Better Bird Shooting
It all starts with just paying attention.
I once took my local wildlife biologist grouse hunting. A waterfowler, he carried his only gun, a long, Full-choked pump loaded with 4s. He dressed for the October woods in insulated camo coveralls belted with a 6-foot length of stout chain he had brought in case he needed to add ballast to the collar of his rambunctious Lab. When my shorthair pointed a grouse, Bob clanked through the woods like the Ghost of Christmas Past to join me. The bird flushed between us. I waited forever for Bob to shoot, then dropped the grouse myself in a shower of twigs and leaves.
“I was waiting for him to get into the open,” Bob explained.
Hold your fire until a grouse or woodcock hits empty airspace and you’ll never shoot. On the flip side, pull the trigger the instant a pheasant clears the grass and you’ll empty your gun in vain before the bird finishes three wingbeats. Upland bird shooting is all about making haste with deliberation.
Too many people I’ve hunted with trudge along staring at their toes. When a bird jumps underfoot, they react in a startled panic. Good upland shooting begins with paying attention. Upland hunting doesn’t require vast powers of concentration, just the same type of alertness you need to safely drive to work. You do other things-talk, listen to the radio, drink a Big Gulp, whatever-but your attention is always on the road. When I’m bird hunting, I genuinely believe a bird may jump in front of me at any moment. My eyes are out front of the dog and a few feet above the ground where I first expect to see the bird in the air. Even when I’m chatting, my ears are perked for the sound of wingbeats. Birds may sometimes fluster me, but they rarely catch me completely by surprise.
Read the dog. It knows where the birds are, and its body language will tell you. When the dog’s tail gets busy and its nose goes down on the ground, something’s about to happen. You want to be hustling along in gun range and figuring out where you need to be in order to take a clear, safe shot when the bird flushes.
As you approach a point, or a flusher rooting eagerly for a buried bird (or if you’re dogless, a place where you think a bird will flush, say, the end of a strip of grass or a finger of brush in a field), you should be ready to shoot. I once hunted with a man who shouldered his gun, took the safety off, and then marched in on a likely spot with his finger on the trigger. That’s not “ready to shoot”-it’s an accident about to happen.
We’re taught in hunter ed that the port-arms carry, with the gun held across your body and the muzzle up, is the safest field carry. So it is. However, it’s a bad position from which to begin a gun mount; it requires too much movement in the wrong direction. If you’re whipping the muzzle down to shoot at a rising bird, you’ll miss underneath. There is a safe compromise, however, between “muzzle up” and “gun shouldered.”
Right before you shoot, or as you walk in on a point, lower your gun from port arms and hold it more or less horizontal to the ground with the butt tucked lightly beneath your shoulder. As the bird flushes, take a short step toward it with your left foot (that’s for right-handers) and release the safety. Now, all you have to do is make a small move to raise the gun to your cheek as your front hand points the muzzle at the bird.
Speed isn’t critical-not in terms of whipping the gun to your face, anyway. Just be smooth. Even if a bird flushes unexpectedly, move the gun first to a ready position, step with that left foot, then mount the gun. You have plenty of time. A bird doesn’t fly that can outrace pellets traveling 1300 fps. When a bird flushes in heavy cover, ignore the brush, focus on the bird, and shoot. It’s amazing how much thick stuff you can blast through and still kill a grouse, woodcock, or quail in the woods.
If thee bird is a true straightaway, jab the gun at it as if you were trying to impale it on the muzzle. With quartering targets, don’t worry about shooting ahead of the bird. Swing the gun along the bird’s line of flight and shoot at its head, and forward allowance will take care of itself. On true crossing shots, mount just a hair ahead of the bird, shoot, and follow through. While the classic “butt, belly, beak, bang” move of the swing-through shooter works-and that’s how I shot crossing birds for years-I’ve found it’s easier to start the gun ahead of the target.
Shooting too soon remains the most common error committed by uplanders. Rushed shooting makes for bad gun mounts, errors in reading the bird’s angle, shooting underneath, and fringe-hitting birds with mispointed, overtight patterns. Even Improved Cylinder prints cruelly tight patterns at 10 yards. Ideally, you’ll shoot the bird at twice that distance. When a bird flushes underfoot, don’t mount the gun and track your target. Instead, lock your eyes on the bird, let it put 15 or 20 yards between the two of you, then mount and shoot. If you hunt with partners who make every flush a race to see who can shoot the bird first, ask them to take turns or hunt with someone else. We spend the endless off-season waiting for the few, fleeting chances we get in the uplands. It’s a sin to rush through them when they finally arrive.