Picking your shooting style
Stanbury or Churchill, that is the question? These two respected masters had widely different and hotly debated views on shooting style. Who was correct?
Stanbury vs Churchill? Michael Yardley assesses their techniques
There was a time when people worried a lot about shooting style. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject, especially during the era 1870 to 1970 – most famously by Messrs Lancaster, Churchill and Stanbury (though none of those books were actually written by the “author”, as billed). I have collected and studied most of them. I have shot with the apprentices of the masters and tested the techniques put forward. It is a rich heritage to our sport but the differences of opinion can be confusing. The apparent contradictions – particularly between Robert Churchill and Percy Stanbury with regard to forward allowance and footwork – were never resolved in their day. They led to some bitter battles. When you explore them comparatively today, however, they are not always quite what they seem. It would be difficult to say one man was absolutely right and the other man wrong. Their instructions can be of practical use in different circumstances and may even complement each other.
Cutting to the chase, what did each man or his Boswell say? Let’s consider forward allowance first. Churchill stated that one should never look for lead on a bird deliberately. He suggested gluing one’s eyes to the mark and everything else would happen naturally, “In my method there is no question of trying to compute muzzle movement, allowance, or any other complicated matter. All I ask you to do is look at the bird; but subconsciously overthrowing a little and so giving the necessary lead or compensation for time flight [sic]; and, in that way, arriving at what in any
other terms is a complicated mathematical problem.” [page 67, Game Shooting, revised edition, 1963] Or, as one of my more experienced shooting pals, a former chief-pilot, puts it: “Stare the bird to death...” The rest should happen of its own accord if you have learnt to address the bird well and mount the gun efficiently.
Stanbury, meantime, advised coming up through the bird’s tail and head – what might be called “swing through” in modern parlance. He did not advise exaggerating this, however, which has led me to create the terms “close swing through” and “short swing through” to better convey his method. It has also led to my own development: “graduated swing through”; this advocates coming in behind the bird approximately as far as you intend to move in front when using a swing-through method [see Varying techniques, January 2016 issue].
Stanbury does emphasise the importance of swing and line more than Churchill, however. The muzzles, he noted, must “be held on the line of flight all the time while the gun is mounted”. He also observed sagely that forward allowance was a vexed question: “Briefly one must shoot with a swinging gun and keep it going after pulling the trigger, so as to throw the shot in front of the bird’s position at the instant of firing. At longer ranges, the apparent speed of a crossing bird is less than at short ranges, and this slows down the speed of swing. Something must be done to counteract this so we give a forward allowance, or lead, in front of the bird. It is not a distance measured in feet but a ‘picture’ in the shooter’s eye, which he knows is necessary for those particular circumstances” [page 32-3, Shotgun and Shooter, 1970].
Stanbury goes on to comment that these pictures vary enormously. Some may lead by a gate, others just think they shoot at the beak and most shooters don’t actually know what they do at all, and nor does it matter if the bird is killed. Just to complicate the issue, Stanbury also notes that “angular forward allowance” for a bird at 20yd effectively doubles at 40yd (with measurements of 4ft and 8ft given respectively in accompanying drawings). He did not advocate measuring routinely but his technique is more deliberate and less instinctive than Churchill’s. Both acknowledge that one must shoot in front of the bird, whether one is aware of it or not.
All of this prompts a question: should we look for lead deliberately or not? Churchill’s
Shoot with a swinging gun and keep it going after pulling the trigger
theory is that one need never do more than look at the bird; the subconscious mind will do the rest. Is he correct? After much experiment, I have proven to myself the wisdom of the basic concept – one must sustain focus on the bird and nothing but the bird. But, in my experience, it only holds true to a point, or, rather, to a range. I will choose here 35yd as an arbitrary limit for my own subconscious “Churchillian” shooting (but it might be 30yd or 40yd or otherwise, depending on the individual). Beyond that the technique does not work reliably for me.
Consequently, I would advise most sportsmen to shoot a bit more deliberately, possibly adopting a swing-through technique (although there are other options, such as “maintained lead”) as the range increases (or, putting it another way, as you exit your “comfort zone”). If you were lucky enough to shoot high birds all the time, if they were your norm, basing your shooting on visual contact and natural hand-to-eye coordination alone as per Churchill’s dictums and drills might work without qualification. But my practical observation is that there is a definite risk of the wheels falling off for most people if it is the only club in their bag of techniques. Most can’t make it work consistently at extreme ranges all the time (though if you try, focus and smooth movement is everything).
The next big difference between the two teachers is their advice on stance. It might seem that there is little room for compromise here. Stanbury suggests standing with feet at one o’clock and three o’clock with the heels 8in or so apart. The weight is well forward, “nose over toes” (my borrowed phrase, not Stanbury’s), and the rear heel slightly lifted. The front leg is straight but the knee is not locked. The weight is kept on the ball of the front foot. The weight stays on the front foot as one pivots for a shot to right or left.
The Churchill stance, on the other hand, is much squarer, with the heels closer, “about three or four inches apart”. There is another big difference. Churchill advises weight transfer depending on the shot. For the shot to the right, for example, the weight goes onto the right foot and onto the left foot for one to the left. Between shots the weight is evenly supported on both legs. On the clockface, the normal starting position for Churchill’s stance would have the left foot at about half past 11 and slightly forward, the right foot somewhere near one. The centre of gravity is much more central compared to Stanbury, where one pivots on the front foot as noted with the hips moving, too.
Stanbury describes standing too square as an error (and usually I would say he is right for people of average body type and build). Robert Churchill admonishes those who place the right foot behind the left. He suggests, questionably, that the latter technique prevents the butt sole firmly locating at the shoulder. When, however, you read between the lines and actually experiment with both styles, you discover that they have something in common – the attempt to achieve balance and free movement. Churchill even admits that when using heavy guns or guns with heavy charges “a greater proportion of the weight may be thrown onto the front leg”. It would seem both men may have exaggerated their positions for ease of description and have created stances that suited their own (very different) builds. Stanbury was tall and slim, Churchill shorter and stockier.
Anyone intent on improving his or her shooting is best advised to experiment rather than blindly accept any dogma. Meantime, I note, as someone classically trained in the Stanbury school by Stanbury’s apprentices Michael and Alan Rose (of the West London Shooting School), that I may adopt a hybrid stance for some clay-shooting disciplines (with trap shooting I position the front foot towards 12 o’clock, the intended breaking zone, and bring the rear foot to two, “cracking” the front knee, too). I will occasionally become an outright Churchillian on the game field if, for example, I am surprised by a fast bird
going right and I am positioned on that flank. Bringing the weight onto the right foot deliberately can make the shot easier and more fluent (I will also use the technique on a skeet layout to take the second High House shot when pairs are presented on stations 6 and 7 for the same reason: it’s natural, comfortable and promotes balance and good gun movement).
Whatever the technique, feet should never be set in stone, stance will often need to be adjusted for specific situations. Some will prefer being closer footed for high-bird work than for grouse and partridge, where rapid swinging and more stability may be needed. In any situation, a good stance must promote balance and minimise unnecessary tension. In particular, there should be as little tension as possible as the trigger is pulled. All the British, relatively close-footed styles have evolved for driven game shooting. They may be contrasted to wider, less considered, American and Continental game-shooting stances that look more like us walking-up birds over dogs in 18th- and early 19th-century prints.
Both Stanbury and Churchill have something to teach us. Generally, for my own driven game shooting, I prefer the elegant Stanbury stance combined with Churchill’s uncon- scious forward allowance within 30yd to 35yd, as discussed. Beyond that, Stanbury’s advice emphasising swing, line and continued unchecked movement is probably better and more likely to achieve consistent kills. And, as far as ab-initio novice instruction is concerned, Stanbury’s close “swing through” combined with awareness of line and follow through is definitely the way to go for most people. One may still evolve into a Churchillian subconscious leader with practice (and the Churchillian – just watch the bird and forget the rest – comfort zone may expand with experience).
We have not mentioned the mount thus far (a subject covered in more detail in Perfecting Gun Mount, July issue). The Churchill and Stanbury techniques are, again, different. Churchill advised keeping the barrels parallel to the line of sight as they were raised to face and shoulder. He suggested the stock comb should locate between jaw and cheekbone, tucking the butt under the armpit rather inelegantly in his drills (a position that has definite safety implications if muzzles remain low). Stanbury looked more elegant and, frankly, safer. Muzzles were kept just under line of sight to the mark, stock well out and with comb more or less parallel to the forearm. He also noted the importance of not dwelling in the shoulder as the mount was completed but firing as the butt touched it.
Churchill’s under the armpit mounting method – which looks like bayonet practice in his books and is dreadfully illustrated on the cover of some editions of Game Shooting – is visually unattractive but brilliant for teaching the mount to a beginner. It is also useful for remedial instruction (with a modern emphasis added on keeping the muzzles up more for safety). My own technique tends to be a hybrid one. I keep barrels/muzzles up but not on the line of sight as per Stanbury but slightly under it, safety allowing. Sometimes safety dictates raising the muzzles higher but the most efficient mount proceeds from a hold just under line. The butt may also be held gently against the tummy without being pulled back unnaturally as in the pure Churchill technique. It is a position of minimum tension with the stock indexed comfortably against the stomach rather than held in space.
In conclusion, Churchill’s was an instinctive style and he developed his XXV short-barrelled gun and parallel-with-lineof-sight mounting technique to go with it. Stanbury’s style was in some ways more natural, less contrived, and it looked more elegant. He favoured a longer barrelled gun. Both these great instructors still have much to teach us but it is not a question of either or. As my friend Chris Bird, chief instructor at Holland & Holland, notes: “Today, we mix and match more than in the past, taking parts of technique from both schools of thought as well as more recently evolved hybrid technique to suit the individual.” Michael Yardley is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors
Today, we take parts of technique from both schools
Left: classic Stanbury stance for high bird, weight on front foot. Right: more Churchillian, with weight on rear right foot for a shot slightly rightPrevious page: Percy Stanbury offers instruction
Main image: classic Stanbury address Inset: modified Churchill address with butt under armpit but muzzles raised
Above: my relaxed, Stanbury-influenced address. Inset, left: classic Stanbury