Recoil Anticipation

By Roger Phillips, Owner and Operator of Fight Focused Concepts

When it comes down to the fundamentals of marksmanship, people make such a big deal about the four secrets, as if all you need to do is follow them and all will be good in your world. I am not saying the sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, and follow through are not important, I am just saying that these are relatively easy to teach and are seldom the real cause of poor shooting.

From my experience as a student and instructor recoil anticipation is the number one cause of poor shooting. Some will say that recoil anticipation is part of trigger control. I absolutely disagree! Recoil anticipation has very little to do with pressing the trigger straight to the rear, while not disrupting the sigh alignment or sight picture. Recoil anticipation is the natural desire to “counter act” an unnatural explosion in the hands that causes muzzle flip. It is the natural desire to control muzzle flip that leads to recoil anticipation. Since it is unnatural to have an explosion in your hand, it is natural to try to counter act the energy attached to that explosion.

When you anticipate the recoil during live fire it is almost impossible to see with the naked eye. Recoil anticipation can only be diagnosed with dry fire. But it often does not manifest itself unless the shooter knows that the explosion is going to happen. This is where an instructor can prove very valuable. Drills such as “ball and dummy” can show the shooter exactly what anticipating looks like and feels like. As soon as they see the muzzle dip right before the round was supposed to fire, they understand why their shots are consistently low and to the left (for the right-handed) and low and to the right (for left-handed.)

Once the recoil anticipation is diagnosed, now comes the hard part of getting rid of it.

Most of us know that it is “the surprise break” that allows us to eliminate recoil anticipation. The surprise break is the concept of the shot breaking at a time periods that is very much a surprise to you. Since it is a surprise, there is no anticipation of the recoil. Some get past this very quickly and some people do not. The difficulty of getting past it can be attached to many outside influences. For me, I suffered an electrical explosion in my hands as a very young child. The trauma attached to this event left me recoil sensitive due to an actual and very painful explosion in my hands. I was left alone to try to figure out how to erase the reminder of that traumatic experience. Many instructors tried and many failed. In dry practice, I was steady as a rock, but as soon as I thought I was going to get another explosion in my hand the anticipation would come back. Actual trauma can have long-lasting psychological effects.

Here is what was taught to me by one of the very best diagnostician’s in the field that finally led to me getting over this problem.

Run the ball and dummy drill to diagnose the problem and let the student see the problem. Explain what they are doing (hey, it is natural) and why they are doing it (to counteract the muzzle flip.)

Explain the surprise break.

Have them show you ten “perfect” dry presses. If the muzzle dips once, have them start over. Let them rest or relax if they need to. But I need to see ten perfect dry presses in a row.

Here is where I deviate from what is commonly done. Many instructors will have the student point in and get the perfect sight alignment/sight picture, all while the instructor is pressing the trigger. While this does work I prefer to use a trade secret that actually teaches the thinking behind the trigger work. Having the instructor press the trigger without the instructor telling you what he is doing and thinking is not near as good as the student pressing the trigger while following the instructor commands and understanding the thought process. It is the thought process that allows the recoil sensitive shooter to understand the absolute importance of the surprise break.

Here is how the drill goes.

The shooter is told to follow the instructor’s commands to the letter

Shooter points in with hard focus on the front sight, with a perfect sight alignment and a perfect sight picture.

Shooter is told to begin applying a small amount of “straight to the rear” pressure on the trigger…..put don’t let the gun fire! Hard focus on the front sight and slightly more pressure……but don’t let the gun fire! A little more pressure……but don’t let the gun fire! Hard focus…..perfect sight picture…..a little more pressure……but don’t let the gun fire. A little more pressure ……but don’t let the gun fire BANG!

Now that is the definitive surprise break!

The student did not even want the shot to break and it did. This usually leads to a perfect hit instead of the “same old low and to the left.” This is the teaching of the thought process behind the surprise break. If you are extremely recoil sensitive it becomes a mental game to convince yourself that the explosion is not going to happen.

I know that it comes as a surprise to all of my PSC students when this teaching is done at the start of every PSC course. We run a “one hole drill” then we talk about recoil anticipation and the thinking behind the trigger work. We then run the “one hole drill” dry for “ten perfect presses.” We then load up and shoot the one hole drill again. In this very short lesson I usually see a 50% improvement in the student’s marksmanship ability. The recoil sensitive students usually improve as much as 80%.

The next step is to take this concept into the “compressed surprise break.” For me, this teaching is what changed my shooting skill sets exponentially. I had to find a way past my trauma, to get to the levels that I needed to be at

When I am looking for that “one perfect shot” this teaching (from ten years ago) comes right back to the forefront. I hear the Instructor in my head like a Drill Sergeant, telling me exactly what to do, telling me exactly what I should be thinking about, reminding me that if I anticipate that recoil ……I will surely miss the mark.

I hope this helps somebody as much as it helped me.

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