Vic Harker discusses the fundamental qualities for success in competitive shooting
While my writings cover many aspects of guns and shooting, I try to limit the number of how-to articles. Occasionally, however, I am prompted by something I have overheard in a conversation and in this particular case it concerns an acquaintance relatively new to shooting who, while he demonstrates a natural talent some may envy, changes his gun more often than some do their socks. Clearly not lacking in funds, he is able to do this without any strain on his finances and so you might imagine he would resolve his problems quite quickly, but he hasn’t so far. I would add he has also consulted a number of notable gun fitters and stockmakers in the UK and elsewhere, none of whom it seems can satisfy his particular requirements.
Though not a young man, he is sound in mind and limb with no physical peculiarities and his eyesight is not unduly impaired. In fact, he shoots well, not as well as he would like, but who does? He, however, has an abiding preoccupation with the fact that whatever gun stock he adopts, when he mounts it to his right shoulder and puts his face on the comb the pupil of his aiming eye, as with everybody, moves to his left. On this basis he believes his gun does not shoot where he is looking and though he scores his fair share of 25-straights, this still fails to convince him otherwise.
This brings us to the doctrine that every marksman, from the first man to shoot a bow and arrow to the greatest clay target shooter who ever lived, must have had to grasp, which is that, to some degree, he must adapt himself physically to the firearm he is using.
In the case of the shotgun, the stock configuration can be designed to reduce the amount of adaption to the minimum, but it can never completely eradicate the need for some. This begins with how the shooter should position his feet, that will allow him to pivot from his hips and, therefore, the upper body to the right or left, to the extent that he can move the gun barrels comfortably without any movement of the head, which must always remain firmly positioned on the stock.
This is true for the Skeet shooter and for those shooting Trap. The Sporting shooter, in contrast, having previously determined the trajectory of the target, will place his feet accordingly to his best advantage, though in the case of doubles he will invariably have to make some compromise. Only the Olympic Trap shooter is able to adopt a consistent placement of the feet to cover targets going right, left or straight away at various heights and angles from the 15 traps in groups of three.
This can be achieved successfully with practice, but what the shooter should always keep in mind is that human beings were not expressly designed to shoot guns of any kind. This task had to be learned, and fortunately the human body is so adaptable that marksmen with every kind of weapon have been achieving this successfully for centuries. Over time, a combination of art and science has developed that is particularly applicable to shotgun shooting, which we call gun fitting.
It coincided with the shotgun evolving from a cumbersome flintlock fowling piece loaded at the barrel’s muzzle ends to the well balanced breech loading gun employing the centre fire cartridge that we know today. For a considerable period, gun fitting was solely the province of the exclusive London makers who established shooting schools conveniently located on the outskirts of the city, some of which still survive, where the skills of the shooting coach and gunmaker were combined in the role of gunfitter.
Until the recent past, the clay shooter was regarded as something of a poor relation in the company of these oracles. Scraps of knowledge may have leaked out in a haphazard fashion, but was often so diluted with the needs of the game shooter that the clay shooter was left more confused than better informed. Happily, much has changed due to the growth in the popularity of clay shooting and the information gained from visits abroad to competition gun manufacturers in Italy, who support their products with a fitting service.
Trap shooters were the first to benefit – being by far the most popular discipline in southern Europe. With a firm grasp of the requirements of Trap shooting that the southern Europeans possessed, the shotgun’s stock evolved, and to a degree still does. To accommodate the high-combed pre-mounted gun, the shooter’s shoulder is suitably raised to support it and the head is lowered forward along it.
Length-of-pull is kept as short as possible to complement a less oblique stance than the Trap community once favoured. Consequently, the gun can be moved comfortably through wide angles left and right, without the shooter’s head lifting off the comb, and, importantly, without losing balance.
A stable stance is of equal importance to the Skeet shooter. As with the Trap shooter, it should be relaxed and upright with the feet not too close together or too far apart. Shooting the single target, he can adapt his stance to favour it, however, when shooting doubles his stance should be such as to enable him to move his weight comfortably over the leading foot to shoot his second target. Any exaggerated posture, for example distributing too much weight to the leading foot, should be avoided.
The same rule applies to Sporting shooters – an upright, relaxed posture provides freedom of movement, which is key. Again with the single target the positioning of the front foot can be placed to its best advantage, but with doubles some compromise will have to made in order to retain his balance for the second shot.
With the popularity of Sporting ever growing throughout Europe, the Sporting shot’s requirements have long been well understood among European gun fitters. A lower comb, at least at heel, to accommodate a more head-up position is considered desirable. Length-of-pull is also carefully calculated to complement a gun mount, beginning from an out-of-the-shoulder hold, together with the shooters particular stance.
With all these benefits now available, it should never be forgotten that the shooter’s ability to provide a degree of adaptability and maintain a balanced stance is the foundation of accurate gun fitting whatever gun he may use.
Maintaining an equilibrium, mental and physical, is key to success in every endeavour and clay shooting in all its forms is no exception. Part of this is also accepting we are not specifically designed to use shotguns and some adaption, physical and psychological, is something my friend, with his imaginary eye problem, should keep in mind.