by Mike Graves
Like post cards from Mother Nature, the spectacular display of fall colors hanging from the branches of forest trees are brilliant to behold. They are also reminders that it’s once again time to hunt for ring-necked pheasants.
In the company of their favorite hunting dogs, well-oiled guns and No. 5 and No. 6 field loads, thousands of hunters will take to the uplands this fall in pursuit of one of the most resilient and sought-after game birds in North America – the ring-necked pheasant.
Pheasant hunters everywhere are seeking the same qualities that make for good days afield hunting. These qualities include fields that are full of birds, good dog work, well-placed shots and retrieves to hand.
When all of these qualities of pheasant hunting come to fruition, the result is a pleasing hunting experience that will bring a smile to every pheasant hunter’s face and etch a place in their memories.
For pheasant hunters, there aren’t too many sights more beautiful or exciting than the powerful flush of a ringneck bursting into the autumn sky. And, conversely, there aren’t too many sights more disappointing than the sight of a ringneck accelerating away to the next county after a missed shot.
Most assuredly, the ultimate moment in a pheasant hunt is the few milliseconds after the trigger is pulled. In that ultra-brief time span, the moment of truth and, in many respects, the outcome of the day hang in the balance. If the shot is true, the pheasant will fall dead from the sky and will soon be retrieved. But if the hunter misses, there is always a bit of a letdown and a feeling of dissatisfaction.
As you know, simple (by poor) mechanics when swinging one’s shotgun can mean the difference of a solid hit or a clean miss. Let’s explore three proven shotgun-shooting techniques that are most widely used for wingshooting. These techniques will help you to maximize your pheasant-hunting success. These proven techniques include sustained lead, swing-through and pull away.
As human beings, we have a great capacity to process information. Through our sensory perception of sight and our eye-hand coordination, our ability to process the distance it takes to lead a moving target with a shotgun for a direct hit is much like a computer processing complicated information. In fact, we could describe this processing of information by our brain as using our “on-board,” computer – and a good on-board computer it is!
Oftentimes, the reason a hunter misses a ringneck is that they will stop their gun too soon after firing. In this case, their on-board computer has processed the necessary lead correctly, but the shooter erroneously thinks the mission has been completed when the trigger is pulled and therefore then stops the gun. The result is a shot column of pellets going well behind the accelerating bird.
Keeping the gun moving is analogous to a baseball player’s follow-through when swinging at a pitch or a golfer’s follow-through when trying to drive a ball 250 yards down the fairway. In both cases, follow-through is essential. Can you imagine what would happen in these examples if the baseball player or the golfer stopped their swing the instant contact was made with the ball? The answer would be poor hitting and poor golfing.
Remember to follow-through or keep the gun moving after the shot is fired in all three of the techniques discussed below. Follow-through is not an exaggerated movement, but rather a controlled, fluid motion that encompasses a distance of only a few inches – a few inches that can make the difference between a hit or a miss!
The best way to accomplish a sustained lead type of shot is to insert the gun at the proper point. Gun insertion is where you first point the gun once you have acquired the target.
For example, let’s say a ringneck flushes to your right at 3 o’clock at a distance of 20 yards and continues to fly to the right (height is not important). Once you have acquired the target, you would smoothly mount and insert (point) the gun to the right of the pheasant’s body.
At this point, it needs to be noted that the gun mount and the insertion of the gun are done together in one fluid motion. Although they may seem sequentially separate, they are actually performed together in one combined motion.
Keeping the gun moving and always ahead of the target, you would then let your brain calculate the necessary amount of lead you will need. When the barrel-to-target relationship satisfies the lead requirement, pull the trigger and keep the gun moving for a few more inches to produce the follow-through.
If you kept the barrel in front of the target from the time you inserted the gun, produced the lead, fired and followed through, you have accomplished the sustained-lead method of shooting.
Sustained lead is the most common shooting method used in skeet shooting, and this is for a good reason. Skeet targets are relatively close targets to shoot at (about 21 yards), but they are also pretty fast targets (about 40 mph). In skeet shooting, if you get behind the target, you have very little time to “catch up” and make a good shot. This is the reason why skeet shooters like to use sustained lead – it keeps them “out in front.”
The main thing that can go wrong with sustained lead is to get behind the target from the get-go. Once the target is “by” the end of your barrel, you will be in a catch-up situation and will be forced to make up the distance. The key is to start out in front and stay out in front.
by wingshooters. In this type of shooting, the insertion point is the exact opposite of sustained lead, and the gun is inserted behind the target.
Using the same scenario as above, let’s again say the ringneck flushes at 3 o’clock to our right and continues flying to the right. In this case, the gun is again smoothly mounted, but this time it is inserted behind the target. A smooth and proper gun mount also means bringing the gun to your shoulder and face and not bringing your face to the gun.
After mounting and inserting the gun, you would swing the gun on the same horizontal axis (line) the bird is flying. Then you would continue to swing the gun “through” and past the target. When your on-board computer has calculated the necessary lead, pull the trigger and keep the gun moving.
Swing-through is a good method of shooting because it lines you up with the target and uses your gun’s momentum to move through the target and accomplish the necessary lead.
The problem that can occur with swing-through is that, by intentionally inserting the gun behind the bird, you’re already behind, and you must catch up. If not performed correctly, swing-through can often translate into a shot behind the bird.
To make matters worse, if a shooter swings too fast the shot can be in front of the target. The secret to shooting well with the swing-through method is to concentrate on the target and swing the gun smoothly through the target in a nice, fluid motion. Even though pheasants are quick flyers, they simply cannot move faster than a well-placed shot.
To accomplish pull away, you should smoothly mount the gun and insert “on” the target (in one unified motion) and then match the “swing” speed of the gun barrel to the target. Once the barrel speed matches the speed of the target, the barrel is pulled away in a sudden (but smooth) motion. Then when the on-board computer says the lead is correct, the trigger is pulled.
Several mistakes can be made with pull away. If the insertion point is off even a little, it will make matching the speed of the gun with the target more difficult. Additionally, when the pull away action occurs, the acceleration of the barrel has to be fairly precise or it will adversely affect the lead. This method is probably the most prone to gun stoppage; therefore, shooters really have to concentrate on follow-through at the end of the shot.
Choosing a particular type is a personal choice, and it is a decision that should be based on which one is more comfortable to use and which one nets the best results for you. By going to a trap, skeet or sporting clays range, you can experiment with the various methods or work on one that you already know is right for you.
My recommendation is to go to a skeet range. Skeet was designed for wingshooters by wingshooters and thus presents the most common shots that will be encountered during pheasant hunting.
In skeet, there are overhead shots, incoming shots, hard-crossing shots, snap-shots and doubles. The really nice aspect about skeet – and trap, for that matter – is the shot selections or types of shots are going to be consistent. This is different from sporting clays where the shot selections can be somewhat varied.
When one is trying to dial in their shooting, minimizing the number of variables that can affect the outcome is desirable. This is why a skeet range is ideal for determining which method of shooting you’re using and/or for practicing a particular method.
Once a particular method is decided upon and learned, then you may wish to practice at sporting clays courses, which are very popular nowadays.
It should be noted that skeet (in the United States), trap and sporting clays can be shot with the gun already mounted. This is obviously different from a hunting situation where the gun is carried and not mounted until a bird flushes.
However, even with the gun mounted, shooters can still figure out which type of shooting method works best, learn about determining lead and practice a particular method. Additionally, if shooters so desire, they can shoot skeet, trap and sporting clays with the gun down (i.e., un-mounted) to simulate a hunting situation. My advice would be to start with a mounted gun to get the process off to a smooth and effective start and then possibly work with the gun down.
If we look at the different types of shooting, we can identify certain components that are common to all – components that often cause the most problems. For example, mounting the gun is common to all three types of shooting, and if done incorrectly, it can cause problems.
Minor adjustments to the gun mount that can reap great benefits include making sure the gunstock is brought to the face and the butt of the stock is “planted” securely in the shoulder “pocket.” The shoulder pocket is located just to the breast-side of the crease of your armpit. A good way to see if you’re getting the gun “in” the pocket is to look for any bruising out on your biceps or shoulder after you’ve shot a hundred rounds or so. If you haven’t been getting the gun to the pocket, it is oftentimes made readily apparent by the bruises the kick of the gun can leave.
Another minor adjustment is to keep your cheek “married” to the stock of your gun. Raising your cheek – even slightly – off of the stock raises your head and your eyes, thereby shifting your sighting plane. If this happens, it means where you’re looking is now not where you’re shooting.
If a shotgun – any type of shotgun – doesn’t fit you, then you are not going to shoot well with it. The best way to get a good gun fit is to have a gunsmith assist you in checking for cast of stock, height of comb
and length of pull. This process will only take a few minutes, and it can save you a lifetime of misery.
Choke selection is an important decision, and it can be done based upon what type of dog you’re hunting over. If you hunt over a pointer, where the shots are going to be close (i.e., within 20 yards), a skeet choke is a good choice.
Hunters who hunt over flushing types of dogs will be better off going with a modified choke most of the time. Good “flushers” will stay within 35 yards of their boss. This means if a bird is flushed at the maximum distance, a modified choke is going to be required to make the shot. This is also true of those who don’t hunt with dogs and get a majority of their shots at longer ranges.
A good all-around selection for shot size for pheasant hunting is No. 5s. A 12 gauge loaded with 1 1/8 ounces of No. 5s will give you about 192 pellets and plenty of knockdown power for the bigger birds.
Learning and practicing one of the shooting techniques discussed here is a great way to increase your odds this season and limit out. Good hunting.
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