veryone has made incredible shots in the field only to back it up with a less–than–stellar performance on a bird that should have been an easy shot. I will attempt to explain how you can become a better shotgun shooter in the field or duck blind at your local gun club shooting clays. We will explore the ideas of gun mount, lead and learning to “point” your shotgun.
The biggest mistake made by almost everyone shooting a shotgun is they tend to aim instead of “point.” The idea of pointing a shotgun and aiming a rifle is something many people have heard but do not fully understand.
The barrel/muzzle of your shotgun should be like the hood of your car. You see it, but you are not looking at it; you should just look past it. Like the hood of your car, the barrel is how you steer (point) your gun, but your eyes are on what you are shooting. The target you are shooting at should be in focus.
For the sake of simplicity let’s define focus as “seeing a part of the bird when you pull the trigger.” In other words, you need your eyes 100% locked on the dove, duck, goose or clay, and you will only see the barrel or muzzle in your peripheral vision. To be more specific, your bird/barrel awareness should diminish as the shot is triggered, as this is the point at which you should see the target the clearest.
Another example is to think of hitting or catching a ball. In both instances, you don’t look at the bat or the glove, you watch the ball and your hands and eyes work together. Shooting a shotgun should be very similar to that. It is easy to get a false sense you are doing things correctly if you have success on incoming and going–away shots, as you can get away with aiming or measuring those types of shots. However, when you get to crossing shots, most people struggle due to the fact they are aiming and trying to measure the lead. If you can learn to properly keep your eyes on the target and not the muzzle on crossing shots, you can improve drastically. Sporting clays is a great place to practice doing that.
To understand just how important your eyes are to successful shotgunning, think of these scenarios which are good examples to help you better understand shooting. When you are surprised by the bird and mount your gun at the last moment only to make the best shot of the day is one example. This was not only a surprise to you, it also surprised everyone you were hunting with. The same thing has happened to everyone on the sporting clays course when, surprisingly, you hit the one you were not ready for.
The second example is when you have plenty of time to make a shot and have less–than–stellar results. Imagine a dove coming across the field or a goose that seems to be locked up forever and you blow the opportunity or use three shots to kill a bird that should have been dead much sooner. Surely everyone has experienced this scenario.
In the instance with little time, the shooter relied on hand/eye coordination to make the shot and there was not time to look at the muzzle. In the instance where there was plenty of time to get ready and think about the shot, the miss is generally caused by looking too much at the end of the gun or trying to measure the lead and not really looking at a specific part of the bird.
To improve your shooting, you need literally to be able to pick a part of the target you are shooting at. Work on looking at the duck’s bill, the feet of a goose or the beak of a dove. When you learn to do this properly you will not really see the gun, you will just have a “feel” for where it is. You will remember seeing a part of the bird you were shooting at but will not see the bead(s) on the gun.
As a hunter and sporting clays shooter my entire life, I have experienced all of the above. To become a better all–around shot, I suggest you get on the sporting clays course and practice learning to look for a part of the target. You can first just throw the target a few times and look at each clay to determine if there is a part of the clay you can plan to look at. In general, plan to focus on the part of the target that differentiates itself from the rest of the target. Having grown up on a hunting preserve and sporting clays range, I have spent thousands of hours learning to keep my eye on the target each time, and it is still the hardest part of shooting for me, so I know how important this practice can be.
Another key fundamental is learning to properly mount your gun. Practicing your gun mount is a prerequisite for learning to let your hands and eyes work together. When we assume our hands and eyes will work together, the assumption is your shooting eye is in line with the muzzle so the gun will go wherever your eyes go. You want to practice bringing the gun into your shoulder so your head is down with your shooting eye in line with the bead or beads. You need to determine what the proper “feel” is so you can mount the gun and know your eye is lined up with the muzzle each time. If your gun has two beads, the beads should touch to make a figure 8. The key is practicing this so you instinctively know your eye is in line with the gun. Then when you get into the field or on the clay range, you can mount the gun without looking back at the barrel/muzzle to check your gun mount.
Many people look too much at the gun because they are trying to determine if their eye is lined up with the muzzle. The only reason the beads are on the gun is to learn how to consistently mount the gun. Once you get confident in your gun mount, you do not need to look at the beads during the shot. You should practice your mount enough at home so you are confident you can mount the gun and your shooting eye will be in line with the muzzle without even having to look down the muzzle.
There are other important concepts to understand about mounting a shotgun. First, make sure your gun is in the pocket of your shoulder. Your head should be on the front of the stock so your face is about 1”–2” from your hand. Make sure both of your hands come up together as you bring the gun to your face.
A key to improving your gun mount is to practice it at home. It even makes sense to wear the jacket you will be using while hunting or shooting to practice your mount at home. With enough practice, you will know the “feel” of the proper mount without having to look down the gun’s barrel. This will make the job of keeping your eye on the target a lot easier.
A question I get every day while teaching sporting clays is how much lead does this target take? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not simple. Let’s start by assuming angle, speed and distance are the three variables that determine the lead of any moving object. The easiest way to imagine and understand this is to relate it to throwing a football to one of your friends. Shooting a shotgun and the idea of lead is very similar to throwing a football.
Shots with little angle, such as decoying ducks or geese or birds flying straight away, are generally the easiest for most hunters, as there is little lead. In fact, we can often get away with aiming at these shots, even though it is not the best way to go about it. When we get to crossing shots, things change drastically, and as we add speed and distance, the shots get harder to execute. Crossing shots require some daylight or space between the target and muzzle to hit them. As you add distance and speed, the required forward allowance will become greater.
Most people struggle when they try to measure this lead. The key is to have your eyes locked on the target and see the lead only in your peripheral vision. Your brain will learn the target and see the lead only in your peripheral vision. Your brain will learn different lead pictures, but you will not be measuring this space in terms of feet.
To establish lead as you mount the gun, the muzzle should meet the front edge of the target you are shooting. If the bird or target is even farther and faster, you can learn to mount the gun with some forward allowance established through the mount. Once the gun and bird have matched speed, you should begin to focus on the bird as your gun pulls away from the target to establish the lead. As the gun pulls away from the target, the gun will be moving just slightly faster than the bird. In general, assume if the target is going 20 m.p.h., you will go 21 m.p.h. If your eyes are locked on the target, your brain will get a feel for the proper lead. This all takes practice, but you should start to get a better understanding that lead is more of a “feel” and not a measurement.
Once it all starts to come together, you will be amazed that you will not really see the gun clearly, you will see the lead in your peripheral vision without really looking for the lead; it will become a “feel,” like throwing a football. Once you learn to see that target clearly at the end of the shot, your eyes will put the finishing touches on the lead. If you can categorize your shots into the following general lead pictures, your eyes will do the rest: no lead, a little lead, medium lead and a lot of lead. I am not going to tell you lead does not exist, because it surely does. What I am telling you is you need to learn to see it peripherally and let your eyes finish the lead.
I hope I succeeded in giving you a better understanding of how to properly shoot a shotgun both in the field and on the sporting clays range. I am confident if you adopt these ideas and principles, you will become a better shooter. I encourage all of you to give these ideas a try, even if they are drastically different from what you have done all your life. The difference in properly using your hands and eyes together to shoot a shotgun rather than aiming and looking down the gun is like comparing apples and oranges.
If you are serious about becoming better in the field, take these fundamentals to a local sporting clays range and work on learning to mount your gun properly, maintaining focus on the target and developing a “feel” for how to establish lead on each kind of target. I think you will be pleased with the improvement you see on clays and in the field.
Anthony Matarese, Jr. is a 2007 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College. He started shooting sporting clays competitively in 1995 at the age of 10 and began coaching at the age of 14.
In 2008, Anthony became the first person to win the NSCA U.S. Open and National Championship in the same year. He is recognized as one of the top competitors in the world, having earned his way onto 18 All–American Teams.
Learn more about Anthony in Connie Mako Miller’s “Look Who’s Talking” interview in the September 2008 issue of Shotgun Sports. For more information on Anthony’s coaching services, visit www.clayshootinginstruction.com.