“You shot real nice with that little bitty gun,” he said. “She’ll go where you hold her, won’t she?”
– from Mister Howard Was a Real Gent, a short story in the collection titled The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Roark (1915-65)
She goes where you hold her
A rifle shoots where you aim it, but a shotgun shoots “where you hold her” to use the Carolina vernacular phrase of hunting writer Robert Roark.
As every bird hunter knows, a shotgun is not aimed at a flying target, it is pointed. To intercept a bird on the wing, the point must be dynamic, constantly moving, usually a fast and consistent swing of the barrels through and ahead of the bird, and a continuation of that swing as you trip the trigger and follow through.
Your shooting motion should be as smooth and natural as pointing at a flying bird with your left hand on your morning fitness walk with your dogs (right hand if you are a left-handed shooter). Do this a dozen times a day and your reflexes and muscle memory will automatically replicate that swing-and-point motion when you grip the forend of your shotgun in your lead hand.
You should do a daily gun-mounting drill, too, in the months before bird season opens. Put on a sweatshirt and your hunting vest, take your favorite bird gun from the safe, find a quiet corner, and imagine a bird taking flight 10 yards ahead of you.
With the gun butt tucked between your upper arm and ribs, take a short step with your lead foot, just a few inches in the direction the imaginary bird is flying. Track its flight with your lead hand as you raise the gun, turn with your entire upper body to swing the gun’s muzzles through the target, and trip the trigger the moment the gun butt solidly contacts your shoulder and the comb touches your cheek.
With “snap-cap” dummy rounds in the chambers, fire 10 shots at imaginary birds flying straight away, angling left, angling right, sharply left, and sharply right. Fifty total repetitions of this step-swing-mount-point-shoot exercise.
Practice this same sequence on clay targets at each station of the skeet field a few dozen times in the summer and you will boost your wing shooting skills to an even higher level. Another huge benefit of this practice drill, although I do not want to sound too “Zen,” is that you will learn to become one with your shotgun – its weight, balance, handling, trigger pull – so that it is almost an extension of your body.
You will have achieved the ultimate objective of the wing shooter: your body and the gun will work in perfect harmony to deliver the charge of shot to the target on which your eyes are fixed. In essence, all you have to do is follow the flight of the bird with your eyes, and your body has been trained to do the rest.
So, within the limits of your eye-hand coordination and the erratic aerial maneuvers of a wild game bird, you will be on target with every shot.
The fly in the ointment is gun fit. You may be doing everything right, but the gun may still not shoot exactly where you are looking, and you are going to miss some birds.
I am an advocate of correct gun fit, but I am not fanatic about it. Gun fit is a minor, not a major factor in your ability to shoot well. Most shooters can fit themselves to the gun they have with minimal adjustments.
Therefore, I offer two suggestions about gun fit. First, don’t worry about gun fit until you have shot at a couple thousand clay targets, have mastered the basic skills of wing shooting, and have become intimately familiar with your shotgun. Second, do not invest a lot of time and energy into measuring stock lengths and drops and configurations.
The wisdom of the first suggestion should be self-evident; in any construction project, you do the rough framing first and the finish work as the final touches. The second suggestion may draw screams of outrage from the disciples of the cult of gun fit.
A credo of that “perfect gun fit” cult is that stocks with “factory dimensions” will fit only a small percentage of shooters, and most shooters have little hope of consistently hitting birds or clay targets unless they change those factory stocks to conform to their height, weight, build, facial features, eyesight, style of shooting, clothing, and maybe their hairstyle.
In truth, shooters who have mastered the basic skills can shoot well with factory stocks, and shooters who have not mastered those basic skills will shoot poorly with a stock of any dimensions. Gun fit may be the cream in the coffee, but first you have to brew the coffee itself.
Here, I am assuming that you have brewed the coffee. You have done the daily gun mount-and-point exercises for several months and you have shot at a couple thousand clay targets. You have reached the level of skill where you break most of them but you miss some, and you wonder if your gun is in fact delivering its charge of shot to the place you are looking.
So we are going back to the patterning range to find out.
Patterning tests to determine point-of-impact are done more easily and quickly than pattern tests to determine pattern size and density (read Falling into a pattern). We do not have to painstakingly draw a borderline around the shot pattern’s perimeter, measure its diameter, count the holes, and calculate percentages.
We just want to determine where the center of the shot load strikes in relation to where you are looking.
The standard 48×48-inch patterning sheet will work fine for this test, but you can use a piece of paper or poster board as small as 22×28 inches. Using a felt tip marker, draw a 4-inch circle on the center of the sheet. Staple the sheet to the target frame and measure off a distance of 25 yards to your shooting point.
You will fire three rounds, all from the same barrel, at the pattern sheet. These shots must be fired dynamically, using exactly the same motions as your daily mount-point-shoot exercises. Imagine the black dot on the pattern sheet as a straightway target, and perform the step-mount-shoot drill. Three shots should provide a good indicator of your point of aim, and there will be an obvious, well-perforated center of the pattern.
If you are testing a double gun, hang a second patterning sheet and repeat the operation firing three rounds through the second barrel. (Note: I have heard of instances in which the barrels of a double gun do not shoot to the same point of aim. I have tested more than two dozen double guns and have never encountered this problem. That does not mean it never happens, but it is apparently rare.)
Grab your felt tip marker and draw an outline around the thickest part of the pattern; a rough 24-inch circle will do. This is the point of impact of this shotgun when YOU are shooting it. The point of impact may be significantly different when someone else shoots this gun. Point of impact will almost certainly be different when the gun is fired from a rest on the shooting bench.
But you are concerned only with the way the gun performs for you.
Do not be dismayed if you discover the gun shoots a little high – for example, it appears that 60 percent of the pattern is above the black aiming point dot and 40 percent is below. Upland guns should have about that high-low distribution percent of shot because we upland hunters are almost always shooting at rising targets.
If the center of your point of impact is drastically far from the aim point on the patterning sheet – say 10 inches or more high, low, left, right – you will want to consider changing the gun’s stock dimensions. The most efficient and inexpensive way to change point-of-impact is to alter the buttstock.
Placement of your face on the buttstock’s comb (and consequently the relationship of your eyes/line-of-sight to the gun’s muzzles) will determine where the charge of shot will strike. Raise the comb, the point-of-impact will be higher; lower the comb and it will be lower. Reshape the comb so that it moves your face to the right and the point-of-impact will move right; reshape it to move your face to the left and the point-of-impact will move left.
This adjustment can be as easy as replacing a thick recoil pad with a thin one, or vice versa. On most buttstocks, the comb is higher as your face moves forward, lower as your face moves backward. But stock adjustment can be much more complicated.
To reshape the sharply dropping stock of a double gun manufactured in the 1920s, I raised the comb by cutting it flat with a band saw, gluing a 1-inch block of matching walnut on top, using a grinder and sander to reshape the entire buttstock, and refinishing the wood. For another double gun, I bought a stock blank and made a completely new, straight-grip, high-comb buttstock. Knowing my limits in stock work, I had a gunsmith install an adjustable comb on my semi-automatic clay target gun.
But most guns do not require that much tinkering to achieve the right fit. Some, especially semi-automatics and pumps, are sold with stock adjustment shims that allow you to alter the height and cast (angle left or right) of the buttstock by simply loosening the stock bolt, inserting a shim, and tightening the bolt. It’s easy to make your own shims, too, using a scrap of hard plastic, a pocket knife, and a square of sandpaper.
A friend who doubted the value of all this gun fitting business spent an hour with me patterning for point-of-impact and using shims to adjust the stock of his new Beretta semi-auto. Then we did a field test at a sporting clays range. He shot his best score ever and became a believer.
Be aware, however, that he was a pretty damned good shooter before we messed with gun fitting. We just added a dollop of cream to the coffee.
He shoots well with his favorite over/under 28 gauge gun, but he’s deadly with that custom fitted 20 gauge semi-auto. She’ll go where he holds her.
More stories about bird guns, upland bird hunting, and bird dogs are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.