“The shakes.” It’s a condition I see in students on the regular. Many are rattled by their hand tremors, concerned that they won’t shoot well. Some are embarrassed. Some, usually brand new shooters, wonder if they’re suited for carrying a gun at all. This can be a sensitive topic, but it doesn’t have to be. What follows are some tools for dealing with the problem. I have used all of them, some almost weekly, with good success in helping people overcome this issue.
First, let’s define what we mean by “the shakes,” and who experiences it. In this article, “shakes” refer to fine tremors, usually limited to the hands. Closer to vibration than jostling or jerking, the movements I’m referring to are not so severe as to affect the person’s ability to hold the gun, nor are they severe enough to take away the conscious decision to place the finger either on the trigger or on the frame. People whose tremors are severe should not handle guns. But there are many, many others whose shakes are relatively less impactful. This article is for them.
Who are the shaky shooters?
In my experience, the most common form of shakes comes from anxiety. Trepidation is common among first-time shooters. Among the physical manifestations of nervousness are lack of breath control including holding the breath while shooting, drying of the eyes, narrowing of the pupils, accelerated heart rate, and of course, shaking.
The smaller lot of people with tremors are those living with a chronic medical condition, or medication side effects, that cause involuntary tremors. Parkinsonism is the term that refers to this type of tremor, among other symptoms, but we are focused strictly on tremors here. Some people with Parkinsonism have, as the name implies, Parkinson’s disease, and experience mild to severe tremors with its progression. Others in this category are usually taking, or have taken, medication that has certain benefits along with the unfortunate side effect of Parkinson-like tremors.
Other medical conditions that can cause tremors occasionally are things a little closer to being under our control, like sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, and excessive caffeine/energy drink consumption. While these tremors subside with better self-care, they are very real when they happen, though usually less severe than Parkinsonism.
There’s Good News
The good news is, the fix is pretty simple, no matter which of the above categories might apply. Here are the steps, plus a little extra for those whose medical symptoms are more prominent.
Fix #1: Breathing Consciously. First, focus on breathing well. There’s an article on this blog dedicated just to this one marksmanship fundamental, but for now, here is the one-step recipe: put the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth and inhale. That’s it.
The beauty of this breathing “technique,” if it can even be called that, is it will accomplish all you need it to immediately, and it’s easy to alternate between occasional inhalations when doing it intentionally while mostly being focused on applying the other marksmanship fundamentals like, say, grip and trigger control.
Will this breathing method fix Parkinsonism? Of course not. Will it keep the anxiety shakes from coming back if the shooter stops focusing on breathing and applying the fundamentals? No. Will it make the best performance under the circumstances possible? YES! Is breathing consciously entirely under the shooter’s control and ability to decide, no matter what the surroundings or their health or even their mood is? YES! So please, when the shakes or even a hint of anxiety hit, breathe with purpose as described here.
If you’re in a class, work-related qualification, or competition that requires shooting on command, time the inhalation with commands so it works to your benefit. For me, that’s when the “stand by” command is heard.
This method of conscious breathing works for two reasons. It naturally, without effort by mind or body, causes diaphragmatic breathing, which delivers much-needed oxygen to the capillaries of the fingers and even the eyes. These are obviously necessary tools to shoot well. In situations where stress may be more pressing than whether you hit the 10 ring on the target or not, i.e. a potential threat to your safety has arisen, this technique can help you stay in control of fine motor skills, keep peripheral vision intact to the extent possible, and help maintain good decision-making.
The other reason a good breathing habit (or at least having a breathing tool in your defensive toolbox, if not a habit) is useful is that it forces your mind to focus, only for a moment, on something other than potentially destructive ruminations. In range practice, when anxiety-based shakers express themselves aloud, it usually goes something like, “I know I’m going to miss, I can’t stop shaking.” In a defensive situation, destructive ruminations can grow into something like “there are two of them and they’re bigger than me, I’m screwed.” Left unchecked, such thoughts cycle over and over in the mind, getting bigger and more defeatist every second, and taking the good person behind the gun farther from success. Such “stinking thinking” has no place in good shooting or self-protection. And that leads to the second aspect of utilizing the breath correctly.
Fix #2: Stay on Breathe Street. If it’s your tendency to get caught up in that stinking thinking cycle, imagine navigating your train of thought as a highway you’re cruising, mentally anyway. Most people are victims of allowing the thought that goes something like “oh rats, I’m shaking. Oh rats, I’m going to miss” which turns into, “oh rats, I missed. I’m terrible at this. Now I’m shaking even more….” and so on. Soon, those endless, destructive ruminations cycle like the worst possible song on the car radio that can’t seem to be turned off.
Instead of allowing that terrible song, which nobody likes anyway, to keep playing, make it a partner of sorts. But put it in its place. The “oh rats, I’m shaking” thought, from this day on, is just a road sign on your highway. And it’s a sign that says, in your favorite GPS voice, “turn right onto Breathe Street.” And then, you know what to do now: tip of tongue behind top front teeth, and inhale.
Just try it. You can thank me later.
Fix #3: Focus on the front sight (or the targeted area being covered by the electronic dot). This fix is for every type of shaker. Once you’ve applied Fixes 1 and 2 above, as applicable, shift the focus of your mind to keeping the front sight (or dot sight) on target. If Parkinson’s-like tremors or temporary health issues are the problem, there’s nothing you can do to stop it anyway, but focusing on that little sight will put to rest your desire to fight the sight and keep it perfectly on target. (Pro tip: every living person has some uncontrollable movement in their body, so don’t feel alone in this. This fix is one that works for everyone). If nervousness is the problem, this, along with the Breathe Street exercise, is the cure, giving your mind a much nobler job to do than mess up your accuracy or even bring you down.
Fix #4: Use a shooting bag. This fix is one reserved for those without the strength to hold the gun up for long, which can lead to fatigue tremors, or those who have Parkinsonism. Just rest the grip on a shooting bag. It can be a stuffed bag of any sort, just keep it entirely behind the muzzle. With the bag on a tall table, car hood, or boulder, the shooter can stand and lean on the support. Or have them seated on a relatively low chair at a table with the bag on the table. My rifle shooting bag by Lyman doubled as a practice bag for my stepfather when his Parkinson’s symptoms had progressed, allowing him to experience the fun of a day at the range far longer than he could have without this prop.
While bagging the gun doesn’t translate very well to defensive practice, it does offer those with advanced symptoms a way to remain involved in a favorite pastime. And it can be safer for all involved if weakness or instability are affecting the shooter.
Go forth and enjoy
The techniques I’ve shared here may be simple, but they work, and fast. I have used them countless times to help new and old shooters become better and more confident. If you need them, use them, and make them your own.
Maybe you have a technique that works to cope with shaky hands. If it doesn’t violate a firearm safety rule, I’d like to learn about what you’ve found to be helpful. Do share!
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