In this segment I include shouldering the gun, footwork, gun swing and control of the shoulders. Lifting the gun is a complex collection of movements. The gun should be lifted to the cheek, not the shoulder, in a smooth straight line that minimizes vertical and horizontal movement and barrel drift, and then the shoulder brought to the gun. Barrel angle is dictated by target height. Elbows should be loose and downward so as not to restrict body rotation.
World clay target champion George Digweed instructs that a somewhat closed stance is preferable in order “to take the hips out of the equation” and to reduce body-muscle impedance to rotational movement. The highly skilled shooter will lift and rotate the body to the line of the bird and shoulder the gun at the precise moment of executing the shot. Stance, footwork, shoulder position, smooth shouldering movement and cheek placement should all blend harmoniously like ingredients of a great veal stock. And not to belabor the obvious, the deleterious consequences of inferior mechanics are magnified as target distances increase.
“You are striving for efficiency, indeed, aesthetic beauty,” Collin Wietfeldt, 2015 USA World Cup national bunker trap team member, told me, adding. “Correcting several little flaws leads to large improvements in mechanics.”
When addressing targets above the shoulder there is a tendency to miss beneath the bird because of the starting point of the rotation is usually low and there is a tendency to swing level. McDaniel watched me and warned if I turned sharply to my right, I tended to drop my right shoulder and consequently shoot well below the bird. He advised I take some shuffle steps to the right and face the target more squarely. A failure to lift adequately likely causes misses behind and low on high driven birds and underneath on tall quartering and crossing ones.
Much has been written on different styles, Batha states, with the two major London shooting schools advancing different approaches. Holland & Holland teaches a modified Robert Churchill style shooting off the back foot, while West London favours an off the front foot nose-over-toes style of the legendary instructor and champion shot Percy Stanbury. You can find superb videos on YouTube addressing these styles. “It’s almost biblical,” Comus quipped, “like who begat whom.”
Batha points out that the great variety in targets requires a matching variety in technique and “the gun mount is not exempt from this. As in any aspect of the sport, there are different techniques and approaches. I, however, am a great believer in flexibility and using the best technique to maximize your effectiveness.”
The bird will always dictate where you need to move your feet. Carlton, my loader at Primland, opined that “the gun does not kill the birds. Your legs do.” The feet must be in proper position or your body will not be able to keep up with the rotation as you come through the target and automatically your shoulders will turn in the wrong way, causing a shot to go high or low. For example, if, with a right handed shooter on a right to left target, the back shoulder drops as the body rotates to the left, the gun goes up in the air and the shot will be above the target. The skilled shooter will read the target’s line immediately and place the feet so as to face the target with the shoulders remaining square during the rotation.
For a right handed shooter addressing a right to left high crossing bird, the feet should be moved into proper position, the right shoulder should be dropped slightly and the gun canted to be parallel to the line of the bird. If you achieve this position before you mount onto the tail of the bird you are more likely to hold the bird’s line through the movement of your gun.
If you don’t set yourself up in this position you will more than likely miss the bird underneath. Batha wrote, “If I had a pound for every time I have seen people miss the high crossing bird underneath I would be a wealthy man.” In addition to losing focus by looking at the muzzle, a significant danger from riding the bird is the barrels get in the way, creating a tendency to drop the shoulder and pick up the head to see the bird. The line is lost and the target will be missed in any number of positions.
The challenges are many. The speed and height of the bird are unknown; angles change constantly, effective gun range changes quickly, and, unlike clay targets, the birds do not decelerate. Lead can be sustained for a second or two and the window of opportunity for an effective ethical shot is very limited. You simply cannot pull away many times, if even twice. The shooter must, therefore, be decisive, but, as Horn points out, decisiveness is meaningful only if based on successful past performance.
The Gun: Loads, Length and Type
I shot over-under shotguns in Hungary and at Primland: Chip Bryan’s Beretta 687 EELL fitted with thirty-inch barrels in Hungary; a pair of Beretta 682 standard field models with improved and full chokes at Primland. In both venues I shot 1 1/8 ounce loads of #5 shot with listed muzzle velocities of 1,250 fps.
Batha writes that the English-built side-by-side shotgun is a classic with a proven pedigree and handles as beautifully as they look. “But,” he adds, “they weren’t designed with 60-yard pheasants in mind. We are talking over-under territory.” The over-under’s single sight plane along the rib to the target is an uncluttered line of sight only a fraction of an inch wide, with minimal obstruction of the view of the bird. In contrast, the wide sight plane of the side-by-side across two barrels, held to together by the center rib, is roughly two inches wide and can impede the view of the bird.
The passing of tradition is not without lament. Rob Fenwick, managing director of E J Churchill, notes: “More and more of the serious boys seem to be going over to the dark side and adopting long-barreled over-and-unders.” I discern the birds have no particular preference.
Humility and Discipline
Focus, range, experience, skill and ammunition all factor in to making a proper shot. This challenging shooting format places unique demands on the shooter. Carlton, an experienced loader, told me how some shooters “go all to pieces when they miss.” Several times at Primland I noticed that shooters passed up shots they deemed too hard. I was impressed.
Getting drawn into shooting birds out of one’s effective range is easy and challenges the shooter’s ethics. Yardley writes authoritatively, “there is little worse than seeing a mediocre shot engaging birds he does not have the skill to kill cleanly. Nothing is more unsportsmanlike.” In the words of social philosopher Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
There is no Platonic ‘form’ for high bird shooting, where all styles are merely shadows of one ideal type. Every variable influences style and technique: the shooter’s height, size, weight, athleticism, reflexes, strength and mental capability. Through consistent focused practice and experience, however, the art of shooting high birds can be sufficiently mastered to bestow upon the wing shooter a well-earned sense of achievement and pride.–Michael G. Sabbeth