The following information on holding the breath while shooting handguns comes from Section 13 of Shooting by J. Henry FitzGerald. Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
No two persons hold the breath in the same manner when they are shooting. That is, the amount of air in the lungs required by one person to attain the steady hold may not be the same as that required by any other person. It depends upon the build and dimensions of the chest cavity.
Holding the breath is unconsciously practiced in many walks of life. A lady threading a needle, mechanics when fitting delicate pieces of mechanism, doctors, dentists, surgeons and specialists in different lines of work at times hold the breath for the reason that they have found this practice gives them a steadiness otherwise unattainable. That is why it is necessary to shooters.
To hold the breath properly the shooter should experiment. First, hold the breath with the lungs about three-quarters full, with the arm extended and the hand closed as when holding a revolver. Lay a small level across the thumb and forefinger where the bubble can be seen easily, hold it as still as possible and note the tremor. Then try the same experiment with the lungs half full of air, then one-quarter full and so on until you have determined just how much air is required to give the best results.
The little level is important for another reason. It teaches the beginner to hold his revolver without canting. I have spent many hours in dry shooting holding a revolver to which was attached a small level such as the ones used by rifle shooters years ago. This was placed in front of the rear sight of my Officer’s Model, which had a flat top on the frame.
The nerves and muscles of the lungs must be at rest and the breath must not be held too long. It is better to take the arm down, rest and start all over again than to try to fire a shot after the pressure on the lungs due to stale or foul air is noticeable, for a wild shot will be the result.
I have noted the time which elapsed in targeting one hundred revolvers, when the breath must be held for accurate work, as two hours. One hundred revolvers accurately targeted required nine and one-half hours labor and of course the shooter in this work unconsciously holds his breath at the proper time.
Tight clothing over the chest will greatly interfere with the proper holding of the breath and if such are worn they should be loosened when shooting, but not to the extent that they will flap in the wind, but feel perfectly comfortable when the shooter determines the correct amount of air required for steady holding.
Practice the same way every time. Holding the breath is one of the many details to be mastered and it is very important. Do not slight one detail or it will interfere with all the rest.
Dry shooting and snapping practice will greatly aid the student in the art of holding the breath properly. Do not tense the muscles of the lungs to hold the breath. Do not release the breath just as the shot is fired; wait until after the recoil. Do not rush upstairs just before commencing to shoot. Rest fifteen minutes before going on the firing line to get the nerves under control and the breathing natural if you wish to get the best results.
The following is an explanation of fundamentals of breathing by Schuyler McCuller Martin, M.D., Troy, New York.
Holding the Breath
The subject of holding the breath represents an important factor in shooting. People from many walks of life have entered the field. The professional man easily grasps the subject because of his familiarity of bodily functions. The remaining classes,—the police officers, clerks, students and many of other walks in life, including the real novice,—are often in a quandary, searching for a true, easily appreciated explanation. To this great class the last paragraph may be sufficient. However, the expert who is ever desirous of knowing the why, is often interested in the technical side of the subject. Therefore both sides have been approached, hoping to meet the demands of all.
It is essential for the expert, as well as the beginner, to have knowledge concerning certain factors that enter into holding the breath. It is hoped the following paragraphs will serve such a purpose.
First: Let us bear in mind the anatomical parts involved in breathing; these in turn are numerous. The thorax (that honey structure of the chest frame) consists of a conical-shaped cavity, formed by the spine, ribs, and breast plate, inside of which lie the lungs, bronchial tubes, and heart. Above these are the trachea (the tube leading the air into the lungs and bronchial tubes); the larynx, or voice box; the pharynx, or back of throat. The glottis and its surrounding parts situated back of tongue act as a cover or protection to the parts below. The nasal passages. Separating the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity, we have that musculomembraneous sheet, the diaphragm, being attached to the spine, lower six ribs, and cartilage at lower end of breastplate. This structure is dome-shaped, with a central tendon attached to the pericardium, or sac, covering the heart. There are also chest, abdominal muscles, and throat muscles.
Second: Let us consider the mechanism of inspiration—an act by which the chest cavity is enlarged in its vertical and transverse diameters by a contraction of the diaphragm being pulled downward toward the abdominal cavity; secondly, by elevation of the ribs through the action of the muscles of breathing. The muscles involved are those attached to the ribs, whose function it is to elevate; those which rotate. The muscles beneath the shoulder blades. Chest muscles attached to the arm and shoulder, against which the rifle shot places his gun butt, and a muscle from the collar bone to tip of a bone located behind ear, known as the mastoid.
Third: We consider the mechanism of expiration—an act diminishing in size the chest or thorax and is performed by forcing the diaphragm upward, through the contraction of the numerous abdominal muscles; secondly, depressing the ribs through action of the internal rib muscles. A muscle attached to the breastplate and the ribs and muscles inside the chest wall. There are also muscles inside the throat that are brought into action.
Breathing as expressed in the preceding paragraphs is divided into inspiration (the act of drawing air into the lungs); expiration (the act of expelling or forcing air out of the lungs). For practical purposes it can be easily understood that there is a rest period between inspiration and expiration, which is called the inactive or normal position of the thorax or chest; at which time there is a minimum of effort or energy exerted and all parts at rest. This, therefore, is the ideal period for the shooter and with little practice can easily be accomplished.
The tense position requires a tremendous amount of energy and mental concentration to hold the various muscles, distracting the shooter’s mind from the important features of his sport.
The Author, throughout his volume, in his instruction has advocated the correct position to assume in shooting being that attended by the least amount of effort, natural and relaxed. Likewise, holding the breath is best accomplished by assuming a natural position, completely relax and hold or stop breathing at a point between inspiration and expiration, which will be accompanied by little or no effort; this, in turn, will relieve him of trying to control his body muscles, permitting his full concentration on the acts of aiming, trigger squeeze, and firing.