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Back to basics


Shooters who have worked with me are well versed on my mantra, “head on the gun, eye on the target”.  This is because all of shotgun shooting, be it American Skeet, Trap, Sporting Clays, or even field shooting, requires the three fundamentals of head on the gun, eye on the target, and have the proper lead, to be successful.

When shooting a shotgun, we must keep our heads firmly on the stock, so that visually we see the “uninterrupted” correct relationship between the target and the barrel. A shotgun has two sights, the front sight, which is the front bead on the barrel, and the rear sight, which is you.  Much like the sights on an open-sighted rifle, as the rear sight is adjusted the impact point changes, the sights line up differently, slightly changing the direction that the bullet is sent.  Raising the head off of the stock will cause the brain to “see” an improper relationship between the barrel and the target.  As the brain immediately corrects this imbalance, it realigns the sights, usually resulting in a miss shot over the top.

Why over?  Assuming a straight line from the rear sight, your eye, through the front sight, to the target, as the head is lifted the alignment become non-linear.  The eye will see the front sight as being below the line of the now, perceived, impact.  Even though the gun is still aligned with the target, because the front sight has yet to move, the eye perceives this anomaly because of its new position.  In realigning the sights, the muzzle is lifted, to bring the front sight back in line with the rear sight and the target.  Although the brain “sees” the alignment as satisfactory again, in actuality the muzzle has been raised, as has the point of impact.

One need not raise the head a lot much to affect point of impact.  Understanding the parallax of angles, if the eye is raised only slightly, one quarter to half an inch, the resulting impact change would be a few feet out at twenty yards, the target range.  Raising the head off of the stock is likened to hip shooting.  Hip shooting or trick shooting can be accomplished, but is very difficult, because you do not know where the gun is shooting.  Raising the head, like hip shooting, makes the shooter uncertain about the point of impact.  Obviously, shooting with the head off the stock is less than consistent, and certainly less than desirable.

Secondly, we must keep our eyes focused on the target so that the gun can move in empathy with the target. Visual focus must be maintained on the target throughout the shot, so that the brain receives a continuous flow of information regarding target speed, distance, elevation, and direction.  Based on that information, our brain must then calculate the proper lead for the target, and through action, execute the shot.

Why wouldn’t a shooter maintain focus the target continuously?   Because as doubt and uncertainty creep into one’s mind, there is a tendency to look back or re-focus on the barrel to check lead.  As the eyes look toward the barrel to confirm the proper lead, the barrel slows or even stops.  The gun slows because, now, by looking toward the barrel, focus on the target has been lost.  The reason the gun moved in the first place was to create movement with the target, that is hand-eye coordination.  Once the brain can no longer “see” the target through the eyes, it has no further reason to move the gun.

We can better comprehend the act and the results of looking at the barrel through demonstration.  Pick an object at distance, at least ten yards away, and focus on it.  With your hand at your side, quickly point at the object.  You should have no trouble doing this.  We are all born with an innate ability to point, hand-eye coordination.  Now, point your finger up in the sky, and focus on the end of your finger.  While continuing to focus on the end of your finger, lower your hand at point back at the selected object, but keep your focus on the end of your finger!  You will find that this is much more difficult.  As you look at the end of your finger, everything past that point is out of focus, including your target object, therefore it is difficult to find.  The same thing happens when you look at the end of your gun barrel to check lead.  Focus on the target is lost, undermining the whole process.

Notice that the act of pointing at the target was quite simple and rapid when focus was maintained on the object.  Not once was there a notion to look back at your finger to make sure that you were pointing at the object.  This is because you are confident in your ability to point.  Unfortunately we all do not have the same confidence in our abilities to point a shotgun, even though we should, because it involves the same pointing attributes.

This is fine when pointing at an object, but what if you have to lead that object.  Let’s lead the object two feet to the right.  Focus on the object and point two feet to the right.  Again, the process should be simple.  Now repeating, look at your finger and point two feet to the right of the object.  Not as easy.   So to facilitate pointing the shotgun and maintaining a relationship with a moving target, at distance, the eyes must continually have focus on the target.

In very simplistic terms, the targeting system on a jet fighter works the same way.  The system can lock onto a target, as long as the radar “sees” its intended victim.  However, when contact on the target is lost, the system goes into neutral or back to actively searching, because it no longer has a target in “view” to track.

Think back to the baseball player in the Major Leagues last season who had the highest batting average.  My guess is that every time he stepped into the batter’s box he was focused on the ball, and could see the rotation of the seams on the ball as the pitch sped towards him.  He wasn’t looking at his bat.  When is the last time, as you were driving, that because of an approaching turn, you looked at your steering wheel?   It is said that Jerry Rice, one of, if not the greatest receiver in the history of the NFL, can see the Commissioner’s signature on the rotating ball as he is making a catch.  Anytime a receiver drops a pass, what has he done?  Taken his eyes off the ball.

I was working with an eleven year-old student once who was having difficulty maintaining focus on the target.  He wanted to shoot his shotgun like his BB gun, by looking at the sights and aiming.  Great for rifle shooting, not so for moving targets with a shotgun.  To better his understanding of the necessity for looking at the target, I asked him what sports he played.  He replied soccer.  I then asked him, while in the act of kicking the ball, if he ever would look at his foot.  He response, “No, that would be stupid.”  Bingo.

In college, our coach taught us to see the target spin.  If I can see the targets spinning, which in some instances I do, then I am focused on that target, and nothing else.  Now it is not vital that one see the target spinning.  You are not doomed to a life of mediocrity if that is the case.  What is more important than seeing the targets spin, is trying to see them spin.  Try to see the characteristic of the target.  Look at the rings around the doom.  See the dish of the target inside the center of the dome.  The effort of looking hard and focusing on the target is what we are after.  This is a hand-eye coordination sport.  The eyes are a vital link, and the ability to see targets in a clear manner should insure success.

The third and final fundamental is to have the proper lead.  Though important, lead is not nearly as influential to our success as the first two fundamentals, head on the stock, eye on the target.  This is because we are shooting a shotgun, and a shotgun throws a big pattern. A normal skeet choke will throw a pattern that is close to thirty inches in diameter at twenty-one yards, the distance from any station to the center stake, also the distance that a majority of the shots are taken.  So like hand-grenades, with a shotgun all you have to do is get close.

Let’s apply this thinking to an actual shot on the skeet field.  Using High Five as an example, imagine shooting this shot, which requires approximately three to three and one-half feet of lead.  You will notice that when I mention leads in the writing, they will never be definite, but rather be generalizations of the actual lead.  If specific leads were given then the tendency to be precise would be overwhelming, causing the eyes to look at the barrel, in an effort to measure lead and be perfect.

But for demonstration’s sake, let’s pinpoint the lead for High Five at three and one-half feet, or forty-two inches.  Knowing that we are shooting a pattern, or more descriptively, what the English refer to as a “shot cloud” that is twenty-six to thirty inches in diameter, if I put fifty inches of lead on High Five, am I likely to break it?  Sure, I may be in front, but in all likelihood the target will break.  If I shoot this shot with only thirty-two inches of lead, will it still break?  More that likely, although the break would be off of the back of the target, due to the shortened lead.

What is important is that lead is not that important.  As long as you are close, the shotgun will do the work.  Your job as a shotgun shooter is to be a good rear sight of the shotgun.  To do this, you need to do two things.  First, keep the rear sight is the same place, maintaining alignment with the front sight and the target, head on the stock.  Second, you must keep the rear sight looking at what it is trying to hit, eye on the target.  Do these two things, and hand-eye coordination and the shotgun will do the rest.     

If I have my head on the gun, and my eye on the target, and I give the target the proper lead, allowing time for my shot string to intercept the flight path of the target, I cannot miss.  If my head is down properly on the stock, that gun will shoot where I look.  If my eyes are focused on the target, I can then match gun speed with target speed, and mirror the movements of the target.  This mirroring of movements can only be achieved if I have focus on the target.  Finally, if I give the target the proper lead for the given distance and angle of the shot, it is physically impossible for my shot string not to intercept the flight path of the target.  I can’t miss.

Sound like a bold statement?  Think about it.  Any and every miss on a skeet field can always be factored down to one of three reasons.  Number one, the head was off the stock causing the point of impact to print in an area other than where you intended, much like shooting from the hip.  Number two, the eyes were off of the target, lacking the necessary focus, making a competent shot quite impossible, like shooting with your eyes closed.  And number three the lead used was improper.  However, improper lead usually is not caused by a lack of knowledge, or inability to gauge the proper lead.  Many times lead cannot be obtained or maintained due to poor foot or body positioning, rendering the body incapable of carrying out the brain’s orders. Proper body position must be maintained so that the brain’s commands may be carried out smoothly and correctly.  Discussion on these fundamentals will be detailed in later chapters.

Those are the fundamentals to hitting a moving target with a shotgun, and before each and every shot that I take, whether in practice or in tournaments, I think of them.  That is because I have proven to myself, like many others, that their proper execution will insure me success.  Although I have not counted, I have probably have mentioned “execution of fundamentals” hundreds of times in my articles.  That is because, in a game that operates in such a controlled environment, such as the game of skeet shooting, execution of the proper fundamentals is paramount. The only difference between the good shooters and the great shooters, is in their execution, the great shooters make less mistakes.  Look at a handful of the top shooters in the nation.  Their execution is usually not only flawless, but also consistent.  And, in a game of perfection, consistency is the key.

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