September 23, 2010
Leaning against my bookshelf, as I write this, is a shotgun made around 1892. It is leaning there because it is bird season. I have just returned from hunting pheasants in South Dakota and am preparing to leave in a week to hunt quail in Alabama.
The shotgun--an E.M. Reilly boxlock with Damascus barrels--was my gun in South Dakota and will be my gun in Alabama, and because it is bird season, it is leaning against the bookshelf so that periodically throughout the day, when I get up from my desk to stretch my legs, I can pick it up, open it, close it, bring it to my shoulder, swing it gently, and then lean it back against the books as I sit down to resume work.
If it was deer season, or I was planning a trip to Africa, I would have a rifle leaning there, for exactly the same purpose. And generally, lying on the desk, is a handgun of some sort that gets picked up, looked at, opened, closed, cocked, decocked, and laid down at regular intervals.
This behavior would probably prompt a learned paper from a psychiatrist, panic the antigun crowd, and almost certainly disturb the in-laws, but I get away with it because, well, guns are what I do. And I'm doing it for a very good reason.
A very large part of shooting any firearm is motor memory and familiarity--the feeling that a gun is an extension of your anatomy. And nowhere is this more true than with a shotgun, which has no sights and no aids to accurate shooting beyond the way it fits and how it feels in your hands and at your shoulder.
Just for fun, the next time you are at your shooting club, watch how people remove their guns from the cases, how they handle them, and open them to check the chambers. Watch how they hold them when they are talking to someone else. Most important, study how they place their feet and bring the gun to their shoulder.
The good shots look so completely at home with their gun that it is hard to tell where the shooter stops and the gun begins.
The poor shots, the struggling ones, always look like they are holding a foreign object--as if someone just walked up and handed them a slightly bored python. They are uncomfortable. Opening the gun is a struggle, as if they haven't done it often enough to really get the hang of it. They are either too forceful with it or not forceful enough.
Jeff Cooper, the handgun instructor and founder of Gunsite, made a big point about becoming familiar with your handgun through handling it. Not just shooting, or even dry-firing practice, but handling it every day so that every nuance of its feel and operation become second nature to you.
When I first read that advice, I realized that I had done something like that with the guns I've owned ever since I was 14 or 15 and gained custody of the family .22. At times, others have found the habit disconcerting, and your wife's divorce lawyer can really have a lot of fun with it--trust me on that--but those are all separate issues.
Since then, I have found similar recommendations in such far-flung sources as Maj. H.C. Maydon's 1932 book Big Game of Africa and Col. J.E.M. Ruffer's treatise on English shotguns, The Art of Good Shooting.
The ease and skill with which you handle your arm in the field is directly linked to the amount of time you spend familiarizing yourself with it at home.
Cooper is talking handguns, Maydon big-bore rifles, and Ruffer English game guns, but the principle is 100 percent the same: You must handle a gun on a regular basis in order to become completely and utterly familiar and comfortable with it. Maydon likens a gun to a dog that should be kept in the house and accompany its master everywhere, rather than be kept in a kennel. That is a very apt analogy.
Another element of this is love of the guns themselves. At the risk of sliding into Freudianism, some of us love guns and some don't. I do, unreservedly. I love picking them up and handling them, operating them to see how smoothly they function, and imagining myself picking off a dove or decking mbogo.
Others do not. Some hunters and many clay-target shooters regard their guns as merely tools and would no more handle one lovingly than they would a pipe wrench or a tire iron. For these people, picking up a gun is not a pleasure, and it shows.
Years ago, I was a member of a trap and skeet club, and a doctor and his wife were longtime members. In fact, she was the president of the club. The doctor had been an Olympic pistol shooter, loved firearms of all kinds, and was a great shot with anything that went bang. Although his wife came to the club almost every day and shot both trap and skeet, she never displayed that passion. She was a good shot, but not great, and every time she picked up her shotgun, I got the feeling she would really rather be somewhere else.
Earlier, I mentioned foot placement. That will tell you a lot. If a man steps up to the line on a skeet field and plants his feet like he's bracing himself to absorb a blow, that is a tacit admission that he regards his gun as his enemy. If he is casual and relaxed, places his feet naturally and not too far apart with his off-foot (left foot for right-handers) slightly forward, handles his gun like his favorite cat, and leans into the shot, the chances are very good that he is going to break that target. And it will look effortless.
Having a shotgun handy and picking it up regularly gives you the opportunity to practice foot placement as well as gunhandling.
When the first pheasant of the season goes up in front of you, how well you do depends as much on sheer familiarity with your gun as it does on how many clays you've broken in preseason practice.