For All The Shotgun Lessons.

Many of today’s older readers mourn the “golden era” of gun writing in the 1950s and ’60s. Well, I grew up reading gun and hunting magazines back then, and still have a bunch around. While some good writing appeared, most articles on riflescopes mostly contained a description of three basic reticles (crosshairs, post and dot), plus optical terms copied from an old Bausch & Lomb handbook. Over 90 percent of the articles on deer rifles divided America into “the East,” where an iron-sighted lever action worked best, while in “the West” hunters theoretically needed a scoped bolt action.

Most shotgunning articles were similarly simple—and dull. Many described how to pattern a shotgun in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards, a task apparently invented by anti-gunners to remove any enjoyment from shooting. Advice on actually hitting flying objects almost always listed the same three methods: pull-ahead, swing-through and sustained lead.

As a result, by my late teens I began to wonder if 95 percent of gun writers ever had an original thought. In reality the golden era was primarily noted for good hunting stories, today mostly replaced by TV shows showing humans dressed in camo sitting in trees.

In the 1970s, more gun writers started to do original research, instead of rewriting other gun writers. Among them was the late Bob Brister, who entitled his classic 1976 book on shooting flying objects Shotgunning: The Art and the Science. Brister actually patterned shotguns at moving targets mounted on a trailer pulled by the family station wagon, driven by his wife Sandy. He also quoted at length from one of the first statistical analyses of shotgun patterns, The Mysteries of Shotgun Patterns, by George Oberfell and Charles Thompson of Oklahoma State University, who approached shotguns as engineers.

Along with the science, Brister discussed the art of shooting moving objects, in this instance the definition of art as “skill acquired by experience, study or observation.” As Brister points out, most humans have the innate ability to point at objects, but since shot pellets don’t travel with the speed of light, we don’t point a shotgun directly at a flying bird, whether clay or feathered. Instead we point where the bird will be when the shot arrives.

For some humans this isn’t much of a problem. An outfitter friend of mine once happened to take a small group of professional athletes on a duck hunt, including an NFL quarterback. The quarterback grew up rifle hunting but had never fired a shotgun before. With a little instruction he almost immediately started hitting ducks, and why wouldn’t he? He’d not only been drafted by the NFL but a major league baseball team, so was used to hitting moving objects, whether wide receivers or curveballs.

Most of us, however, aren’t blessed with such ability or training, and often start our shotgunning without real instruction. Our father or Uncle Ed might have made helpful observations such as, “You missed,” they usually couldn’t tell us why we missed—and most of us do, at least some of the time.

I started out shooting a shotgun fairly well, partly because I’d already shot a lot at moving objects, inadvertently happening upon the method Brister described in Shotgunning when he taught a teenage girl to shoot. Like many kids I acquired my first BB gun (yes, a Daisy Red Ryder) when quite young. This was before people panicked like chickens whenever a kid appeared with any sort of gun, and I shot the Red Ryder a lot in our spacious backyard in Montana.

After growing bored with stationary targets, I started tossing empty cans in the air, soon realizing the muzzle had to point in front of the can, partly because the flying BB was often visible. When an older friend took me to a local dump a few years later and let me shoot his shotgun at bottles tossed in the air I hit every one. After those experiences I learned to shoot flying birds by hunting, not target shooting, luckily killing the first wild bird shot at, a hen mallard. Over the next few years I shot a lot of birds and became somewhat better than average.

Any bird hunter can benefit from a good shooting instructor.

The late Bob Brister thought Argentina’s duck and dove hunting was
the greatest teacher of wingshooting in the world.

I got to know Bob Brister in the late 1980s, at a gathering of the employees of Field & Stream magazine at a resort in the Catskill Mountains where we could shoot and fish. Bob spent part of one afternoon giving shotgun lessons. Since some of the office folks had never shot any firearm, the clay targets were pretty slow. I hit all the longer shots, since I’d grown up shooting wild birds in the wide-open West, and the more targets I hit the more Bob started talking with me. When I missed a few closer targets he stood behind me, and after a few said, “Believe it or not, you’re shooting in front of ’em.” I shortened up the lead and started busting clays.

It turned out Bob had also learned to shoot a shotgun on wild birds, something not usual in modern North America, by hunting doves, quail and ducks in his native Texas. After brief stints in journalism school and writing for smaller newspapers, in 1954 he became the outdoor editor of the Houston Chronicle, but also made quite a bit of his income from competitive live pigeon shooting, a heavy betting game.

At first he couldn’t afford to bet much, but eventually got some backers and with his winnings built a very nice house in Houston. His writing and shooting eventually attracted the attention of Field & Stream, where he was hired as shooting columnist in 1971. Eventually live bird shooting became illegal in many places, and Brister did more clay-bird shooting, eventually introducing the game of Sporting Clays to the US through one of his 1980 columns in Field & Stream.

The British developed Sporting Clays to simulate field shooting, since the two other clay-shooting games supposedly based on hunting—trap and skeet—had over the years turned into pure competition. This usually happens with simulated hunting: Serious competitors take over the sport and the game becomes an end in itself, with specialized guns and other adaptations to make hitting easier, such as already having a shotgun shouldered. Sporting Clays was different, since the stations varied from course to course, and the shotgun had to be held below the shooter’s shoulder before the clays went up. Hunters who’d grown bored with the rote repetition of skeet and, especially trap, flocked to the new game.

I shot some Sporting Clays with Bob Brister, but also hunted with him in places as distant as Argentina, a country he called the greatest teacher of wingshooting in the world, since in farming regions the super-abundant doves and waterfowl are considered varmints, with no limit on the shooting. As a result a shooter can work repeatedly on any shot angle on actual birds. (Here it should probably be mentioned that the winged “varmints” of Argentina aren’t wasted. Some are eaten by the shooters themselves, either while there or back home, and the rest eaten by locals.)

He also introduced me to some other Sporting Clays people, including instructors, and through networking I ran into still others. Soon became obvious the fast growth of Sporting Clays had spawned a pile of instructors. Some were better than Bob Brister, who gladly acknowledged he was primarily a journalist and shooter. Many, however, were about as good as your Uncle Ed.

I first ran into one of these at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America in 1990, held in Des Moines, Iowa. By then Sporting Clays was hotter than a five-dollar pistol. OWAA put up a temporary course in a local farmer’s field and invited a genuine British Sporting Clays instructor to help us learn. During the day’s shooting I stuck close to him for a few stations, trying to pick up helpful shooting hints, but the only advice I heard him give was saying “behind,” “over” or “low” when anybody missed.

Well gee, I thought, that was certainly illuminating. But the same thing happened on a F.I.T.A.S.C. course in Alabama a few years later. The initials stand for Fédération Internationale de Tir aux Armes Sportives de Chasse, a French version of Sporting Clays quite popular among some shooters. At the time I was writing a book on shotguns for hunting and traveled to Alabama primarily to hunt quail, so used the same light 16-gauge side-by-side. I hit most of the targets (as Bob Brister pointed out early in our friendship, “They’re easier to hit than real birds…”) except at one station. The certified F.I.T.A.S.C. instructor couldn’t provide a clue of any kind.

As Gil Ash helps Eileen Clarke shooting Sporting Clays, you can bet he isn’t
just saying “behind,” “over” or “low.” Gil’s teaching will get you onto the clays.

Gil And Vicki Ash

This led to other Sporting Clays instructors, including Gil and Vicky Ash, a husband-wife team from the Houston area who Bob Brister knew. Gil had done considerable research in how our eyes and brain view moving objects, explaining why even some very experienced shotgunners miss certain targets.

In Montana, my wife Eileen and I also became acquainted with Liz Lewis, for several years a top Sporting Clays shooter sponsored by Benelli USA. When we met Liz, she was guiding fly fishermen and giving shotgun lessons, especially to women. (Today she’s a top-notch bronze sculptor, primarily of upland birds and dogs.) Her approach to wingshooting instruction was far more wild-bird oriented than the Ash’s, who primarily dealt with hitting Sporting Clays. If some client had a hard time getting motivated during a long day of target shooting, Liz would sometimes cackle like a rooster pheasant when a clay went up.

In fact, watching the Ashes and Liz Lewis instruct shooters was as illuminating as taking lessons. I can’t recall hearing the words “behind,” “high” or “low” from Gil, Vicki or Liz when somebody missed a target. Instead they explained why you’d just missed.

The reactions of some clients were just as interesting, in an opposite way. There’s almost always somebody in any group of clients who, despite paying money for lessons, is somehow resistant to learning from the lessons.

From what I’ve seen, Gil and Vicki Ash are most helpful to modestly experienced shooters—but some men don’t consider themselves modestly experienced, even when they are. Probably this is due to the well-known Daniel Boone Syndrome, where each American male is supposedly born knowing how to shoot.

One summer Vicki was in teaching at a range 40 miles from us in Montana, and invited both me and Eileen to participate for a day. Eileen was particularly interested because she didn’t start shooting a shotgun until almost 40 and had learned quite a bit from her first lesson from Gil and Vicki in Texas.

The group of shooters included one other woman who’d just started out shotgunning, and improved noticeably over the day. Eileen got better too. But one guy, who’d hired Gil and Vicki before, went on a little rant late in the morning, saying Vicki refused to help with his “style of shooting.” As far as I could tell, his style was mostly missing. Perhaps the fact that by afternoon two women were breaking clays more consistently had something to do with his hissy fit.

On another afternoon I watched Liz Lewis instruct a number of women, including Eileen. One of the women frowned throughout most of the day, even though she’d helped organize the event. A week later she said it had been a waste of time and money, since she hadn’t learned anything. Like the guy who threw a tantrum at Vicki, she’d mostly missed.

The flip side of the non-listening student is all the “volunteer” instructors who pop up on Sporting Clays courses everywhere. While working on my book I shot a nearby course two or three afternoons a week for 3 months, while testing various shotguns on moving targets. Eileen would often go along to practice, and one day another shooter who showed up had two dozen competition patches on his shooting vest.

Eventually he started standing close behind Eileen whenever she shot, saying “behind,” “high” or “low” whenever she missed. When he did it the third time, after shooting she took a step backwards while breaking open her side-by-side 28 gauge, in the process elbowing him firmly in his gut. When he stepped back with an “Oof,” she said quite sweetly, “Oh, sorry! I didn’t know you were standing so close.” Apparently he was trainable, because he didn’t stand behind her or volunteer any opinions again.

One thing I’ve noticed all the years of listening to real Sporting Clays instructors is they’ve never mentioned swing-through, pull-ahead or sustained lead. Instead they emphasize mounting the gun correctly and consistently, and starting the swing while the gun’s being mounted. The trigger gets pulled when the muzzle appears in the right place in relationship to the bird. This combines elements of all three methods suggested by old-time gun writers. The details may vary from instructor to instructor, but it’s a far more versatile method of wingshooting, especially for those of us who don’t limit our shotgunning to inedible clays.
By John Barsness

A few days in Argentina provides more wingshooting practice
than a decade of bird hunting in the US.

Sporting Clays shooting is designed to resemble actual bird hunting.

Gil and Vicki Ash
P.O. Box 826, Fulshear, TX 77441
(281) 346-0888

Shotgunning: The Art and the Science, Bob Brister, 2nd Edition ©2008, OP, hardcover, ISBN:13 978-1-60239-327-1, 224 pages, 220 b&w illustrations, $29.95, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018, (212) 643-6816,

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