Traditional country pursuits reimagined for the modern world
Top game shooting instructor Simon Ward shares advice on how to take your shooting ability to the next level.
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“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I’ve stumbled across this quote by Aristotle several times over the years, and it certainly rings true when considering ‘excellence’ in the shooting field. As with many other sports, those who are serious about their shooting strive for excellence – for themselves and not for the benefit of others. How, then, can one go from being an intermediate Shot to an exceptional one?
We should first be quite clear that there is no quick and easy route to excellence; to shoot to a consistently high standard is not a given. Those regarded as the very best game Shots tend to have one thing in common; they are passionate, focused and driven to improve their performance. Their ‘excellence’ is the result of a long period of dedication. They have worked out early on in their shooting life the importance of a basic skill set, they have removed the variables which others might seek to blame when performance slips, they will not shy away from seeking advice or coaching to help them improve and, quite simply, they spend a lot more time than most shooting men or women with a gun in their hands.
Let’s break things down further. You want to take your shooting to the next level... Where should you start?
Firstly, you need to get to a point where your gun is throwing the centre of an even pattern of pellets precisely where you are looking every single time you shoot, and to do this you must: a) ensure you are mounting the gun into exactly the same part of your cheek and shoulder every time; b) ensure your gun fits you correctly; and c) ensure you are using a choke and cartridge combination that delivers sound patterns.
Gun fit can seem a bit of a minefield – everyone has their own ideas – but it needn’t be complicated. Stock length, cast and comb height are key. Too low a comb encourages lifting of the head to see what is going on, or leads to the shooter looking down the side of the gun as vision from his/her dominant eye is blocked, whilst cast on/cast off is crucial to achieve that central alignment of the eye over the breech. In the grand scheme of things, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get your gun fitted to you, and it is possible to find something off the peg that is a pretty good fit to start with and can be tweaked. It is worth visiting a reputable gun fitter in order to arrive at sound measurements.
Once you feel happy that your gun mounting skills are consistent, then having your gun professionally fitted will be of great benefit. You will notice that the very best Shots are extremely consistent in how they approach each and every bird, from their footwork and balance to their head position, and the way they harmonise a moving gun with a moving object. As a result they look like they have all the time in the world.
Practice and repetition will build the all-important muscle memory once a sound gun mount has been established. Simple exercises such as mounting an empty gun onto a mark on the mirror – always ensuring the gun comes up to the cheek and shoulder simultaneously – can help the experienced Gun maintain their consistency. The process remains the same for every shot; the front hand does the pointing, and the grip hand raises the stock to the cheek and shoulder. The use of snap caps and the visualisation of a moving object, all the while practising pulling the trigger halfway through the movement and keeping the gun moving, are the kind of exercises that can really make a difference to the consistency of one’s shooting.
Time spent at a pattern plate experimenting with different chokes, loads, shot sizes and brands of cartridge to find a combination that patterns well and is comfortable to shoot with, is also time well spent. When the pattern is centred around a mark every time you mount and shoot – and providing you do not drastically change body shape, therefore affecting gun fit – you can be confident that if performance starts to slip, your gun/cartridge/choke combination is not to blame.
These variables removed, poor or inconsistent shooting performance almost always links back to technique – the basics. All serious sportsmen and women, no matter what level they are at, will seek some form of instruction in order to continuously improve and avoid any bad habits creeping into their technique. Blips in form are inevitable, and when they happen it is very useful if a trusted coach with a great eye for detail is on hand to diagnose the cause so it can be addressed without delay. This also helps the shooter to become familiar with his/her own idiosyncrasies and better positions him/her to self diagnose any problems when they arise. It might be timing, starting to look at the gun rather than the bird, or being too deliberate. An ‘excellent’ Shot will be able reset themselves and refer back to the fundamentals of sound shooting.
A good coach will create a simple formula of practice and training so that when it comes to the day’s shooting, theshooter can just go along, enjoy it and not overthink things – their shooting will be much more fluent and natural as a result. If you put in the hours with a coach at the shooting ground, you can then focus on reading the situation on each drive and using a bit of fieldcraft and guile.
Of course, there are other ways to improve one’s shooting. Dove or pigeon shooting, for example, can really help you fast track your own shooting. The sheer variety of angles at which you will be shooting your quarry is harder to simulate with clay pigeons.
Then there is modern technology. Smartphones and such devices now enable us to take video footage that we can watch back and refer to, easily identifying bad habits or any inconsistencies in our technique, no matter how small. Indeed, many experienced Shots are quite surprised when they see footage of themselves shooting, the reality often not matching how they imagined their ‘style’ of shooting to look.
Without a doubt, when it comes to shooting consistently well, psychology and mentality play a big part, too. How often have you seen a friend or fellow Gun come undone after a series of misses with both barrels? Remaining positive is important. Being too hard on yourself about missing a bird or a dip in performance is counterproductive. Nobody is perfect and there’s nothing to be gained from dwelling on what is in the past – you can’t rewind time. What you can do, though, is think about the next bird and how you will address the situation. There is always a reason why we have missed, and the very best Shots are those who can quickly establish where they went wrong. Their mindset will always be positive – ‘half full’, never ‘half empty’.
Ultimately, a day’s shooting is about much more than the shooting itself, and if you only ever think about the birds that you miss, rather than reflecting on the enjoyment of the day as a whole, you’re missing the point.
As selected by Fieldsports Magazine
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