Footwork And Fancy-Free

Footwork And Fancy-Free

The author with instructor Gil Ash. Left foot leading, weight forward, leaning into the shot.

During World War II, Robert Ruark was a naval officer commanding a gunnery unit aboard a merchant ship in convoy to Murmansk. It was about the toughest assignment imaginable, and it was made no easier by the chronic insubordination of a sullen sailor named Zabinski.

Unable to instill discipline, and watching his command being slowly taken away from him, Ruark challenged Zabinski to a boxing match on the hatch--ostensibly for the entertainment of the crew, but in reality a desperate attempt to regain some sort of authority.

One look at Zabinski with gloves on, however, and Ruark "felt his heart sink." Watching Zabinski's footwork, he knew he was "in an unroped ring with a semiprofessional."

In shooting, as in boxing, footwork is the basis upon which everything else is built. A boxer moves his feet in, out, and sideways, always keeping his balance, positioning his weight for the next lunge or to dodge the next punch.

A shotgunner does much the same thing, and the foot positions themselves are remarkably similar. In fact, foot position for any kind of dynamic shooting--shooting at moving objects, or where speed is the key--is much the same whether you are holding a shotgun, a rifle, or a pistol.

Many years ago, Harry Pope, the great target shooter and barrelmaker, recommended a method of establishing the correct foot position for offhand target shooting. You place your feet and raise the rifle into shooting position, close your eyes, and relax, allowing your upper body to settle into its natural resting position. You then open your eyes to see where the sights are aligned. If they are to the right or left of the target, you move your feet to correct it, then repeat the process until, with your body in its most comfortable and tension-free position, the rifle sights are resting on the bullseye.

Normally, for a right-handed shooter, the left foot is forward, and a line connecting your toes is about 45 degrees from the line between shooter and target.

This, coincidentally, is the foot position for the combat-pistol shooter's Weaver stance and also the natural foot position for shotgunning as taught by the English, and by most American, instructors.

In rifle shooting, the goal is to relax the upper body and get rid of tension that might cause shaking; with handguns, it allows the hands to thrust forward with the pistol in the most natural position, thereby allowing the greatest lateral and vertical movement.

In shotgunning, where the target is always moving, freedom of lateral movement is vital, and this movement is made by rotating the upper body at the waist. In field shooting, you never know if the bird will flush hard right, hard left, or something in between, so you must be prepared for anything. The key to this is to keep your feet no farther apart than shoulder width, with the leading foot forward and pointed in the direction you expect to shoot.

In skeet you can point your foot at the exact spot where you want to break the bird, and to a lesser extent this is also true in sporting clays. In trap, all you can do is keep your foot centered on the possible flight paths, allowing yourself maximum flexibility to left and right.

A deceptively relaxed J. Guthrie hunting quail in Alabama. The dog is working the grass, and Guthrie is anticipating a flush to his front and left. Although he looks completely relaxed, his feet are positioned, waiting for the flush. Because flushes usually come when the hunter pauses, it is important to pause with your feet always in shooting position.

Your weight should be on your front foot, allowing the body to lean into the shot. This is the natural predator position: weight forward, head thrust out slightly, eyes focused. It allows you to bring the gun up to the eye rather than having to push your cheek down on the stock, and it allows your forward hand to reach for the bird.

Some instructors suggest the shooter take an actual step forward, even if it is only an inch or two, as the bird flushes and the gun comes up. This naturally shifts your weight onto the leading foot.

Pheasant hunting last year, my friend Dinny was having difficulty, and we went to shoot some clays behind the barn to see what was wrong. The basis of the whole problem was that her weight was on her back foot, causing her to lean backwards slightly and forcing her to put her head down to the gun rather than bring the gun to her eye. It also stiffened her body, making it difficult to swing the gun.

You can talk endlessly about gun mount, eye alignment, and so forth, but the basic problem was foot position. We corrected the foot position, Dinny leaned forward, and her side-lever Boss game gun (I had to get that in) came naturally to her eye as she leaned into the shot. She broke the next few clays and also the first three pheasants that came her way the next day.

Incidentally, this predator position greatly aids the shooter in focusing intently on the target--and concentration on the target is one of the vital elements of good shooting. It changes a casual glance into a penetrating gaze.

In field shooting, birds invariably flush when you are crouching, stepping over a log, caught in some brambles, or off balance in some way. Birds will often let you walk on by and only flush if you stop and they think they've been spotted. The trick is to pause only when you are in a good spot for shooting and to ensure that when you do stop, your feet are already where you want them to be if a shot presents itself.

Robart Ruark, by the way, was a tremendous wingshot--far more so than a big-game hunter. It came from understanding footwork.

And Zabinski?

Zabinski toyed with Ruark on the hatch, hitting him at will, opening cuts, and occasionally allowing him a free shot just to show his contempt for Ruark's punching power. During a break below to treat some cuts, Ruark took a roll of dimes from the safe, clutched it in his hand, and relaced his glove.

The next time Zabinski dropped his hands and laughingly allowed him to swing, Ruark decked him, breaking his jaw and simultaneously mending his command.

Old age and treachery will always beat youth and strength.

If only it worked with quail.

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