Precision Rifle Shooting Under Stress
For the average shooter, the prospect of shooting a competition like the Vortex Extreme may seem a bit daunting. Hiking for miles at high elevation, carrying a pack, rifle, ammo, and equipment—then having to engage targets beyond 1,000 yards—is both a physically and mentally demanding task. Many shooters can perform exceptionally well in training, but fall apart when time and stress are added to the equation. With some basic preparation and the application of good shooting techniques, you can learn to perform well when fatigued or stressed.
There’s a saying “prior preparation prevents poor performance.” Without a doubt, shooters who exercise and maintain a degree of cardiovascular fitness will not only be able to move through the course faster, they will be less fatigued and less stressed while trying to make precise shots.
That doesn’t mean you have to join the local Crossfit gym or run wind sprints until you hurl. The Vortex Extreme is about endurance – you’ll have to keep moving for several hours over rugged terrain all while carrying a 20-30 pound load. If you have never carried a pack before over any distance, it requires a different type of fitness – so start light and gradually increase your load, pace, and distance. If you can combine some physical exercise with your range sessions, even better.
Author Adrian Alan competes in the Vortex Extreme. Extreme elements and extreme long-range shooting mean you need to be mentally and physically prepared to compete.
Hydration is a critical factor in both endurance and shooting sports. Even when not performing physically demanding tasks, most adults are perpetually dehydrated. Dehydration can happen in any climate, but it is especially important when exercising at high altitudes.
Water regulates our body’s temperature, and when our core temperature gets too high, a number of symptoms can occur that negatively impact our ability to shoot well: Fatigue, diminished eye sight, loss of concentration, loss of fine motor skills, and cramping starting in the extremities and moving to the large muscle groups. If the body temperature continues to climb, exertional heat stroke (when the body’s core temperature reaches 104 degrees) can occur. This can cause an incredibly rapid crash in bodily functions and lead to organ failure and death.
Dehydration is relatively easy to prevent by taking in plenty of fluids. Water is the most effective way of hydrating, but the body also needs electrolytes, so add an occasional sports drink to the mix. Start hydrating well before an event and listen to your body. Thirst is a late indicator of dehydration, as is dark colored urine – both signs you need to take in more fluids. Avoid diuretics (alcohol and caffeine) before performing physical activity, and if you begin to feel light headed or dizzy - immediately take in fluids, find shade, rest and, if necessary, seek medical attention.
I frequently tell my students “advanced” techniques are simply fundamental skills applied quickly and consistently. When shooting under stress, the application of marksmanship fundamentals becomes even more critical. When positioned behind the rifle prone, your body should be in line—or closely in line—with your rifle, appropriate to your natural point of aim. This will help you manage recoil and keep your sights on target, allowing you to spot your impacts and make rapid corrections and follow up shots. Under stress it’s easy to forget to dial elevation, compensate for wind, or adjust your scope’s focus or “parallax,” so take your time and don’t lose points because of a mental mistake.
Breath control is especially critical when you are fatigued or stressed. As you approach a shooting position, start to take deep, long breaths. You cannot control your heart rate directly – but through “autogenic breathing” (sometimes called “combat breathing”) you engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help you relax and lower your heart rate and blood pressure. This will improve several of your body’s functions including eyesight, ability to concentrate, and your ability to perform fine motor skills like pressing the trigger.
When you are about ready to shoot, again take several deep breaths, slowly blowing air out between your lips. It is important to break your shot during your natural respiratory pause, where your sights are not moving due to your breathing. For most people, this will be after you have let all the air out of your lungs, but before you breathe in again. Some people may feel more comfortable if they still have some air inside their lungs. Whatever the case, be consistent and smooth on the trigger! Let the shot happen, don’t make it happen.
If, after several seconds, the shot hasn’t broke, DON’T FORCE IT! Ease off the trigger, take a breath or two, and start over. After several seconds of holding your breath, your eye sight and fine motor skills will degrade. It takes mental discipline to do this, but I can often tell when a student is going to miss a target simply based on how long they hold their breath before the shot breaks.
There is a lot that goes into making long range rifle shots, and that process is further complicated when physical exertion and stress is added to the equation. However, with some simple physical preparation, remembering to stay hydrated, and properly executing the fundamentals of marksmanship, a shooter can learn to perform well in these situations.If you think you’re ready to test your skills at the Vortex Extreme, you can sign up here.
Adrian Alan is Director of Vortex Range & Range Operations at Vortex Optics, in Barneveld, WI. A 14-year law enforcement veteran and firearms instructor, Adrian served as SWAT officer, police sniper, and police sniper instructor among a variety of other tasks. He shoots competitively in several disciplines, and has twice competed in the Vortex Extreme, finishing as high as 13th place.