Sharpening Your Ax

In order to prepare properly during the off-season, hunters should practice as much as possible on targets that simulate the birds they expect to encounter.
In order to prepare properly during the off-season, hunters should practice as much as possible on targets that simulate the birds they expect to encounter. Photographed by Dale Spartas/
By Chris Batha

It seems to happen every year: After the hunting season ends and our guns have been cleaned and safely stored, we tend to not turn our attention back to shooting until the following season is almost upon us. As a result, typically we are caught “flat footed” and find ourselves scrambling to outfit ourselves with needed gear and to sharpen our shooting. Breaking out the shotgun and putting a box or two through it often serves as pre-season practice. But are we really ready?

The old adage “prior planning prevents poor performance” is one we should take heed of, so following are some tips that will help “sharpen your ax,” so that you are properly prepared for opening day.

The first step is to take your gun out of the safe and make sure that it is in good working order. If you are so inclined, you might give it to your gunsmith for a strip and clean and to check for needed repairs. It also may be a good idea to have your gun measurements checked. As we age, we often gain and/or lose weight—either of which can affect gunfit and our gun mount.

Cast your mind back to last season: Was there a certain bird’s flight—e.g., a quail exploding from cover or a duck dropping into the decoys—that resulted in most of your misses? If so, a couple of hours or even a half-day with an instructor could put a plaster on those mystery misses.

Regardless, it’s always a good idea to get in as much practice as possible by shooting targets—whether it’s rounds of skeet, trap or sporting clays or informal clays thrown by hand. The important thing is to practice the right way; otherwise you’re simply teaching yourself the wrong way.

Targets need to simulate real birds in flight—or as close as possible. Trap targets simulate flushing birds, skeet targets offer a good variety of crossing shots, and sporting clays can offer a smorgasbord of presentations. Focus on shooting the most lifelike presentations and—where possible and safe to do so—break the clay and then shoot the largest piece of the target. If you miss the target, be sure to give it the second barrel, just like you would in the field.

A lot of clays shooters shoot with pre-mounted guns, but if you are practicing for upland birds, you need to shoot with a low gun in the same manner you would when hunting. Also, your clothing, footwear and equipment should be the same that you plan to wear and have in the field. Be sure not to wear loose and baggy clothing that might impede your gun mount. (Summer is a good time to analyze your shooting wardrobe and perhaps weed out the old and bring in some new—like the new Ventile fabrics that are lighter, waterproof and designed not to snag.)

Regardless of whether you have access to “formal” shooting grounds, there are some popular clay-shooting games that can be entertaining ways to get in effective practice.


A staple of shooting sports, Annie Oakley requires from three to nine shooters to line up horizontally 16 yards from a standard ATA trap with an oscillating target. The first shooter calls for a target, and if he (or she) breaks it, he is safe—and no one else can shoot at the target. If he misses, the next shooter in line must shoot at the same target before it hits the ground. If the second hits, the first shooter is out. If the second misses, the third shooter has the option to shoot—assuming the target is still in the air. If the third shooter breaks the target, both the first and second shooters are out. If the third misses, everyone is safe. If a shooter shoots out of turn or after the target is broken, he is eliminated. The next round is led by the shooter following the one who broke the target—or if all missed, the second shooter. This is repeated until one shooter remains. To get the maximum benefit, the game should be shot from the low-gun position.


Using an ATA trap field with straightaway oscillating targets, this game is played with five two-man teams (one team on each station). The first person on the team shoots, and if he hits the target, the team gets a point. If the first person misses and his teammate hits, the team gets a point. If neither team member hits the target, no points are awarded. Each team shoots two targets at each station. The team with the highest score wins.


The deadliest move wingshooters can make is with their feet. You need to learn to step into the line of a bird’s flight—and it’s that first step that counts. It turns your body onto the line, and a smooth, bayonet movement pointing to the bird establishes speed and line of flight. Then the gun is lifted and pointed by the arms and hands to the bird, and when the stock comb fits into the cheek, the shot is taken without hesitation.

This bayonet movement can be practiced in a mirror. Make a smooth move to your face with no head movement, and on completion your eye should be positioned perfectly on the rib. If it isn’t, do not move your head to align it but ask an experienced friend or gunfitter to check your gunfit.


You can’t hit what you can’t see. The hands are guided by the eyes, so it is essential that, when taking a shot, you maintain hard focus on the bird and nothing else. Letting your eyes drift off the target to the bead or lead creates an involuntary jerk (flinch) upon pulling the trigger, because you have gone from instinctively “catching a ball” to attempting to consciously “catch a ball.”

“Zooming” is an effective eye-focusing exercise, as you have to constantly adjust the distance of your focus. This helps strengthen your eye muscles as well. 

How to practice zooming:

1. Sit in a comfortable position.

2. Stretch out your arm with your thumb in the hitchhiking position.

3. Focus on your thumb as your arm is outstretched.

4. Now bring your thumb closer, focusing hard on your thumb until it is about three inches in front of your face.

5. Now move your thumb away again until your arm is fully outstretched.

6. Do this a few minutes at a time about a half-dozen times during the day.


Another good exercise is to lay down three shotgun cartridges, primers facing you, 12 inches apart on a shelf. Standing six feet away and using an empty shotgun, mount the shotgun and point at the center cartridge. While maintaining hard focus on the primer, smoothly swing the gun to the left cartridge. Return the gun to the center cartridge, and then swing it to the right cartridge and back, maintaining hard focus on the center primer. This exercise teaches the correct target-barrel picture for passing shots.

With opening day still weeks away, there is no better time than now to prepare for the season. Whether you’re breaking targets or practicing indoor exercises, spending time sharpening your ax will have you ready come fall. 

Chris Batha’s most recent book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting, which includes schedules of shoots and clinics with the author.

Buy this issue!

Shooting Sportsman Magazine, July/August 2020

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