Shooting and Relaxation: Not Diametrically Opposed as One Might Think

Shooting guns is relaxing.  Before you label me a crazy fool, let me explain.  To some folks, a doctor who shoots guns is tantamount to heresy.  Usually, those who render such an opinion don’t own guns and are quite unfamiliar to the mindset of the average, law-abiding gun owner.  My dad was a competitive shooter.  When someone asked why he did this, his matter-of-fact response was, “Because it’s relaxing.”  That was it.  He didn’t elaborate on the reasons why, unless someone pushed the issue.  And Dad could be quite intimidating, if one were to disagree with him.  He’d take a deep draw from his cigarette, stare you straight in the eye and often wouldn’t say another word since you’d find yourself changing the subject as he blew smoke your direction.

Dad was a sharp-shooter in the U.S. Army, a Chinese American who voluntarily joined before he was drafted.  He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.  I never quite understood it, but jumping out of planes was his idea of fun.  After he left the Army, he purchased two pistols from the U.S. government for ten dollars apiece, and then paid a gunsmith $200 to fashion them into competitive target pistols, which was a whopping amount of dough in 1960.  My younger brother and I often collected the spent brass cases on the ground after he was done shooting.  We later helped Dad clean that brass and then reloaded them with fresh gun powder, primers and bullets.  We helped him cast bullets by melting lead and pouring it into bullet molds, right there in an open garage in Southern California.  Whenever a passerby peered in and asked about our peculiar doings, Dad would shout in his typical curt fashion, “What does it look like?  We’re making bullets!” as if this should be obvious to any red-blooded American.

Dad taught my brother and me firearm safety and shooting at a very young age (by today’s standards, I suppose).  I was ten years old and my brother eight when he let us shoot a rifle.  I didn’t quite understand the “relaxing” part of shooting at first.  It took a number of trips to the range to appreciate this.

Dad’s statement is absolutely true.  In simple language, he tried to tell us that shooting requires total mindfulness, a full presence in the here-and-now.  By its very nature, the act of shooting a gun requires a high degree present-moment thinking.  Relaxation either comes from this state of mind or it begets it.  As many of us doctors now understand, one means to prevent burnout in our demanding profession is taking time multiple times in the day to be mindful.

Since Dad didn’t elaborate on these concepts—I’ll take the liberty of doing so.  Following are my explanations of guns and mindfulness:

1.  There’s an element of danger.  Let’s face it, shooting a gun is risky.   You could kill yourself or someone else if you’re careless.  The knowledge you’re handling a deadly weapon forces mindfulness--mindfulness of yourself, of your environment, of everyone around you, so that you do no harm to others or yourself.

2.  It requires focus.  Loading a gun, aiming at a target and squeezing the trigger requires a high degree of focus.  You can’t be daydreaming or pondering something else.  You can’t be distracted by problems in the past or worries about the future.  You must completely clear your head in order to focus, and focus requires a present-state mindset. 

3.  It’s exciting.  Danger stokes fear and fearful endeavors are exciting.  It's the combination of fear and excitement that forces mindfulness.  How can you think of something else as you're aiming and squeezing the trigger?  And yet it’s the tempering of the unwanted autonomic responses that accompanies fear and excitement (i.e., nervousness, muscle tension, lack of proper breathing, etc.) that is paramount for accurate and reliable shooting.  All of his requires mindfulness. 

4.  It requires deep breathing.  You’ve no doubt heard the term, “Take a deep breath,” when about to embark upon something challenging, exciting or disturbing.  Dad always told us to take a deep breath when you’re about to pull the trigger.  And every shooting expert will tell you the same.  Likewise, the fundamental core to mindfulness exercises such as meditation is deep breathing and an awareness of this breathing.  The same goes with shooting.

5.  It requires total relaxation.  And here we come to the raison d’etre.  Contrary to what many novices believe, you don’t arrive at the shooting range fired-up to release your aggression.  You cannot shoot successfully (or safely) if you’re upset, hostile and over-excited.  There’s a progression of relaxation that occurs before you make the first pull of the trigger: arriving at the range, donning ear and eye protection, checking out your surroundings, setting up the target, focusing the spotting scope or binoculars, loading the firearm.  Dad told us to squeeze the trigger gently and slowly, all the while breathing slowly out.  He told us to avoid tensing the muscles in your hands and arms and the rest of your body, but relax them completely and allow the natural kick of the gun to simply happen.  For a brusque guy in nearly every other matter, these instructions seemed uncharacteristic for Dad.  Boiling down to it, shooting requires a complete emptying of the mind.  It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, since common sense suggests intense concentration, a tight grip and a quick trigger-pull to avoid the gun from flying to your head.  But believe it not, complete relaxation yields better results and a more satisfying experience.

Anyway, that’s my treatise on shooting and relaxation, or more accurately, my long-winded explanation to Dad’s concise and to-the-point concepts.  Shooting is meditation, though the scent of incense is replaced with gunpowder and the target is the object of meditative focus.  Once you understand the concept of mindfulness and relaxation, there’s really not much thinking involved.  And that’s the whole point.  I’m sure my late dad would appreciate the words of Star Wars’ Yoda, “No think, just do.”

©Randall S. Fong, M.D.