Improve Your Shotgun Shooting with Instinct and Muscle Memory
Learning to turn off your brain to stop “thinking about the shot” will help you break more targets. Here’s how to tap into your subconscious computer to improve your shotgun shooting.
“You have the greatest computer in the history of the world sitting on your shoulders. If you want to shoot a shotgun well, get out of its way.”
That is probably the best advice I have ever received from a shooting instructor. At the time, many years ago, I was hopeless with a shotgun. I was a hard-core rifle shooter and I was trying to shoot a shotgun the same way. I would “aim,” using the beads, then try to calculate the lead and attempt to hold the right distance in front of the target. I missed every time I pulled the trigger.
Then I attended a shooting seminar conducted by Steve Schultz. “If you want to learn to shoot a shotgun, get stupid,” Schultz said. “Or at least turn off your brain and stop thinking about the shot. Let that computer do its work.”
Once I learned to do that, I started hitting targets.
Shooting a shotgun requires using a different part of your brain than shooting a rifle or handgun. With a shotgun you use the part that reacts when you put your hand on a hot stove. You don’t stop and logically think, “This is hot, and I should take my hand off.” Instead, you yank your hand away instantly. That’s the same gray matter that controls shotgun shooting. If you ever want to shoot well, you must learn to turn off the thinking part of your brain and let everything run on auto-pilot.
It’s the same technique that allows you to throw a baseball or to point your finger and track a moving car. You don’t need sights and you don’t think about aiming, trajectory or lead. You just point or throw and it all works out, right? Shooting a shotgun works the same way.
Your brain knows what to do, but you must train it to work in conjunction with the shotgun. Learning to use that part of your brain while shooting doesn’t just happen, it takes practice. You must develop the ability to let your subconscious mind control the shotgun. The first time you threw a baseball it probably didn’t work out. It took practice to learn how to do it properly, right? It’s the same with shotgun shooting. It takes practice to teach your body and your brain to work together and shoot well. That’s easily accomplished at your local range. You also need to learn the techniques used in shotgun shooting and identify which style works best for you. Here are some tips that will improve your shotgun shooting so long as you put some time into practice.
Start With Shotgun Fit
The first step in learning to shoot a shotgun well is to find a gun that fits you well. I have a wonderful 28 gauge, side-by-side double-barrel with a high comb. I simply cannot hit a thing with this shotgun. Until I work up the courage to pick up a file and lower the comb, I never will.
As I write this, I have just returned from a woodcock hunting trip. Shooting those fast-moving birds in the thick alder swamps where I live uses a much different technique than shooting trap on a formal range. Both are shotgun shooting, but that’s about the only similarity they share.
One of the hunters on this woodcock trip attempted to use an antique shotgun that did not fit him. He missed every bird he shot at. The next day he took a modern over/under shotgun that fit him well and he limited out without a miss.
For a shotgun to fit properly, you need to have the correct length of pull, pitch and comb height. Shotgun fit is best achieved with the help of an adjustable “fit” stock and a competent gunsmith. Lacking that, here are a few simple tips.
Check to ensure your gun is empty then mount the empty gun a few times while wearing your hunting clothes. If the length of pull is too long, the gun will catch on your jacket and impede your mount. If it’s too short, your face will be too far forward and your thumb will often hit your nose when you shoot.
Pick a spot on a wall at least 20 feet away. Look at that spot with both eyes open. Now, close your eyes and mount the gun. Without moving the gun, open your eyes. Is the bead of the shotgun on that spot? Are you looking along the top edge of the receiver and rib of the shotgun? If so, you are good to go for now. If not, the gun is a poor fit.
It’s always good to practice on an established shotgun range. Sporting Clays, 5-Stand, Skeet and Trap are all good practice games. If you are new to shotgun shooting it’s not a bad idea to mix it up and try them all as there are some big differences in these shooting games. If I had to pick one, Sporting Clays provides the widest variation on target presentation.
Always keep both eyes open when shooting a shotgun. Never “aim.” In fact, instructor Steve Schultz calls the thing on the end of the barrel the “miss me bead.” You should not see or even be consciously aware of the bead. Focus your vision on the leading edge of the target. Watch the target, never the shotgun.
Sustained Lead, Swing Through and Point Shooting are the three basic methods of shooting a shotgun. And you will probably use all three at some point, depending on the conditions; here’s how they break down:
For most shooters, this is the preferred method to cover the majority of shotgun shooting. The gun is moved with the target at the same perceived speed. The proper lead is attained and the shot is fired while the shotgun is moving with the target.
It’s important that you keep the gun moving through the shot and the follow-through. The human tendency is to stop moving the gun before pulling the trigger. If you do that, you will shoot behind the target every single time. Follow through is also very important, if you keep the gun moving until you pull the trigger and then stop, you will still shoot behind. Keep the gun moving as you pull the trigger and then a bit longer.
Don’t try to calculate lead, speed, angles or any of that; you can’t. Let that computer on your neck do that and you will be amazed at how well it works.
This technique can be very effective, but it requires precise timing and execution. With this method the shooter starts with the shotgun behind the moving target. By swinging the gun faster than the target is moving; the shotgun will pass by the target and when the forward lead is correct the shooter fires the shotgun. The timing requires anticipating not only the speed of the target and the speed the muzzle is moving, but also shooter lag time and the lock time for the shotgun.
The important thing to remember is that the shotgun must be kept moving the entire time; if you stop moving the gun, you will shoot behind the target. You must also fire without hesitation. Hesitation will usually cause you to shoot in front of the target, as the gun will swing past the correct lead before firing.
I find this to be the most difficult method and I rarely use it in the field. The few times I have were when my sub-conscious realized that there wasn’t time for a sustained lead shot and just took over. Any computer, even your brain, is only as good as the data fed into it, so practice this method to build skills so when the time comes you do need to use it, you can maybe make it work.
This is a good method for close, fast shooting. I am a long time New England grouse hunter and in the early season when the foliage is thick and the birds are flushing close and flying fast, this technique works well. Often the brush is so thick that it’s hard to swing the shotgun. Also, with things happening so fast, there is little time. This is the quickest way to get the shot off before the bird is gone in the thick vegetation. I also use it a lot in 3-gun and tactical shotgun competition for close and fast shots.
Point shooting occurs when you shoot with a stationary shotgun at a spot ahead of the target, where you think the target will be when the shot pattern arrives. Generally, this is done by throwing the shotgun to your shoulder as you focus your vision on the spot where you want to shoot. Fire as soon as the gun hits your shoulder. You are predicting where the target will be at a point in the future that will coincide with the shot pattern’s arrival. For this to work correctly, the hunter must fire instantly as any hesitation will cause you to shoot behind the target.
This method works well when shooting at closer targets, particularly in thick brush. It helps a great deal to have a shotgun that fits you correctly and hits your shoulder perfectly aligned with your eye.
Remember Shoot Safe, Shoot Smart
When hunting with other people there is an inherent danger in shooting at moving game because the shooter tends to focus on the game and blocks out the rest of their surroundings.
When the target is moving and the shotgun is moving with it, this can be dangerous if you are not fully aware of where everyone else is at any given time.
The common accident scenario is that the hunter is following a flying bird and his hunting partner appears in front of the shotgun just as he pulls the trigger. Both are focusing on the same bird and never even notice until it’s too late.
Never let your focus on the shot become so complete that you fail to realize where the muzzle of your shotgun is pointing at all times. Always know where all your party members are before shooting. Also, maintain an awareness of the background at all times. Watch for buildings, cars, hunting dogs and other hunters. If there is even the slightest doubt, do not shoot. Letting a bird get away is a small price to pay for safety.
About The Author
Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website.
Special thanks to StepOutside.org for providing this insightful content.
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