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Bird shooting – how to stop missing the ‘easy shots’

Tom Payne finds out why those simple ‘sitters’ are often the ones most frequently missed and advises on how to put things right

Is there such a thing as an ‘easy’ bird? And how would you define easy? You often hear it said that somebody has missed a ‘sitter’, but one person’s sitter may be another person’s Achilles heel. 

Inevitably, we all want to overcome those easy misses, but how do you actually get there? As ever, a lot of it is practice, but it is also a case of understanding what a bird is actually doing rather than just guessing at what you think it’s doing. 

If I think about it from my perspective, and from the many conversations I’ve had over the years, there are probably four ‘easy shots’ that get missed too often. The first of these is the walked-up cock pheasant. It’s probably also the most frustrating shot when you do miss it. It seems so simple — up it bursts from cover, but rush the shot or hesitate and hope turns quickly to disappointment.

A moment’s hesitation is all it takes for that walked-up cock pheasant to make its escape

The second commonly missed shot has to be that ‘easy’ partridge out of a covey. Your thoughts turn to a right-and-left, and this small covey has suddenly turned into a mess as you let the first bird go and then inevitably snatch at the second and miss it too. 

The third is the slow roosting pigeon. You’ve waited for a while for the roost to start, and you can see the bird approaching with its friends in tow. It hovers above its chosen branch and with two noisy shots, all is wasted. Pigeons everywhere but nothing on the floor.

Lastly, a classic one for children or young Shots is the stationary rabbit. I can’t tell you how many stationary rabbits I’ve missed. A rabbit at full pelt is no problem, but one sitting there, looking straight at you, is another matter altogether. I would rather take on a December high curling cock pheasant than that bulletproof ball of fur. Inevitably you aim and often end up missing over the top. 


Still conditions

So how do you ensure you don’t miss these so-called sitters? Normally a fast bird is seen as a tricky shot, and anything slow is considered easy. From a game shooting point of view, a pheasant coming straight at you in still conditions or a covey of upwind grouse battling their way through the butts would be considered slow, easy shots. In pigeon shooting terms, it would be the classic decoyed pigeon with landing gear down, just about to settle among his feeding friends. A mallard about to settle on the water when duck flighting is another example. 

But these are by no means easy. Anything slowing down or under power can be very tricky. On paper they should be very straightforward, but that loss of momentum in flight can cause problems, especially for the experienced Shot.

Using myself as an example, I shoot with a fairly heavy Perazzi. I don’t really see lead and I trust my gun speed. If a bird suddenly stalls during the shot, you as the shooter will stall with it and check your swing. You will look back at the gun and stop. Basically the bird stalls, you stall with it and the smoothness and timing of the shot goes wrong. In order to reduce the chances of this happening, it is key that, for example on a decoyed pigeon, you get your timing correct and don’t give it too much lead. Be steady and be considered.

Distance can buy you time, and shooting a 40-yard bird is often simpler than one at 15 yards

Distance can also fool the shooter into thinking a bird is easy. Many a shooter will consider a far-away bird the tricky shot and that close bird the simple shot. But those close shots, I promise you, can be some of the hardest ones you will undertake. Anything getting on top of you is not easy. Ballistically, things are against you as well — your pattern is tiny.

Normally close shots really only happen when shooting wild game or pigeons. Rarely are pheasants put into this category, but if they are it is normally the “do I or don’t I” shot — we’ve all been there. As soon as you think this about an approaching pheasant, you are doomed. Those close birds are better off left alone if that thought has entered your mind. 

With wild game, the control it takes to shoot close-range birds such as grouse, pigeons or wildfowl takes experience. Trust me, they are sporting but they look so easy. With the 15 to 20-yard bird, it is easy to panic because the distance gives you the impression you are running out of time, but you are not. Nothing can move faster than you can move that gun, so move with control. Don’t rush and don’t panic.

Equally, never think a long bird is harder. I have always said distance buys you time. I would rather a 40-yard bird than a bird that’s at 15 yards. Not because of sporting distance, but just because I’m able to shoot the 40-yard bird properly. 

Any loss of momentum in flight, such as a mallard dropping on to the water, can cause problems even for experienced Shots

Body mechanics are another important component of shooting. I talk about this a lot when I’m teaching, and especially during gun fits. When we talk about easy shots as explained above, the speed and distance determines what we feel is an easy shot, but in many cases they are harder than they look. 

Our bodies have a huge part to play in this. Think about how many pigeons you may have missed out of trees or pigeons floating over the top of decoys. A slow, lumbering cock pheasant going into the wind and for the clay shooters those hanging targets that almost become stationary: you would almost think they are completely unmissable, but our bodies can tell a different story.


Mental attitude

This brings me on nicely to the mental side of shooting. It is also a major factor. If you are shooting with confidence, then easy or difficult it doesn’t matter. Hit or miss you don’t beat yourself up because it’s a rare blunder and so doesn’t bother you. However, make a few too many mistakes at what you deem easy birds and this can quickly change. This can be as fast as the space of a couple of drives, a round of clays or an hour in the pigeon hide. 

It’s always the bird we think of  as simple that, when missed, is a real kick in the twig and berries. If you are in a position, and I know this has happened to so many, when you stand on your peg and ‘um and ah’ at that lowish pheasant, you have already missed. The conviction in the shot has gone because doubt has crept in. It is best to leave it.

Likewise, just because something looks easy, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it the respect and concentration the shot deserves. This is a very common mistake. It’s one I can fall foul of in a pigeon hide and complacency can get the better of me. Every shot you make needs concentration or you will be found wanting.

We all miss, we just don’t want to make a habit of it. What is easy to one person could be very difficult to someone else. To keep consistent is not easy, especially on the real thing with changing conditions, species of bird and type of ground. But if you do miss what you feel is an easy bird, don’t let it get to you. Pull your socks up and focus on the next one. 

Much of shooting well is down to confidence in your kit and belief in yourself