flinch's pervasive impact on half or more of the fired shots.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2019
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  2. GBExpat

    GBExpat Member

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    Good Grief! You just used up your Words Ration for a MONTH! :)

    Nice Write-Up.

    To avoid flinching I simply think "glass rod" and try to be calm & surprised when the hammer drops ... o'course, that method does not work very well for rapid fire segments. ;)
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2019
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  3. ATLDave

    ATLDave Member

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    The vast majority is stuff I have written before. I spent far more time trying to meld it into a larger, coherent piece than actually banging out new prose. Frankly, I got tired of searching through my own, old posts on the topic - I can now just copy and paste the link to this exegesis!
     
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  4. Doc Samson

    Doc Samson Member

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    Thanks for this!

    Maybe now I can shake my nickname of Ol' Flinchy! I do get decent groups... consistently about 4 inches low/right (I'm a lefty) at 5 yards...
     
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  5. troy fairweather

    troy fairweather Member

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    i got good flinch training when i was kid, dad worked at a gun shop and would bring different guns home every week. i was shooting BFR's and other magnum pistols before i was 10. but still remember the basics when shooting.
     
  6. lionking

    lionking Member

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    Yes being "surprised" when the round goes off. I'm a left handed shooter so opposite results I think when not doing it proper I think? Depends on the gun also though, yesterday I was using my new XDM getting use to it and a couple targets I did at 15 yards I went to the right of the bulls when at 10 yards I was dead on, realized I was using too much finger and possibly squeezing the grip when firing, I used more of my tip of finger and made sure not to grip the gun too hard and the group went center again.
     
  7. Slamfire

    Slamfire Member

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    I proved nine times this weekend that I am a rotten 50 yard shooter at 2700 Bullseye. (three slow fire stages times three)

    DiglvlS.jpg

    At least all rounds were on target, but not necessarily in the scoring rings. And the problem is, flinching! I forgot to take the safety off, after adjusting my grip, pulled the trigger, and that pistol just went all over the place. Rocket man! Proof positive of a very bad flinch. Strangely, the flinch does not hurt my 25 yard scores as much as the 50 yard scores. I hold on to the pistol in timed and rapid fire like grim death and accept the pain!

    I will re read your advice and already think you have something about the eyes. I appreciate you taking the time to help us inveterate flinchers!
     
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  8. herrwalther

    herrwalther Member

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    My brother has some of the worst flinches I have ever seen when shooting. And with how much he practices (more than me) there is no excuse to have them. He was in denial, and didn't realize he had a flinch until he watched videos of himself shooting at ranges, which I took. One reason why I am in favor of bringing phones to the range to record video. You can pickup on things like flinches, observable recoil, and muzzle flashes (for load development).

    I solved or greatly reduced his flinch in a single day. I loaded all his magazines and threw in random dud rounds that I had made on my reloading press (he only shoots 9mm so it was easy to make a handful of dud rounds). The only rule I told him was the first round in the magazine would be a live one, after that who knows.
     
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  9. bgw45

    bgw45 Member

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    Thanks for a logicly presented ( I think ), path to improvement. I've thrown way too much downrange fighting this very issue. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. I discovered if I'm seeing the muzzle flash then my groups decrease in size dramatically. At my age, as soon as I conquer one of the fundamentals I backslide in another area. So it is a constant battle, but still hugely fun!
     
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  10. Eddietruett

    Eddietruett Member

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    The old man that taught me to shoot back in the 70's used a trick that helped me at an early age to not flinch. He would load a revolver for me and always put at least one empty cartridge in the cylinder. Sometimes 2 or 3 and hand it back. Not knowing which ones were hot and not, made me learn to squeeze and not snap the trigger. If you flinch, when the hammer hits an empty round, it really shows up. When I did, he would smack me on the back of the head. Got tired of getting hit, so somehow I quit flinching. It still comes back here and there, but I usually feel it and have to concentrate a little more.
     
  11. Jessesky

    Jessesky Member

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    Great write up! Almost long enough to be a published novel lol.

    I’m a little unorthodox. I got rid of my flinch because of my love for big bore rifles. After shooting some of them, every other cartridge seemed like nothing. Kind of like using a weighted baseball bat to warm up.

    I also was taught to play a little “roulette” and load certain chambers in my revolver and not know when the gun have a live cylinder at the chamber. This made me very aware of my flinch and I corrected it.
     
  12. WrongHanded
    • Contributing Member

    WrongHanded Contributing Member

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    When my flinch rears its ugly head, it's actually a slight upwards flick of the muzzle. Caused by a tiny upwards rotation of the wrist, to escape recoil. The result is shots 4-6" high at 25 yds. Other than the direction, everything else is as you describe. Good writing, Dave!
     
  13. P5 Guy

    P5 Guy Member

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    I learn flinch control shooting stale Pakistani 303BRIT. Hang fires can show all your mistakes.
     
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  14. rdnktrkr

    rdnktrkr Member

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    Thanks for the tips, I will take this with me next time we hit the range to refresh my memory. I definitely flinch left more than lower left, at 25yrds most of my shots are on the left side of the target.
    What side of Atlanta are you on? I'm about 20mi west.
     
  15. ATLDave

    ATLDave Member

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    I'm in it, brother!
     
  16. rdnktrkr

    rdnktrkr Member

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    Ouch, I watch the news to much to be ITP:). I'm thinking about getting further out when my wife retires, get a few acres with a small range. Now I have 4.75 acr and it takes 5 in Douglas Co to do target shooting.:(
     
  17. ontarget

    ontarget Member

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    Not sure if it makes any sense but I seem to have a much worse flinch when shooting rimfire single actions than centerfire. I'm wondering now if it just shows up more with the lower recoil rimfire rounds because there is less pushback from recoil.
     
  18. ATLDave

    ATLDave Member

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    Both my career and my family more or less require in-town living. I'm here for a while longer... though the idea of removing to the wilderness is appealing!
     
  19. ATLDave

    ATLDave Member

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    When you say your flinch is "worse," do you mean that your target shows worse results, or that your in-the-moment experience of the flinch is stronger?
     
  20. ontarget

    ontarget Member

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    After reading your write up I'm thinking it maybe shows up worse on the target because of the lack of recoil pushback against my forward push during firing.
     
  21. IdaD

    IdaD Member

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    I'm a lot better with rifles than handguns because I've been around them a lot longer and have hunted big game since I was a kid. You are right that they make handguns all seem like mouse calibers, especially when you get into the big belted magnums, but shooting them is a lot different to me because you've got so much more control over the tun and your entire upper body is engaged in managing the gun and recoil. With handguns you have to manage a heavier and longer trigger and you've only got your hands to control the gun, which also has a far shorter barrel that it rotates off target much easier. One thing I would say is I have to work at not flinching when I'm target shooting anything. When I'm hunting and have an animal in my scope I don't think about, feel or even really hear the gun go off nor do I give any thought to managing a flinch. I assume in a defensive situation the same would be true. The key is having your fundamentals down well enough so you follow them without conscious thought.

    Your roulette idea is good. Dummy rounds or loading a round and dropping the mag and shooting twice can do the same thing in an autoloader and it can be a little eye opening.
     
  22. ATLDave

    ATLDave Member

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    What's the other handgun type you're comparing those .22 SA's to?
     
  23. murf

    murf Member

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    that sounds like you are anticipating the shot. squeeze till the shot breaks, don't try to make it break.

    luck,

    murf
     
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  24. Tallball

    Tallball Member

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    Great write-up. Thank you! :)

    Trying to see the sights and the target behind them when the handgun goes off helps me blink less. My understanding is that I should just on the front sight, but if I am having a temporary flinching problem, trying to widen my focus of vision to see the sights and target seems to help.

    Also, I always "warm up" with 22lr before I start shooting centerfire. I feel like this helps me flinch less, since I get used to the gentle 22's first before I shoot anything spicier.
     
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  25. murf

    murf Member

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    try focusing on your follow-through. keeping your mind off the flinch is key, imo.

    luck,

    murf
     
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