Teach­ing an old dog new tricks

Do you miss birds you used to hit? If so, engage a pro­fes­sional to iron out those bad habits and keep the in­vi­ta­tions com­ing


Colum­nist Roger Field has “gone off the boil”, so we sent him to Steve Raw­sthorne at the Hol­land & Hol­land shooting ground for ad­vice

The Ed­i­tor de­liv­ered Un­der

The Ham­mer colum­nist Roger Field to Steve Raw­sthorne at the Hol­land & Hol­land Shooting Grounds in Mid­dle­sex with this brief: “Teach this old dog some new tricks. He used to be a tidy shot but he’s gone off the boil.”


It was a terse sum­ma­tion of a sit­u­a­tion we en­counter at the Shooting Grounds pretty much daily, so over cof­fee we dis­cussed Roger’s shooting his­tory and the is­sues need­ing to be ad­dressed. He shoots off the right shoul­der and has a weak right eye, so has to shut his left eye. I men­tioned how much harder this made it to shoot the straight driven bird as it would be be­hind the bar­rel, and there­fore out of sight, in or­der to hit it and how the brain likes to see it break, which is why we lift our head and stop as we pull the trig­ger, caus­ing a miss be­hind. Some­how, he thought he could see the bird when he fired, which meant the muz­zles were al­ways be­hind the tar­get or he was not clos­ing the left eye, al­though he as­sured me he was. A hit was phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble un­less he had his head so far off the stock it gave him some in­built lead, though this would cause other equally bad prob­lems on quar­ter­ing pheas­ants, and so on.

Roger had brought two guns with him: both side-by-sides, both too short for him (he’s around 6ft 2in) and one in par­tic­u­lar was ex­tremely stock heavy. Nei­ther was go­ing to im­prove his shooting; in fact, they were prob­a­bly a se­vere hand­i­cap. On the pos­i­tive side, he said he was pre­pared to in­vest in a more suit­able gun and would also like to try an over-and-un­der. This was a good start. Be­ing open to change is vi­tal to shooting bet­ter; if one sim­ply says, “I have al­ways done it like this”, you are wast­ing your money. If you keep do­ing the same thing, you will keep get­ting the same re­sult.

Af­ter Roger had re­laxed a lit­tle we moved off to the pat­tern plates. We had a cou­ple of prac­tice mounts and then Roger shot – and was sur­prised that he shot high and left. We tried two dif­fer­ent side-by-sides and an over-and-un­der and all were pretty much the same. The prob­lem was not the gun, it was the gun-mount. The left el­e­ment was a re­sult of mount­ing the gun out on the shoul­der and the high from hav­ing the head off the stock. There was go­ing to be a lot to do.

At a medium-high par­tridge tower, I asked Roger just to shoot a few straight driven birds, so I could see how he was shooting cur­rently. The re­sults, it would be fair to say from an in­struc­tor’s point of view, were all too fa­mil­iar. Feet too far apart, muz­zles too high, pulling the stock up to the face with the back hand so that the bar­rels moved in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to that of the bird, then we had a wild slash from 30 yards back, fol­lowed by a sud­den stop and a bang with the head, of course, off the stock – and not much in the way of suc­cess.

It was ob­vi­ous we needed to make ma­jor changes. Roger’s foot po­si­tion was too wide and he had too much weight on the front foot, which re­stricted his lat­eral move­ment and made shooting high birds even more dif­fi­cult. We agreed to bring his feet much closer to­gether, four or five inches at the heels, and foot po­si­tion at one and three o’clock, with the front of the drive as 12 o’clock. Roger is an ex-army of­fi­cer, so I asked him to stand up straight, which, cou­pled with the foot po­si­tion, was go­ing to give him a much greater range of move­ment.

Keep­ing his head up would give him a bet­ter field of view and aid the new gun mount we were go­ing to work on (un­known to him at that mo­ment). The po­si­tion from which you start ev­ery shot, driven or quar­ter­ing, is the same; fac­ing the di­rec­tion from which you ex­pect birds to break cover (12 o’clock), set your front foot at one o’clock and the rear at three o’clock. The heel of the stock wants to be tucked up un­der your armpit, so that you can­not just pull up but have to push for­ward with the front hand. There is an imag­i­nary line run­ning from your eye, across the muz­zles to where you ex­pect to see the birds ap­pear. When you see the bird, your front hand pushes the muz­zles for­ward, locked onto the bird, so that through­out the mount you are mov­ing with it, at the same speed and on the same line as it. The comb moves for­ward and up into the cheek, reg­is­ter­ing the gun in the same po­si­tion un­der the eye ev­ery time and fi­nally the shoul­der pushes for­ward into the butt; you ap­ply and hold the lead, fire and fol­low through. Your eye needs to be in the same po­si­tion in re­la­tion to the rib ev­ery time and mount­ing as above en­sures this and gets rid of all that aw­ful see-saw­ing we see so of­ten.

All of this seemed to be new to Roger, de­spite 40 years of game-shooting. The gun-mount is critical to be­com­ing a de­cent shot – you never go on to achieve great­ness with­out a good one. Or even medi­ocrity. It is more im­por­tant than how much “lead” you give a bird or swing­ing the gun faster. On that point, Roger said he had had a les­son with some­one in the past whose sight­ing method was to swing and squirt, with no cal­cu­lated lead.

We looked at “meth­ods” of shooting a mov­ing tar­get: “swing through”, which so many of us learn from friends and fam­ily as young­sters; “main­tained lead” and “method”, where through­out the shot the muz­zles are mov­ing with the bird un­til we com­plete the mount, at which point we ap­ply “lead”, open a con­trolled gap, fire and fol­low through. By mov­ing with the bird, we are mov­ing at the same speed and on the same line it is and rather than a hur­ried “swing” in front, we can con­trol the lead pic­ture pre­cisely. Roger was now go­ing to change to “method”, break­ing the habits of many years.

For the next few shots at a straight, driven bird I asked him to con­cen­trate on the process of the shot, rather than wor­ry­ing about hit­ting the tar­get. As a gen­eral rule, if you fo­cus on do­ing the process well, the re­sult will fol­low. We had to work on Roger’s gun­mount as he still wanted to pull the gun up to his shoul­der with the back hand and look up over it, but we were mak­ing progress. He was also still try­ing to see the bird at the point he was pulling the trig­ger, which meant the bar­rels were be­hind the bird – and so was the shot. But af­ter a few at­tempts he was wal­lop­ing them nicely.

We moved to a higher tower and us­ing the method of “lock­ing on” to the bird with the end of the bar­rel, Roger was en­joy­ing more suc­cess than be­fore and gain­ing con­fi­dence. Time to move on to the quar­ter­ing bird. Roger told me that he was good on the left quar­ter­ing bird but found the right-hand one much more trou­ble­some, a com­mon prob­lem among right-handed shoot­ers of a

Cor­rect gun-mount, as Steve showed, is critical to be­com­ing a de­cent shot

Steve got me to shoot left handed; to say it felt weird is an un­der­state­ment

cer­tain age, a com­bi­na­tion of turn­ing away from the body, push­ing the gun away from the face and the left-eye dom­i­nance is­sue. We looked at how to turn to the left first, to get the tech­nique formed on the easy side, drop­ping the right shoul­der and rais­ing the left so that a line through the shoul­ders would par­al­lel the line of flight, at the same time keep­ing the legs straight, lift­ing the heel on the back foot half an inch to lengthen the leg a lit­tle and keep the weight over the front foot - no lean­ing back. The ef­fect of bend­ing the rear leg is to shorten it, which pulls the shooter back­ward and a hol­low back, head off stock and a miss will re­sult. Roger made quick progress, so the right side was next.

To be fair, Roger did as he was asked and al­though his knack­ered back and neck made it even harder, he did well and within half an hour we were hit­ting wide, right-quar­ter­ing birds 50 yards-plus out, which would have the other guns talk­ing at lunch had they been real birds. There is a limit to how much you can do in a cou­ple of hours to rec­tify 40 years of shooting habits. My ad­vice is to in­vest in a course of six lessons, where you get one free, so you can max­imise your po­ten­tial this sea­son.

roger field’s view­point

First, a con­fes­sion: I’ve al­ways been some­what Jekyll and Hyde. There have been days when I’ve come away gas­bag­ging with the best about mem­o­rable birds nicely taken and oth­ers where, if some con­de­scend­ing twit told me it was “about hav­ing a fun day in the coun­try and not hit­ting birds”, they risked my size 11 con­nect­ing hard with… Any­way, of late two things have hap­pened: first, I moved coun­ties, fol­lowed by a drop in days out from about eight a sea­son to two or three; sec­ond, I am no longer the young blade I once imag­ined my­self to be – old back and neck in­juries are hurt­ing more and my eyes are do­ing ever-stranger things. Any­one over 50 will know what I mean. Net re­sult: ever less of good Dr Jekyll and ever more bad Mr Hyde.

Mat­ters came to a head last sea­son. The pre­vi­ous year, an invitation to a high-bird shoot in Devon saw me head first to my lo­cal shooting school. Fifty clays had me in the zone and I know I gave a good ac­count of my­self on the day. Last year, another in­vite – lo­cal this time and so im­por­tant to show that I was worth invit­ing back – so I headed to the same in­struc­tor for another tune-up. This time, how­ever, I was not con­nect­ing prop­erly and, just as much to the point, I had no no­tion why not. De­mor­alised, I went out the fol­low­ing day and, as we used to say in the Army, “set a poor stan­dard and failed to main­tain it”. Con­clu­sion: go to the best for two lessons at Hol­land & Hol­land.

Steve Raw­sthorne knows what he is talk­ing about. I’ve had the oc­ca­sional les­son over the past few decades, in­clud­ing one with an in­struc­tor who con­vinced me to give no lead and just “hose” the bird, leav­ing it to hand and eye to do the cal­cu­la­tions. Re­sult: I took to “fling­ing” the gun. My chum, Wil­liam God­man-dor­ring­ton, who runs my then lo­cal shoot, would shake his head in de­spair as I knocked down a corker and missed the sit­ter and sug­gested a trip to the psy­chol­o­gist rather than an in­struc­tor. I re­solved to lis­ten very care­fully to Steve.

First off, nei­ther of my side-by-sides fit­ted me. Not even re­motely. One was a full inch short in the stock. Steve ex­plained that this was the dif­fer­ence in stock length for some­one of 5ft 10in and 6ft 3in (my height). And I had had both these guns fit­ted – “fit­ted up” was the ex­pres­sion that came to mind – by a lo­cal gun shop. Steve told me he saw this of­ten, es­pe­cially with handed-down, fam­ily guns. Re­sult: I was love-30 down be­fore I even pulled on my wellies and, even as I write this, I am deeply an­noyed to think I have shot with them for more than 20 years. And, fur­ther­more, Steve is the first in­struc­tor to men­tion this gun prob­lem. I de­spair…

At the end of my two lessons, Steve set up the “try” gun for me – used to cus­tom fit a gun – and I still can­not be­lieve the dif­fer­ence. With the stock ex­tended to 15½in, the gun went smoothly into my shoul­der; I looked nat­u­rally down the line of the rib and my sight pic­ture was en­tirely dif­fer­ent. At long last I now know what I am meant to see and feel when I mount a shot­gun. More de­mor­al­i­sa­tion fol­lowed when, told to mount and

shoot with­out any hes­i­ta­tion at a static tar­get at 30 yards, I shot well left and slightly high, which, hav­ing shot at Bis­ley when I was younger, was near in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to me. But the shot pat­tern does not lie. Steve then cal­cu­lated dis­tance of the cen­tre of my pat­tern “out”, by speed of pheas­ant, by dis­tance away, which equalled some hor­ri­bly large “missed by” fig­ure. Trans­lated into English, I didn’t stand an earthly at a good bird. Al­though, I also re­alised why I some­times knock down spec­tac­u­lar birds to my left. I’m shooting left any­way and so in­creas­ing my lead: a tiny sil­ver lin­ing to this in­creas­ingly grim cloud – Steve will doubt­less tell me I’ve got the wrong end of the shooting stick. He blamed my mount. I tried to blame those ill-fit­ting guns. But then, bad work­men and all that…

Then came the last bit of sur­pris­ing news. I knew that eye changes meant I had to close my left eye and could no longer keep both eyes open. “Bum, bird, beak, bang,” Farmer Will would say to me as another bird flew straight over my head, giv­ing me two fingers as it did so. What I did not un­der­stand, un­til Steve ex­plained it to me (though the al­ge­bra in­volved is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble) is that, with my left eye closed, if I can see even the tip of the beak I am al­ready shooting way be­hind. It seems pos­si­ble that when I “fling” my gun at an over­head scorcher (or any other scorcher, for that mat­ter), I can knock them down – more by luck than judge­ment, re­torted Steve. But a “con­sid­ered” beak, bang and fol­low-through is doomed to fail­ure. To prove his point, he got me to shoot left handed, which meant I could keep both eyes open. To say it felt weird is an un­der­state­ment but I could see that over­head bird as I fired. Steve be­lieves this would be the way for me to go and rec­om­mends oth­ers do this. It takes about five to six lessons and then per­se­ver­ance but, once mas­tered, he as­sured me it would trans­form my shooting.

Fi­nally, to clays. The po­si­tion of my feet was all wrong. Maybe I have for­got­ten but I do not think any­one has men­tioned this ei­ther – cer­tainly not that last lo­cal in­struc­tor. I do know I am meant to have the weight on the for­ward foot and, yes, was al­low­ing it to move to the back. And, yes again, that meant I was get­ting into all sorts of knots. Steve started by get­ting my feet close to­gether, at one and three, al­though I still have to ask him how this will work when perched on a steep hill as against the flat sur­face of the shooting ground. Next came my mount, about which I am reg­u­larly crit­i­cised. I gather – al­though I have no sense of it my­self – I have a pro­nounced dou­ble ac­tion. But it took Steve to come up with an ex­pla­na­tion and so­lu­tion to the prob­lem. Hold the gun an inch un­der the armpit, thus re­duc­ing the op­por­tu­nity for the stock to make two dif­fer­ent move­ments. You can only stand like that for a few mo­ments and what hap­pens when one is wait­ing for the beat­ers? Steve ad­vo­cates the old “ready” po­si­tion for the 7.62 ri­fle, butt on hip, right hand on grip, fin­ger along­side trig­ger. How­ever, my mucked-up neck and back dic­tate that hang­ing un­der the right arm causes less stress, so that is one for me to work on.

Once I un­der­stood that I was not go­ing to see the over­head bird when I fired, I be­gan to con­nect. Birds to the left, and I nat­u­rally dropped my right shoul­der. What I needed to do though was re­move the men­tal scars of that “point­ing and hos­ing” and give the clay a de­cent lead and keep swing­ing. Not so dif­fi­cult once I got the lead right. And then birds to the right. “Well, that cer­tainly turned to rat’s poo,” said Steve as he watched in amaze­ment as my bal­ance lurched to the back foot and I some­how man­aged to drop my right shoul­der in­stead of lift­ing it. His so­lu­tion was for me to, al­most ar­ti­fi­cially, raise my right el­bow to drag my right shoul­der up. Much more prac­tice needed but I did start to con­nect. These, Steve said, are the hardest birds for right-han­ders.

The sec­ond les­son was more of the same. I first needed to re-re­mem­ber my cor­rect stand and mount po­si­tions but then things im­proved rapidly and I ended up at the most dif­fi­cult tower. Birds over and to the left: mostly despatched. To the right? More prac­tice needed. Steve was im­pla­ca­ble on two points: a gun that fit­ted prop­erly and it needed to be an over-and-un­der. This would trans­form my shooting ex­pe­ri­ence. He told me that the on-site shop stocked new guns from £1,600 (Beretta Sil­ver Pi­geon I). A “fit­ting” session was £124 plus clays and car­tridges and the av­er­age cost of a “proper” stock con­ver­sion af­ter that was £300: a bar­gain given the huge, wasted cost of shooting at, and miss­ing, birds. Prop­erly fit­ted overand-un­der, here I most def­i­nitely come.

For de­tails about lessons at the H&H Shooting Grounds in North­wood, Mid­dle­sex, tel: 01923 825349; hol­lan­dand­hol­land.com/shooting-grounds

Our colum­nist Roger Field (right) prac­tises lo­cally the tech­niques he’s been taught by Hol­land & Hol­land in­struc­tor Steve Raw­sthorne (top, far right)

Above: cor­rect gun-mount leads to the master eye be­ing cor­rectly po­si­tioned, look­ing along the rib. Be­low: an ill-fit­ting side-by-side next to a cor­rectly fit­ting over-and-un­der

Back on home ground, Roger is work­ing on de­vel­op­ing the cor­rect stand and mount po­si­tions

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