Shotgunning: Breaking Bad Habits

Follow these five tips to fix any flaws in your shooting form before opening day

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Photo © Chris Jennings, DU

By Phil Bourjaily

Ask any shooting instructor and they will tell you that teaching students who have never shot before is much easier than working with veteran gunners who learned on their own. Novices simply don't have the bad habits that self-taught shooters struggle with. 

I am no different from anyone else in that latter group. It took years of practice and many lessons to unlearn the quirks in my shooting stroke, so I know that it can be done. The first thing you must do is recognize the problem. 

Here are five of the most common bad habits in shotgunning and helpful tips for overcoming them.

1. Aiming 

A lot of us shoot shotguns as if they were rifles, shutting one eye and putting the bead on the target. Focusing on the front sight works with rifles and pistols, but not with shotguns. Aiming makes you stop your swing, because when your eye goes to the bead to check your lead, the gun stops moving and you shoot behind the target. 
  
Work on shooting with both eyes open. Keep your eyes on the target—not on the bead. Gil and Vicki Ash's "three bullet drill" helps. Stand three shells about a foot apart on a table. With your shotgun unloaded and in the low-gun position, keep your eyes on the center shell and mount the gun to point at the shell on the left or right. This drill helps you get used to the idea of looking at the target instead of the gun as you establish lead.

2. Shouldering First 

Bringing the gun to your shoulder first and then squishing your face down on the comb is bad form. When you're following the target's flight path, the last thing you need is the distraction of trying to fit your face to the gun. Moreover, bringing the gun straight up to your shoulder increases the chance of snagging the buttstock in your jacket, which is a definite concern for layered-up late-season waterfowl hunters.

Instead, learn to push the gun out and away from your body by practicing your gun mount at home. The sequence is simple: push the muzzle toward the target, bring the stock to your face, then tuck the butt into your shoulder. Do it right, and you're ready to shoot the instant the stock touches your shoulder.

3. Moving Too Fast 

Moving the gun too fast causes mystery misses. It destroys your feel for the target and pulls your eyes to the fastest-moving object they see—the gun. Swinging fast is a good way to stop the gun and shoot behind the target. 

When you practice on clays, make sure you see the target first and then move the gun to it slowly. Think about matching the speed of the bird. If you're a swing-through shooter, think about moving the gun one mile per hour faster than the target's speed. 

4. Lifting Your Head 

Your eye is the "rear sight" of a shotgun. Thus, lifting your head is like raising the rear sight of a rifle: it makes you shoot high and miss over the top of the target. Some people lift their head to watch the bird fall, thereby guaranteeing that it won't. Others raise their head to see over the bill or brim of a hat. Finally, some people develop the habit of head lifting from getting kicked too much by a steady diet of magnum loads.

To overcome this bad habit, tip your cap back or turn it around. Drop down to lighter loads if you're getting kicked off the stock. And practice keeping your head on the gun by shooting doubles or by breaking a target and then following the biggest piece of it to the ground. 

5. Looking at the Whole Bird 

If you look in the general direction of the target or at the whole bird, that's what you'll hit. You want to focus as precisely as you can. The phrase "aim small, miss small" applies, even though you're not aiming but focusing your eyes on the bird's bill, head, or eye. Doing that greatly increases the chance of delivering a lethal shot to the head or neck area. Practice by looking at the ring or the dome of the clay bird. Building good habits to replace bad ones is a year-round task that will pay off come duck season.