In this section we are referring to shotgun shooting skills rather than rifle. We cover rifle shooting in the stalking section. As with all shooting activities, safety must be the single most important consideration in all that you do. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an accident with firearms. When things go wrong its negligence. You must, at all times, know and be aware of the state of your shotgun (i.e. loaded, unloaded, broken, closed etc), the direction the barrels are pointing, and how you intend to navigate obstacles in your path. Furthermore, when taking a shot, make sure you know where the shot is going to travel through and to. If in doubt, there is no doubt. OK, soap box session over!
To truly understand and become good at anything its important for you to understand what is going on with the equipment you are using. Training is best done with someone who is an expert in their field but with the explosion of YouTube and other online video and tutorials its possible for you to learn many skills yourself. Hands on practice will get you so far but understanding the more technical aspects of what you are doing will get you further. I call hands on practice drill-based training. I call understanding the technical side skill-based training. You need both to become competent. Take for example someone learning to drive. Its very drill based. The person learning doesn’t need to understand anything about the forces affecting the vehicle, its limits of performance, the effects of braking on bends or accelerating through them. A racing driver on the other hand understands these theoretical conditions and effects, so then learns to push the car to its limits whilst understanding how to manipulate the external factors to their advantage. Anyone who has watched Mr Digweed shoot will know that he is one with his shotgun. He may simply be a natural but I bet if you ask him about how the shot pattern is affected by external forces, how one cartridge load performs differently to another, how a clay or bird will likely travel in certain conditions he will be able to give you chapter and verse. What I’m getting at is practice is great and will get you a long way, but having knowledge about all aspects of the shotgun, the cartridges, trigonometry, velocity, wind, etc will make you a much better shot. At the same time, its imperative you become instinctive with your shooting to truly excel but the joint skill and drill based path of development will get you there quicker I wager. As Fayre Game Pursuits evolves, we will produce training videos to assist you so keep an eye out on the video page.
So, what are the skill-based aspects you need to understand? Well understanding how a shotgun works is a good starter. I’ve been on a shoot where someone thought his cartridges were faulty as they weren’t firing. They had an imprint of where the firing pin had struck the percussion cap but simply not gone off. To me it was more indicative of a weak firing pin than a faulty cartridge. Picking up the ‘faulty’ cartridges I put them into my shotgun and happily set off two bangs as the cartridges did what they were supposed to do. I’m no armourer or gunsmith but I know that springs, if constantly loaded, will lose their power. Snap caps are dummy cartridges which you should use to fire off the action of your firing mechanism before storing the shotgun until its next use (that’s after cleaning it!). Failing to do so is planning to fail at a later date. This is a skill as the ability to shoot well isn’t restricted to the actual time you want to shoot your quarry. Its wrapped up in the entire process of having the right shotgun that fits you, is well maintained, using the right ammunition and understating how to mount the gun, swing through, shoot the target, keep moving and return to reload and prepare for the next target. If when you pull the trigger nothing happens it simply demonstrates you failed to grasp one of these earlier skills.
A shotgun needs to fit the user. Believe it or not you can get right-handed and left-handed shotguns as well as straight. Make sure yours fits you. When you mount the gun, you bring it up to your cheek and shoulder, you don’t bring your cheek down to the stock. Keep looking at your target at all times. Understand that the bird is moving at speed, so you need to get in front of it to allow the shot to intersect the flight path of the bird at the time the shot is in contact with the bird not before or after. Keep the gun moving because you want to extend the shot pattern in the same way as you would water out of the end of a hosepipe.
Shotgun cartridges will project shot at different speeds. This means the lead required to ensure intersection will be different depending on the cartridge you are using. Don’t have a pocket of different types of cartridges. Just because they may both be 30-gram No.5s doesn’t mean that they will travel at the same speed. Likewise, select barrels that support your chosen shooting preference. Longer barrels generally allows a good shot to shoot higher birds. These are all related to skill-based shooting. The more you understand the better you might be. There is the possibility that you can learn all the theory but not be able to put it into practice however so that’s where the drill-based training comes in.
So, we know what should happen and how to overcome and exploit the external factors but now we have to put it into practice. Practice makes perfect. The aim is to make repetition turn into muscle memory and eventually get to the point where your shooting is instinctive. You don’t want to be thinking about what you are going to do but neither do you want to forget the application of the skills. More speed less haste is another great saying. The less you are thinking about it the quicker you will be naturally. Be ready, as a rushed shot will generally end in failure. When you mount a gun, your fantastic computer brain will automatically point it to where you are looking. This will be incredibly accurate and not just ‘thereabouts’! All you have to do now is swing through the bird and get the correct distance in front before pulling the trigger. Learn, through repetition, to continue the motion through. Make it a dance move so that once you have pulled the trigger your muscle memory kicks in and keeps the dance routine going until it has reached completion, which should be a reloaded shotgun and you in a readiness stance looking for the next bird.
You would think from all that you have read that I’m a fantastic shot. Unfortunately, that’s not the case I’m afraid. I wish I was! Get used to having the same conversation with your fellow guns between drives or during a break on a rough shoot describing how you know what you are doing wrong but no matter how hard you try you just keep making exactly the same mistake as you did for the previous shot. It can become incredibly frustrating especially as your friends are dropping their targets with apparent ease around you. Please do remember, it only looks as though they are!
Practice is best conducted at a clay range. Make sure the range you go to can provide targets that are commensurate to the quarry, in speed and height, that you will be shooting on your outing. Don’t restrict yourself to only shooting those types of targets. Try the skeet and trap options as they will assist you in developing instinctive shooting. Get down as often as you can. The rewards will be evident when you get out for real game when the season arrives.
With the basics covered and you can now shoot and handle your gun safely its probably worth thinking about first aid for a moment. Incidents do happen. It might be unrelated to the gun or any injury resulting because of shooting but equally it might not. Shooting game in field conditions takes you onto ground that, wait for it, is often uneven, slippery and steep. Someone may simply take a pretty hard tumble but its always a possibility that someone might get hit by a small or large amount of shot. Current fears for clubs and associations is that if they attempt to administer first aid to someone, they could be sued for any perceived negative side effects of that treatment. I’m sure some ungrateful people might sue a friend for breaking a rib or two whilst giving life saving CPR but I also believe that most of us have enough common sense to see the benefits over the negatives. Obviously you can't give paramedic level trauma support if you don’t know any but do try and get onto a first aid course which is more intensive than how to use a first aid kit sold in the local supermarket as if that’s all that’s required the victim can hold on until they get home! If you really aren’t keen to provide life saving first aid to someone due to fear of what might happen its still worth learning some as maybe you will be able to apply it to yourself. I have on three occasions and it definitely saved my life on one.
You might think I’ve completely lost the plot now by including conservation in a skills section but if you think about it for a moment if we were only interested in the skill to shoot and despatch your quarry then it would be a short lived pursuit. Game pursuits aren’t a hobby or an occasional pastime. We are involved in the fabric of nature and we need to ensure that our environment is sustaining all that we hold dear so we can continue to enjoy it. If a farmer didn’t rotate his fields his farming activities would end abruptly. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to ensure conservation is a constant in all that we do. Not only does it ensure the environment and wildlife can support our pursuits but also engages us in such a way that we are conserving ourselves at the same time.
Conservation can be practiced in many ways in the field, not least by ensuring you don’t drop litter and also pick up any that you see. More specifically make sure you use fibre wads or even biodegradable cartridges. The war against plastic is well underway so it’s a battle you will lose if you want to defend plastic wads. Pick up your cartridges and those left by some less committed than yourself. If you see a wounded bird in flight finish it off. Don’t let it suffer just because you had another in your sights. Prioritise the wounded over everything else. Likewise, if a wounded bird lands near you, put down you gun (safely) and go and despatch it. You may lose a few minutes of the drive or walk up day, but the bird is losing its life. Respect that and prioritise it. Finally, only shoot birds in season. Make sure you have correctly identified your quarry before despatching it.
Shooting is under the spotlight. Good shooting skills are an absolute necessity to demonstrate the humane and ethical means we employ to harvest wild birds. Wounding birds is a gift to those who are opposed to the pursuit, but it should also be something we are all against. You can’t become a good shot overnight so shoot within your limits. Extend those limits gradually as you improve. It all comes back to the basics however. Get a gun that fits, find and use the same ammunition, mount the gun in the same way every time, keep moving after pulling the trigger. Become instinctive. Enjoy and be safe.