Shotguns have no sights. They shoot where we look. Our eyes are the sights, but because of tradition, it is often hard not to aim a shotgun. Most hunters begin shooting with an air rifle or perhaps a .22, but shooting a shotgun runs contrary to how we aim a rifle.
The successful shotgunner’s equation has two critical parts: 100 percent focus on the target and a shotgun that shoots where we look. Look at an object across the room. Where is your head aimed? At the object. When we simply look at a duck, goose or other flying target, our nose is pointing at the bird, and that is one of the keys to good shooting.
If I told you to point your finger at a car speeding on a road, it wouldn’t be a problem. Pointing your finger at a flying duck would be equally easy. When we put a shotgun in our hands, pointing becomes more difficult. The best way to alleviate this difficulty is to have a shotgun that fits.
Face on the Gun
Given that the eyes have to be locked on to the target and that we need the shotgun to shoot where we are looking, it is obvious that the most important contact point for the shotgun’s stock is our cheek.
If the gun is locked into the cheek, then the master eye — the eye that sees the object a fraction of a second faster than the less-dominant eye — is centered over the barrel, and our shotgun will shoot where we look. To get our gun to lock into the cheek, the shotgun’s stock must fit our unique body configuration.
In the old way of thinking, if we put a shotgun stock into the crook of our arm and our trigger finger reached the trigger, the stock fit. Nonsense!
If a shotgun is too long, it will be difficult to mount the gun. Too short, and we bang our nose with our thumb when we fire. If the stock is of the proper length, our nose ought to be 1½ inches to 2 inches behind our thumb. The length of the stock is important, but not the most important aspect of shooting.
The position of our head on the stock — specifically, where our eye is positioned when the gun is mounted — is most critical. If the comb or top of the stock is too low, our eye will be looking at the rear of the receiver. Too high, and the eye is above the barrel. In the first case, we can’t see the target.
The second, we will shoot over it. If the comb is too low, raise it. If it’s too high, it needs to come down.
Many new shotguns include a shim system to raise or lower the comb. In conjunction with raising the comb, these kits also provide cast on or cast off, which moves the stock either right or left of center. If the comb is the correct height, a right-handed shooter will need cast off — moving the stock to the right of center — or, for a lefty, cast on to move it left. This adjustment compensates for the shooter’s facial structure.
A shooter with heavy jowls will need more cast than someone with a slim face. However, some cast — probably a quarter-inch — is necessary for any shooter. Without cast, the stock’s comb needs to be lower, a compromise at best. With the comb set at the correct height and with cast applied, the gun will shoot were we look.
Adjusting the Comb
To test the adjustment, find a place with a safe background. Set a target at or slightly above eye level, exactly 16 yards from your feet. Mark the center, and then while mounting the gun each time, fire three shots at the target. Find the center of the patterns of the three shots. For every inch the pattern’s center deviates from the aiming mark, the stock needs to be adjusted ¹⁄₁₆ of an inch.
For example, if the pattern center is 2 inches low and 2 inches right, the comb needs to be raised ¹⁄₈ inch and ¹⁄₈-inch of cast off added. Change the shims according to the manufacturer’s directions and shoot again to verify the adjustment.
If there is no shim set, you can add a stick-on pad, strips of leather or otherwise raise the comb. Cast might be a problem, but getting the comb height correct is a big step forward.
Concentrate on the Bird
Practice is important to wean us from sighting the shotgun. One of the best checks of fit is to shoot straight-away birds on Station Low 7 on a skeet field. The shot is directly at the bird, and if the stock doesn’t fit, you’ll miss. Another check is shooting an incomer such as High 7 or targets thrown from a tower on a sporting clays course.
If you consistently miss these, check for fit at the pattern plate. Once fit is verified, begin shooting crossing targets such as skeet High 6. Concentrate solely on the bird. Begin without the gun — practice pointing your finger at the target with the arm extended.
Perceiving lead is tricky. What I see will probably be different from what you see. Shotgunning instructors Gil and Vicki Ash state that if the target is seen for 10 to 15 feet, the brain will know where it will be for the next 10 feet. Why not use this wonderful sense to our advantage?
With practice solely concentrating on the target with a shotgun that shoots where we look, the brain will move the gun to where it needs to be for a successful shot. The instant we begin to try to measure lead, looking from the gun to the bird and back, a miss is all but certain.
When the ducks are flying, and I concentrate 100 percent on the duck and let my brain move the gun, I hit with regularity. My guns shoot where I look. If I allow my conscious brain to get too involved in the shot, I miss.
I was recently hunting ducks in Louisiana and missed a couple of close, easy birds. But when a high bird streaked across the top of the blind, I mounted and shot without any conscious effort except for looking at the duck. I folded the bird like an old suitcase. Because I had doctored the stock to enable the gun to shoot precisely where I looked, the shot was close to magic.
Shooting well is an obligation of an ethical hunter. Making sure our shotgun shoots where we look takes a long step toward that goal.
John Taylor is a veteran waterfowl gunner from Lorton, Va.