For the most part, American shotgunners are a mighty interesting lot.
We--I'm often just as guilty as the rest--study at length to determine if a 20-gauge shotgun is better than a 28 for quail. We love to engage in gun-store debates over the relative merits of various chokes for waterfowl. We even enjoy arguing which shotgun action is the best for all-around shooting, with the argument usually being narrowed down to the autoloader versus the pump.
However, all of this studying and debating often overlooks one of the most important issues for the shotgunner: how well the shotgun fits the shooter. If the issue is considered at all, it usually consists of shortening a stock for the shooter of small stature or adding a pad and spacers to lengthen the pull for a long, lanky old boy. However, having your shotgun stock fitted to your particular measurements and shooting style is the one most important way to improve your shotgunning score.
The shotgunner must point his gun; he doesn't aim it. In fact, his eyes must be focused on the target at all times. This is especially true when bird hunting, because the shooter doesn't know when a bird will show up or exactly where the bird is about to go. If he has any hope of hitting the target at all, he has to stay focused on it. The shotgun barrel is only seen in the shooter's peripheral vision. In order to drop the bird, clay target, or otherwise, the gun has got to deliver the shot charge to the exact spot where the eyes are focused. In order to accomplish the hit, the shotgun must fit the shooter in such a way that the shooter's dominant eye is perfectly in line with the sight plane of the shotgun barrel. It is this perfect alignment that allows the shot to go where the shooter is looking.
American shotguns are stocked with dimensions designed to serve the average shooter. This is probably an individual who is 5'8" to 5'10", weighing 160 to 170 pounds, and wearing a size 40 coat. Such folks can often make do with the standard shotgun stock. If a shooter is much larger or smaller, he really needs the advantage that a properly fitted shotgun stock will give him. The fact is that no one can do his best shooting unless he has a shotgun stock that truly fits him.
My own situation is complicated by the fact that I like to shoot double-barreled shotguns, and I shoot them from my left shoulder. Many double guns have buttstocks that are bent to the right to accommodate a right-handed shooter. This is called "cast-off." Cast-off helps the right-handed shooter get his eye lined up with the sight plain of the barrels. It causes the left-handed shooter to shoot some place other than where he is looking. For the lefty, cast-off is not conducive to killing birds.
With all of this in mind, I was quite pleased to receive, as a Christmas gift, a shotgun fitting with Mr. Dale Tate, at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve near Ione, California. Tate is an Englishman who began his gunsmithing career with the renowned firm of J. Purdy and Sons in London, England. Later, he became a restoration specialist for the firm of Peter Dyson and Sons. More recently, Tate immigrated to America and obtained his American citizenship. He makes his living teaching shooting, repairing and restoring custom guns, and even building shotguns from scratch.
A critical piece of equipment for any shotgun fitter is what is called a "try gun." This is a shotgun with a fully adjustable buttstock. The gun fitter has his customer mount the gun and focus on a target while the fitter checks for the various signs of a good fit and adjusts the try gun until he finds that fit. Factors involved in proper shotgun fitting are length of pull, pitch, drop, and cast.
By first working with the try gun, Tate was able to determine that I did pretty well with the stock dimensions of my 20-gauge Beretta Model 471 Silver Hawk. As I had suspected, the culprit was the fact that the gun had cast-off. Pulling the buttstock off of my Beretta, Tate adjusted the stock until it had cast-on instead of cast-off. In other words, the buttstock was bent slightly to the left, and my dominant eye lined up perfectly with the gun's sighting plain.
One of the things I enjoyed about working with Tate was the fact that after he adjusted my Beretta, we retired to the clay-bird range to see if it improved my shooting. Obviously, I wouldn't know what the measurements and adjustments meant. What I could understand was if I began to break more birds. And that is exactly what happened after Tate adjusted my shotgun. In fact, not only was I breaking more birds, I was centering the vast majority of them. Instead of breaking into pieces, the clays were powdering, indicating a more direct hit.
American shotgunners are beginning to understand the importance of being measured and fitted for a shotgun stock. A professional fitter will adjust your existing shotgun stock if possible, and he will also provide you with a list of your personal stock measurements. This way, the shooter has the ability to have other stocks adjusted, or he can provide the proper measurements if he is having a custom shotgun built.
Once a shooter has a shotgun stock adjusted, his other guns are just not going to feel quite as good. For example, my other two favorite shotguns are a 28-gauge Ruger Red Label and a 12-gauge Ruger Gold Label. You can bet that both guns will be going out to Tate for a little tweaking and adjustment in the very near future.
Just because a gunsmith owns a try gun doesn't mean he really knows what he is doing. I would want to spend a day of fitting and measuring with a pro who really knows his job. And the professional gun fitter should have no qualms about providing you with references.
Finally, shotgun fitting is not just something those English guys--the ones wearing those funny short pants and shooting those delicate, little double guns--think they ought to do. It is useful to any shotgunner, regardless of his choice of gun or his favorite shotgunning sport. It will do you just as much good in the duck blind as it will on the sporting clays range.
As I said before, I really don't understand the exact meaning of all of Tate's little measurements and adjustments. It could be mumbo-jumbo for all I know. What I do know is that after the session, my gun fit me better, I broke more birds, and I broke them more cleanly. That's the kind of results I can understand.
My favorite shooting coach said it best, "Guns are like shoes; they should fit you."