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Shooting practice – how to become a better shot

Peter Theobald debunks the flights of fancy that some Shots may harbour and offers tips on shooting practice

Peter advises only to shoot pigeons you are confident are in range

Every shotgun shooter should have as their new year resolution: “I want to become a better shot.” This is regardless of whether they are shooting at clays or live game. The benefits are obvious: hit more clays and you win more competitions; become a better shot and more birds end up in the bag.

The adage I abide by is: there’s no fun in missing. I have worked hard over the years to become the most proficient shooter I can be. I am naturally competitive, a trait that served me well in my clay-busting days but has also enabled me to cope fairly well with just about anything that flies. 

Competitiveness should not, however, replace discipline when it comes to shooting live creatures. This means only firing at birds that are within your ability to kill cleanly at least 50% of the time. I despair when people boast of going to such-and-such high-pheasant shoot where the kill-to-cartridge ratio is anywhere between 10 and 15 to one. Remember, this is an average; there will be plenty of Guns who are only killing one bird per 20 shots. This clearly indicates to me that the birds are out of range for the ability of the Guns, and most of the time.

Which brings me neatly on to the subject of averages, particularly when taking on the highly mobile woodpigeon. Because nobody is egging us on to take an out-of-range shot, there really is no excuse to fire at birds that we are not confident of hitting once every two shots – in other words, 50%. Of course, we all love the ‘gallery’ shot, especially when sharing the hide with a pal, but how many 70-yarders do you fire at before an unfortunate pigeon catches a lucky pellet in the head? Because that is what it is, a lucky pellet – as anyone who has taken the trouble to pattern-test their gun at the aforementioned range and found there are gaps big enough for whole flocks of pigeons to fly through will attest to. 

The clay ground is the best place to practise your technique

I have watched enough YouTube clips of someone breaking a clay at 100-plus yards and know how tempting it is for people to think you can do the same with a live bird. So, here’s an experiment for you: draw the life-size outline of a pigeon on a large piece of paper, then measure, and I mean measure, 70 yards. Put your tightest choke in your gun and fire 10 shots at the target. Now count how many pellets you have put in the bird’s head. I have done this test, and it is usually none, and this at a stationary target. 

Again, watching YouTube, how many times do you see a high pheasant shudder when a pellet strikes its back end, only to sail on into the distance? Devotees will always tell you these birds are invariably collected by the army of pickers-up stationed half a mile behind the line. But can they honestly say they gain any satisfaction from not seeing the birds fold dead in the air?


So, how do we become a better shot?

First, it is important to understand which of the three recognised methods of imparting lead you employ: pull away, where the gun is on the target during mounting, increasing in speed until the correct lead is acquired; swing through, where the gun is behind the target, then overtaking it until you reach the desired lead; or maintained lead, where you mount the gun on a pre-determined spot in front of the target. This method seems to be the preferred choice of a lot of shooters, but it requires a lot of practice to learn the different lead pictures for the various range and speeds of any given target 

It’s amazing how many Guns have no idea what method they use and explains why, when the wheels fall off, they don’t know what to do to get things back on track. Pick a method that suits your style, then practise on clays, preferably with someone behind you to see where you are putting your shot. Do not expect to learn to shoot on live quarry, hoping you will automatically eradicate bad habits. In my experience, it only compounds them.

Apart from the increased enjoyment of hitting more birds or targets, your pigeon shooting will benefit by not constantly educating birds that you miss. There is no doubt in my mind that any pigeon that has felt the hot draught of an ounce of shot whistling past its backside is going to be a tad shy the next time it spots a decoy pattern. Now we can’t have that, can we?

Becoming a better shot will lead to more enjoyment in the hide