If you’ve watched my TV show, you know I’m not a very good shotgunner. I was even worse before a bachelor’s degree-worth of lessons and years of trial-and-error. And while hunting, at least for me, isn’t necessarily about the meat we make, once in a while it’s good for the ego if I actually hit something.
As Ortega y Gasset said, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. If I shoot well enough to hit periodically something, I guess technically I qualify as a hunter.
There’s another reason, driven home in a questionnaire an instructor had me fill in prior to a lesson. He asked why I wanted to shoot better. I said so as to not disappoint my dog. After all, he’s called a “bird dog” for a reason. He should get a bird once in a while.
If you’re a “gun guy,” there might be one other, critical reason: respect for your tools, their heritage, design, and function. I get that, too.
That said, I’d be the last to offer you a shooting lesson. But I can share a few of the lessons I learned in the school of hard knocks that might make you a better shotgunner. Here they are:
Ears. Protect your hearing and you’ll minimize flinching. Yep, we often flinch because of noise, not recoil.
Vest. Weight on your shoulders affects gun swing. I’m presuming you actually have a bird or two to put in your vest, of course. Seldom do I have that problem, but I hunt hot, dry country so carry a lot of water. A vest with a waist belt and shoulder straps takes most of that weight off your shoulders.
A pointing dog that holds a bird gives you time to get close enough for a safe, strategic shot. Even a $200 shotgun looks good when it drops a chukar at 40 yards. A fine Italian side-by-side deserves good foot position and a deliberate shot, not a rushed one.
Port arms position is critical if you’re hunting with a flushing breed, or a, um, pointer that is still learning. Most of my shooting goofs start with a rushed gun mount. I blame them on the dog, of course! But if my shotgun is already partway to the “ready position,” I won’t feel quite as pressured to mount quickly and randomly, with the gun butt ending up in random locations on or near my shoulder.
No “rifleman” stance unless you’re shooting a rifle, that is. Shotgunners are pointing their muzzle, not aiming down the barrel or through a sight. And birds don’t always go the way we expect. A more open stance with feet shoulder-width apart, squared-up to the bird, and generally pointing forward gives you plenty of arc in your gun swing.
Are you cross-dominant? No, I don’t mean you like to wear dresses (not judging here, just trying to help you shoot better). I mean, you shoot right-handed and your left eye is stronger than your right. It’s easy enough to figure out. After that, wear a patch on your dominant eye’s glasses lens, close it, or learn to shoot left-handed. Take my word for it, the first fix is the easiest.
See the bird, don’t just look at it. It’s just a trick, but it works. When you focus intensely on your target, distractions melt away. The “zone” becomes a pipe with your eye at one end and your bird at the other. Choose the beak, eye, or the white neck ring on a pheasant, doesn’t matter. But see it. Be it. Shoot it. Accept the plaudits from your friends with grace.
Birds don’t fly out of their scent cone. The moon never gets in your eyes. A quail can’t fly behind the sun. And you can’t blame the dog unless he pulled the trigger (if so, you’ve got other, more pressing problems!). Instead, why not honor your gun, your game, and your hunting companions by making the best and safest shot you can?
Me, I’m working on more excuses until they come up with shoot-and-release hunting.
By Scott Linden