How to Use Proper Form to Improve Your Shotgun Accuracy
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Ed Anderson, an outstanding shot who is also the gunsmith of the Beretta Gallery in New York City, once told me something that really opened my eyes about shooting. I knew it on an unconscious level, but I had never heard it verbalized before: “The mount is the shot,” he said, simply.
In regard to shotgun shooting, truer words have never been spoken. The mount starts with good footwork, but as you see the target, whether it’s game or a clay pigeon, you steadily move the barrels toward it, focus on the bird, then blend the tip of the barrels and the bird until you’ve established the proper sight picture.
Footwork is one of the keys to shooting well. You need to be erect, balanced with your weight slightly forward, and relaxed. Ideally, your heels should be no farther apart than your shoulders, and depending on your conformation, they can actually be as close together as 6 to 9 inches. The front knee should be slightly bent, with the weight somewhat toward the front foot. Fifty-five to 60 percent of the weight should be on the front foot. The toe of the leading foot should be pointed at the spot where you plan to connect with the bird.
The gun will be coming across your body at about a 45-degree angle, making contact with the pocket formed just inside the shoulder. The heel of the buttplate should settle at about the top of your shoulder. Your gun should reach your face and shoulder simultaneously, or at least close to it. The plane of your face should be perpendicular to the rib. Don’t cant your face or tilt it more than minimally forward. Your neck should be slightly forward but not enough to cause any strain, and your eyes should remain as level as possible.
One of the keys to target shooting, indeed to all shooting, is twisting from the waist. Too many shooters incorrectly sway or shift weight from one foot to the other, which causes them to come off the correct line–“rainbowing,” it’s called. You must learn to twist, or to pivot, from the waist. The easiest way to get a feel for this movement is to take a broom handle or something similar and place it behind your neck, holding it near the ends. Then stand in front of a mirror with your feet directly below your shoulders and twist to the left and the right. This is the way to move to a target. Now pick up your shotgun, double-checking that it is empty, of course, and practice moving to the left and the right by twisting from the waist in the same manner.
In this mounting process, your head must remain still and your eyes level. (To keep your eyes almost level, the gun fit must be perfect.) In an ideal mounting process, the tips of the barrels will barely seem to move.
Just inside the shoulder there is a pocket that is easy to feel. Raise your right arm, keeping it bent at the elbow and parallel to the ground. Now move it forward slightly. Use your left hand to explore the pocket; this is where you want to place the buttplate. Depending on your particular physique, the top of the butt may be level with the top of this pocket or a bit below. Never lower your face to the gun. (One common mistake is mounting above the biceps or on the point of the shoulder. Ouch! Do this a few times, and I guarantee you will never do it again.) Some shooters will find the exact spot more easily by standing square to the gun. In shooting situations, however, it’s generally best to have the gun going across your body at about a 45-degree angle. You must learn to find this pocket with unconscious effort–in time, it will become muscle memory.
The gun needs to be locked into this pocket. Your left arm (or right for southpaws) should be held at a naturally comfortable angle. Holding it directly below the gun, as you do when you’re shooting a rifle, doesn’t work for shotgunning. But keeping it parallel to the ground would quickly tire your arm and cause you to start missing the targets. A 30- to 45-degree angle below horizontal is about right for the majority of shooters.
Every shooter is different. After you’ve spent enough time shooting, though, you will eventually develop your own natural style and technique. Always try to keep it based on sound fundamentals. That is the key to hitting birds.
THE F WORDS
When I’m not shooting well, I tend to talk to myself, trying to work out my problems through self-coaching. I normally can tell if I’m above, behind, below, or in front of the clay targets. But the question is, why? Usually, I can trace my poor shooting to either sloppy footwork or a bad mount, which reveals itself by my master eye being in incorrect relation to the barrels. While I’m focusing on the bird, the barrels appear as a blur, and their relative position, something I know from experience, just doesn’t seem to be right.
I have broken down self-correction into a four F-word mantra: footwork, flow, face, and finish.
Consistent footwork is absolutely critical to shooting well. Poor footwork, on the other hand, equates to running out of a swing and coming off the line. This will cause you to shoot low. By putting slightly more weight on the front foot and pivoting on the rear toe, the right-handed shooter can stay on the proper line for birds going to the left. Stepping into the shot, in the direction where the bird is going, will also do wonders. When a flushed bird flies behind you, turn around and plant both feet so that you’re balanced for the shot. If you are not alone, make sure to point the barrels skyward as you move into this position.
By this I mean don’t poke at the bird or “rifle” the shot, which can be tempting to do on shallow angles. While you may get lucky and hit something from time to time, these no-movement shots generally don’t work. Some shotgun movement is always necessary.
The other part of flow is to not box the mount. In other words, do not pick up too early on the target or chase it for a long way with a mounted gun. Instead, move the gun to the target and blend the tip of the barrels to the bird as part of the mounting process. As the gun reaches your face, most of the work will already be done.
Hitting the same spot on your face with the stock each time, with a consistent amount of pressure, is also important to a proper mount. Pressure that’s too light, for example, might cause your master eye to be off center. This, in turn, would cause you to shoot toward the left (if you are a right-handed shooter).
Finish, or follow-through, is the fourth element in shooting well. It doesn’t have to be exaggerated, but it must occur. The barrel needs to keep moving steadily until the shot has completely exited the muzzle. Do not slow your swing or start to dismount too soon.
Stand erect and balanced, with weight slightly forward.
Front knee should be slightly bent.
Sixty percent of your weight should be on the front foot.
A 30- to 45-degree angle below horizontal is where your left arm should be.
Heel of buttplate should settle at the top of the shoulder.
Twist from the waist. Don’t sway or shift your weight from one foot to the other.
Your heels can be as close as 6 to 9 inches apart.
When you are being fitted for a gun, the gun fitter will try to get your eye directly over the center of the rib, with your face as perpendicular as possible. Turning your face or cocking your head to force the master eye into the correct position actually creates an imperfect perception of the target because depth perception is inaccurate. Never lower your head down toward the gun. Instead, the gun should always come up to your cheek with a lift of your shoulder. With practice, muscle memory will automatically place the gun in the same spot on your face every time. When this happens, your shooting will improve remarkably.