Shotgun Lessons: A Complete Guide to Hitting More Birds

If you have the eyes of a hawk, the reflexes of a mongoose, the coordination of a gymnast, and the nervous system of a lizard, you can probably pick up a shotgun and hit everything you shoot at with no help from anyone. However, if you fall short of that exalted state, you'll do much better if you get professional help.

The speed with which a pro can see a problem is shocking. Thirty years ago I got a lesson from a legendary British shooting instructor named Rex Gage, and I showed up with a shotgun that I thought was hot stuff. "My dear fellow," said Gage, "you're not going to hit a thing with that dreadful club." And he was right.

But my wingshooting ability has deteriorated since then, so I booked a lesson at the shooting school run by the ancient and vastly respected firm of Griffin & Howe, purveyor of fine guns. G&H maintains a close relationship with the top London gunmakers and has always looked to Great Britain for its shooting instructors.

The current holder of that position is Lars Magnusson, a 30-year-old native of Halmstad, Sweden, who learned shotgunning at the West London Shooting School in 1995 and has been instructing for G&H since 2002. Magnusson is a 6-foot-tall redhead who speaks with a British accent and whose ability to detect poor shotgun use is uncanny. In the tradition of British shooting instructors, he wears a tie and a linen shooting vest to teach ill-attired louts like me.

According to Magnusson, he was a lousy shot when he began, but his apprenticeship at West London changed that. For eight months he followed the instructors around, eight hours a day, six days a week, taking in the art and science of shotgunning, and he learned that there are two types of shooters:

"There are people who hit birds, and there are people who shoot correctly. You can stick a shotgun straight out and pull the trigger and you're going to hit birds once in a while. If you shoot correctly, you'll hit them nearly all the time."

Mechanics, Then Skills
An emphasis on shooting correctly is the heart of Magnusson's tutelage. "Eighty percent of good shotgunning is simply mechanics," says Magnusson. "How you stand, how you mount the gun, how you swing."

The remaining 20 percent is mastery of three skills: focus, timing, and space. Focus is the ability to coordinate the muzzle of the gun with your vision: Wherever your eye goes, the muzzle goes as well. Timing means perfection of the gun mount. It should be done in an instant, without rushing, and the stock should be perfectly positioned every time. Space is Magnusson's term for lead, and the ability to establish it in an instant and get it right.

Gun fit is also critical, but there are qualifiers.

"If you stand wrong, no stock in the world will fit you correctly. A shooter whose stance and gun mount are inconsistent literally changes his measurements every time he shoulders his gun. There's no need to worry about perfect stock dimensions when you're still learning the basics."

A Good Miss
I met Magnusson at a private shooting range in the town of Chappaqua, north of New York City. His standard block of instruction is a two-hour session, and I was curious to see what he could do for me in that time. A lot, as it turned out. What follows makes Magnusson sound brusque. He is not; he is a genial and engaging teacher with a big smile. It is simply that I've compressed over two hours of conversation into a few minutes' reading.

"Let me tear your gun apart first," he said, and I handed him my beloved Perazzi over/under, which I bought used years ago and rely on for all my competition shotgunning. "The Monte Carlo stock is wrong," he said. "It's fine for level targets, but the butt sits too low on your shoulder. And if you get an overhead target, it's going to slide right down your chest. Also this orange front sight is bad because it draws your attention to the muzzle, and you want to look at the bird, not the muzzle. All you should have is a small brass bead."

Thus encouraged, it was time for me to start shooting. My first target on the five-stand range, where we had the lesson, was an overhead incoming bird that flew at an angle to my right. I blew it to bits.

"No," said Magnusson. "Your feet were in the wrong position. You had to fight to get the muzzle around. Point your toes a bit more to the right and move your heels closer together."

Another bird flew, and I smashed that one.

"Watch the bird," said Magnusson. "Don't take your eye off the bird. You switched your eyes from the bird to the muzzle three times before you shot. Watch the bird. Let me show you something."

He placed a shotshell on the roof of a low trap house 15 yards away.

"Watch the shell," Magnusson instructed. "Pretend it's a clay target. Now point at it with your right index finger and slowly swing your arm to the right."

I did. When my arm was perhaps 45 degrees from the shell, Magnusson asked, "Can you still see your arm?"

Even though my arm was way off in my peripheral field of vision, I could.

"Now look at your arm. Can you still see the shell?"

The shell vanished. And the lesson was that if you take your eye off the bird to look at the muzzle, you are screwed.

"Own the muzzle. You don't have proper control of the muzzle. You're swinging the gun with your left hand [re-member that I'm a southpaw, so reverse this for your right-handed self] when your right should control it. Move your right hand a little bit forward on the fore-end and try again."

Another bird flew, and I missed it.

"That's the best shot you've made all day."

Wha...?

"Don't worry about hitting. If you do everything right, you'll hit."

We moved to another target, this one coming from behind on the right and crossing slightly to the left. Having seen this shot before, I did what any good rifleman would do: I aimed at the correct spot and when the bird showed up, I pulled the trigger and killed it. But I did not fool Magnusson.

"You gave yourself only that one chance to break the bird because you didn't swing. When you figure out how you're going to shoot at a target, you first decide where you can see it. Then you determine where you can see it clearly. Then you decide where you're going to break it. And finally you see where it's going to land to get the direction for your follow-through. When you've got all that calculated, you pick up the bird and when it matures on your muzzle, you pull the trigger."

("Matures" seems an odd word in this context, but when you give it some thought, it describes perfectly what happens as a target comes into focus.)

"Now look at the path of the bird. You'll see there's a stretch of perhaps 10 yards where you can follow it. Swing with it this time."

I did and hit it again.

"Not a good shot. You're slapping the butt into your shoulder. When you do that, you jolt the muzzle out of position and you have to fight to get it back where you want it. And you're pulling the trigger the instant you shoulder the gun. Don't be in a hurry. If you do all this correctly you'll have more than enough time."

I shot again, trying not to obsess about time, and actually hit the bird faster.

At this point, our shooting time was up, and I emerged from Mr. Magnusson's surreal world where a hit is not necessarily good and a miss is not necessarily bad. I had fired a single box of shells and revealed perhaps half a dozen major faults that he corrected. There may be hope for me after all.

TEST YOURSELF
There are a variety of shotgun sports to grade yourself on, with a standard sporting clays course of 100 birds best for testing your progress. On a moderately hard course, I think that 75x100 is excellent, and if you go over 80x100 you're a certified whiz.

Five-stand is almost as good for testing your progress. If you'd prefer to shoot a round of 50 birds at five-stand, I'd say that 40 out of 50 is very nice shooting. If you can do better than 45, you can come and give me lessons.

You could also shoot a round of 16-yard trap. Get 23 out of 25 and you are shooting well. If you're able to shoot back of the 22-yard line and hit 22 times, you are more than respectable.

Avoid the urge to specialize. I know shooters who can go straight on 100 rounds of trap but are hard put to break 15x25 on a skeet range because they are forced to swing their gun for real. They are good trapshooters but not good shotgunners.

Probably the best indication of progress is if your hunting friends start to look at you funny and the kidding about the shots you do miss becomes a lot more pointed.

SHOTGUN BASICS
THE SWING You need to pick up the target, see it clearly, and decide where you're going to break it. When it's in the right spot, pull the trigger, and follow through.

SWING HAND In order to maintain control of the muzzle, make sure your hand is forward enough on the fore-end to effect a smooth swing.

EYES Don't ever take your eyes off the bird. Looking from bird to muzzle to bird will cause you to miss.

SHOULDER Don't slap the butt into your shoulder; doing so will jolt the muzzle out of position and you'll need more time to pick up the target.

FOOTWORK Your feet should be pointed at an angle to the target so you don't have to fight to get the muzzle around.

Your shotgun mount must be fast and consistent. Good shots don't waste motion.

1 Start with the toe of the stock at waist level or a little above. The muzzle should be pointed where you expect to intercept the bird.

2 The gun should describe a slight arc outward as you bring it up to keep it from catching on your clothing. Your head stays erect as the stock meets your cheek.

3 When the butt is in your shoulder, your head should have to come down very slightly to be in shooting position. Your right elbow should be parallel to the ground, left elbow a bit lower.

THE REGIMEN (30 DAYS TO BETTER SHOTGUNNING)

GUN MOUNT AND CORRECT STANCE are huge. Everything you do with a shotgun depends on them, so before you even begin, have someone who knows how a shotgun should fit check that your stock is correct for you. Worry about eighths of an inch much, much later. Just practice correctly every time, and practice frequently. --DAVID E. PETZAL

DAYS 1-10

No ammo required. What you are going to practice is your gun mount, your stance, and your swing (see illustration on previous page). Stand in front of a full-length mirror and bring your shotgun from low-gun to mounted position quickly but without slamming it into your shoulder. Your eye should be looking straight down the rib at the front sight. Be quick but not at the price of sloppiness. Practice swinging your gun level and smooth. Do this once a day for 15 minutes.

DAYS 11-20

Go to a shooting range that has both trap and skeet and practice on a variety of target angles and speeds. Don't worry about hitting anything--at first. Concentrate on simply doing everything correctly. If you know the amount of lead and don't make mistakes in your gun handling, the birds will begin to break with consistency. If possible, shoot every day, but don't practice for more than an hour at a time because it's difficult to concentrate fully for longer than that.

DAYS 21-30

Now it's time to identify the problem shots and work on them. It is at this point that you must develop the ability to analyze because all good shot-gunners can figure out why they're missing and come up with a solution for any shot, no matter how bizarre the angle or speed. Try weird-angle targets. Try bullets. Try floaters. On some targets you may have to force yourself to shoot faster than you would like. So be it. In shotgunning, speed counts for a lot, as long as you are speeding correctly.

Shooting instructor Lars Magnusson (973-398-4330, ext. 6; griffinhowe.com/shootingschool.cfm) teaches at Bernardsville, New Jersey, and at Chappaqua, New York. Prices for individual lessons begin at $300 for four hours.

Black's Wing, Clay & Waterfowl directory lists 87 shotgun shooting schools around the country, as well as a small number of schools offering rifle instruction. The 2006 edition will be available in late September for $14.95 plus $5 shipping (800-766-0039)