Some folks can grab any shotgun off the rack and run 25 straight at skeet or pile up four greenheads. The rest of us mortals, however, must take a longer path. That is, we must find a shotgun that optimizes our shooting skills and then use it enough so it almost becomes an extension of our eyes.
Here’s a quick primer on how to do that.
Critical Shotgun Considerations
Myriad factors come into play when deciding on a shotgun. However, it's wise to address several concerns during the process.
Reliability: To paraphrase Phil Robertson, the best gun is the one that goes bang, bang, bang. A shotgun that won’t fire and cycle has no place in the marsh or pit. Waterfowling typically demands multiple shots at decoying flocks and quick follow-up rounds after misses or to dispatch wounded birds. Stove-piping, failure to eject, failure to feed and other malfunctions render a gun useless. That’s why many hunters go with the proven inertia-driven actions.
Ruggedness: If you’re worried about getting your new duck gun wet or dirty and fret about scratching or marring it, you don’t have a duck gun. You have a safe ornament. Waterfowl shotguns must be tough and durable. That doesn’t mean you need to use it as a canoe paddle. However, realistically, your gun will get wet, muddy and banged around during many hunts. And it must continue to function through all of that. Similarly, a gun with cheap guts that wears out after a few thousand rounds is just as useless. Buy models with longstanding reputations for quality.
Fit: This is probably the biggest intangible. You can talk weight, balance, length of pull and drop at comb all you want, or you might simply insist that Brand X shoots better for you than Brand Y. The point is that some shotguns fit your body and shooting style better than others, and the reasons aren’t always clear. That’s why it’s always best to shoot a gun several times before purchasing it. Borrow a buddy’s gun during a field hunt. See if you can rent a new model for a day of sporting clays. Using the gun repeatedly reveals if you can carry it comfortably, shoulder it efficiently and, most important, shoot it well.
Ease of takedown: Cleaning a shotgun shouldn’t require a gunsmith. And let’s face it: You’re often busy and bone-tired after many waterfowl hunts, and you likely won’t take much time to baby your weapon. That’s why it’s nice to own a gun you can break down and clean in a few minutes. Swab the barrel, clean and lubricate the action — done. If you must refer to the owner’s manual and find yourself reaching for the pliers and cussing, you probably want another gun.
Finish: It’s OK to shoot a blued gun with a wooden stock, but remember, waterfowling can be awfully tough on pretty guns (refer to the paragraph on ruggedness). Further, the shiny glint of sunlight on metal doesn’t help you fool sharp-eyed waterfowl. Go with a dull, durable coating that camouflages and protects your gun. My favorite? Realtree Timber or Max-5, of course. Just be careful when you set your shotgun in the marsh grass, as it might take you several minutes to relocate it.
Getting to Work
With your ideal gun in hand, it’s time to shoot. And don’t start by taking that shotgun to the marsh. You’ll want to put in serious range time before hunting with your new toy.
You probably have a buddy who, after a subpar clays outing, says something like, “Well, I shoot real ducks better than clays. Wait till fall." In some respects, that can be true. Generally, however, good shooting is good shooting. The guy who puts in time at the range all summer is typically ahead of the pack when the flight arrives.
Participating in any clay-target game improves your shotgunning skills. Trap shooting helps with straightaways and quartering-angle shots, and skeet makes you focus on crossing shots. Sporting clays combines several elements.
Most folks start with trap or skeet and move on to sporting clays, but it really doesn't matter. It’s just important that you shoot as many rounds as possible — whether that's 100 or 10,000 — and see consistent improvement.
No matter the game, try to practice how you hunt. First, don’t mount your gun before the bird is released. Many high-level shooters pre-mount their guns because it eliminates shouldering snags and usually improves their scores. However, I've seen darn few ducks that let you shoulder your gun and make sure your cheek is on the stock before they sail across your blocks. Further, failure or inability to properly shoulder your gun is a major cause of poor field shooting. Have you ever caught your stock under the armpit of your parka or touched off a round when the stock wasn't firmly planted in your shoulder? Everyone has. That's why you should really shoot all practice rounds, regardless of the game, without pre-mounting your gun. That might affect your scores at first, but with practice, you'll shoot as well with a low gun as a pre-mounted gun.
It’s not difficult to adjust to this type of shooting. Start with the butt of the stock at or tucked slightly under your armpit. When you call for the bird, swing your body and the gun on the bird, and mount your gun in the same motion. Many high-level shooters have coordinated this to the point that they pull the trigger the instant their gun hits their shoulder.
As the bird flies, another aspect of practicing like you hunt comes into play. Make sure you swing on and lead birds as you would in the field. Most folks use sustained lead or a swing-through approach when wing-shooting. With sustained lead, you instinctively estimate the lead required to break a bird, swing your barrel to that point and follow through as you shoot. With a swing-through approach, you start your gun behind the bird, overtake the target, instinctively swing your barrel to the correct point and follow through as you fire.
In my opinion, the swing-through method is probably better for field shooting. It forces you to match the speed of a target, and makes you shoot instinctively instead of with a calculated lead. Further, using sustained lead on the clays range — especially when shooting skeet — can lead to complacency in your swing. When I miss, it’s usually because I stopped my gun, so I really focus on swing and follow through. The swing-through method forces the issue.
Still, both methods work, and some folks use a combination of them when shooting. Just make sure you swing on and shoot clays in July as you would mallards in November.
In the Blind
Decoying, flaring or flushing ducks are much larger and seemingly slower than standard clay targets. However, they don't wait for you to call “pull,” and they don't fly in a straight line. So, although the basic principles apply, shooting ducks is somewhat different than shooting clay targets.
First, you'll usually be wearing more clothes, which can make it difficult to mount and swing your gun. You must dress for conditions, of course, but take time to make sure you can move your arms and torso. When I dress before a hunt, I practice mounting and swinging my gun to make sure my range of motion is acceptable.
In your blind, skiff or boat, take a moment to make sure you can stand, swing and shoot unobstructed. Posts, stake poles, blind material or other concealment devices really become a hassle when you're swinging on ducks, so make sure they aren't in your way.
Also, place your feet in a good shooting position. That sounds silly, right? After all, no duck is going to wait for you to make sure your front foot is pointed toward the target. But it begins before the shot. Sit facing where you want to shoot, of course, and practice standing and shooting once or twice.
Make sure your front foot — your left one, if you're right-handed — points to where you want to shoot, not off to the side. It’s a simple consideration, but it makes a huge difference in your range of motion.
After you find your ideal shotgun and become proficient with it, there’s no reason your shooting success at the range and in the field shouldn’t consistently improve. Yeah, you’ll still miss now and then, but that simply provides fuel and motivation to keep shooting clays and ducks.
Click here for more Realtree waterfowl hunting content. And check us out on Facebook.