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Wingshooting from Theory to Field

Before you learn how to drop more birds in the field, it helps to understand the theory behind a relatively unexplored method on how to do it.


Part I: Theory In Practice
Culturally, there are not as many bird hunters in this country anymore as big-game hunters, and flying targets—especially feathery, unpredictable ones—are simply tougher to hit than stationary targets. Americans tend to have a rifleman’s rigid mentality when shooting guns. Most tend to shoulder a shotgun, nestle into its stock, close one eye to aim at the target then swing the barrel while guessing when they should pull the trigger. Because the target didn’t have the courtesy to pause as the shooter prepared to line up everything perfectly, it is usually missed.

Some shooters learn to lead a predictable skeet target or a passing duck mechanically and become passable shots if the targets remain fairly consistent. Others blame missing on an ill-fitting shotgun, cross-dominant eyes or a porous new choke. Many I’ve met simply grow frustrated, shoot even less and then proclaim, “I’m a rifleman, not a shotgunner.” 

Indeed, on paper it seems impossible to calculate the angle, speed and distance of a flying target fast enough to hit it. Yet, like throwing a football, if you learn to focus your concentration properly, trust your hands and ignore your nagging brain as it begs you to aim, with practice you can become a great wingshot. But before you learn how to drop more birds in the field, it helps to understand the theory behind a relatively unexplored method on how to do it.
Wingshooting Theory
There are several different schools of wingshooting, including the “pull through” and “sustained lead” techniques, but as all truly great wingshooters and trickshots, including archers, have discovered, an amazing subconscious is allowed to take over. These shooters have learned to focus only on the target and let their eyes and hands take over. So if the best wingshooters look like they pluck birds effortlessly out of the air with little thought or sporadic movement, it’s because they do. Over the years, I’ve witnessed this harmony-in-motion as manifested in the hands of masters, and I’ve even felt it a few times on my own. But even as an NRA-certified shotgun instructor, I struggled to explain the phenomenon.

Then last summer I visited Seven Springs resort in western Pennsylvania where noted shotgun instructors Gil and Vicki Ash teach their Optimum Shotgun Performance (OSP) Shooting School. I soon learned that Gil and Vicki’s method of instinctive shooting contains many of the infantile notions about wingshooting that I harbor, except their theory is bona fide via science and results. Although they don’t have a name for it, I call it the “see and shoot” method. Essentially that’s all it is; you focus on a target and shoot it without looking at the gun. It does away with chasing the target with the gun, increasing barrel speed at the last moment or worrying about lead lengths in terms of feet and inches.

This theory suggests that wingshooting is not a precision sport—your shotgun fires a swath of pellets—so the sooner you quit trying to be perfect, the faster you’ll have success.
What follows are a few of this technique’s main points. It will likely seem so laughably simple on these pages that you’d be well served to see a video demonstration or buy the OSP books or videos at to better understand it. 

Complex Algorithms Made Easy
Basically, the OSP School preaches that the brain, if given enough data via the eyes, can predict where a moving bird or target will be in the next instant. It’s much better to shoot where a target will be than to chase a target and shoot where it was. To borrow from Gil’s book, glance at the illustrated skeet above and imagine it’s moving from left to right. You don’t even have to think about it to predict where it will be next. That’s because your brain, if given enough data via the eyes, is masterful at determining an object’s speed, distance and path in relation to you. You should keep both eyes open to avoid halving the available data, and you should keep your head level and your gun out of your line of sight until the moment you fire it for the same reason. (Notice that a baseball batter who hits a 90 mph slider keeps his head nearly level and both eyes open and facing the pitcher.) In this way, you can focus on the target, then let the data guide your hands (and the gun’s muzzle) to the point in space where the target will be. When coordination between eyes and gun is achieved via practice, you’ll find that you don’t have to think about lead much; if the target is slow and/or near, you’ll intuitively point at it; if it’s a long or fast crosser your brain will compensate by inserting the barrel in front of it. 

But to do this you first must learn how to mount the gun properly every time. (See sidebar and flashlight drill on p. 48.) Only after you have learned to bring the gun to cheek smoothly while the hands, body, head and eyes follow the target (or bird) will you have consistent success.
You should never mount the gun, then focus on the target and swing with it. Conversely, the correct order should be: 1) Focus on a point in space farther from where you think the target will first appear; 2) Switch your focus to the front edge of the target as soon as you see it; 3) Hold the gun’s muzzle below the target and out of the line of sight and begin to rotate your head (eyes) and your belt buckle toward where it’s going (this will cause your arms to move the gun barrel under the target’s path); 4) Keep the gun level and smoothly move it up to your cheek just as the muzzle reaches the break point that you have pre-determined; 5) Pull the trigger.

Sounds simple, right? Like you can’t miss. Of course you can, however, because there are a dozen things that can go wrong. The most likely reasons are due to focusing on the gun, not seeing the target well, improper mounting or not inserting the barrel ahead of the target. If you miss, try to identify what you did wrong and correct it. When you make a hit, take a mental snapshot of what you saw and how it felt so you can duplicate it. This will help your brain coordinate what it sees with where the hands should be. Above all, remember to slow down, relax, focus only on the target, and whatever you do, don’t let that dreaded space between your ears get in the way of your success!

Correct Body and Gun Position
Stance: Don’t fight yourself by twisting your body. If you know where the target will be when you shoot, stand in that direction before mounting. If you don’t know, move your feet to a comfortable position when you see the target. You should be balanced with your feet a little less than shoulder-width apart and your weight on your front foot.

Head, Eyes and Hands: Focus on the front portion of the smallest detail of the target you can clearly see, and never take your eyes off it until you have fired. Move your head and body, not your eyes, to follow the target. Place your forefinger along the fore-end as if you are pointing at the target with it.

Gun: Keep your gun at the low-ready with the stock just under your armpit and the muzzle about level, above the dogs but below the target when it gets moving.

Leads: There are three categories of leads—defined as zones—in OSP’s system: Zone 1 (front edge of target) for incomers, slow- and close-quartering shots or out-goers; Zone 2 (2-8 feet) for close crossers and medium-quartering shots; Zone 3 (over 8 feet) for fast, long crossers. You will be amazed, however, that when you master this system you don’t have to consciously think about lead at all. Just see the target, and shoot it.

Part II: Techniques to Drop More Birds
It’s a worthwhile wager that your first taste of wingshooting success played out a little something like this: The bird got up, you mounted your gun in what could only be described as panic and, to your astonishment, the gun went off and the bird fell from the sky. The whole process took a matter of seconds, but life would never be the same.

Perhaps you, like me, have devoted most of your adult life to duplicating that moment over and over while loved ones continue to wish you’d just grow up. To paraphrase something Hemingway once wrote, from our first experience with upland birds and waterfowl, we’ve been consumed by them, and the thrill of each bird we kill is as good as the first. We’ve sought to refine our shooting technique through endless repetition, read books on shotgun theory and bought more dogs and shotguns than any mother-in-law would ever approve.

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1 Response to Wingshooting from Theory to Field

gary wrote:
August 23, 2010

Sounds great, I notice there is no mention of following thru ? not necessary?