Rifleman (left) holds thumb alongside stock, squeezes trigger with first joint of finger. Shotgunner (right) wraps thumb around grip, finger “pulls” trigger.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” An angry, but almost more amused voice brought me to my senses and I stopped rapidly: on the 26 yard line at a state trap championship. Now you might reasonably conclude that there’s nothing particularly unusual in that, in fact, there was only one slight irregularity – I was still in my car! I had been completely mesmerized by the confirmation of what my first glance had transmitted to the unbelieving recognition center of my think box: a man was shooting 16 yard clays with a telescopic sight mounted on his pump gun! With true British aplomb, sangfroid and all that sort of thing, in an embarrassing situation, I proceeded to back cooly off the firing line – and almost mowed down the astounded squad of trapshooters – I’d been so busy keeping my cool, that I had overlooked the minor matter of shifting into reverse gear!
Moments later, I climbed sheepishly out of the car and trying very hard to look like the incident never happened, sat down to study the phenomenon that had been the cause of my comic blunder. Who on earth would be using a telescopic sight on clays? Only person I could think of was my International Trap shooting companion, Elgin Gates. The world-renowned big-game hunter had recently taken up clay busting and his weapons carried an impressive collection of Gates-special modifications – so why not a telescope?!! In fact, the shooter turned out to be an elderly gentleman, who had lost the sight of one eye and had little vision left in the other – the only way he could see targets at all was with the aid of a 2x scope and he really did remarkably well with it!
…you can walk out on any trap or skeet range and at a glance pick out rifle-shooters from their stance – they’re fighting an uphill struggle.
The incident set me thinking: here was an individual, forced by a personal handicap to borrow something from a rifle to help him break clays. Could any other aspect of rifle shooting be successfully applied to clay busting? The more I examined every aspect of both, the more the answers kept coming up: “no” – it’s amazing how little these sister sports have in common. Due to school, R.O.T.C. and civil training programs, as well as military service, many more people will have been taught to handle rifles than shotguns. This training is of virtually no help to them at all, should they decide to try the scatter-gunning game. In fact, so opposite are their basics, that if they wish to be proficient with a shotgun, they will have to unlearn just about everything they know and start again from the beginning. This isn’t easy. It’s far easier to teach someone who knows nothing and instill in them the correct methods from the start, than to have to break already grooved-in gun-handling habits and replace them with the new ones. However, you can walk out on any trap or skeet range and at a glance pick out rifle-shooters from their stance – they’re fighting an uphill struggle. So, I’ve constructed this “do-it-yourself conversion kit” for the rifle shooter, to place his feet firmly on the path to successful and enjoyable clay busting or shotgun hunting.
Foot positioning. Rifleman (right) at right angles to line of fire. Shotgunner’s (left) held at 45 degrees.
Seeing as we’re down at his feet, it’s as good a place as any to start. The rifleman’s feet are set at right angles or 90 degrees to his line of fire. The clay buster splits the difference and places his at approximately 45 degrees to his line of fire. The rifleman’s feet are also set further apart to firmly brace his body. the clay buster’s can be and should be no wider apart than his normal standing position. Many clay busters set their feet either wider, or almost completely together: in the first case, they achieve unwanted rigidity and in the second, a loss of balance! The rifleman’s stance is designed to enable him to carry the weight of a heavy rifle for a considerable period of time, by “resting” it on his body. However, the shotgunner holds his gun for far less time and so can carry the weight without muscle strain in his hands/arms alone.
Before moving on from the feet, let’s clarify that for our rifleman I am referring to the man who is shooting targets or the hunter shooting stationary game, as opposed to the rifleman shooting running boar or moving game. Our shotgunner is the clay buster who (except for International Skeet), starts with his piece in the shoulder and the hunter who brings the rifle up from his side. The shotgunner/hunter using slug ammunition will either be using his shotgun as a fixed-target “rifle,” or like the running boar shooter – which is the nearest the two sports come to meeting on common ground!
Continuing with stance, the rifleman who is accustomed to standing, kneeling and prone, should know that a clay buster only fires in the standing position. A hunter will sometimes shoot from other positions, for instance sitting or kneeling in a blind or a ditch. Stance also brings out the major difference between our two shooters: the rifleman is shooting at fixed targets and therefore requires the maximum rigidity, while the shotgunner, whose targets can be moving as fast as 100 mph (International Trap), requires the complete reverse – total fluidity.
A rifleman and shotgunner posed together show basic differences in shooting stances. Off-hand rifleman’s stance (left) is upright and rigidly held. Basic trap or skeet shooter’s stance (right) – note incline forward, weight on left foot, left knee just broken.
The rifleman locks not only his rifle into position, but his whole body too. The shotgunner locks only the gun into his shoulder. His piece must become almost like a third arm, an extension of, and an integral part of the shooter’s body. The gun must move with the body like a tank turret. The shotgunner’s feet are the “tank” and the rest of his body, from the ankles up, is the “turret,” which, with the gun, must move as one inseparable unit. The rifleman’s body leans slightly backwards, with his weight on both feet and the knees firmly locked. The shotgunner’s body should incline forward from the ankles until his weight is all on the forward leg, then that knee should be broken just enough to allow fluidity for lateral swing. This incline and broken knee should not be confused with the ridiculously exaggerated forward bend from the waist, with knee(s) broken so tar that their owner looks as if he’s about to either fall over on his face or sit down! Often, these are the ignorant, mimicking in exaggerated form, the styles of some established shooters. I have yet to find one of these grotesquely posturing individuals who can tell me what benefit he gains from contorting his body so and placing it under such unnecessary strain.
Another reason, apart from the movement to target, for the shotgunner’s incline forward and fluid stance, is to enable him to absorb the recoil of his gun with the minimum disturbance to the second shot he may have to make. Although the rifleman’s rigid position subjects him to more recoil, recovery for a second shot is rarely relevant to his shooting. A word of warning to those riflemen who have only shot .22’s (which have no recoil) and may have developed a habit of holding their rifles very lightly into the shoulder: when using a shotgun, this hold must be firmer, as there will be an appreciable recoil factor. On firing, a shotgun recoils backwards and upwards. If it is locked to your shoulder and face, you will ride with it, unharmed. But, if you hold it away from shoulder and face, in a mistaken attempt to avoid recoil (a fault of many beginners), it’s going to thump you!
Closeup of rifleman’s head position and hand grip (top). Shotgunner (bottom) places head further forward with positive “cheeking” to comb, handshake grip is used on right hand.
The position of the arms can be most clearly seen from head-on. The illustrations show how the rifleman locks his left arm directly under the rifle as a support, while his right arm is lifted above the level of his shoulders, again, as a firm brace. The clay buster’s arms can almost be described as an inverted “V”. I hold my right arm fairly high, so as to open up the concavity or “cup” between the shoulder and the collar bone, which conveniently cradles the butt of the gun. If you mount the gun with the right arm too low, that “cup” will turn into a hard bunch of convex-shaped muscles, which will tend to push the butt out, rather than taking it in. As with everything else about the shotgunner’s stance, the arms should be in as natural and comfortable a position as possible for each individual – within the framework of the requirements here.
The shotgunner’s right hand is the one which grips the gun and holds it firmly back into the shoulder, while the left arm acts merely as a balance or pivot. The gun should be held between the two hands so that the weight of the gun feels as if it is centered between the two hands. Neither right nor left arm controls the movement of the gun, but rather it is the whole body, pivoting like the “tank turret”. The difference in the right hand position can be seen from the illustrations: the first shows the rifleman’s thumb laying alongside the right-hand side of the grip, whereas the shotgunner, depending on his right hand for gun-holding, maintains a firm hand shake, with his thumb wrapped around the grip. The last factor affecting stance is clothing: the rifleman’s is designed to assist the rigidity and locked-in position, while the shotgunner wants clothing that fits snugly, but which allows the body complete freedom of movement on the line.
The rifleman (left) positions his body sideways to the line of fire; arms are in “locked” position. Shotgunner’s body (right) faces more forward; arms form an inverted “V” position, slightly favoring higher right arm to open up shoulder/chest muscles for shotgun butt.
A shotgunner is much less dependent on his sights than a rifleman and for this reason the shotgun has no back sight – the shotgunner’s eye becomes, in effect, the rear sight. The use of the front sight on a shotgun is completely the opposite to that of a rifle. The rifleman has his front sight in sharp focus while his target is slightly out of focus in the background. The shotgunner must have his eyes completely focused on the target and only be aware of the front sight in his out-of-focus close-up vision. As soon as a shotgunner starts to focus on his front sight, he will be using the gun with the deliberation of a rifle – with disastrous results to his performance. To the clay buster, the sight serves one further purpose: as he is generally allowed to mount his gun prior to calling for a target, he uses it to check his eye’s lateral and vertical alignment along his sighting-plane, the rib. For doing this, many clay busters also like a smaller mid-sight, fixed about 12 to 14 inches down the rib from the front sight – it merely helps in the alignment just described. However, once he has ascertained his position is correct, he must be sure to roll his gaze and focus out to where the target is coming from, or he will be trying to shoot a moving target at 30+ yards, with his vision focused at 30 inches.
Although today, riflemen are taught to shoot with both eyes open, they used to be told to aim with one eye closed. The majority of shotgun experts have long advocated that both eyes should be open. However, there has also been controversy about this in the shotgun field. Most diehards insist that the shotgun must be fired with both eyes open – without having any idea why. I believe one reason stems from hunting where, having both eyes open, allows you to considerably increase your field of vision to pick up more flying game with the other eye. However, the clay buster is generally only faced with one target and he knows where it’s coming from. As only one eye, the master eye, directs and controls shooting, the other eye wold seem to be less essential. However, some experts claim that binocular vision is important to depth of focus and simultaneous lateral and vertical adjustment. I do not dispute this and while I think it preferable to shoot with both eyes open, there are a number of clay busters and hunters who shoot successfully with only one. The major danger of doing this would seem to be the risk of starting to aim the shotgun, and therefore fire it deliberately at targets as if it were a rifle.
Breath control is important for the clay buster and virtually irrelevant to the hunter. It’s a good idea for the clay buster to take a deep breath to insure complete physical relaxation just prior to firing, but this in no way compares to the critical importance of breath control when speaking about the target rifleman.
With the exception of timed and rapid fire, the rifleman has all the time he wants to deliberately place his shots at the moment of his own choosing. At the very instant of firing, he can still decide to hold his shot until his pattern of breathing and rhythmic swing presents him with a more perfect picture. So, as not to upset these factors, when they have been correctly combined, he has a very light trigger which he squeezes – so light, in fact, that after he has taken up the first pressure, he should not even be aware of the exact moment of the final pressure.
The majority of shotgun experts have long advocated that both eyes should be open… binocular vision is important to depth of focus and simultaneous lateral and vertical adjustment.
Again, the shotgun calls for a complete reversal of application and values: the shotgunner “slaps” or pulls his trigger. The timing is of paramount importance (especially for the speedy International varieties of trap and skeet) and accuracy is in a secondary position. This is because the shotgunner is not dealing with the placement of a single projectile, but with a large number of pellets which travel in an elongated pear-shaped cone (blunt end first), some 8 to 10 feet long, called the shot-string. Only a small portion of this string will coincide with the target’s path, but it does allow a certain margin of error – provided the error was to shoot ahead of the target. As at charge “placed” one centimeter behind the target is only going to make a hole in nothing. Many riflemen, over the years, have scornfulIy stated that it’s practically impossible to miss when you “chuck a great mass of ball bearings all over the sky”. When you do try “chucking” them around the sky”, you’ll find there’s an awful lot of air around that tiny, aspirin-sized target-as well as occasional “holes” in the shot-sring itself, that targets may escape through!
Two graphic analogies I use to help people understand what it means to fire at a moving target are based on the necessity for what we call lead. Lead is composed of the time-lag between the brain telling the finger to pull the trigger; the lock time; ignition of the shell and passage of the shot through the air to reach its destination. Although all these factors take place in microseconds, the target has not stopped its movement in that brief period of time, so lead compensates for the distance it has moved from the moment your brain started the process – and for its continued movement thereafter. When you pass a car on the freeway, you come up from behind, on its line of direction, accelerate sufficiently to pass it and continue moving in the same direction. Many shotgunners do everything correctly till they come to passing the car/target, when they stop dead and punch a hole in the sky where target just was, instead of continuing and pulling the trigger at the moment of passing. Alternatively, you could regard your shotgun as a paint brush: use it to paint an obliterating stroke through the target and pull the trigger at the precise moment the target begins to disappear behind the brush/barrel… and continue your stroke/lead.
Rifleman’s view of target (top): bull, rear sight is kept out of focus; eye concentrates on front sight. Shotgunner (bottom) keeps target in sharp focus, while sight and muzzle are blurred reference points in close vision.
These simple methods of shooting moving targets are so much easier than the preferred American trap and skeet method of calculating different distances in mid-air for every different target – a process that must be confusing for any form of shooting, simply because a distance in mid-air will appear differently to almost every single person. The passing method utilizes your instinctive assessment of the apparent speed of the target – to you. You simply accelerate the gun sufficiently to pass that speed, so it can be applied to any moving target. Basically, rifle shooting depends on deliberation, while shotgunning relies on reflexes and instinctive reaction – assuming the definition of instinct to be that of reflexes conditioned through repetitive experience. Put it another way: The rifleman wants the minimum gun movement, while the shotgunner requires the maximum – one man’s meat is another man’s poison, for any reversal of these requirements will result in disaster for either! A rifle is usually sight-corrected for the fractional ballistic jump resulting from recoil while the bullet is passing through the barrel, but in any case, the recoil has little effect on the placing of the bullet as the vast majority occurs after the bullet has left the barrel. The shotgunner is not affected by recoil when “placing” his first shot, but if there is too much it can cause his head to lift from the stock and ruin a second shot both in the field and in those clay sports which require or allow two shots. The comfort factor should be considered, for excessive recoil will cause flinching. This an apprehensive withdrawal from the act of pulling the trigger, as it equates with loud noise and a pain sensation about to be experienced, which the mind would prefer not to accept.
Turning to a comparison of weapons and equipment and becoming a bit more technical, it’s fair to say that, while the shotgunner will always benefit from good guns and equipment, the tolerances are less critical than for the rifleman. The same can be said about ammunition – an expert rifleman’s skill can be negated by fractionally faulty ammunition, but it would take a very bad shell to similarly effect a shotgunner.
Typical rifleman’s (right) early attempt to swing to angle target with body still locked rigidly. Correct swing for target (left); pivoting from ankles, body upright and balanced, weight forward on left leg.
Conversely, as a rifle is always positioned prior to firing and there is time to adjust the body and head to it, fit is far less critical than for the shotgunner. Fit is important to the hunter and vital to the International Skeet shooter as both have to mount the gun, at speed, from the waist or below and fire the gun in what should be one smooth continual motion, which allows no time for adjustment. The fitting of the shotgun should be so precise that when one’s eye is looking at a moving target and the gun is then mounted to the shoulder, the shotgunner must know without checking that his gun will be automatically “looking at”, and therefore shooting at, the same point. Even the International Trap and American trap and skeet shooters, who mount their guns in their own time, prior to calling for the target, require very exact fit. The subsequent, fairly rapid movement of gun to target could be sufficient to dislodge even the careful pre-positioning of a badly fitting gun. An excellent method of informally checking shotgun fit is to mount the gun with your eyes closed, settle comfortably into it, then open your eyes and check in a mirror to see if you are looking down the rib and seeing a sight picture similar to that illustrated in the head-on picture of the shotgunner.
A standard factory rifle stock is nearly an inch shorter in length than the equivalent standard shotgun. This is because the rifleman’s sideways stance shortens the reach of his arm and he therefore needs a shorter stock to put his finger on the trigger. A factor in eliminating recoil in the face for the rifleman is his use of a comb with a reverse slope to that of the normal shotgun. This means that it has a slight upward slope from the nose (front of the comb) to the heel (back of the stock). Put another way, the rifle comb has fractionally more drop at the front than the back. With the normal slope of a shotgun comb going down from the nose to the heel of the gun, there can be a tendency for the gun to kick the shotgunner in the face, because apart from going backwards on recoil, it also goes upwards – into the cheek. With a reverse upwards slope, the gun slides away from the face on its backwards recoil travel. A number of trap shooters are beginning to apply this same idea to their guns, but I would think it more practically applicable to guns with Monte Carlo combs. I would suggest that an upwards slope of 1/16-inch from the nose (front of the Monte Carlo) to the back of the MC comb is sufficient and will only alter the sighting plane on an existing gun approximately 1/32-inch – assuming the cheek touches the comb at approximately its mid-point.
Other rifle features occasionally found on shotguns are rollover comb cheek-pieces and thumb-hole stocks. Both are comfortable and I can’t think of anything against them for shotgunning – especially clays. It may well be nothing more than convention and tradition that prevent their wider use. The shotgun fore-arm with the notable exception of the English school of hunting guns – is frequently thicker than the rifle’s. This is because shotgunners should cradle the whole fore-arm in the palm of their hand, whereas the rifleman often only supports it with his fingers. The sling, which the rifleman sometimes uses to steady his weapon, has no place in shotgunning-except for carrying purposes in the field.
An excellent method of informally checking shotgun fit is to mount the gun with your eyes closed, then open your eyes and check in a mirror to see if you are looking down the rib…
A rifleman must make careful and deliberate allowance for windage and trajectory, but he has plenty of time to do it. The shotgunner must calculate lead, but this should be done more instinctively than deliberately as he doesn’t have time, and again will tend to use the shotgun like a rifle if he does this deliberately. A shotgun’s choke (the amount of constriction of the bore at the muzzle) determines whether the pellets open up quickly for short-range shooting, or hold together for long ranges. The shotgunner also selects his load and shot size for the speed and distance of his target; and in the field, to the type of quarry being hunted. Although choice of shell is far more critical with the rifle, paradoxically the factor of lead – when using the rifle on a moving target – is less critical, because rifle bullets’ muzzle velocities are from double to triple that of shotgun shells’.
This higher velocity causes greater recoil which, comparatively speaking, is more like a quick punch, while the shotgun could then be described as a slower, gentler push. Strangely, recoil absorbing pads are more common on shotguns than rifles – possibly because the clay buster, at any rate, is likely to fire far more shells per shooting session than his rifle competitor counterpart.
Another factor affecting lead, as mentioned earlier, is lock time. Although modern shotgun manufacturers are giving much more attention to this important factor, the average competition rifle probably has a more sophisticated mechanism and faster lock-time than a comparable shotgun. A similar generalization could probably be applied regarding the balance of comparable standard rifles and shotguns.
To sum up the major differences, they start with the rifleman shooting at a fixed target, while the shotgunner is dealing with moving targets. To effectively convert himself to using a shotgun, the rifleman must first abandon his rigid stance in favor of fluidity; he must forget precise deliberate aim and make a comparatively rough point in the direction of the moving target, which he must overtake in flight; lastly he must train his eyes to focus on that moving target, instead of on his front sight. But it’s all very much worthwhile and will add a whole new dimension to your enjoyment of the shooting sports, so riflemen should never be discouraged by the difficulties of transition – stick to it!
You know, after all that, I still think I’m going to have Elgin Gates mount one of his elephant-gun scopes on my Perazzi next time we shoot together – there’s nothing in the rules against it, probably because no one ever thought of it before! I’ll never forget the last time we shot together: I was driving from Los Angeles to take up residence in New York and stopped for a day with him. He took me out to shoot his wily form of modified International Trap at the Needles, California Club. Despite Elgin’s protestations that it was really quite cool, I knew it was pretty damn hot: not only were the metal parts set in the underside of the fore-arm too hot to touch, but I swear there was a heat-distortion haze rising from my rapidly reddening nose! Still, what else can you expect when you’re shooting with Safari-type – who thinks 113 degrees is “cool”!
This article was written by Derek Partridge and originally published in 1976 as a chapter in “Internation Style Clay Target Shooting” book. Republished with permission.