Deer hunting season officially kicks off on October 1st, with Shotgun season beginning on November 22nd. Now is the perfect time to begin thinking about having your Shotgun properly cleaned, serviced, and inspected. Now is also the perfect time to start thinking about practicing with the gun that you intend to hunt with because there isn’t much point in getting your gun serviced if you won’t be able to hit anything with it. Today’s article will focus on some Shotgun shooting tips; as well as other things that you should keep in mind when thinking about Shotguns (besides hunting).
The two most important aspects of Shotguns are sight picture and fitment. Most people make the mistake of thinking that you are supposed to “aim” a shotgun. This is generally untrue, although there are exceptions to every rule, and we will get into that later. The purpose of a Shotgun is to expel numerous small projectiles in a pattern; this makes “pointing” a Shotgun at a target much more effective. People become so fixated on “the perfect shot” that they will spend so much time aiming that the target will 1) move out of the sight picture, 2) get away because it is moving too fast or slow and is not being followed correctly, 3) be missed completely due to the shooter’s nerves and adrenaline.
The reason that the fitment of the stock is so important is that you cannot adequately point a Shotgun if it does not fit you correctly. Getting a Shotgun fitted can sometimes be a costly affair but having an accurate firearm at the right moment is priceless. When fitting a Shotgun there are many things that Stock-Makers and Gunsmiths look at: length of pull, casting, and pitch angle are the major areas of focus.
The length of pull is the distance from the middle of the trigger to the end of the buttstock. Every time that you shoulder a Shotgun, properly, the barrel should be naturally pointing exactly where your dominant eye is targeting. There is quite the misconception out there that you can hold a gunstock, cradled in your elbow, at a 90-degree angle toward the sky and get your length of pull measurement. This technique works on a very minimal amount of average-sized people and even then, it still isn’t perfect; nothing more than an “old husband’s tale”. Now it should be noted that if compromises have to be made, it is much easier to shoot a gun that is too short verses too long. Longer guns tend to bind you up because of the extra weight and cause you to lift your head up, away from proper placement. Your eye is the ‘rear sight’ of the Shotgun and it must be in the same place every single time for accuracy and consistency. So if there is any doubt when getting measured go a little shorter.
Casting, or cast-on and cast-off, is the deviation of the butt away from the centerline of the gun. A Shotgun with no cast will produce a straight line down the rib and continue straight down the center of the buttstock. The stock can be manipulated to the left or the right so that the shooter’s eyes can make a sight picture. Casting is generally most affected by the thickness of the shooter’s face and neck.
Finally, there is pitch angle. Pitch is the angle of the butt pad’s back surface, measured from a perpendicular line drawn down from the rib. Most Shotguns have too much down pitch. This is due to how the average chest cavity is shaped. A lot of modern firearm designs still have their specifications based on old school principles and measurements. Many new firearms have too much down pitch for their overall design and will usually shoot too low. Altering the pitch angle will also help redirect recoil, making the kick feel much lighter.
Now some helpful tips and observations when it comes to shooting a Shotgun. The most important thing is to get the gun on target as quickly as possible. Do not make any adjustments until you are on target, that way you will not lose sight of the target. It is also important to remember to follow through with your shots. Most people tend to shoot behind their target because after they pull the trigger, they stop swinging their gun (no follow-through). With the advancements being made in ballistics and ammunition, an improved cylinder choke seems to be the best starting point for most applications. The action of your Shotgun is also important to consider. Most men can handle most conventional actions; but if you have shorter arms a slide or pump, action may not work effectively. Women will generally have an easier time with a semi-auto action. They kick far less because the gasses are redirected through the frame to operate the loading action of the firearm.
If you are in the beginning stages of teaching your child to shoot or are thinking about starting their firearms education, then here are some things that you may wish to consider for them. Stick with a break-open single shot shotgun, or possibly an over-under or side-by-side. This will have many benefits. The balance point on most long guns is too much for most children and they will have to lean back to hold it. Using a shorter firearm will make it easier for them; which will allow them to learn the proper techniques quicker and have more fun, so they will want to shoot more. The other benefit to a break-open action is that it forces children to slow down and think about the proper loading, shooting, and clearing techniques so that they will remain safe. Children should NOT use a .410 gauge, except for maybe stationary targets. The .410 is considered an expert’s gun. Most children should stick with a 28 gauge or a 20 gauge.
Now talk about sights. Because Shotguns are designed to be pointed instead of aimed in the traditional sense you do not NEED to have a sight on a Shotgun. Your eyes should be more than adequate. The only real exception to this would be a Slug Gun, a Shotgun that is tailored to firing rifled slugs. If you plan to use a bead or a blade sight, I would recommend something with a fiber-optic element. These are the best at picking up ambient lighting and will allow you to point at your target quicker. Occasionally I will get asked about mid-bead sights by hunters. These are primarily used for trap-shooting applications. The purpose of a mid-bead sight is so that you can avoid canting (being tipped too far to left or right) when lining up your shot. This sight is utilized before calling for your bird to be thrown. In a field application, such as duck or dove hunting, there is no time to effectively utilize the sight; making it impractical.
Now from sights to your eyes. You should generally keep both eyes open. I say generally because of again exceptions to every rule. The main thing when it comes to technique is what works the best and most consistently for you. Everyone is different and there are many grey areas. I, for example, have a cross-dominance where I am right-handed but left-eye dominant. I will not shoot comfortably the same as someone who is either all right-sided or all left-sided. Now that being said, the way our eyes are designed is to work together. Your eyes can only execute the most effective depth perception and motion tracking responses when they are both used; after all, you don’t drive with just one eye. There are some things that you may be able to try if you are having trouble with focus or seeing double targets. The first thing to do is determine which eye is your dominant eye. There are many exercises out there that cover this so I will not spend time on it here. If you are still having trouble than consult and eye doctor about what you can do. Sometimes it can be as simple as the contacts that you are wearing, which happened to me a few deer seasons ago.
The last bit of advice that I will leave you with is regarding Damascus barrels. Many older Shotgun barrels that were made before 1900 were made from a combination of steel and iron ribbon that is twisted and welded together. Damascus barrels have a very distinctive, irregular pattern of short, streak-like marks around the barrel. The thing to keep in mind with Damascus barrels is that you CANNOT fire modern smokeless powder in a Damascus barrel. These guns are usually heirlooms or wall-hangers and for good reason. They just cannot handle the modern pressure curves of modern ammunition. The only possible exception to this would be a British made Damascus barrel. These have a long and proven history of being incredibly strong and well made and has provided many examples of them surviving modern loads. However, most of these cost between $30,000-$40,000.