by Wade Bourne
North American sportsmen have always greatly admired skill with a shotgun, and most hunters aspire to improve their ability to make clean kills. And improve you can, but not without deliberate effort. Only through good instruction and practice can you expect to improve your percentage of hits to misses on waterfowl. It's just that simple.
Scott Robertson of Elm Fork Shooting Sports in Dallas is eminently qualified to coach such an effort. A professional sporting clays and exhibition shooter, Robertson has a long list of competitive accomplishments, including winning the national sporting clays championship eight times and the world sporting clays championship twice. He has been an exhibition shooter for Beretta for 16 years.
Robertson is also a lifelong waterfowl hunter, having bagged his first duck when he was eight years old. Today he hunts mainly in west Texas and at his family's duck club in California.
"How many times have you shot at a duck and everything felt right — good mount, sight picture and lead — but the duck didn't fall? You're left wondering why you missed," Robertson says.
"I coach a four-step process that teaches shooters why they miss and how they can correct their problems," Robertson says. "Good shooting is all about confidence. The more confidence you have in your equipment and technique, the more birds you will hit. And you build confidence through mastering a short list of shooting fundamentals and then practicing enough to make these fundamentals second nature."
1. Correct eye-dominance problems
Robertson's first step is determining eye dominance and checking to see if a shooter's master eye matches the shoulder from which he or she shoots. Shooters who are right-eye dominant should shoot off their right shoulder, and vice versa. But some shooters shoot off the shoulder opposite their dominant eye, and this can cause problems.
To determine eye dominance, cut a small hole in a piece of cardboard and extend it out from your face with both arms straight. With both eyes open, center a distant object in the hole and slowly draw the cardboard back toward your face while keeping focus on the object centered in the hole. The hole will gravitate to your dominant eye.
Shooters who discover their master eye is opposite to the shoulder from which they shoot have cross-eye dominance. Should they learn to shoot from their other shoulder?
"I discourage people from changing shoulders," Robertson says. "I think it's easier to continue shooting from the shoulder you're used to and retraining your subdominant eye to become dominant."
But the solution isn't closing the dominant eye and shooting with only the subdominant eye open. "If you close one eye completely, you lose peripheral vision and depth perception, and you need these to acquire the target and determine lead," Robertson explains.
"Instead, simply put a half-inch piece of cloudy Scotch tape on your shooting glasses over your dominant eye," Robertson advises. "This will force you to sight with your subdominant eye, but will still provide for peripheral vision and depth perception." Robertson says shooters can achieve the same result by smearing lip balm on the outer lens of their shooting glasses. "It should be just enough to cover the center of the eye and no more," he states.
2. Keep your head on the stock
The next step is checking to make sure the shooter's cheek is snug to the stock while swinging, shooting, and following through. If shooters raise their cheek from the stock, they will likely shoot high.
Robertson says two good approaches to solving this problem are checking how well your shotgun fits you and seeking instruction from a shooting coach.
"The old wives' tale is that a shotgun fits if you can hold it in the crook of your arm with your finger on the trigger and the stock cradled in your elbow joint," Robertson says. "Actually, a shotgun fits when you mount it properly and can't see any of the barrel. You should be able to see just the bead. This sight picture means you're sighting straight down the barrel, and the shotgun will shoot where you're looking."
Robertson adds that if shooters who have their cheek snug to the stock see any of the rib or barrel, the gun will shoot high. If they can't see the bead, the gun will shoot low.
A shooter should also check the length of the stock. With the shotgun mounted, the cheek should rest 1 to 1½ inches back from where the comb drops down to the pistol grip. If that distance is more than 1 ½ inches, the stock is too long, and if that distance is less than an inch, the stock is too short.
Robertson stresses that shooters wanting to shoot better should consider taking lessons from a qualified instructor.
"A good coach can teach you how to mount a shotgun properly," he says. "He can see if you're keeping your head on the stock when shooting and can check your balance and follow through. Taking shooting lessons is like taking golf lessons. A professional instructor can recognize problems and help you correct them."
Robertson says hunters can contact a qualified shooting instructor through a local gun club or by visiting the National Sporting Clays Association's website and clicking on the list of certified instructors. He says lessons with a professional instructor will cost $60 to $150 per hour.
3. Maintain balance while shooting
The third problem Robertson looks for is also correctable through help from a shooting instructor.
"Some shooters have a tendency to shift their weight from the front foot to the back foot while shooting," he says. "They start off fairly well balanced with more weight on their front foot. But when they stand up in the duck blind to shoot, they shift their weight backwards. This causes their swing to stop and the barrel to rise briefly, both of which can cause a miss.
"So shooters should be conscious of not shifting their weight when swinging and shooting," Robertson says. "If you start with your weight forward, keep it forward. Or if you start with your weight on your back foot, keep it there. Again, this is where a shooting coach can help you. You might not realize you're shifting your weight when you shoot, but an instructor can spot this immediately and help you correct the problem."
4. Learn proper lead
If shooters correct any eye-dominance problem, shoot a shotgun that fits reasonably well, keep their cheek on the stock and maintain proper balance, there's only one thing left that can cause a miss — improper lead. Many shooters don't apply enough lead and consistently shoot behind their targets. A few use too much lead and shoot ahead of their targets.
So how do shooters learn to use the right lead so their shot column and target simultaneously arrive at the same spot?
"You can't shoot enough while hunting to master how much to lead your target," Robertson advises. "You have to learn proper lead on the shooting range. You must learn the right sight picture for various shot angles and speeds through good instruction and lots of practice."
Robertson says an instructor will tell students if they are shooting ahead of or behind the target, and make appropriate corrections. He will also help them learn proper leads on a variety of target angles, such as 90-degree crossing, 45-degree crossing, incoming/descending and others.
"After the lesson, the student must practice on his own before the next lesson," Robertson says. "I try to pace my instruction so a student can shoot 300 to 400 shells between lessons."
Robertson also stresses that shooters shouldn't avoid challenging shots.
"To develop your game, you have to tackle those problem areas instead of avoiding them," he says.
There's no substitute for game birds
Besides instruction and practice on the sporting clays range, Robertson urges hunters to gain as much experience shooting game birds as possible. Doves offer a true shooting challenge, and dove hunting serves as a great tune-up for waterfowl seasons to follow. Whether shooting doves, waterfowl or other birds, hunters have an obligation to develop proficiency before shooting at live birds.
"Clay targets won't flare and dart," he says. "They won't change their flight paths quickly if you miss with the first shot. Live birds will do these things, and they will help shooters learn to adapt to changing speeds and flight paths. Actual hunting is the best practice a shooter can get."
Do all you can
The program outlined above is the best-case scenario for waterfowlers who want to shoot better next season. Obviously, not everyone will have the time, finances or access to a pro to undertake such a program. But Robertson says hunters should try to follow it as closely as possible. Rather than hiring a shooting coach, they can purchase instructional videos and can have a friend who is a good shooter watch to see if they're keeping their cheek on the stock, maintaining balance and holding proper lead. If a sporting clays range isn't available, they can shoot skeet or even hand-thrown clays.
"Being a better shooter isn't going to happen just because you want it to," Robertson concludes. "You have to make the commitment to work at it. The full course I've described is the best option, but if you can't do it all, do what you can. There's no substitute for good coaching and practice. That's how you get better at any sport, and shooting is certainly no exception."