Mastering driven pheasants
“You’re behind it,” is the pat advice. Yet often we’re missing in front or off line. But faults can be remedied
Michael Yardley explains how to remedy missing in front or off line
When out shooting you often hear some well-meaning soul say, “You’re behind that!” Well, as a professional shooting instructor I know many – probably most – misses are behind. But not all. It’s a foolish assumption to think all misses are due to insufficient forward allowance and/or gun stopping. I often witness misses in front as well as below and above the mark – the former are common when shooting driven game, the latter often seen clay shooting (where targets have a tendency
to drop as they decelerate). The interesting thing about people missing in front is that they usually have absolutely no idea that they are doing it. They think they are behind and sometimes simply exacerbate the fault by swinging farther and farther in front. When their true fault is pointed out to them by a competent instructor – one who can see the shot consistently and understands the subtleties of technique and gun fit – it can come as a revelation. Often, I find myself saying to clients, “You are actually well ahead of that bird. Have another go but this time shoot at it.” (Or at the front edge if it’s a clay.) If the penny drops, this can significantly improve performance in the field.
Other instructors have had a similar experience. Chris Bird, chief instructor at the Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds, told me: “Missing in front does
happen more often than people think. We especially see it in people who come for an emergency lesson in the later stages of the season. The usual cause is poor timing of the shot. They start too far behind the bird and then flash through. As a result, the catch-up swing speed is too fast, resulting in either missing in front or flashing through and then stopping the gun, resulting in a miss behind. Head lifting is a really common issue with misses in front as well, either because the shooter is now so far in front that he has lost sight of the bird – and lifts his head to try and see it – or because he’s restricted in his ability to swing comfortably because of injury, age or poor body position.”
I can only concur and also note that head raising can lead to misses behind and above. I often use a mid-height clay tower with a couple of variable traps to present driven targets at varying angles for game shooters. This set-up has taught me a great deal about the patterns of missing typical driven birds. Most misses to the right (for the righthander) are misses behind but many misses to the left are in front (both relate, of course, to misses left of the mark). On straight incomers you see far more misses left of
the line than right. Reasons for missing birds moving right are usually accounted for by: poor body position, caused by not moving the feet when you should be stepping into the bird and ensuring there is minimum body tension on pulling the trigger; a misunderstanding of the forward allowance required; or, a failure to follow through with shoulders parallel to the bird’s line. Mounting error can also be a significant problem as well as excessive gun movement.
One bird to the right that often catches out right-handers (and may result in a miss high and slightly behind) is a mid-range one that is only slightly right of centre. This can be a difficult bird to connect with consistently if there is any sort of mounting or eye dominance issue or if stance is poor, such as arching the back and bringing the weight back. It’s difficult to get a perfect line and it’s easy to raise the head. The result is a miss slightly left, high and off-line. The solution is to take it as an incomer but to twist the comb slightly anticlockwise into your cheek as you take the shot. So, in this situation canting the gun may prove an advantage if it encourages you to stay on the line of the bird.
Unless it is a straight driven shot or within a tight arc to the front, shoulders should be level with the line of the bird if possible. It’s essential to practise mounting the gun well, keeping the barrels on line and keeping the head well down in all situations. It’s so easy to lift the head, meantime, without realising it, especially if the weight comes back.
Birds on the left side may also be missed behind by the right-hander but misses in front are frequent at mid range and often relate to eye dominance (even in someone who thinks they have right-eye dominance or who has been tested as such). The left eye takes over and the bird is missed, typically a foot or two forward. A quick fix may sometimes be achieved by squinting the left eye. When possible, the individual should be taught the correct ‘picture’ to break the bird with a renewed emphasis on the importance of sustained visual contact and noting that the speed of the bird should always dictate the speed of swing. Gun fit should also be checked with elevated muzzles as well as horizontal.
Sometimes an alteration to cast-off or comb height may be needed, too. This may be assessed properly on pattern plates and with certain targets, such as straight incoming and going-away birds. Occasionally, the eye dominance issue only shows up when the individual is stressed in particular situations. So, we cannot say the pattern plate is definitive though it may be a great help.
For all-important comb height, here is a quick test: if you raise the proven empty gun to 45 degrees and lose sight of the bead with the eye looking down the rib and while applying normal cheek pressure, the comb needs raising. A low comb will lead to misses to the left for the righthander and to the right for the southpaw. As well as misses below the mark, potentially.
The sensible shot will not assume he knows the exact condition of his eye dominance and knows it may change. He or she will seek help from an instructor periodically. Most people do not have quite the eye dominance that they think. There are many differences relating to age and gender. In my experience, previous eye testing has not been thorough enough. Years of observation has taught me that there exist all sorts of variations between full right and left dominance (I now work with six categories of eye dominance). Moreover, many men suffer changes in eye dominance in middle-age.
What else causes misses in front? Rushing is frequently an issue and it may lead to misses both in front and behind when the gun is suddenly stopped, as discussed. Rushing is aggravated by light guns that are quick to start and quick to stop (don’t assume a lighter gun will improve your shooting – it will take more muscular effort to control). Short-barrelled guns may also aggravate misses in front as well as gun-stopping.
The shooting method that you adopt can determine your pattern of missing, too. ‘Maintained lead’ methods of applying forward allowance - whether deliberate and measured or instinctive - may be useful in some situations. I tend to use them wildfowling at longer ranges and for clays at extreme range but they can lead to more misses in front. As these tend to be clean misses, there is at least the consolation of not pricking birds. My experience, however, has taught me that anyone with significant eye-dominance issues should avoid maintained lead and stick with variations on swing-through for game shooting.
Generally, missing in front becomes more likely at extreme ranges and on midto short-range birds. When shooting grouse or partridges near the butt or peg, missing in front can occur because the birds are not going as fast as you think, they are just close in, creating a deceptive visual impression of speed. This is aggravated by the perceived shortage of time (notably the case on short-horizon grouse butts) and excitement. So, movements may become wild in the heat of the moment. Not only must one be careful not to rush in front (especially on grouse on upwind drives) but one must pay due attention to line, which will do much to prevent errors of forward allowance both behind and in front. Grouse are frequently missed above (hence the saying ‘grouse wear spats’).
Maintaining good, three-beat shooting rhythm is always important. ONE–TWO– THREE on every shot – or, YOU–ARE–DEAD. Don’t shortcut the swing. Body position must always promote good balance, especially at the moment the trigger is pulled. If possible, the point of minimum tension should be where you intend to kill the bird (which
Generally, missing in front becomes more likely at extreme ranges
and on mid- to short-range birds
Visual discipline is vital. Stare every bird to death with focus on beak or head
may entail stepping into the bird’s line as you swing the gun – front foot and barrel tip moving together). If there is tension in the swing one will tend to shoot behind but one may also shoot off line and in front through sudden acceleration in compensation.
Visual discipline is vital, the most important thing in shooting technique bar safety. Stare every bird to death with fine focus sustained on the beak or head. If you learn to do this – and never forget vision is a skill in the shooting context – problems relating to eyedominance will be minimised. There may be a gun-fit component in all this, as noted. If your comb is just a bit too low, the view to the right eye may be blocked in some situations (for example, that high shot to the left) the wrong eye may be encouraged to take over and a miss in front result. The practical advice here is that maintaining hard focus on the target is more important than most realise (it promotes good hand-to-eye coordination) and a bit too high a stock is far better than one that is a bit too low.
Chris Bird notes another possible cause of misses forward: “Occasionally, misses in front result when the butt slips. The front hand is pushing the gun correctly to the target but the body may slow through lack of flexibility. So, the left hand pushes as it should but the gun slips up. Missing in front may also typically happen when someone has impeded themselves on the first shot and then over-compensates with the second. Or they have missed low or high, assumed they are behind and changed what in fact was a correct lead picture.”
I have noted on a skeet layout that when one shoots the centre pair the second bird is often missed in front. On long crossers, many of the people I stand behind will miss a clay with the first shot behind but miss it in front if they take a second shot. I have also noted that I have a greater tendency to miss in front on game than clays. Missing in front is common on extreme and close birds as noted, but it may also happen on average driven pheasants if you practise a lot on clays. The reason for this is probably that the typical pheasant is travelling at around 40mph and the average standard clay at around 50mph. Partridges are significantly slower.
In conclusion, keep your eyes locked on the bird and your head down, don’t rush. The real speed of the bird should always dictate the speed of swing not a false perception. The writer is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors
Birds at extreme range are missed in front (and off line) far moreoften than many experienced guns might imagine
Above: most driven birds typically presented are missed behind but as range drops misses in front become more common. Below, inset: a loader or companion can often spot a miss in front, a revelation to the gun. Right: the issue is always lead and line
Left: missing in front may become more common with ‘maintained lead’ techniques. For most, swing-through will serve best on long birds