By Tim Ackarman
“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” – Vince Lombardi
NFL football players are naturally gifted athletes. Yet they spend much of the summer sharpening their skills for the upcoming season.
Like throwing, catching, blocking or tackling, shooting is a skill acquired through proper training and honed by repetition. Even “natural” shooters can improve with practice.
Hopefully you’ve already started wingshooter’s training camp. If not it’s time to get crackin’! These five tips will help.
1) Mount up. Elite gunners shoot hundreds of rounds several times a week. Few of us can invest that much time or money. Fortunately there is a time-friendly, low-budget alternative.
Poor or erratic mounting technique is among the most common causes of missed shots. If your gun isn’t reliably pointing exactly where you’re looking, your chance of connecting plummets. A consistent mount is the foundation for everything that follows.
You can practice shouldering and swinging your unloaded gun (check twice, safety first!) anywhere it’s legal, inside or outside, while spending as little or as much time as you want. Refining this motion until it’s precise and effortless puts you well on the way to consistent shooting performance.
In the perfect mount you immediately begin tracking the target with your eyes, initiate a swing using your off arm and align your feet and body. Your trigger hand simultaneously raises the stock, first to your cheek and then your shoulder. Your eye automatically aligns over the top of the barrel without the need to make a significant adjustment, to divert your focus from the target or to interrupt your swing.
Breaking this sequence into components helps during initial practice, especially for inexperienced or “rusty” shooters. Begin with an unloaded gun (check twice, safety first!) held in your usual field-carry position. Pick out a distant stationary object, close your eyes and mount.
The stock should rise to your cheek rather than your head fall to the stock. The butt should hit the natural depression between your pectoralis major (breast muscle) and the head of your humerus (upper arm bone). Your toes should point towards the target with your feet about shoulder width apart and your off-hand foot a comfortable step ahead of your trigger-hand foot. When you open your eyes the barrel-side eye should be looking directly down the top of the barrel, which should be fairly well aligned with the intended target.
Ongoing difficulty with this exercise likely indicates poor gun fit. Field guns generally come in standard dimensions, which work reasonably for most folks but certainly not everyone. Consult a gunsmith, shooting coach or veteran shooter familiar with shotgun fit if you’re struggling
Once you’ve perfected this exercise incorporate the swing. Pick a long horizontal line such as the angle where the wall meets the ceiling, the roofline of a building, a power line, etc.
Track this line with your eyes while using your off arm to swing the muzzle along it. Mount your gun without interrupting the swing or diverting your eyes from the line. Imagine a spot where you intend to “shoot” your target and align your feet and body accordingly. Make both right and left swings.
When you’ve mastered the horizontal swing add angled lines. Follow them both rising—as though swinging on a flushed upland bird—and falling as when tracking an incoming mallard.
Finally, swing on live birds or other moving objects. Exercise common sense so as not to violate any cardinal tenants of gun safety or scare the heck out of passersby.
Despite the lengthy description, these exercises can be performed regularly in just a few minutes. Once you have a properly fitted shotgun they cost nothing but time. Invest that time and the mount/swing should be automatic when you’re actually shooting.
2) Mix it up. Most of us have a favorite shooting sport, with trap ranges being popular and readily available in many areas. Trap is great practice for upland game hunting, particularly over dogs, where most birds flush out front and travel away from the shooter at some angle. Yet it offers no hard crossing shots—i.e. doves or teal on a windy day—or incomers to mimic decoying big ducks or geese.
Skeet imitates the latter scenarios reasonably well, making a combination of trap and skeet a well-rounded if not all-inclusive practice regimen. Other games such as five-stand, duck blind and sporting clays offer additional challenge and diversity.
If you’re new to these you may struggle initially. Don’t use that as an excuse to not play or to stick with games you’ve already mastered. Poor scores are humbling, but you won’t improve much practicing only your best shots or sitting back and nursing your ego.
3) Use ‘em all. Many shooting enthusiasts have one or more trap guns, skeet guns, waterfowl guns, and upland guns. Collecting is fun if you have the cash, but I’ve learned failure to practice with every gun you use often leads to, well, failure.
I hit pheasants reasonably well but often struggle with waterfowl. Declining to heed my own advice, I shoot trap almost exclusively in the off-season and assumed this was the principle reason for my struggles with webbed-footed targets.
Then last fall I decided to cap a fruitless duck hunt with a quick pheasant shoot. Normally I carry a Ruger Red Label afield, but that morning I lugged my pump gun used primarily for waterfowl. An hour and six in-range flushes later I’d killed one rooster, missed four cleanly and wounded one we failed to recover.
Several times I had opportunity for a follow-up but failed to properly work the action. After years of shooting over-unders both at the range and in the field, pumping no longer came readily.
Further, the closed-eye mounting test revealed my eye naturally aligned with the back of the receiver nearly an inch below the ventilated rib. In order to even see my target I had to lift my head off the stock after mounting, a cardinal sin for consistent shooting. It’s a wonder I ever hit anything with that gun, something I might have learned sooner had I used it at the range even occasionally.
Since the Ruger with its walnut stock and stainless steel receiver wouldn’t be optimal for the duck blind, I traded the pump for a semi-auto. I fitted it with an after-market adjustable stock and raised it until it mounted naturally.
While it hasn’t seen any waterfowl action yet, I broke clays pretty well with it the first time I tried and managed to dispatch a gobbler with a quick off-hand shot last spring.
Although there’s no guarantee this gun will improve my performance in the blind, I’m fairly optimistic if for no other reason than that I won’t be dusting it off come season. Learn from my mistakes: practice with every gun you intend to shoot regularly.
4) Dress the part. Your summer wardrobe likely varies significantly from what you’ll be wearing the last day of pheasant season. A stock that’s slightly too long when you’re in a tee shirt may be difficult to mount when you’re wearing a parka.
Accessories can add to the problem. The shoulder strap on that new game pouch may reach out and grab the new butt pad on your favorite shotgun. Your waders may have suspenders with a buckle that sits in the sweet spot on your shoulder.
No one wants to wear waders and a parka to the skeet range in August, and it’s likely unnecessary. It is wise, however, to incorporate your hunting clothing into those mounting sessions at home. This will normally allow you to diagnose and correct any issues before they arise in the field.
5) Get in shape. When asked why he let tailback O.J. Simpson carry the football so many times, legendary USC coach John McKay replied: “Why not? The ball isn’t that heavy, and he isn’t in a union.”
Shotguns aren’t that heavy either, but as with toting the rock there’s more to it than the weight. Upland bird hunting requires lots of walking. It can be mercilessly hot during the dove, teal and early goose seasons. There’s often considerable effort involved with getting to the spots migrating waterfowl favor.
Shooting is a fine motor skill and tends to deteriorate with fatigue. All your practice will be for naught if you’re winded after a short hike or your arms are dead from maneuvering your boat into the cattails and tossing out decoys.
Most hunters would benefit from some light to moderate preseason cardiovascular and strength training. Pushing away from the table to shed any extra pounds can help as well.
If you’re a senior citizen, have medical conditions or are a longtime couch potato you should consult a doctor for advice regarding an exercise regimen. Then start training and keep practicing. Great shooters are made, not born.