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Why You Don't Always Hit What You Shoot At—(Me Too!): GUN DOG Classics

This “Shotgunner's Notebook” column originally appeared in GUN DOG Magazine Volume 1, Number 1 in the September/October 1981 Issue.

Why You Don't Always Hit What You Shoot At—(Me Too!): GUN DOG Classics

Your eyes cannot be focused on both the bead at the end of your barrel and the bird flushing in front of you. Keep looking at the bird as you mount your gun; the gun in your hands will follow your eyes. (Photo By: Chris Ingram) 

This “Shotgunner's Notebook” column originally appeared in GUN DOG Magazine Volume 1, Number 1 in the September/October 1981 Issue. 

I suppose that most of us who confine our shotgunning to field shooting and the odd warm-up at some clay targets have come to the same conclusion, if we’re honest or normal gunners; the highly skilled shotgunner is a very, very rare bird indeed.

As time goes on I hope to cover this subject from many viewpoints, since it fascinates me. Logically, I’d start with gun fit, but I won’t do that yet. Fitting yourself to a gun is what you’re doing this season; getting a gun fitted to you is something we’ll cover in the off-season when you’ve got the time to think about it and experiment. And that will lead to other related subjects—but for the moment we ought to look at several common and unforgiving faults that the occasional shooter has. Learning to eliminate them, one at a time, will make it more likely, in the long run, for you to understand what you want in a shotgun in terms of fit, balance, choke, etc.

I believe that until you learn a little about the art, whether it's golf or skiing or tennis or shooting, technical talk about the equipment doesn't have too much meaning. And until you learn why it is that you miss shots you shouldn't, equipment notwithstanding, you can't make much progress in determining just what you want or need in a shotgun.

I assume, and I'm correct in most cases, that the gun you're shooting now is something that you're used to, and can shoot birds with. I also assume that you have good days and bad without knowing why it is in either case. And, I further assume that on the good days you just don't make as many mistakes. Maybe you have just one of these faults—and if we learn to know what that is, then we're well on the way to that state of grace that old fellows used to enjoy as “being a local legend!”

Upland, gunning and waterfowling are in fact, two distinct types of shooting and we'll take a quick look at each so you'll have something to work on this season.

The duck and goose hunter usually finds the high incomer or the long crossing shot the most mysterious of misses. And so they are—for the simple reason that the longer we have to see and plan a shot the more time we have to mess it up! The two great mistakes in taking the incomer are these: first, we wait too long trying to “make sure,” and second, we “track” the target with a mounted gun and we commonly make both mistakes with the same shot.

What you want to avoid is trying a relatively vertical shot. It looks easy when the belly of a Canada is right over your head, but everything is against you mechanically and a bird hit is usually hit too far back. Practice taking the first shot when you think the bird is forty-five yards out; do not put the gun to your shoulder until the instant you are going to pull the trigger, take two or three feet of lead and think of shooting into the head. This is really a controlled snap-shot. The idea is to have the bird fall in front of the blind. If the first shot has been a miss or a hit too far back you still have plenty of time for a good shot long before the target has come to that angle of straight vertical that you really ought to just forget.


Now for the real secret! If the incomer is a bit off the straight line, coming in on the right or left and you're a right-handed shot give the bird on the right twice as much lead as you do if it comes in on the left! If you think that six feet is enough—double it on the right side and see what happens; and stay with the six feet on the left. Don't ask me to explain it—but I promise you you'll be delighted with the results. Do the same thing on your regular crossing shots as well. But don't put the gun to the shoulder until you're ready to shoot—just follow the flight with the barrel and your hands, keep the stock between the elbow and the shoulder until your mind says now and then go at it. It takes a bit of practice and self-discipline, but it will pay off handsomely in the long run.

You'll find that not tracking the bird is a hard habit to instill, but try to remember that the longer you swing it, the easier it is to slow it down or stop it. The basic must in all shotgunning is a fast and short swing—one that is accelerating when the trigger is pulled.

The upland gunner doesn't often have the “tracking” problem—he just doesn't have the time. But there is one fault we share here that is close to tracking—and that's trying to make sure—and that's about the last thing that will put a grouse or quail in the game bag.

Before we get into any “secrets,” let me tell you that in my opinion the perfect shotgun is one that I'm entirely unconscious of; it is merely a place to put two shells. I don't see barrels, I don't feel a stock—it's a part of me, like pointing a finger or, simpler, just looking. And that's the secret here: just looking. As simple as it seems, a vast number of gunners sight down the barrel instead of looking at the bird. Let me assure you you can't do both and be a good wing shot. You must ignore the gun and look, and look hard, at the target—and wherever your eyes go the gun barrel will go all by itself! Doesn't that sound easy? It is and it works.


I'll also tell you that it took me a while to learn this and to trust it. It's obvious, when you think about it, that your eyes can't focus on an ivory bead thirty inches away and on a bird thirty yards away at the same time; one has to blur—and the blur has to be the gun barrel. But you have to learn and practice how to look. Let's assume your old setter, Rufus, is on point. The indifferent gunner just walks in, flushes the quail and maybe grasses a bird or maybe doesn't. But not you! You have made a mental note of the wind direction and the likely course of flight as you walk up, and now, as you expect the flush, be it one bird or ten, your eyes are focused out there at the place where you expect to be shooting the bird—not at your feet! Stare at your target with intensity and concentration—and as in all bird shooting, try to think of shooting at the head. Don't clutter your mind with a lot of intricate arithmetic—stare at the bird and don't mount your gun until the instant you want to shoot. I find it easier to walk in on a point with my gun butt tucked in close between my arm and chest, just under the armpit, rather than in the traditional “port-arms” which involves too much movement and takes a little adjustment for proper gun mounting. And, again, as with any target, if you're a right-handed shooter, lead the left-to-right targets more than the right-to-left.

I hope this sounds overly simple to you, since I mean it to; a lot of shooting instruction gets overly complicated and what we're trying to do is to eliminate the most common errors. No one is going to take everything he shoots at—or really wants to. But we do want to shoot better and we very much want to eliminate, as much as humanly possible, birds that are body shot and lost, which is why we have to train ourselves to stare at the head and think “head shot” until it becomes automatic. The truly fine shot exhibits an economy of motion and that's a great deal of being precise; the old phrase of “all deliberate speed" is most apt when it comes to handling a shotgun. The biggest reason for any difficulty in learning these little tricks, is the elimination of doubt and habit. But the fine gunner is one who has enough of the art in his mind to trust it and then to analyze a miss and see what went wrong; chances are good that he realizes he was either tracking too long, or wasn't really looking, staring with concentration, at the bird.

upland hunter carrying shotgun
The author recommends carrying your shotgun with the butt closely tucked in under the armpit, vs the traditional “port-arms” position which involves too much extra movement during your gun mount. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

If you have the chance to watch a really top ranked trap or skeet shooter at his game take note of how far he moves his gun barrel, even at the most extreme angle shot. You'll find that it's rarely more than a foot or so, because he knows that the more you move the gun, the longer you search for the proper lead, the greater the chances of a late and rear-end shot or a miss.

I don't want you to worry about missing, I want you to know that if you follow these simple steps your shooting will get better and when you do miss, you'll know why and be able to correct it instantly with the second barrel or on the very next bird. It's not the accumulation of technique that makes a decent field shot—it's the elimination of mistakes.

You can practice a bit at home and it can help a lot. Work on mounting the gun quickly from the ready position of having the stock under the armpit. Carry a gun (leave the shells at home out of season) when you're running the dog in training exercises; not having to worry about shooting does wonders for the nerves and it gets both the muscles and mind prepared for the real thing. One of the fine British shots I know carries a walking stick and practices with that in downtown London, swinging through pigeons and sparrows, and delights in being looked upon as a harmless eccentric. I can assure you he's anything but harmless to the grouse and pheasant on a downwind drive!

Let me know how you make out as we go along, more or less together. And if you have a shotgun idea you'd like covered, I'd be delighted to consider it. This is your column as much or more than it is mine; I'm hopefully here to help.

This “Shotgunner's Notebook” column originally appeared in GUN DOG Magazine Volume 1, Number 1 in the September/October 1981 Issue.

gene hill shotgunner's notebook column
gene hill shotgunner's notebook column
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