August 02, 2023
You can spend six figures on a bespoke shotgun from Purdey & Sons, Boss & Co. or one of the other famed shooting houses in London, but if you never practice, that shotgun is essentially a $100,000 hunk of metal and wood. The shotgun you buy, its choke and the ammo you load in it can only take you so far. To be an accurate wing shot inside of 40 yards—the distance most hunters should limit shots to—you must know your gun’s capabilities and be comfortable swinging it to (and through) moving targets. The only way to do this is by spending time at the range shooting your shotgun before the start of hunting season.
Think of it like this: If you are a golfer that never goes to the driving range, there’s not much chance you will pipe a 300-yard drive down the middle of the fairway. The same goes for shooting your shotgun. Most of us can’t jump in a duck blind on opening day and kill a limit of mallards (without going through a box of shells, anyway) if we don’t spend the summer breaking clays. Here is my process to get ready for fall.
PATTERN YOUR GUN
I’ve shot many shotguns on paper from 40 yards—the industry standard for pattern work—and have seen some wild results. A few shotguns barely put a pellet on paper when I aimed at the center of the target, either patterning extremely high or low. You don’t know what a payload is doing once it exits the barrel until you see it on paper. Too many hunters don’t take the time to do this, and it’s a major reason why they don’t shoot accurately.
Before you ever go to the clays range, shoot your chosen shotshells through the choke you intend to hunt with from 40 yards. Use a piece of butcher paper big enough that you’ll be able to draw a 30-inch circle around the main concentration of pellets. I like to shoot both from a lead sled and offhand to see where my gun is patterning. The sled allows me to see the pattern the gun is capable of shooting because it’s anchored in a fixed position.
Shooting offhand is a better indication of how the gun will shoot in a hunting scenario because I’m mounting the gun and standing to shoot. Once you have patterned the shotgun (shoot at least five times from both positions, swapping in a fresh target before each shot), find the core of the pattern and draw a 30-inch circle around it so you have a visual of your payload.
REMOVE YOUR BEAD
Every shotgun has some kind of sight mounted to the top of the rib near the muzzle of the barrel. For a turkey or deer hunter, this is perfectly fine; those pursuits require you to aim the shotgun like a rifle.
However, wingshooters shouldn’t use the bead. You should keep your eyes on the target at all times while swinging the gun (not aiming it). All a bead does is draw your attention away from whatever you are shooting at.
On most shotguns, all you need to do to remove the bead is unscrew it. I use a small pair of pliers to get a firm hold on the bead and then turn. A source of heat, like a hair dryer, may be helpful to loosen any Loctite; just don’t go too long to avoid damaging your finish. It typically works the same for a fiber-optic front sight, although some fiber-optics slide onto the rib. In that case, use a bit of elbow grease and pull it off.
SHOOT SKEET OR TRAP
If you’re a duck hunter, shoot skeet. Upland hunters are better served shooting trap. Why? Because skeet mimics many of the shots you’ll take from a duck blind, whereas trap emulates the flush of a rooster, grouse or bobwhite.
On the skeet and trap field, shoot low gun. Fellow shooters might think it’s odd since their focus is on breaking the most clays to produce the best score possible. However, you’re trying to become a better wing shot, and because no hunter walks the uplands with a pre-mounted shotgun, shooting clays in the traditional manner won’t help much when hunting season hits.
That said, if you haven’t shot skeet or trap much, start in the high-gun position, but lift your head off the stock before calling for the bird. This will help you get used to bringing your face to the comb and finding the clay as you look down the rib of the barrel. Once you can break 15 clays, switch to low gun.
A word of caution: Skeet and trap ranges can be very helpful to your development, especially if you shoot with a group of accomplished shooters. But they can also set you back. There are often folks at these ranges that think they know how to teach people to shoot. They take what they know and try to apply it to someone else. But that doesn’t always compute because we all have our own mental process when that clay emerges from the shooting house. If someone tries to help you, listen to their advice (assuming they are a good shooter), but don’t get frustrated if what they’re telling you isn’t working.
GO LONG RANGE
Every summer my brother and I participate in a state-run wingshooting clinic. The presentations are set up to mimic different species of birds from teal to woodcock. It’s as close to real hunting as you can get, which has been incredibly beneficial to our progression as wingshooters. Since most of our fall is spent in pursuit of waterfowl, we set up some decoying duck presentations over a pond at our farm after the first year we attended the clinic.
Shooting realistic presentations helps greatly, but couple it with shooting clays at distance, too. A good friend is an accomplished sporting clays shooter, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to break clays with him out to 70 yards. Granted, I haven’t been too successful, but the first time I broke a clay at 70, it opened a whole new world.
When you know the lead at that distance, figuring it out at 30 is so much easier. It’s like swinging a weighted baseball bat and then picking up a regular one. The jump in your shooting aptitude will be tremendous.
- This feature on shooting is featured in the Midwest edition of the August 2023 issue of Game & Fish Magazine, available on newsstands across the country. How to subscribe.