You’re looking down the sight of the gun in your hands. Taking aim, you inhale deeply, pull the trigger and slowly exhale.
An ear-splitting boom penetrates your skull and reverberates through your sternum. The body-jolting recoil is accompanied by the acrid, sulfur smell of burnt gunpowder.
If you, like (roughly) 72% of the adult American population, ever fired a gun before, you know the feeling. It’s an exhilarating experience that carries you through the next few moments.
But have you ever wondered what that mental and emotional head-rush is all about?
While everyone’s experience is a little different – especially when comparing the firing range to a real-life scenario – science has a few insights that can help us understand what goes on in the human body when firing a gun.
Fight-or-Flight: The Hormonal Response
First-time shooters are known to experience an intense fight-or-flight response. This is because their body automatically reacts to the startling act of firing a gun by assuming they’re in mortal danger.
It’s a default, instinctive reaction. Because you’re not used to firing a gun yet, your mind relies on the closest previous experience to determine an appropriate reaction.
And even though years of TV and movies theoretically desensitized you to the idea of guns, you still have this subconscious idea that guns are dangerous.
So your brain rapidly releases a bunch of hormones associated with fight-or-flight: cortisol, dopamine, epinephrine (aka adrenaline), norepinephrine and serotonin, among others.
But it’s not just novices who respond this way. Even shooters with years of training and experience fight to control their body’s responses.
So it doesn’t ever really go away – you just get better at dealing with it until it becomes second nature.
The Cardiovascular Response
As a result of all these emotions, the rest of your body starts preparing itself to either fight or flee by triggering other autonomic (uncontrollable) reactions.
Your heart rate switches into racing mode, constricting your blood vessels and sending your blood pressure skyrocketing. At the same time, you’re breathing faster too.
All this is pushing more and more oxygen into your bloodstream and, in turn, delivering that oxygen to your muscles. And to help energize you into action, any sugar in your system is focused on reaching your muscles as well.
The Neurochemical Response
Immediately following the rush of fight-or-flight hormones is a wave of neurochemicals that come along with your elevated heart rate.
As your heart is pumping more oxygen to your brain, the neurochemicals push you into a state of hyper-focus. Your ability to recognize patterns becomes equally sharp and, as a result of all that extra information, your perception of time slows down.
More Tangible Bodily Reactions to Firing a Gun
It’s hard not to notice your palms starting to sweat after firing a gun. While it might subconsciously make you worry about losing your hold on the firearm, this actually helps improve your grip.
At the same time, your pupils dilate. This lets more light enter the eyes, helping you to see better.
In your state of hyper-focus, you may or may not notice this reaction in the moment. But it can definitely help you see better, especially in a dark environment.
Often, your body will also temporarily stop processing food.
People react to this unexpected pause in the digestive system very differently. If you recently had a big meal, for example, you might feel ill after firing a gun.
You might even get diarrhea as your body releases your bowels (and your bladder, for that matter) in an attempt to get rid of excess weight. After all, the less weight you’re carrying, the faster you’re able to move, whether it’s for fighting or fleeing.
Luckily, unexpected bowel movements and wet pants aren’t very common reactions.
Once you’re done shooting, your body reacts in another way by releasing another barrage of chemicals and hormones. These ones are to help balance things out and calm you down.
You might even experience a rush of serotonin, which is associated with a pleasant feeling.