The camouflaged hunters hiding at the edge of a sunflower field got ready for what appeared to be some easy shots. A flock of doves was headed their way, flying easily within shotgun range.
Four shots rang out. And the birds kept flying, unscathed by the barrage, as the hunters looked at each other in disbelief. Sound familiar? It does to many Missouri hunters.
Whether it be the dove fields, a duck marsh, or the brushy borders of quail fields, there are plenty of missed shots each fall and winter. And frustration mounts, sometimes to the point that hunters leave the sport.
But there is hope, according to MDC’s Eric Edwards and Mike Brooks. They lead a program called Effective Wingshooting, which breaks down common mistakes shooters make and offers solutions to remedy them.
The workshop once was a stand-alone program, but now is incorporated into other MDC workshops, such as duck hunting and quail hunting.
The goal is still the same — to turn hunters into better wingshooters, reduce wounding rates of birds, and increase the fun.
“When hunters shoot a box of shells and only take three birds, they’re practicing on the resource,” said Brooks, who is the range manager at the Andy Dalton Shooting Range on the Bois D’ Arc Conservation Area near Ash Grove. “It doesn’thave to be like that.
“Knowing how to lead a bird, estimating distance of your target, having a gun that is properly fitted for you — that all goes into it. That, and a lot of practice.”
Edwards and Brooks are accustomed to hearing, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it,” when hunters attend their classes.
But the old way isn’t always the best way.
“Sometimes we have to untrain them and reprogram them,” Brooks said.
The most common problem? The way shooters lead — or fail to lead — their target. “We find that a lot of shooters aim at the target and stop their shotgun instead of swinging right through it,” said Edwards, outreach education coordinator for MDC. “They greatly underestimate how far they need to be in front of that bird.
“We teach them to start their swing in back of the bird and continue right through the target. They should focus on the water droplet on the beak of that bird. When they see daylight, they should slap the trigger while continuing to swing their gun.
“The British have a saying for that process: Butt, belly, beak, bang.”
Plenty of practice at the trap and skeet range will help hunters perfect that fluid motion of swinging through a target rather than stopping their shotgun and aiming, Edwards said.
But practice doesn’t always make perfect. A shooter should assume the proper stance, facing sideways at the target much the same as a batter faces a pitcher in baseball, with feet shoulder length apart. He or she should learn to mount the gun properly, pushing it away from the body and sliding the stock under the cheek bone and nestled against the shoulder. “For a right-handed shooter, there should be two fingers’ width from the tip of the nose to the right thumb,” Edwards said.
The shooter should keep his cheek on the gun as he swings through his target.
For all of that to work, though, a shooter must have a shotgun that is fitted to his build. A stock that is too long or too short can throw things off.
“Gunsmiths have all kinds of ways to measure what your right fit is,” Brooks said. “They can add length to the stock and they can shorten it so that the gun is right for your build.”
Bringing it to the Field
You’ve learned the basics. You’re breaking clay targets at the range, and you’ve even tried sporting clays, which simulates hunting conditions.
It should be an easy transition to the hunting fields, right? Well, not so fast.
Brooks warns that hunters should practice with the same type of ammunition at the range that they will be using in the field.
“If a hunter practices with lead shot and then uses steel shot in the field, they will notice a difference,” Brooks said. “Steel shot is lighter and travels faster.”
And then, there is a matter of estimating distance.
“The leads you practiced at the range will be different in the field.”
A federal survey found that hunters take their first shots at ducks on average at 53 yards and at geese at 67 yards. In other words, way out of range.
Contrast that to most of the first shots that Edwards takes — at close range. “There are hunters who can knock down a duck with a long shot,” Edwards said. “But you can increase the chances of wounding a bird and not getting a clean kill at that range, too. “I’m selective in choosing my shots. I won’t shoot at anything longer than 30 yards away.”
Mastering Steel Shot
When surveys and monitoring programs in the 1970s showed that thousands of waterfowl were dying from ingesting lead pellets — and bald eagles were dying from eating the infected waterfowl — the federal government took action.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began phasing in a ban on the use of lead shot in the late 1970s and hunters reluctantly went to the cheapest nontoxic alternative, steel shot.
The transition was anything but smooth. Hunters complained that the new shot damaged shotgun barrels, was less effective, and threatened the future of waterfowl hunting.
The uproar got so bad during the phasing-in period that the Cooperative North American Shotgunning Education Program (CONSEP) was formed to show hunters how to make the transition to shooting steel shot.
Tom Roster, a nationally known ballistic expert, was hired as a paid consultant, and he dedicated countless hours shooting steel, exploring its characteristics, and teaching others. He found steel shot can be very effective, but it takes a different approach than shooting lead shot.
For example, the effectiveness of shot sizes differ. “He found that with steel shot you had to go two sizes larger than lead,” Brooks said. “For example, if you used a No. 6 shell
in lead, you had to go to a No. 4 in steel.”
Shot characteristics also are different. Steel shot has a tighter pattern and a shorter shot string than lead, reducing the chances of a hunter getting “lucky” and having a few stray pellets hit a target with a misjudged shot.
But Roster maintains that the switch to steel shot has reduced wounding rates and is just as effective as lead. The key? Practice, practice, practice.
Even the complaint about steel damaging shotgun barrels has been resolved. Roster designed a way to encase the shot so that it could move through the gun without causing damage, a move now being used by manufacturers.
It’s summer and hunting seasons are still a long way off. But it’s not too early to start preparing.
Get that shotgun out and head to the trap range. Practice establishing your swing-through lead, experiment with different-sized shot, and even hit the sporting clays course.
By the time opening day arrives, you might be surprised at how many more birds you take home this fall for the dinner table.
The Do’s and Don’ts of the Field
- Don’t “skybust.” Hunters who misjudge distances and shoot at faraway ducks can cause problems for other parties on public land. The waterfowl often flare and refuse to come into decoys after the “warning shots.” Or sometimes, they are wounded and fly off.
- Do wait for close shots, in the 30-yard range, and it will increase your chances of a clean kill and add to the enjoyment of your hunt.
- Don’t “flock shoot.” When a flock of ducks drops in, it’s hard not to shoot into the middle of the concentration, figuring you’re sure to hit something. That’s the wrong approach.
- Do pick out a single bird and concentrate on shooting it, then move onto a second target.
- Don’t get flustered by a covey rise. Some hunters forget their shooting form when a covey of quail gets up in front of them.
- Do concentrate on one bird instead of the entire group.
- Don’t get psyched out by those smaller ducks, such as bluewinged teal. They have a reputation for being speed demons, but in reality, it just seems that way because of their small size and rapidly beating wings.
- Do pick up their flight early, and concentrate on swinging through your target.
How to properly lead a target using the swing-through method
- Begin your swing behind the target.
- Continue a fluid swing right through the target focusing on the beak of the bird.
- When you see daylight in front of the beak, slap the trigger while continuing to swing the gun past the target.
- To properly mount the gun, assume the proper stance facing sideways against the target with feet shoulder length apart (Step 1), push the gun out and up (Step 2), and then slide the stock backwards under the cheekbone (Step 3). When the gun is properly mounted, the butt stock and cheek on the comb should touch at the same time. Mounting the gun can be practiced at home during the off season with an unloaded firearm in front of a mirror.