|March - April 2003
Volume 1, Number
Cover Photo Mike Barlow.
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 shotguns 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 birds flight, touching off the scattergun as the
muzzles passed the birds 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 wasnt 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 peoples 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
I learned to shoot a shotgun on wild
birds while living in eastern Montana, which in the right year can be wing-shooters
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
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 waterfowlers swing. By the time a deliberate shooter swings his
heavy shotgun ahead of the geese, the birds are flaring and the leads 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 whove 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 doesnt
really train anybody to shoot a wind-riding South Dakota rooster at 45 yards.
Lately Ive 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 its been part of my repertoire for
a long time. Its 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 butts
ahead of the shooters shoulder, then shooting as soon as the guns 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 doesnt ride the
lead, as many deliberate shooters do. Instead, as in instinctive shooting, the
triggers pulled as soon as the shotguns mounted.
Like instinctive shooting, this
style demands a gun that fits correctly. It also demands a shooter whos mastered the
basics. Given those two prerequisites, its 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 Michigans Upper Peninsula, on prairie chickens in Nebraskas
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 Gonzalezs Bighorn River Lodge (PO Box 7756, Fort Smith
MT 59035; or visit online at www.bighornriverlodge.com), 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 dont 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. Well look at finding the right gun next time around.
Johns 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: www.riflesandrecipes.com.