As the 2019 Clay Shooting Classic gets closer, we’re looking back at the best tips and advice from a former three-time winner, Mark Winser.
Part One: Stance
In this series I’m going to take you through everything you need to do to take your shooting to the next level. That doesn’t mean you can read these articles and immediately go out and win competitions – it doesn’t work like that! But I will explain what you need to do in terms of developing your technique, training and practice.
If you follow my advice, and put in the work, I guarantee you will become a better shot. In this first article I’m going to look at stance, because that really is the foundation for good shooting. You could get everything else right, but if your feet and stance are wrong you will still miss.
On the other side of the coin, if you get your stance right, you make the shot much easier for yourself. It’s important for new shooters to perfect their stance. Early on in your shooting career, go to a reputable coach and make sure you’ve got the basics right, so you have a good foundation.
Otherwise you may learn bad habits that will get you to a certain level, but will prevent you from progressing any further. It can take a year to eliminate a habit like that. However, even if you’ve been shooting for years, don’t dismiss this as something that’s too basic for you to bother with.
I see too many people focusing on some technique they feel they need to master, thinking they need to practise on loopers or battues for instance, when really they need to get their stance right first. They’re thinking about what’s happening out at the target, but before you can hit that bird consistently you need to make sure there’s nothing going wrong back at your end.
It could be something quite simple that you’ve overlooked – your hand position on the fore-end, or the hold position of the gun when you call for the target. Shooters assume that they know how to stand and set up for a target, and it can take a coach like myself to step back and see where the real problem lies.
In my own shooting I always like to think that the basics are never perfect – I’m always trying to improve. If I go and practise I’m not looking to shoot 100 out of 100. I’m focusing on getting all the basics right to the point where I can’t get them wrong. If I do that, I can get the shot ‘nearly right’ and still hit the target.
People will give you very precise instructions about how to place your feet to shoot. They will talk about picturing a clock face, with your feet at two o’clock – your lead foot pointing towards the kill point at 12 o’clock, and the rear foot pointing to 2 o’clock.
I don’t believe in that one bit! Since I started shooting, I don’t believe I’ve ever once consciously pointed my left foot at the kill point. I’m not a fan of hard and fast rules; I’d much rather work on feelings. If it feels good and it works, it’s right! I align my body with the kill point, make sure I can swing comfortably where I need to, and let my feet fall naturally into place.
That’s doing things the right way round, to my mind. What really matters is that you can swing the gun freely either side of the kill point, staying level, keeping your balance and not building any tension or encountering resistance. In practice it’s more like I’m lining up my hip and the outside of my thigh towards the kill point, rather than my feet.
Not that I’m consciously placing my feet at a certain width, but for me it feels right if they are about my shoulders’ width apart. Even that isn’t a hard and fast rule for every shooter to follow, though. A bigger person who’s a bit top-heavy might need to place their feet wider, while a smaller person wouldn’t have that problem – unless of course their gun is too heavy for them!
So that’s how I set myself up for the shot, and my feet will find the right position naturally. If I swing my body and discover that my movement is restricted, then I’ll move my feet accordingly. But it would be all back to front if I were to plant my feet in a specific way and then try to swing regardless.
Of course you will usually be shooting a pair of targets, so you need to plan your foot position accordingly, and be ready to be nimble on your feet if necessary.
A normal, straightforward target will be somewhere between straight ahead at eye level and an elevation of 30 degrees. The perfect weight distribution for that one will have you standing with your head directly over the leading foot – your left foot if you’re a right-handed shooter.
This is what people mean when they say “nose over toes”. If you glance down, you should see your left foot directly beneath your head. If your head is in that position, around 75 per cent of your weight will be on that lead foot, which is how it should be.
The rear foot provides stability, and can take some more weight if you need to transition back a little bit, for instance if you’re lifting the gun for a higher angled target. We’ve talked about a target from eye level up to about 30 degrees elevation, but what about a target below eye level, which you might encounter if you’re shooting from a raised platform, for example?
In this situation, essentially you need to get more weight onto the front foot – but not too much. Once your weight comes off the rear foot, you’ll lose control immediately. In this situation, it can help to use a slightly wider stance with more flex in the lead knee.
Moving your head a little further forward on the stock can be helpful too. Conversely, if you’re shooting a target that’s higher than 30 degrees, perhaps a driven-type target where your kill point is above your head, I believe you need to allow more of your weight to come back onto the back foot.
Plenty of people will disagree with me, but how many people do you know who have conquered the mighty Royal Berks high tower and won a Range Rover? Remember that your feet should always be planted firmly on the ground, making good contact at heel and toe.
Some shooters are inclined to lift the heel of the rear foot, for instance, coming up onto their toes. That’s wrong – it changes the distribution of weight between your feet, and you lose stability.
Legs and knees
I like to see a slight flex in both knees. I find that’s the best way to keep things fluid while maintaining control and balance. I don’t believe in locking the lead knee, like some shooters do. I find that creates rigidity, and I don’t want any part of my body to be rigid.
I want to feel fluid throughout my body. Even when I bring the gun down and reload, I don’t want to feel any stress in my body. You start to notice it, and it can take away from your concentration. You’re aiming to be nice and fluid all the time you’re in the stand, so you can concentrate on the task in hand.
I certainly don’t want to feel I can’t move my foot because my knee is locked.
We’ve looked at feet and knees, so what about the rest of your body? You should be tilted forward slightly at the waist, which tends to come naturally if you’re placing your head over your lead foot. That helps with the core body rotation, which is where all the movement should be coming from.
When you swing on a target, your arms shouldn’t move in relation to your body. The arms are locking the gun to the body, and then the body is providing all the movement – try to think of it like a tank turret turning.
This is why it’s important to get the stance right. You need to set yourself up so your body can move freely, for whatever angle and trajectory the target is at. General fitness and flexibility is a great help, and that’s something you can continue to work on all year round, either at home or in the gym – you don’t need to go outside or even have a gun in your hands.
I’m not talking about the kind of muscle-building that some people go for; I think too much muscle can make you stiffer, and actually hamper your shooting, but general fitness and flexibility can only help. If that gets you one or two more targets in a 100-bird shoot… well, that could make all the difference.
People sometimes say that you must stand up straight and bring the gun to your face. That’s wrong; if you followed that to the letter, the stock would end up too high in the shoulder, with only the toe making contact. The heel of the stock would be higher than the top of your shoulder.
My coaching clients will be familiar with my ‘tap trick’ where I tap on the heel of the stock – if I can tap on the heel at all, the gun isn’t mounted correctly. I want to see 100 per cent of the butt pad in contact with the shoulder. We will go into gun mount in more detail in a future article, but for now let’s just say that you can’t simply stand up straight as if you were talking to someone, and mount the gun.
You need to raise the shoulder slightly, and push your head forward and down a little – it’s a slight crouch, if you like, where you get yourself ready to receive the stock. So, adopting your ready position consists of getting your head and shoulder ready to receive the stock and holding the gun ready to mount.
The exact position of the gun will vary depending on the target. I like to think of it as three different positions. In position 3 the stock is low, in a Fitasc-type ready position. This is good for a long, high incomer where we have plenty of time, such as a crow-type target. If you drew a line through the barrels, they are pointing at about 45 degrees from your line of sight to the target.
Position 2 is mid-way between position 3 and a full mount. Use this when there is less time, but you can still mount smoothly and unhurriedly to take the shot. Finally, position 1 is almost fully mounted, with the stock just an inch or two out of the shoulder.
Use this one when you have little time – you need to see the target, get on and shoot it without delay. I can’t overemphasise the importance of a good ready position before calling for the target. Normally I don’t give my ready position a second thought – I fall into the right position almost subconsciously, I’ve done it so many times, but I can feel when it’s wrong.
It’s like a tennis player, who will throw the ball up to serve, then abandon it if it doesn’t feel right. If my ready position doesn’t feel right, I’ll break the gun and re-set. You learn to listen to your body, and it has to feel right before you call for the bird.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the next part coming soon!