By Chris Batha
I have been fitting shotguns for 30-plus years for clients of many of the world’s premier gunmakers in the US, in the UK and on the Continent. Every fitting is a unique experience, and I learn something from each.
The old question “Is it the arrow, or is it the Indian?” sums up the beginning of the gunfitting process. To ensure an accurate gunfitting, the client needs to have mastered the fundamentals of “shooting straight.” These consist of proper foot placement, stance, posture and head position, and these need to be well practiced so that the shotgun is mounted smoothly into the cheek and shoulder with no head movement.
I have learned that I need to allow two to three hours for a fitting to account for the differences between good shots with sound fundamentals and shooters who look like they are “wrestling water” while mounting a shotgun. There are definitely more “water wrestlers” than those with solid, well-practiced gun mounts.
Fitting someone who is a good shot is usually a smooth process, with only the occasional suggestion to fix a “yip” I might see in the gun mount. One of the most common faults, even in good shots, is in the grip. A proper grip is essential to controlling the shotgun directionally and in terms of barrel flip—the better the grip, the better the control. A full pistol grip on target guns offers the most control.
With less-experienced shooters, I basically give a two-hour shooting lesson. I use a coaching app on an iPad that allows slow-motion replay to show the shooters their gun mounts and white-board graphics to illustrate and diagnose faults in fundamentals. I have found that showing faults and then explaining how to correct them and how to practice correctly pays dividends in achieving solid and consistent gun mounts.
Moving to a mirror placed at head height, I teach shooters how to practice their gun mounts by watching their image for head-lifting or -dropping, which results in a seesaw mount. It is easy to see the unwanted seesaw movement in the mirror as the gun is lifted from the ready position—the stock butt touching the tendon that connects the bicep to the pectoral muscle. With 60 percent of their weight on their front foot and watching the mirror, they slowly and smoothly mount to the cheek and shoulder pocket at the same time. The head should remain still, with the gun lifted to the cheek not the shoulder, and on completing the gun mount the shoulder pocket effectively should lean forward into the gunbutt.
Gun mount is not just about getting the stock to the face and shoulder but also about keeping the barrels on the line of the target at the same time. The only way to achieve this is to use both hands simultaneously—the hand that is gripping the stock lifting at the same time and speed as the forward hand is “pushing” the muzzles toward the target.
The oft-repeated phrase ‘It has to fit to hit’ is not just a cliché.
To become a consistently good shot, you should practice improving your gun mount. Forget worrying about choke and lead, and concentrate on grooving your gun mount. It is the key to consistent shooting and will ensure an accurate gunfitting.
In the 19th Century gunmaker W.P. Jones is credited with inventing the try-gun, a shotgun with a stock that can be adjusted for length of pull, cast, and drop at comb and heel. The infinite adjustments possible with the try-gun allow the gunfitter to make a series of alterations to achieve a perfect fit. The final step is to shoot the pattern plate to “prove” the accuracy of the dimensions and confirm that the shotgun will, indeed, shoot where the client is looking.
Once accurate measurements are taken from the try-gun, they can be given to a competent gunsmith who, by using heat and oil (or rarely steam), bends or shapes the gunstock to the desired cast or drop, and then increases or reduces the stock length.
A key consideration when fitting a shotgun is what type of shooting will be done and thus determining the right stock configuration and grip. To begin, for game shooting with a side-by-side shotgun with double triggers, the traditional straight stock and splinter forend are suited best. The straight stock’s slim profile allows a smooth movement of the hand backward to access the second trigger. This also requires a slightly longer length of pull. Another option for this type of shooting and gun is the semi-pistol grip, often referred to as the Prince of Wales grip, as it also allows the trigger hand to move smoothly back to the second trigger while offering better control.
The classic forehand grip with the side-by-side is to have the leading hand’s palm beneath the forend, with the forefinger extended beneath the barrels on the rib. With splinter forends, a hand guard is a good choice, allowing a better hand position and protection from hot barrels. It also allows the leading hand to be extended farther along the barrels for better muzzle control.
With over/under shotguns, a full pistol grip is favored by competitive shooters, as it offers increased control, but I have seen various grips used. With a pistol grip, some shooters place their leading hand with all four fingers cupping the forend, while others rest the forend on the palm of their hand with their fingers just touching the sides of the forend in a soft grip. Neither of these positions offers proper control of the shotgun and can impede straight shooting.
The correct grip with an O/U is to have the forend hand’s forefinger pointing alongside the forend wood. This position perfectly harnesses eye-hand coordination. After all, if you could fire a shotgun cartridge from your forefinger, you would never miss.
Many upland hunters who use over/unders prefer the semi-pistol grip to the full pistol grip. This promotes a consistent gun mount, helps control recoil and allows second-shot accuracy.
Whatever the stock configuration, forend style or type of grip, if the cast, drop and/or length of pull are not correct, the fit of the shotgun is compromised, impeding your ability to shoot where you look. The oft-repeated phrase “It has to fit to hit” is not just a cliché. In the case of all types of shooting, it is the rule.
Chris Batha’s most recent book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting chrisbatha.com, which includes schedules of shoots and clinics with the author.