By Joel Vance | December 22, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 1996

Life is filled with whys: "Why can't I get Mary Jane to pay attention to me?"

"Why can't the IRS pick on somebody its own size?"

"Why can't I make more money than I spend?"

But the big question for any bird hunter, if he happens to be me, is "Why can't I shoot better?" There are some Anglo Saxon modifiers involved in that simple question, but we won't go into that.

You'd think after 45 years of bird hunting, you'd learn something about shooting a shotgun effectively. Well, you probably would - but I haven't. I still volley dark clouds of little bitty pellets that no game bird could fly through but most do.

There are 585 pellets in an ounce load of No. 9 shot, the size I'm currently trying to exorcise my devils with. That's a hail of lead, a smoking cloud that should have the skies raining dead birds.

I might as well be shooting puffed rice at flying Percherons.

Joe America is reluctant to admit that he can't shoot goals like Michael Jordan or smack line drives like Ted Williams or shoot a shotgun like...well, like his buddies, all of whom are fine people, but not as fine as Joe. I hunt with guys who never miss a makeable shot. But I'll miss the same shots most of the time. I do it when I'm alone, so I can't even blame it on peer pressure or competition. It's just simply poor shooting.

It may be the result of a curse. The Vances came over from Ireland a couple hundred years ago. Ireland is full of leprechauns, little people who hold a grudge forever. I'm convinced that my poor shooting is the result of an Irish curse flung on the Vance Family way back in the 1500s.

The Vances, then named "Vaux," supposedly invaded Ireland at the time of the Norman Conquest and probably ticked off a whole bunch of leprechauns who had been sprawling on toadstools watching "As the World Turns" and other netherworld television favorites. There were Vauxs banging away at Irish quail, making a lot of noise and probably leaving the gates open so the leprechaun cattle (which are about the size of a cotton rat) got out.

So the leprechauns cursed the castle of Vaux, Vans, whatever the name had become or would become, with a lot of Ibernian epithets like "faith an' begorrah!" and "your mother wears gum boots" and 400 years later, Joel Vance still is paying.

World-famed shooting instructors have hung over my shoulder like major league umpires and their conclusion is, "Hmmm, you should be hitting them." Then they edge away as if fearful something might rub off.

My shotgun ineptitude really belly flops into the septic tank of shooting with targets that have feathers. Normally, I can hit a respectable number of trap, skeet or sporting clays targets. By "respectable," I mean enough that I'm average if the rest of the field never picked up a shotgun before.

Sometimes, however, the virus flares up and encompasses anything I might shoot at. Sometimes it's so virulent that if I touched off a round at the broad side of a barn, I'd riddle the chicken house next door.

Once I shot trap among my peers. It was a situation fraught with built-in peril. Leprechauns love to wait until you have an audience. It's the way leprechauns are.

I hefted an over/under 12-gauge and found it sweet and compliant, warm and soft in my hands, a dream date. We walked to the shooting line together, arm in arm, and prepared to dance. I missed the first shot, but shucks, everyone is entitled to start slowly. The target puller and I chuckled over this obvious aberration.

I shot and shot and nothing broke. The sky was black with lead pellets, save for a cone of safety through which flew White Flyer after White Flyer. Other shooters stood, their mouths agape, for they had never before witnessed complete shooting ineptitude. Doddering bag ladies with cataracts and arthritic fingers scarcely able to clutch a shotgun could have broken more targets.

Toddlers shooting from the hip would have beaten me. Winos from dank alleys so blitzed they saw six or eight birds going out instead of one, still would have broken more.

Each "pull!" I shouted was followed quickly by someone saying "Lost!" or "Miss!" I forget which, but soon they started chanting, "Idiot!" and "Dummy!"

The shooting range instructor, a kindly type loaned me a gun with choke tubes. He kept installing looser and looser chokes until the next step was to screw in a great horn, like a blunderbuss. It made no difference. I couldn't have hit the ground with my hat. I know because I took it off and threw it down and tried to stomp on it and missed and sprained my ankle.

If I were consistently awful, I'd probably take up something I could be good at (sleeping, eating popcorn, spitting for distance, etc.). But every so often, in the tradition of the blind hog and acorns, I shoot well.

It usually happens with a borrowed gun. I can take a borrowed gun with bicycle tape on a cracked stock that looks as if the cat uses it for a scratching post and litter the ground with dead birds. Can't hit the sky shooting straight up with my own guns...but give me a loaner and you'll think I'm possessed by the ghost of legendary hunter Nash Buckingham.

It has happened too many times to be coincidence. Although leprechauns live in my guns and throw my shot in unpredictable directions, an unseen being whom I picture as looking much like Glinda, the Good Witch from Oz, only wearing a shell vest and carrying a 20-gauge wand, stands beside me when I use borrowed guns.

Once, my hunting buddy Spence Turner wanted to try my new 28-gauge American Arms double, at that time the latest candidate to end my lifetime of shooting woes.

He handed me his 20-gauge Winchester 101 over/under. For the next couple of hours, I darkened the skies with eddying feathers. Quail fell like hailstones in a summer storm.

Spence, meanwhile, shot the way old ladies play one-on-one basketball. My leprechauns had gotten confused. They thought I still was shooting the 28 and they stuck with it, racing around in the barrels to push the shot in erratic directions.

Finally, Spence snarled, "Gimme my gun back." The leprechauns, realizing their mistake, leaped from gun to gun as we made the exchange (I thought I glimpsed a furtive shimmer in the air) and now plagued the 101, believing that I was shooting it.

My 28 began to perform the way the lyrical writers of upland prose describe it. I even doubled to limit out. I looked at the little gun with awe, reveling in the unfamiliar weight of a heavy game bag.

Spence, meanwhile, saddled with a full load of little people, fumed forward into the setting sun, firing volleys of shot and curses at covey after covey. "You ruined it!" came his distant cry as I lolled at the truck, waiting for him to give up.

He has not loaned me a gun since and goes to great lengths to tell others not to trust me with their guns either.

Since I can't borrow guns anymore, the obvious solution is a new shotgun. Somewhere, there is a magic wand that will fire invincible loads. I have bought about a half-dozen potential magic wands so far.

My first was a 12-gauge over/under that I finally threw on the ground after I'd missed two wide-open quail shots. I looked at the empty gun with loathing and stomped on it. My hunting partner, Dave Mackey, is a candidate for sainthood because he didn't laugh. He turned away and pretended to study the sunset (which wasn't due for another seven hours). I growled like a dog with rabies and perhaps frothed at the mouth. But mostly I concluded that the problem was in the gun, not in the shooter.

So I bought a 1910 L.C. Smith double that I thought would have the weight of the ages in its case-blued upholstery. I'd read all the classic upland bird hunting books and believed that if I were to have a gun like Nash Buckingham, I could shoot like Nash Buckingham.

That's like thinking if you drink a lot you can write like Ernest Hemingway.

Those little green guys still were working overtime. The Smith didn't shoot any better than the Sears and Roebuck autoloader that I shot when I was in high school. The only difference was that I had one less shotshell to waste.

Then I tried the 28-gauge because someone told me that a 28-gauge shoots better than it should. What they didn't tell me was that this is true only if the shooter knows how to shoot. Its primary advantage was that it weighed less than the 16 gauge.

I'm working with (more like "wrestling with") a 20-gauge Browning Sporter now. I've run through all the modern gauges except 10 and .410, neither of which is considered a quail gun.

The 20-gauge is beginning to show the luck of the Irish. Last season a covey flushed directly in front of me. I carefully covered the first bird and shot, swung to a second shot. Both were straightaway shots from Shooting Kindergarten.

I missed both and cried, "Now that's the way to miss a double!" The guys I was hunting with thought this a funny statement. About as funny to me as opening the door to find the Angel of Death checking his appointment book to see if he has the right address.

There seems to be only one course of action left. I need a new gun. It will not be as easy to sell my wife on this verity as it was the first four times.

But, hey, when you shoot like me, you learn to lie creatively.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Patrick Kipp
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Block
Circulation - Laura Scheuler