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Rifle Magazine
March - April 2003
Volume 1, Number 2
Number 2
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Cover Photo Mike Barlow.
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For decades the American sporting press published one article about “leading” flying birds. According to this essay, wing shooters used two different methods: “sustained-lead” and “swinging-through.” Sustained-lead meant the shooter swung a shotgun’s muzzle at the same apparent speed as the bird, pointing ahead for the correct lead. Swinging-through meant the shooter swung the muzzles more swiftly than the bird’s flight, touching off the scattergun as the muzzles passed the bird’s beak.

Sustained-lead was generally considered the best method for longer ranges, providing a more precise lead, necessary when the interval between trigger pull and shot arrival grows longer. Swinging-through was deemed best for shorter, quicker shots, where the hunter had to react quickly, and precise lead wasn’t as critical.

Aside from a sermon about keeping the gun moving, that was basically it, over and over again. I read this article so many times, under various bylines, that I began to suspect many shooting authors of rewriting other people’s work. (Twenty years later, after joining the gun-writing profession, I found my suspicions were often correct.) Lately, however, some other shooting methods have shown up, primarily because of the subculture of the side-by-side shotgun, particularly those of British style.

Some Brits - not all - have long advocated “instinctive” shooting. The basic method involves bringing the gun up quickly while concentrating on the bird, then shooting the instant the shotgun hits your shoulder. Instead of being aware of the muzzles moving ahead of the bird or sweeping through its beak, we just point our fowling piece and let fly. In theory the moving shotgun and our eye-hand coordination result in the correct “forward allowance,” as the British call it.

I learned to shoot a shotgun on wild birds while living in eastern Montana, which in the right year can be wing-shooter’s heaven. Aside from upland species ranging from Hungarian partridge to sage grouse, I shot lots of ducks and geese. In that wide-open country, sustained-lead worked best, and the method grooved its way into my young muscles and mind. I still do my best wing shooting at fairly long range but over the years have done enough wing shooting at forest grouse and thick-cover quail to get pretty good at close range too, using both swing-through and instinctive shooting.

All three methods work, within certain limitations. Classic sustained-lead is too slow for quick, close-range shooting - and also, oddly enough, sometimes not the best method for long-range shooting. Some distant waterfowl is best shot by swinging-through. Thick clothing and small blinds can “tie up” a waterfowler’s swing. By the time a deliberate shooter swings his heavy shotgun ahead of the geese, the birds are flaring and the lead’s wrong. A quick swing-through works better.

Instinctive shooting, in my experience, only works well at relatively short ranges. I have taken some instruction in the method and talked to other experienced shotgunners who’ve also taken lessons. The consensus is that most instinctive instructors throw slow targets at easy angles. This builds confidence in new shooters, and resembles the flight of some game birds, but doesn’t really train anybody to shoot a wind-riding South Dakota rooster at 45 yards.

Lately I’ve been using yet another method that some instructors have been advocating for longer shots, and even some short ones. As explained to me by one of the finest shotgunners in the world, Bob Brister, it immediately made so much sense that I suspect it’s been part of my repertoire for a long time. It’s sort of a cross between pure sustained-lead (where the shooter almost deliberately aims the shotgun a certain distance ahead of the bird) and pure instinctive shooting (where the shooter just looks at the bird and pulls the trigger).

In the hybrid method, the shooter mounts the gun just as in instinctive shooting, first pushing it at the bird to make sure the butt’s ahead of the shooter’s shoulder, then shooting as soon as the gun’s pulled back into the shoulder. But instead of just looking at the bird, the shooter tries to place the muzzle ahead of the bird, in the correct lead. But the shooter doesn’t “ride the lead,” as many deliberate shooters do. Instead, as in instinctive shooting, the trigger’s pulled as soon as the shotgun’s mounted.

Like instinctive shooting, this style demands a gun that fits correctly. It also demands a shooter who’s mastered the basics. Given those two prerequisites, it’s an incredibly versatile shooting method. I concentrated on using it during an intense summer of Sporting Clays a couple years ago, while writing a book on wing shooting and experimenting with dozens of guns. Then I refined it in the fall, when my wife and I put 12,000 miles on our vehicles, traveling the country to shoot upland birds for a cookbook she was writing. It worked on ruffed grouse and woodcock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on prairie chickens in Nebraska’s Sand Hills, on sage grouse in Montana and valley quail in Oregon. It even worked quite well on the one morning of waterfowling I managed to squeeze in on the Big Horn River, hunting out of Phil and Patty Gonzalez’s Bighorn River Lodge (PO Box 7756, Fort Smith MT 59035; or visit online at, one of the few places in North America where you can shoot greenheads and geese in the morning and catch a 20-inch trout in the afternoon.

The method fails, however, when applied to a shotgun too muzzle-light for general shooting, which many Americans tend to favor. Often such guns work well for short-range instinctive shooting but don’t work so hot when swung on crossing shots of any range. For years I owned an AyA sidelock, the XXV model with 25-inch barrels, a copy of the gun Robert Churchill designed for his instinctive shooting. It worked great on ruffed grouse, going away, but sucked (to put it bluntly) on crossing shots. At least for me it did, as I tended to over-muscle the little gun. My wife tried it, but it kicked too much for her, so we eventually sold it to custom gunsmith Ed Webber, who is less muscular than I but has a tougher shoulder than Eileen. He loves the gun - which just demonstrates that the right shotgun is just as important as shooting method. We’ll look at finding the right gun next time around.

John’s book Shotguns for Wing-shooting is available by check for  $25 (which includes postage) from Deep Creek Press, PO Box 579, Townsend MT 59644 or you can pay with a credit card on the website:

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