Wingshooting Tips from the Pros

by Jennifer L SPearsall

Advice on shotgun shooting from two accomplished bird hunters

Bird up! ... shoulder ... safety off ... swing ... lead ... BOOM! ... Drats! That's an ugly sequence, and awfully common, too. It happens so quick you can hardly remember what you did wrong, which makes it very hard to fix. It happens to me. It happens so often to so many that, if you listen, you'll here it echoing from Arizona's quail country to Montana's sharptail-infested prairies to Maine's grouse-laden timber every day of autumn.

To give us all a break from the disappointment of another missed shot, I spoke with two shotgunning experts and listed their advice here. The first person I called was Marty Fischer, co-host of "Shotgun Journal," a show now in its seventh season on both The Outdoor Channel and Outdoor Life Network. Then I phoned Gil Ash, from the OSP (Optimum Shooting Performance) Shooting School. Here's what they had to say.

Question: What's the first thing a hunter should do to improve their live-bird shooting?

Marty Fischer: I'd say there are two causes for poor live-bird shooting performance. The first is incorrect focus. You need to focus on the bird's head. But even more than that, I believe more birds are missed by a poor gun mount than anything else; more specifically, because shooters in live-bird situations don't get their head on the gun, they often look above their barrels as they watch the bird.

Gil Ash: Taking shooting lessons from an experienced coach would be a good start, and hunters should practice their gun mount at home daily. Practicing the gun mount is perhaps the most important thing you can do.

Question: How should a hunter practice the gun mount?

MF: Just like a good golf swing, a good gun mount will not come naturally, so it must be practiced. Stand in front of a mirror and focus on your master eye in the mirror-this will be your target. The two beads should be stacked and you should be looking over the bead at your master eye. Now make a slow, smooth gun mount. Try to take the muzzle to the target without any noticeable bobble. I believe it's easiest to do this if you think of the gun as a kind of rubber band between your hands that you're "stretching." Put a little tension between your hands with the left (for right-handers) guiding the gun to the target and the rear hand pushing your barrel up or down.

Question: Which of the clay games will help most?

MF: Shooting skeet starting from a low-gun position will improve your wingshooting the most. Second would be sporting clays. Trap is good if all you're shooting is flushing birds, but skeet is where I start my students.

GA: Trap, skeet and sporting clays are all good practice. Trap is good practice for flushing game like grouse, pheasant and quail because these live birds generally present going-away shots. Skeet is great practice for doves and ducks because these birds typically give crossing and incoming shots within 20 yards. Sporting clays is ideal practice for all game-bird hunting because of all the different trajectories it offers.

Question: Which shooting method is best for hunting: pull-through, maintained lead or pull-away?

MF: I became a much better wingshooter after I started shooting skeet, because it taught me to use maintained lead. This style requires the shooter to see a definitive "lead picture" as the gun moves to the target.

On very long crossing shots, where the lead is extremely large, I find that the pull-away technique allows me to judge the lead much more consistently because the added gun speed cuts the perceived lead by about half. It is also perhaps the most forgiving of the shooting styles, as the shooter actually moves the muzzle to intercept the bird in flight in order to match its speed before the lead picture is achieved.

The swing-through method in its purest form is based on the speed of the gun being faster than the speed of the target. The shooter inserts the muzzle of the gun slightly behind the bird and pulls it through the target line at a speed that's a little faster than the bird. Swing-through can be very effective on quartering and driven presentations at a distance of less than 30 yards, but since longer crossing targets take more lead to hit, the swing-through style tends to lose its effectiveness.

GA: No one method is "best." All are used for hunting live birds. The fact is that the gun must be in front of the bird to hit the bird. How the gun gets there is of less importance than where it is when the trigger is pulled. It is the smoothness and consistency of the mount that is the most important. The more the hunter thinks about the mechanics of his move, the worse he'll shoot. The same can be said for lead: The more the hunter focuses on lead, the worse he'll shoot. You can't think and shoot at the same time.

Quesiion: What's the best way to approach a dog on point?

MF: The hunter should approach the point or area where a flushing dog is working scent with his gun slightly out from under the armpit and the muzzle well above the dog, but not up in the sky. His or her focus should be out over the dog, not looking on the ground for the bird, and you should move your head as little as possible. Your eye will go to the first thing that moves if you keep your head still, so your focus on a flushing bird will be better. Also, the gun mount should be as slow as you can possibly make it, because it gives your eyes time to really focus. Trust me, the bird is not going to out-fly shot moving at 1300 fps.

GA: A common mistake in shooting over pointing dogs is looking at the dog. When birds flush, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, for the hunter to pick out one bird to shoot; as a result, hunters commonly shoot at all the birds at the same time, and when they do this they don't hit any. When birds flush, it's critical that the hunter focus on only one bird, then move and mount the gun to that bird. This is why we don't recommend one method over another; you never know where birds will come from.

When shooting it's more important for the hunter to focus on the front of the bird, move and mount the gun and then take the shot without thinking. Always follow the "blue sky" rule over a flushing dog: To keep from shooting the dog, you must be able to see blue sky under the bird.

Question: What should hunters focus on when shooting at a crossing bird?

MF: The head, the head, the head.

Question: Where should hunters be looking on birds going straight away?

GA: Without practice, the wingshooter's eyes will typically focus on the butt of the bird. And if the eyes are on the rear of the target, then that is where the gun will be pointing. Instead, focus on the body between the wings; for instance, most pheasants are shot in the tail because that's where hunters look. Precise focus on the right part of the bird prior to mounting and taking the shot is critical for successful shotgunning.

Question: What are some tips for upland hunters not working with dogs?

GA: The most common mistake we see in hunters shooting without dogs is that they hear the flush, mount the gun and chase the bird. Focus on and identify the front of the target prior to moving and mounting the gun.

Question: Any advice for taking landing waterfowl?

MF: There's a tendency to not get down on the gun when waterfowl are landing into decoys, because you see the bird so well. You must have the gun tight to your face with your cheek firmly down on the stock. Pull the bead below its feet using a pull-away or constant lead method.

Question: What advice do you have for sportsmen hunting in a ground blind where they have to sit up?

GA: Perhaps the most dangerous position to hunt waterfowl from is lying down. It requires a lot of practice at home to learn the fundamentals of safely sitting up with a loaded gun. If you're lying on your back, the ideal position is to bend your right knee (if you're right-handed) and to place your right foot under your left knee. The gun is placed either on the ground beside you or on top of your legs with the muzzle extending a minimum of 6 inches beyond your left foot with the safety on.

Question: Do fiber-optic beads help a wingshooter?

MF: I think fiber optics work well for some, not others. The front bead of your shotgun is kind of like the center line in the road while you're driving. You know where it is, but you're not looking at it. It should be the same way between your barrel bead and what you're trying to hit. You want to know where the bead is in relationship to the bird, but you don't want to look at the bead.

GA: Excessive muzzle awareness creates 99 percent of the failures in shotgunning, so we don't recommend installing fiber-optic beads or sights on the shotgun unless you're turkey hunting. If you wear corrective lenses, wearing a good pair of shooting glasses instead of your regular glasses will enhance your proficiency in the field.

Question: Finally, how do you know if a gun fits?

MF: Close your eyes and shoulder your gun. When you open your eyes you should see the front bead resting on the receiver. If you are seeing excessive rib, your stock is too high. If you don't see the front bead, the stock is too low. And if the bead is to the right or left of center of the receiver, your stock has too much cast, either cast off, or cast on.

That old "arm trick" where the gun shop guy puts the stock against the inside of his arm to see if his trigger finger hits the trigger "just right" means nothing and has nothing to do with gun fit. The length of your gun is for comfort, period. With the gun mounted, you should have about 2 inches between your nose and your thumb.

GA: A simple test will tell you if your gun fits. Stand about 16 yards in front of a pattern plate, focus on the middle, mount the gun without aiming and fire. I recommend doing this exercise with a skeet or improved choke and firing a dozen rounds at the plate, one after the other. If the shot does not impact where you are looking, then an adjustment needs to be made. It's much like moving the rear iron sight on a rifle. Accepting the fact that you don't aim the shotgun, you want to know that when it's mounted, it's pointing where you're looking.

By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall, Field Editor

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 2005 Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved