Tom Payne reveals the tricks to great shooting he has learned from watching some of the true masters of our sport in action
Looking out of my window at a big cock bird picking his way down a hedge, just beyond my garden, it strikes me that I shot fewer days this season than in any other since childhood. In truth, it showed. Rather than getting into my stride, I frequently found myself feeling rusty.
For the first time in a while I found myself having to really focus to shoot with any consistency, purely because I wasn’t getting enough time in under the birds. Missing, as is often the case, made me think about the truly great Shots I’ve seen over the years. Certainly, these old boys have put the practice in, but watch them closely or get chatting to them on the Gun bus and you’ll soon realise they have a few tricks up their sleeve to minimise the sort of misses most of us make.
Every once in a while, we find ourselves driving home after a day where some stranger has shot impeccably. They may have got lucky or they may have been shooting strategically. If it’s the latter, there’s a few things they might have been up to. I’ll give a few of them away — not all, but a few.
Shoot on a wing beat
Pheasants are interesting flyers and are relatively big birds. It is amazing how much a pheasant can suck up the impact of shot, especially a gliding one and a gliding cock bird even more so.
This may sound extraordinary, but I was told this years ago by one of the old greats: to box pheasants up, if you can, always shoot them on a wingbeat, never gliding. The latter part is well known; gliding birds are usually moving in a way that isn’t obvious, not just on a straight trajectory overhead, but are also likely to be sliding, which make them very hard to shoot.
The part about wing beat sounds crazy, but this guy’s theory was about the increased lethality of shot. He was adamant that a gliding bird can take shot because its muscles are tense. However, a bird beating its wings ends up with the shot driving through its less tense muscles and into the vitals, dramatically improving the kill. He even said to concentrate on the downward beat.
Hens only at 40-plus yards
We always talk about distances, the importance of knowing your own ability and reading what is killable. This next gem, told to me by one of the greats, was very interesting to see in action. When you are shooting with well-known Shots — especially household names — it’s difficult not to watch them. In fact, it’s impossible not to have a quick peek. I often end up watching intensely, because that’s how you learn.
On this day, years ago, in my 20s, I had the privilege of watching and learning from a legend. After the third drive I was chatting with him and complimenting the way he shot.
I asked questions, and he said if I got the chance, I should watch him on the next drive. His actual words were, “if you want to make a name for yourself in the field, watch carefully”. So I did. And suddenly it clicked. Not only were birds absolutely stone dead, with heads back, one after the other, there was something else very interesting — if he was to shoot at a pheasant over 40 yards, you could guarantee it was a hen, never a cock.
At the end of the day, I spoke with him and he said I was on the money. He said distances were important but clean killing was his priority. A hen pheasant is very killable up to 55 yards consistently; a cock pheasant, due to its size, is not.
“I’m not in the game of wounding. I’m here to shoot straight with consistent kills,” he emphasised. “Shoot cocks up to 40 yards and hens you can take on as you please.”
That really stuck with me.
Start further back
Let’s take the high, curling cock pheasant in January. A mentor of mine is one of the country’s all-round Shots and we were chatting away only the other week about how much a high cock pheasant takes to kill. A high, curling cock bird doesn’t often really move at huge speed and this can be deceptive because of distance. Accordingly, it’s very easy to lose all your gun speed. It is a bit like shooting a high crow — they just don’t seem to do anything. I find those kinds of birds a real challenge because it’s so easy to stall on them.
A few years back, this chap said to me that line is critical with all game. Coming in with your muzzles on the bird, or just behind it, allows you to pick the line correctly and read the bird. However, a high, slow, curling cock pheasant is different. To create your gun speed — and to make sure you don’t stall — start further behind the bird than you normally would.
As you gently accelerate past the bird, pulling the trigger, keep watching the bird hard until it folds. Because you have started further back you generate more gun speed, so long as you finish the shot; you will be amazed at how effective it is. Never let lead be your first thought or you will throw your gun out and stop. I’ve watched this chap shoot for years and he can really kill pheasants.
Work your window
A good friend and incredible Shot I have spent a lot of time with over the years highlighted to me the importance of working your window. Discipline is key, but when you watch him shoot, his focus never strays from the area in which he wants to kill birds. Whether it is grouse, partridge or even pigeon, he is adamant that if you don’t work a window/killing zone you are never fully in control.
I remember shooting next to one of the grouse greats a few years back. It was amazing to watch and, to be honest, you can’t teach what I am about to say — it is purely down to standing in front of so many grouse that he could do this. It also goes completely against the rule book, but it was great to see. On his first shot, he would brown/stab at the covey, but do so with controlled gun speed. ‘Browning’ a covey is effectively shooting at the whole covey without picking a bird, hoping one will be killed. But then the second bird was controlled and killed elegantly.
When I spoke with him at the end of the day, and we chatted about his shooting, he explained: “I’ve seen and shot at so many grouse that I just know where to put the gun on the first shot. It doesn’t matter what the covey is doing, that’s how I start. My aim is to shoot a pair of guns with utmost effect which, ultimately, means killing four grouse for four shots, with a final change to shoot two more.”
He described it as a kind of spot shooting the covey. You would never teach it but it worked for him.
Shoot like a gentleman
There are tricks of the trade that can be effective and make you look good, then there are Shots who have lost their bottle or don’t have the repertoire to be all-rounders. They are one-trick ponies. They are more than happy to look good but, when you watch carefully, they are only shooting one specific shot, always the same angle and at the same distance and will shy away from all the other birds in their window. They will be the first to congratulate themselves, but those with experienced eyes know the truth.
The great Shots will kill all angles, distances and speeds, but within their ability. Missing shots isn’t their thing. This is a big difference, as explained to me by a legend who is unfortunately no longer with us. Shooting at what you know you can kill is key. As a sportsman, this must still be a challenge but not so much so that the bird could be wounded. No great Shot likes missing; a challenge is one thing, but missing because birds are just on the limit of your ability is another. As was instilled in me, “shoot like a gentleman”.
The bird is the priority
My final tip is actually from a few of the greats. Game doesn’t need much lead. Yes, when they get a bit rangy, you have to open up slightly. “Ballistically, the ball is in your court,” as one said to me. “Your shot, on leaving your muzzles, on average, is doing 1,450fps. A pheasant or partridge is doing 30 to 45mph.” He promised me the shot would get there first. This is so true. If ever you feel lost, or the wheels come off, don’t immediately think it is lead. I don’t because of the lessons I have learned over the years from the best.
The bird is always the priority. Lead, gun speed and eyesight are all personal. Your shot, and how you approach it, is dictated by what the bird is doing on the wing. The way you attempt that shot is down to you, but, as was explained to me in my early 20s, style and technique combined with fieldcraft kill the bird.
It is a privilege to learn from Shots of such ability and experience. Yes, these are tricks developed over years by shooting greats, and they are not something I would suggest focusing on from the start, or even at present, but they give food for thought.
There are so many other tips and secrets to fantastic and consistent shooting I could give away. Stop me for a pint at the next Game Fair and I might divulge more secrets of not missing shots.