The Art of Shooting High Birds Part 1

High-Shooting-red-capped-shooterThere’s the delicious story about the tourist who approached Pablo Picasso in a café and asked him to draw something on a napkin and sign his name. Picasso smiled, and, with a flourish, drew a bird and wrote his signature. As the tourist reached for the napkin, Picasso said sternly, “That will be $10,000.” “What?” the tourist exclaimed. “It took you five seconds!” “It took me forty years,” Picasso hissed.

This vignette, true or false, presents an illuminating analogy to mastering the art of shooting high birds: the shot takes a second but achieving consistent success takes thousands of shots. High birds are the quintessential expression of the wing shooting art, demanding mental discipline, masterful technique, specialized equipment and humility. The high curling bird is the most difficult game bird shot and one great shot is more rewarding than a dozen straight-aways.

Last December I shot high birds at Primland in Meadows of Dan, Virginia. The luxurious world-class resort offers magnificent driven shoots, walk-up wing shooting and several clay target disciplines and, please excuse the digression, unsurpassed cuisine and stunning wines and spirits. These two experiences inspired me to study the art, interview top shooters, methodically apply the knowledge to my clay target shooting and share what I learned.

Michael Yardley’s article It’s a Long Shot But You Can Take It, published in The Field, is an excellent introduction to the discipline. Yardley breaks down the skill into a framework of six Ls: lead, locking focus, target line, lifting the shotgun, shot load and barrel length. I tinker with his framework and expand and combine a few categories.

high-shooting-pheasant-fieldsLead – Wing shooters often talk about lead as if it were an elusive chimera and, often also, with an imprecision of analysis. The oft-repeated attribution for success to muscle memory and the subconscious is wrong and unhelpful. Muscles don’t have memories and I urge we don’t bring Freud into our shooting parties. Brains have memories, not muscles, and referencing the subconscious, such as, ‘let your subconscious take over,’ is inaccurate because the data that determines the proper shot is stored in the memory and has nothing to do with the so-called subconscious. More significantly, empowering the subconscious avoids the inconvenient question ‘How did the subconscious get so smart?’ and trivializes the tedium of hard work, focus and constructive experience.

Determining proper lead is a function of several complex processes: transmitting target data through the eyes to the brain; the brain comparing that data with thousands of images in memory of successful shots; the brain selecting images that best replicate the target data; instructing the neuromuscular systems to execute the shot at the critical instant and the shooter exercising the discipline and confidence to take the shot without calculation. Superstar shooter Andy Duffy told me, “You are taking pictures for your mind when you shoot.” Clay target champion Scott Robertson told me “you notice the lead, not measure it.” Knowing or ‘feeling’ the lead is a consequence of all these extraordinary functions occurring in milliseconds.

high-shooting-straight-up-shotThe wing shooter gets those images into the memory the same way the New York City policeman told the tourist how to get to Carnegie Hall: “Practice, practice, practice.” Varner’s hundreds of thousands of successful shots enabled him to consistently bring down ducks fifty yards high. He could ‘feel’ a correct lead even though a calculation told him he might be wrong. “Sometimes,” Varner said, “I lead a bird so much I am certain I will miss, and yet I make a great shot!”

Getting the proper leads is, in theory, the essence of simplicity: place enough of the shot string in front of the line of the bird to make an ethical shot. Initially, a mathematical analysis can help instruct on proper lead. Ron Reiber, ballistician and engineer at Hodgdon Powder, shared some numbers. A charge of #5 shot fired with a muzzle velocity of 1250 fps will decrease to a velocity of about 760 fps at forty yards high. With an average velocity of about 1,000 fps, the shot will reach that height in about 0.125 seconds. A duck flying 40 mph will travel about 7.5 feet in that time, thus establishing a baseline for lead. “Of course,” Reiber emphasized, “No one shoots birds by math.” Doing ‘the math’ is not a definitive guide for several reasons. Accurately judging range is difficult; calculating flying speed is more difficult and a bird can fly out of range or to lower heights in a small fraction of a second.

Swing rate and fatigue also affect the feel of lead. Generally, the swing should match the speed of the bird but some shooters start slow and accelerate past the bird or sustain a lead in front of the bird, calculating lead every millisecond. Each method can cause inconsistent perceptions of lead, and as explained later, can cause slowing the gun swing. Fatigue affects perception of lead, as do pain and flinching, negatively affecting proper handling mechanics and thus affecting the perception of lead. In fast-paced shoots such as in Hungary and at Primland, we repeatedly shot perhaps a hundred rounds in ten minutes and used powerful ammunition in relatively light guns. The recoil effect can be daunting and unacknowledged and can cause the brain and eyes to compromise accuracy of perceived lead.

Shooting-High-Birds-ducks-at-sunriseLocking on Focus – Chris Batha, instructor and author of Breaking Clays — Target Tactics, Tips & Techniques, writes “Focus separates the great shots from the others.” High driven pheasant is a very specialized style of shooting and it is not a major MENSA insight to acknowledge that the bird can be missed in a lot of ways. Focus reduces the probability of missing.

Focus must be on the front of the bird, which is easier said than done. Focus is mentally exhausting and the bird’s profile shrinks as height increases, drawing the eyes to the larger body mass and tail. The prudent 4 B mantra of swinging through, in sequence, the bum, belly, beak and bang thus requires increasingly rigorous focus as height increases. Such intense focus can be maintained only for two or three seconds before the mind wanders. “Making a perfect shot on a high bird is very rewarding,” Varner said, “but the intense focus can be draining.”

Batha opines that in the early stages of the learning curve, the majority of targets are missed behind due to an ineffective choke or load or to lack of lead and poor mechanics. “But after the shotgunner has achieved some experience, the cause of many shooters’ problems is quitting the target and looking at the gun.” Nothing good comes of this technical error. The first casualty is the mind starts to calculate lead, which slows the swing or stops the gun entirely.

Equally troublesome is, as instructor Dale Tate admonishes, “Eye on bead, bird gains speed” Inferior mechanics affect perception of lead. As the target appears to move faster, it subverts timing, lead assessment and focus. The sense of enhanced speed is the consequence of activating the analytical side of the brain and informing the shooter, quite accurately, that the target is moving quickly. Athletes such as football receivers and tennis players often describe the ball as slowing down when they focus. The explanation for this sense is that intense focus circumvents the analytical part of the brain and, without a time reference, the ball seems slower. It isn’t, of course, but it is perceived retrospectively as being so.

high-shooting-pheasant-fieldsFocus can be lost but it can also be gained through training and other techniques. The late afternoon before the driven shoot at Primland, Carl McDaniel, Primland’s Outdoors Activities Supervisor, set up several traps to throw high birds toward me from a ridge on the sporting clays course. Some two hundred fast targets from a distance of seventy yards or so were thrown flurry-style thirty to forty-five yards high to my left and right and over my head.

I fired nearly a case of shells in little over half an hour. I became aware when focus dissipated and was able to regain it. I worked on the mechanics—head down, comfortable foot placement—and burnished into my brain images of successful shots. I confess the exercise was physically and mentally demanding. “It’s a game of mental discipline,” Varner remarked. “Every moment must be intense. If the mind wanders, you miss.”

At Primland, as in Hungary, the shooting was unfailingly fast. I found it helpful to intermittently stop, breathe deeply and regain concentration. Frankly, it was a joy to absorb Primland’s beauty and smell the damp snow-flecked vegetation and inhale the fragrance of my Galco bridle leather speed bag and in Hungary watch in awe as ducks transformed from pinpoints on the horizon to magnificent waterfowl.

Steve Comus, editor of Safari Magazine, shared a technique he used for maintaining focus that is, in his words, contrarian and unorthodox. Steve was shooting driven pheasant at Primland, coincidentally, a few years ago with a very unmatched pair of shotguns, a heavy old Remington 1894 S x S 12 gauge live bird gun and a light Darne S x S upland gun. “Tradition dictates using the matched pair boasting identical weight, fit, shape and barrel length,” Steve said. “From a linear logic perspective that makes total sense,” Steve added, “but in the heat of battle, you can get lulled into a lack of awareness of gun handling. The different guns break the monotony and force an awareness. That sharpens focus.”–Michael Sabbeth

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