Three Shotgunning Tips for Dove Hunters

There's still time. If you filled the sky with lead last season and had hardly a bird to show for it, here are three ways to improve your shooting the month before the opener.

YOU WANT DOVE PATTERNS, NOT DUCK PATTERNS Does your gun throw patterns that will work for you? The only way to find out is to put pellets to paper at the ranges that you'll be shooting. Most doves are shot anywhere between 20 and 40 yards, but don't test a gun at 40 yards if you take all your shots at half that distance. I use a 4-foot-square piece of cardboard, Birchwood Casey's goalpost-shaped target stand, and 36-inch-wide rolls of brown paper. Shoot a minimum of three patterns with the same choke and load at the same distance (five or 10 patterns are better), changing sheets after each shot. Then use a marker tied to 15 inches of string as a compass to draw a 30-inch circle on each pattern with its densest part at the center.

The vitals of a dove are roughly the size of a golf ball--a little less than 2 inches. To reliably put one or two pellets on that small target, you will need to see a total of at least 225 to 250 holes in the 30-inch circle. If you're not coming up with enough, you'll need a heavier shot load, smaller shot, or more choke.

A great way to fill out a smallbore pattern is to use No. 9 shot, at least for short-range shooting. Even a puny 28-gauge skeet load of 9s totals 438 pellets, and 9s retain enough energy to kill doves at 20 to 25 yards. For shots out to 35 yards, stick with 8s and either shoot heavier loads or tighten your chokes if you need more pattern density. Long-range, 40-yard-plus dove shooting calls for a 12-gauge with 7 1/2s and a Modified or tighter choke.

SMOOTH YOUR MOVE One of the most common misses in dove hunting goes like this: You watch a bird come across the field and think Ha, I'm going to kill this one. You leap to your feet, mounting the gun and tracking the dove as it approaches. The bird sees you pop up and commences evasive action, greatly increasing the difficulty of the shot. Meanwhile, you try to follow the juking dove with a mounted gun, a sure way to slow your swing. And you miss.

Solution: Take a trap someplace where you can set up to throw a long incomer. To do this safely, you'll have to put the trap over the crest of a hill, or else shield the puller behind hay bales or a sheet of 3/4-inch plywood. Sit on your 5-gallon bucket and call for the target. As it approaches, lock your eyes onto the bird, but don't move until it's in killing range, then stand and deliver. Concentrate on being smooth, not fast. As you come to your feet, push the muzzle in front of the clay and shoot as the butt touches your shoulder.

CUT THE KICK Dove hunting takes place in T-shirt weather. With nothing but a thin layer of cotton between you and the butt, you'll feel every ounce of your gun's kick. The more it hurts, the worse you'll shoot.

So lighten up. The promotional dove and quail loads you see at Wal-Mart are often heavier, faster, and harder-kicking than you need for the purpose. Spend a little extra and buy light, 2-dram target loads of 1 or 1 1/8 ounce in 12-gauge, or 2.5-dram, 7/8-ounce loads in 20.

Another recoil-reducing solution is an after-market recoil pad. If you shoot the same gun for doves and waterfowl, the new Sims slip-on LimbSaver (877-257-2761; www.limbsaver.com) may be the perfect solution. Later in the fall when you bundle up for waterfowl season, you can shorten the stock simply by slipping off the pad to shoot those big, slow birds that will look like blimps compared to all those doves you bagged back in September.

NEW GUN TEST: BENELLI M2

Benelli's redesigned M1 auto, dubbed the M2, represents the next rung on the ladder to short-recoil autoloading perfection. It features a cryogenically treated barrel, 5/8-inch-longer choke tubes, and a stock inset with soft gel on the butt and the comb to reduce recoil. Lighter than its predecessor, the M2 scales in at a hair under 7 pounds. It swings, points, and balances as well as any repeater I've had in my hands since the Browning Double Automatic Twelvette I foolishly sold several years ago.

What about the high-tech improvements? When I tried an M1 and M2 together, I shot markedly better patterns with the M2's new, longer choke tubes. On the other hand, although the M2's soft "ComforTech" stock feels great, I noticed only small recoil reduction over the M1. Want a soft shooter? Pick up a gas autoloader. If you hanker for a repeater that combines auto fire-power with lively handling, then the M2 is for you. Price range: $1,035 to $1,165. --P.B.