Be A Straight Shooter

This article presents my opinion on how to bring together several commonly heard recommendations on how to shoot better. And it comes to the rather surprising conclusion that most Bullseye shooters are using a less than perfect stance.

Readers have, very understandably, objected to my apparent pretentiousness and I must say that I too have had these very same qualms. I’ve asked myself, “Who am I to tell others how to shoot?”

This article was motivated by a desire to reconcile recommendations that seemed impossible to perform all at the same time, namely to use a hold that aligns recoil with the arm and, at the same time, aligns the sights with the eye without tilting the head or gun.

In my experiments to accomplish these recommendations simultaneously, I found there is only one stance that makes this physically possible.

But the fact that most shooters do not use that stance is, itself, good cause to question the importance of those commonly heard recommendations. (The relative importance of various recommendations is the topic of a later article.)

So, as you read this article, please keep the above issues in mind.

“Straight Shooter”

I had the range to myself this past Sunday morning and, after a few targets, I noticed something important and, because of it, I completely re-built my shooting stance right on the spot.
That experience allowed me to integrate several pieces of advice I’ve heard, and it also caused me to reject some common knowledge you’ll hear at just about any range with Bullseye shooters.

Because some of this flys in the face of common knowledge, I’ve gone to some length to back up these claims. Consequently, this is a significantly longer article than usual.

Specifically, I’m going to contend that a) you should have recoil coming straight up your arm and b), in order to do so, you simply cannot use a 45 degree stance. Put more strongly, if you are using a 45 degree stance, you aren’t shooting as well as you could. The stance is inherently flawed.

You can do better!

To prove that a 45 degree stance is incompatible with “recoil up the arm”, try this. (I’ll also describe why “recoil up the arm” is so essential but not just yet.)

  1. Take your favorite handgun and make sure it is unloaded.
  2. Grip it normally.
  3. Rotate your wrist until the gun is perfectly lined up with your arm (see picture below).
  4. Now, lock the wrist at that angle and raise the gun as if you were going to shoot.
  5. Rotating at the shoulder, sweep the gun left and right as far as you can in each direction. Keep the wrist locked and in perfect alignment with your arm throughout the entire range. As you sweep around, rotate your head at the neck to follow the gun but keep it straight up — don’t tilt the head. Similarly, keep the gun straight upright as well. Don’t tilt either the head or the gun. Keep everything vertical at all times.
  6. Notice that as you do this, there is only place where the front and rear sights line up with each other and your eye at the same time.
  7. At every other angle throughout the sweep, the front and rear sights will not line up with your eye.

This means that, to make the recoil come straight up your arm, that one angle found above is the only angle that will work. It’s the only arm-to-body angle where the sights line up with the eye in perfect alignment.

So why is that recoil coming straight up the arm so important?
The reason is that when the gun is fired, it moves backward against the hand an instant before the bullet leaves the barrel. If the wrist then moves because the force alignment with the arm is off, the muzzle will shift and throw off the shot.
Those with great upper body strength may be able to resist or minimize this, or they may be able to muster the exact same strength for each shot so the deflection is the same on each shot.
But for those of us who don’t have that strength and repeatability, we’ve simply got to align the recoil with our arm and body so everything moves straight back, first the trigger, then the gun, then our hand and into the arm as the recoil shoves backward.

On Sunday morning, recognizing I needed to line up the gun with my arm, I took my stance completely apart and re-assembled it starting at the trigger. I then worked my way back, joint by joint, until I ended at my feet. Holding that stance, I then shifted my feet until the sights were aligned on the bullseye.

My goal in all this was to integrate as much of the advice I’ve heard with all the “practical” I’ve seen, particularly that practiced by Masters and High Masters.
After all, they’re hitting the 10 and X rings a lot more than me.
What they are doing is obviously working.
The more of that I can do myself, the better my shooting should become.

And along the way, I learned a lot about the “why” of this stance, and also a lot about the conditions that may exist that cause some shooters to have to shoot differently, and what they have to do in order to compensate for those changes.

But before getting into all that, there are a couple of important observations to note.

  • First, I’ve noticed that upper-level shooters typically have very good upper-body strength, often from their profession or upbringing. This can lead to or otherwise permit what I will call “rule breaking”. They can get away with this because they can out-muscle the gun. I can’t do that so I have to do it right.
  • Next, here’s one we all should know: Trigger pressure must be straight back because if it’s not, when the sear breaks from the hammer hooks and the trigger is no longer opposed, the pressure that was holding things straight is now unopposed and the muzzle will be pushed away before the firing pin hits the primer. Trigger pressure must be perfectly straight back so its opposing pressure is perfectly straight forward. That’s the only way the gun will stay straight when the hooks release the hammer.
  • And finally, recoil drives the gun back into the hand before the bullet leaves the barrel. If, during this time, the hand doesn’t stay perfectly straight, the muzzle will be deflected and with it, the bullet will be thrown off. Watch high-speed photographs and you’ll see this to be the case: The gun pushes back into the hand before the bullet leaves the barrel. This explains, by the way, how some Masters and High Masters can still shoot well with less than perfect execution in other aspects — their upper-body strength is enough to prevent that deflection or, failing that, to make that deflection the same on each shot. They can then adjust their sights accordingly and shoot 10s and Xs all day. Not so for (weakling) me. I need to “do it right”.


Recoil Up-The-Arm Alignment

Recoil going straight up the arm
(Click to enlarge)

This picture shows the desired gun-to-arm alignment.
In the diagrams that follow with one exception, that gun-to-arm alignment is constant — the recoil force is always lined up with the arm.

On Sunday, it took me a few shots to “settle in”. I then shot several pretty good targets. But after about two hours, my grip was starting to get pretty tired — with all my work travel, I don’t get to shoot with any regularity and, among other things, my grip strength and stamina have suffered. And as my grip went, so did my shooting. And over the past year (or more), this has invariably meant that all my shots start moving to the left. I’ve tried all sorts of solutions and some have helped, but none have completely cured the problem. By this time, I had become convinced that there was one underlying problem I had not yet resolved.

And now I think I know what it is — wrist angle!

To explain what I’m convinced was happening (and which was solved almost immediately on Sunday morning), I have enlisted the assistance of an artist’s mannequin, a digital camera and some photo editing software to make some diagrams of gun/wrist/arm and body alignment. What you will see through these is that, when the gun is perfectly lined up on the arm, there is only one shoulder/body angle that will line up the sights to the eye.
And what is not quite so obvious is that before the shot leaves the barrel, the recoil will drive the gun back into the shooter’s hand and if that hand isn’t lined up to transfer the recoil straight up the arm, those mis-aligned joints will cause the muzzle to move to the left (for a right-handed shooter).

Hence, as my grip becomes fatigued, my shots move left.

Zero (0) degree stance

With the mannequin’s assistance, we will look at the three common stance angles, 0, 45 and 90 degrees.
Each one is named for the angle the toes make with the firing line. In the diagrams that follow, the firing line runs vertically through the picture and the horizontal line goes to the target. The green line marks the shooter’s toes and, in this picture, you can see that green line, the tips of the shooter’s toes, are parallel to the firing line. This is a 0 degree stance.

The red line denotes the axis of the barrel lined up with the shooter’s arm. Going in the other direction and leaving the shooter’s hand, this is the path the bullet will take.

But as you can also see in this first diagram, the target’s direction from the shooter’s eye (blue line) does not line up with the gun sights. Indeed, the sight line (yellow) is so far off that the bullet may not even hit the shooter’s target!

The shooter could try to remedy this by moving his arm to the left and then rotating his wrist to the right to make the three lines all line up, red, blue and yellow.

Wrist cocked right to align sights

But rotating the wrist to the right like this moves the recoil force out of alignment with the shooter’s arm. Consequently, when the gun fires, the wrist will flex and throw the shot off. Also, the recoil force will then flex the shoulder and, again, the shot will be thrown off.
And finally, the recoil will then rotate the shooter’s body. Again, the shot is thrown out from what was a perfectly aligned shot. Wrist and shoulder and the entire body are torqued by the shot because the wrist was cocked to the right to bring the sights into alignment.

For a right-handed shooter with the muzzle cocked to the right, recoil will push the gun straight back but, since the support is to the gun’s right, the gun moves in the unsupported direction, to the left. This leftward motion occurs at the gun, in the wrist, in the shoulder and in the body’s rotation. They all move the gun to the left in recoil.

Nonetheless, there are a small number of excellent shooters who do this.
They get away with it because they have developed compensating pressures in grip, body trunk and muscles that perfectly offset these forces, and they do it over and over again.
Repeatability is, after all, one of the most important goals in this sport.
If you can release shots exactly the same way again and again, no matter how far out of skew they go, if you do it the same way each time you can just turn your body so they always hit the center of the target.

Sadly, I’m not that good. I can’t do things exactly the same way each time, at least not yet.
If I rotate my wrist to align the sights but, in so doing, let the recoil flex my wrist, shoulder and body, it’s going to throw the shot off, and it’s going to be different from one shot to the next. This just won’t work for me.


Zero (0) Degree Stance

Head canted right with 0 degree stance

Another possible solution to this problem in the 0 degree stance is to tilt the head over to line up the eye with the gun’s axis which is, in turn, lined up with the arm.
Conversely, the gun can be tilted in to bring the sights into the line of sight.
And some shooters do a little of both.

Standing in the 0 degree stance with the gun tilted over one way and the head leaning the other, everything can be brought into alignment.
Well, just barely as the mannequin shows.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. First, if the gun is canted then the sight adjustments for up and down and left versus right are no longer lined up. Instead, you have to remember how much cant is applied and mentally rotate the target to figure out how much not-quite-up or how much not-quite-left to crank in when adjusting the sights.

Worse, if the head is canted, the inner ear begins telling the brain that the body is leaning. Although the brain will adequately compensate for this for a little while, if you continue to hold your head anywhere but perpendicular, eventually you will start to fall, become dizzy, or at a minimum, start to wobble. It is unavoidable.

If you don’t believe me, stand up, close your eyes and tilt you head to the side. Do this in a padded room because, before long you will start to feel, and see, these ill effects.

And if these happen while breaking a shot, your body will move and, with it, so will the gun.


45 Degree Stance

Most shooters say they use a 45 degree stance and it is quite possible their toes actually are on a line that is angled 45 degrees away from the firing line, but look also at their bodies. Are they standing straight or is the body twisted one way or another?

Also, after shooters have “settled in” after several targets, look at their stance again. Have their feet moved? What about body twist?

As you probably know, generalizations are dangerous. And in the sport of Bullseye pistol shooting, there are an amazing number of shooters using some very interesting techniques, many of whom shoot quite well.
But, by and large, if you focus your attention on only the Master and High Master shooters, you will start to see less and less variation.

So I invite you to sit-out a target every now and then to observe, and observe the best shooters with a critical eye. Whether they intend to or not, they have a lot to teach us.

  • How are their feet placed?
  • Does the body “face” in a direction between the feet or is the torso twisted so that although the feet are at some angle, the body is at a different angle?
  • Is the head perfectly upright or is it angled forward or to the side?
  • Is the gun tilted or straight up?
  • Stand directly behind the shoulder in which arm the gun is being held. Is the gun’s recoil aligned with the arm?
  • Watch the gun in recoil. Which way does it go? Does the recoil have a rolling motion as well?

And be forewarned because you’ll need to look at a lot of them before some of the more subtle practices become apparent.
Notice the big things they all do right, but also notice the little quirks and try to figure out what effects those might have.
Then look for them.

45 degree stance

In this diagram you can see that the 45 degree stance brings the barrel’s axis closer to the body. As before, recoil is straight up the arm but, unfortunately and also as before, the sight line (yellow) isn’t perfectly lined up. If the shooter cocks his wrist to the right to align the sights, he will have to move his feet to bring them to bear on his target. He will no longer have his feet at a 45 degree angle. But this is of no major consequence — the primary sin here is in cocking the wrist to the right. Recoil will push the shot to the left and if the shooter doesn’t have enough stamina to exert the same wrist, shoulder and body torque resistance throughout the entire competition, his shots will start to splay out horizontally.

Regardless, many shooters use this stance, line up the sights and hit the X ring.

This begs the question, what are they doing to make this work?

Head canted with 45 degree stance

Tilt the head and/or cant the gun and things will line up. Indeed, tilting the head slightly forward into a more aggressive stance also helps line things up. This is quite common among good shooters.

But as before, tilting the head ultimately leads to a less stable stance because the brain is still receiving an “off-balance” signal from the inner ear.

People who take long airplane rides, myself included, can tell you that after several hours of being bounced around in the air, it takes hours to regain their normal stability.
For several hours after such a flight, I find myself slowly falling right or left and if it wasn’t for the walls of the hallway through which I walk, I’d fall over.
Many is the time I’ve stood in the kitchen talking to my wife after coming home from such a flight and, even while leaning on the counter, I still find myself sliding off to one side or the other.

If you tilt your head for a shot and then straighten it back up in between, you’re doing the same thing to your inner ear as happens to mine on a bumpy airplane flight. And that means you are going to wobble.

On the other hand, if you can stand with your head perfectly straight up, the inner ear will tell the brain everything is balanced, straight and normal, and the brain will leave all the muscles involved in keeping you upright just as they are.
And that means less wobble.


90 Degree Stance

90 degree stance

Finally, here is a full 90 degree stance. The toes are perpendicular to the firing line and the head is rotated around and lined up with the sights. In this stance, we finally have complete alignment of the barrel’s axis, recoil up through the shooter’s arm, and the line of sight. (Note also that, in recoil, this is no twisting motion on the body. It is straight back through the upper body as well as through the arm.)

But use of this stance is fairly rare. For one thing, rotating the head a full 90 degrees is getting near the limit of what some people can do. I, for example, have a neck injury that makes this much rotation hard to achieve.
Secondly, it doesn’t feel as stable as the 45 degree stance. Although the recoil is better, the shooter’s body is now vulnerable to stiff winds down the shooting line and moving the feet to counteract that ruins the recoil recovery.
Although better for the shot, this stance may be more difficult to maintain for long periods of time.

Assuming the shooter develops the needed stamina which is, after all, simply standing straight and in one place for extended periods, this does appear to be the best stance.


Almost 90 Degree Stance

Remember earlier I mentioned that most shooters thought they used a 45 degree stance?
Well, if you look closely, I contend you’ll see that many of these top shooters are actually standing at a steeper angle. Sixty to seventy-five or more degrees is not all that unusual from what I’ve seen.

Slightly less than 90 degree stance

In this diagram, we see this “almost 90 degree” stance. This stance was selected for the mannequin because it comes closest to lining up where the mannequin’s eye should be which is, of course, slightly off-center in the face, with the line running from gun up the arm and into the shoulder.

And this “almost 90” stance is what I ended up with on Sunday morning. After rebuilding my stance from the trigger and on back from there, I found I just couldn’t do a full 90 degree stance. My neck just hurt too much.

So I compromised.
I shifted my feet ever so slightly, tilted the gun left just a smidgen until everything lined up. My head is straight up without any tilt.
And the recoil is almost coming straight up my arm, and certainly much more so than it was in the 45 degree stance.

The exact “almost 90” angle for other shooters will, of course, vary slightly with each individual. It will vary depending on the position of the eyes in the shooter’s face — are they widely separated or close together, the location of the shoulders forward or back on the body, and as before, a slight cant of the gun or even a small head tilt may also be needed. In some individuals, the forward “aggressive” posture may be sufficient to line things up. And if the head has to be tilted, hopefully the off-balance error signal will be sufficiently small as to be either ignored by the brain, or insignificant during the time of the shot. (Given enough time, however, the body will wobble as the brain tries to shift the body back into what it thinks will be a correctly balanced position, and the gun will wobble as it does so.)

Another view of the slightly
less than 90 degree stance

Here’s that same “almost 90” stance from a slightly different viewpoint. You can see that the shooter’s toes are slightly moved back toward the 45 degree position and, although the angle shown here is quite steep, in practice I think you’ll find angles greater than 45 to be surprisingly common especially among the top shooters.

For my aching neck, I now use this “almost 90” degree stance. I have a small amount of tilt on the gun, perhaps 15 degrees or so but I ignore it when adjusting the sights — my wobbly hold more than drowns out the small error that results.

And best of all, my left-to-right spread has dramatically improved and I’m convinced that is because I’ve gotten rid of all those angles. Everything just naturally lines up and I’m just as comfortable as can be. I could stand just like this for hours. Well, certainly for a “long” time anyway because it feels natural, nothing feels strained.

See you on the line!

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