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.”
STEVE RAWSTHORNE’S VIEWPOINT
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