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8 Tips for Becoming a Better Wingshooter

Your dog wants feathers in his mouth—that may mean you need to improve your shooting skills.

8 Tips for Becoming a Better Wingshooter

Keep killing birds and keep your gun dog happy. (Chris Ingram photo)

I think one of the most important parts of shooting birds is putting feathers in your dog’s mouth. Those feathers are your dog’s reward for working both hard and smart, and if you regularly drop birds, you’ll develop a dog that consistently performs well. They’re happy, just take a look at their wagging tails and you’ll see. Once the bird takes flight, they’ve done their job. Now it’s your time to shine.

Solid shooting helps build confident dogs. Dogs that know you can’t hit squat can come unglued. They want the bird in their mouth, and if they know you can’t supply it then they’ll take matters into their own hands. Some will flash point and then bust the bird, others will chase, and still others shift into overdrive. They’re pushing harder and farther ahead to find game, which you need to hit.

Successful Shooting Leads to Happy Bird Dogs

A few decades ago, I went through a slump that continued on throughout the season. I was shooting my late-grandfather’s Parker VH 16-gauge. The IC/Mod (.007/.012), chokes were way too tight for the grouse woods. When I hit a bird, I’d blow it up, but most of the time I missed. My dogs came unglued, and their behavior suggested I open those chokes pronto and shoot lighter loads. Birds started dropping after I bored out the barrels to Cylinder/Skeet 1 (000/.005) and switched from the standard one-ounce load to a 7/8 ounce and on to a 3/4-ounce load.

Hit for your dog, not for the tailgate shot. Here are eight common reasons we miss, along with ways to improve performance.

Target acquisition: Chatting with buddies is the fun part of hunting, but your eyes should have a laser-lock on the bird when it flushes. Weak, unfocused concentration means you don’t clearly pick up the bird’s flight plan. If it’s caused by poor vision, then get your eyes checked. But if it comes because you’re unfocused, then watch the dog for birdy clues, prepare for the flush, and concentrate on the bird in flight. Save the forest bathing for the off-season.

Upland bird hunter
Many misses start with a gunner not being ready for a flushing bird. (Tom Keer photo)

Proper positioning: Position in the open and shoot in the thick. Most hunters do the opposite, thinking if they’re in the jungle, they’ll be closer to the bird. But those alder whips check swings and checked swings cause misses. Get up on the dog when they’re getting birdy, because if you’re lagging behind, then shots are farther away than they should be. While you’re getting up on the dog look for a position that allows for a decent swing. Sure, some shot hits leaves and branches, but game birds aren’t grizzlies. A few properly placed pellets will bring them down, and you can get those by being in a more open area and shooting into the thickness. Sometimes an open spot isn’t ever going to happen. That’s what snap shots are for.

Upland bird hunter
As you move through the cover, think strategically about keeping yourself in a proper position to mount, shoot, and swing. (Tom Keer photo)

Poor footwork: If it’s tough for a dog to get through the brush, then it’s easy for a hunter to get snared. Tangled feet make it difficult to swing, especially when birds flush to the side. Your stance is narrow, your back muscles tighten, your swing slows to a stop, and you typically shoot behind the bird. Read the woods as you follow your dogs and pick paths that are easier to navigate. A balanced stance is the foundation of your shot, and the better your swing, the more birds you’ll drop. Yeah, you get extra brownie points for plowing through the jungle, but they’re lost if you miss the bird.  

Poor gun mount: Clothing oftentimes causes lousy gun mounts. If you wear so many layers that you resemble the Marshmallow Man, then your length of pull gets altered. Tight clothing restricts movement and encumbers a swing. Rough cotton work jackets grab shotgun butts, especially if they have rubber recoil pads. 

Wingshooters need to move athletically smooth. Fleece vests are warm and thin, and when worn over a shooting shirt they offer better shoulder movement. Thin, performance undergear adds warmth without bulk. Strap vests allow for better movement than jackets. Rubber recoil pads grab cloth, so smooth them out with electrician’s tape. Place two or three strips on the butt and wrap the edge with one long strip. The pad will slide up your clothing as easily as if it were made from leather or steel.

Upland bird hunter
An upland strap vest is a great way to ensure you have unobstructed range of motion and mobility when wingshooting. (Tom Keer photo)

Head lift: I watched my buddy miss a straight-away gimme on a pheasant in an open field. He’s an excellent shot but made one common mistake; he prematurely lifted his head off the stock to mark the falling bird. The bird was rising, and when he lifted his head, the bird kept ascending…while his muzzle dropped and stopped. He shot under the bird. Keep your cheek on the stock until you’re done pulling the trigger and swinging through. If both eyes are open, then you’ll see the bird falling from the corner of your eye. Lift your face off the stock when the bird is on the way down.

Upland bird hunter
Don't be too eager to mark your bird, a head lift will often lead to a miss. (Tom Keer photo)

Rushing a shot: When we watch birds flush, we believe we have to shoot quickly. We do, but quick is different from rushed. Quick shots maintain proper form. Rushed shots come with poor gun mounts, muzzle rock, and swings with erratic follow through. At the flush, hunters have more time than they think. Don’t dilly dally, but if you don’t have the time for a proper stance, mount, and swing, then maybe the shot isn’t a good one anyway. There will be others.

Upland bird hunter
Many of us think we need to empty our guns at the first sight of flight, but we have plenty of time to put the bead on the bird and make a proper shot. (Tom Keer photo)

Changing targets: See the two flushing pheasants in the picture? A lot of hunters lose confidence when they miss on the first shot and swing to the second bird flying in a different direction. When shooting covey rises or if there are multiple pheasants in the air, stick with the first bird you swung on. If you miss, then you were probably close, so readjust and kill ‘em on the second shot. Besides, momma didn’t raise no quitters.

Upland bird hunter
Multiple birds taking flight can often cause us to lose all learned technique, but pick and stick with one bird before moving onto another. (Tom Keer photo)

Wrong chokes and loads: Sometimes it’s difficult to range a bird. The thickness of the grouse woods gives rise to ‘that was an incredibly long shot.’ It’s similar in an open field. To pick the right choke and load you’ve got to add some facts to the equation. When a bird flushes or preferably is killed, pace out the distance from where you shot to see exactly how far away it really is. Choose a choke that satisfies the majority of shots. There is a reason a Skeet Field, the ruffed grouse game, measures 21 yards. Then, stagger your shells. Use lighter loads for the first, close shots. Use hotter ones for the second (or third) shots which are farther away. Increase shot size for birds that are farther away, too. Staggering shells help shooters get the pattern spread they need at different distances.

No one shoots 100 percent in the field, and that means we all miss. But this fall, do your dog a favor and hit more than you miss. Those feathers in his mouth are what it’s about. If you regularly give him the prize, he’ll reward you with a better performance.

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