Shotgunning: Seeing the Bird

Let your eyes lead the way to better wingshooting

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Photo © David Devore

By Phil Bourjaily

We are hardwired to be wingshooters. The eye-hand coordination that enabled our ancestors to accurately hurl rocks and spears at wild game is part of our genetic makeup. It's what allows your subconscious mind to read a target's speed and angle in an instant, letting you hit a flaring mallard or drop a passing goose. All you have to do is look at the bird and point the gun. 

It sounds simple. And it is, if you don't let your conscious mind get in the way with all kinds of calculations. As a shooter, your job is to keep your head on the gun and your eyes on the target in order to see it as well as possible. To shoot better, you have to see better.

Here's how to improve your visual focus on waterfowl:

See the Bird, Shoot the Bird

It's simple advice, but it bears remembering: shooting a shotgun is a two-step process. You have to get your eyes on the target before you can shoot it. In fact, you should be focused on the target before you mount your shotgun. Until your eyes are on the bird, your hands won't know where they're going. You'll be a much better shot if you look before you leap into action.

Focus on the Bird's Bill

If you look at the whole bird, or in its general vicinity, chances are you will miss or cripple it. Instead, focus on the bill or head. This will allow you to hit the bird's vitals with the center of your pattern. The goal is not to "aim" more precisely at the target, but to see it more precisely so your subconscious knows where to send your hands.

Timing is important, because your eyes can stay tightly focused on a moving target for only a half second or so before your concentration begins to slip. Follow a flock of incoming birds, pick out one, and then zoom in on its bill or head right before the shot.

If the bird is far enough away, you will need to establish lead. Keep your eyes fixed on the bill and rely on your eye-hand coordination to put the gun where it has to go. As a shooting instructor once told me, "Your eyes will never lie to your hands." Trust your eyes. They will calculate lead far better than your efforts to consciously measure feet and inches ever could.

There are a number of exercises you can do to improve your vision. Olympic shooters lock their eyes onto numbers printed on balls that are swinging from the ceiling or tossed in the air. Six-time Olympic medalist Kim Rhode swears that playing video games is a great way to hone eye-hand coordination for skeet and trap shooting.

Conquer Cross-Dominance

Many cross-dominant shooters tend to close one eye to make the gun shoot where they look. If you are right-handed but left-eye dominant—or vice versa—try this trick instead. Place a small piece of tape on one of the lenses of your shooting glasses to partially block the vision of your off eye. This will not only force your other eye to take over, but will also allow you to retain all the light-gathering and peripheral-vision advantages of binocular shooting. Another alternative is to simply switch sides and shoot from the other shoulder. Switching sides is easier than it sounds, especially for young shooters, who can often learn to hit from the other shoulder after just a few tries. 

Lighten Up

Dark shooting glasses may look cool, but they make it hard to see the target. The more light your glasses block, the more your pupils dilate, reducing visual acuity. The rule of thumb among clay target shooters is to choose the lightest tint that lets you see the target without squinting.

Another good tip is to keep the bill of your ball cap up. If the bill is too low, the effect will be like looking down a dark tunnel when you mount your gun. This not only makes the target harder to see, but it can also cause you to lift your head off the stock for a better view. We all enjoy watching waterfowl, but no one likes watching them fly away unscathed after a missed shot.