By Chris Batha
Photograph by Terry Allen
What’s hit is history, what’s missed is a mystery.
This oft-used phrase in shotgun shooting is an adaption of Bill Keane’s quote “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery . . . .” It is particularly appropriate in bird hunting, where you never get the same flush or flight line twice—unlike in clay shooting, where you can call for the same target time and again and dial in that presentation until you can hit it almost every time.
The hunter needs to develop a skill set that encompasses several different scenarios: walk-up hunting, shooting from a blind and pass-shooting, with each requiring slightly different approaches to succeed.
Setting aside the personal choices of guns, cartridges and equipment, it’s mastering the fundamentals of footwork, stance, posture and gun mount that help achieve the goal of consistency and straight shooting.
The majority of us have taken shooting lessons as a “sharpener” prior to the hunting season or a competition, only to find that once the instructor is not looking over our shoulder and offering constructive advice and corrections, the wheels falls off.
The fix for this is simple but difficult: You have to learn the fault-cause-correction of your misses to the point that you can analyze the shots for yourself, effectively becoming your own coach. This ability is what sorts the good shots from the average. We all know the good shots who are always first out of the field, having shot their limits, or who are the first picks for the charity-shoot teams.
They were not born “naturals” or did not luck into being good shots. They have grooved the fundamentals and learned that when they miss, they can analyze the miss and make the necessary corrections to the bird-barrel relationship.
Joe Average’s first shot is often engineered, which can mean referencing the barrels and bead—often occluding the bird and causing a flinch, resulting in stopping the swing and missing. Typically after such a miss, the shooter’s eyes “hard focus” on the departing bird, not the bead or rib or where the shot was missed. This is why so many birds are downed with the second shot.
But the bottom line is: You need to learn how to lock onto the bird with your eyes (hard focus) and drive or point the gun using your peripheral vision. Once this skill is achieved, you can self-coach, analyze the cause of misses and apply corrections.
Consider any sport involving a ball. I’m guessing you have never seen a batter, tennis player, golfer and so on with one eye closed. They are trained from an early age to focus 100 percent on the ball and drive the bat, racket or club in their peripheral vision. When you close an eye, your brain’s processing abilities are handicapped and processing slows. When shooting, this fraction of a second of reaction time can make the difference between a downed bird and a clean miss.
When you shoot with both eyes open, you have depth perception, or 3D vision. You are able to see the bird in your central vision and the bead, rib and barrel in your peripheral vision.
Of course, there are many ways that shooters can disrupt this process—one being to take their eyes off the bird. Once you lose visual contact with the bird, your gun will slow or outright stop, resulting in a flinch.
Look up right now and point at an object across the room. You are right on it. You need to harness this simple action in your shooting. Stop aiming, and start pointing. This often is referred to as instinctive shooting and, when mastered, enables you to be your own coach. You will be able to recognize a fault, determine what caused it and implement the correction.
Here are the rules for being your own coach:
1. Your eyes must be locked on the bird or target throughout the shot.
2. You must look at the bird’s speed, angle and distance. Quartering birds coming into the pattern, especially at an acute angle, appear to be getting bigger and are visually slower, which should mean little or no lead. But a duck dropping to land is usually curling, and gravity is pulling it faster; so instead of the straight shot it appears to be, it often is missed high and behind. In clay competitions these incoming, quartering targets often eat everyone’s lunch until it is remembered that lead is a combination of speed, angle and distance. These incoming birds need lead quartering in and must be shot low and in front. Because these shots are counterintuitive, what appear to be easy shots often are missed.
3. The true crossing target passes at 90 degrees, or at a right angle to the shooter. You would think that would be a straightforward shot—after all, the target is visible for a good period of time. But there is a catch. It is common for a shooter to be adept at taking a right-to-left crossing bird but to struggle with a left-to-right, or vice versa. This has to do with a shooter’s natural swing. For a right-handed shooter, the right-to-left is the easier shot, as the front hand is pulling the gun, ensuring that the stock stays in the cheek and in proper eye-rib alignment. Just point at the bird—establishing its speed and line of flight—then, maintaining the line, smoothly accelerate the swing and, when the lead between the bird and barrel feels right, pull the trigger and keep the gun moving smoothly. Never measure!
It’s amazing how many people miss the first shot because of measuring. Often when they miss the first shot, they really look at the bird, not the bead or lead, and knock it down with the second shot.
The left-to-right bird is more difficult for a right-handed shooter, due to the combination of the gun being pushed away from the face and an inefficient turn of the body. The answer is to step into the line of flight and be sure to keep your head firmly on the stock.
4. A high incoming target, like a wood duck, that commits and drops into the pattern requires lead in a vertical downward swing in the same manner that a crossing or quartering target does. Lock on and maintain hard focus on the bird, and after pointing at it to establish speed and line of flight, lead the bird downward and make the shot. If the bird is maintaining a straight line overhead, then point at the head, swing the gun away to establish lead, pull the trigger and follow through.
5. Birds that flush hard left or right often are missed behind, as they require more lead than shooters think. You need to stay visually locked on the target in your central vision and place the barrels right and above (or left and above) in your peripheral vision to connect.
6. Birds that rise straight away are the simplest of the upland hunting and clay-target shots. However, misses can occur when you’ve reached the target but stopped the gun, missing low. You need to be able to see the bird at all times. When the bead touches the bird, pull the trigger. The momentum of the swing will result in the correct lead. If you block out the bird before pulling the trigger, you will lift your head, resulting in a miss over. Also, if you miss over the bird, you might have a gun that shoots high. If the comb is too high, the picture looks right, but the pattern is placed over the target. If the comb is too low, you have to raise your head to see the straightaway and can miss above as well.
7. Because of the angle on going-away quartering birds, these shots typically are missed in two places. Rising or overhead birds usually are missed low and behind, while downhill or dropping birds are missed high and behind. To remind students of this, Victorian shooting instructors taught that “Cock pheasants wear top hats, and grouse wear spats.” So you knock the hat off the pheasant and the spats off the grouse.
These are lessons in bird shooting that can be practiced at the clays club. If you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised not only how they work at the range but also in the field.