Leading a target - one of the great challenges of shotgunning
by Paul Miller
I find it almost impossible to keep a straight face when non-shooters or those new to shotgunning tell me it must hardly be a challenge to hit anything moving, with a gun that ‘sprays all those pellets’ at the target. I can’t wait to get them to a gun club and see how they go on the easiest crossing Skeet or slightly angled Down the Line (DTL) targets. This is the kindest introduction. While it might be tempting to shatter their self-confidence and really bring them down to earth by starting them on an Olympic Trench layout or Sporting Clays course, that would inevitably be counter-productive and risk putting them off clay target shooting for life.
When we start using a shotgun for clays or game, we very quickly have to grasp the concept of leading a moving target. In the Second World War, many Allied pilots and gunners were apparently taught to shoot Skeet to get the concept of leading a target firmly impressed in their minds - this is particularly relevant when you consider their targets often shot back!
We might have a lot of pellets in a shotgun shell, but we have to put them in the right place at the right time to ensure breaking a clay target or humanely killing a game bird or animal.
There are several schools of thought about what is the best way to lead a target. The classic method taught by many shooting schools in the United Kingdom and United States is ‘swing through’. This is where the shooter comes from behind, chases the target and then fires the shot when they get through and in front of the target. This sounds easy, but it relies on the shooter having the time to come from behind the target and shoot when the lead seems right and means, most importantly, that the gun must be kept moving. This is a good general method, and a variation of this is where the shooter catches up with the target and then accelerates away to get the correct lead. This can be quite successful with targets where you are not sure of the lead and can be something of an ‘insurance method’ for shooters today.
Maintained or sustained lead
Maintained or sustained lead is another way to lead a target and is very successful on Skeet targets where you know what lead is needed on the various targets in a round and can repeat that exact lead each time you encounter each different target. The idea here is that you start the gun in front of the target and when you have the right sight-picture, you maintain that and fire the shot when everything looks right. It sounds complicated, but it is actually quite easy and repeatable. It is a deadly method and top Skeet shots the world over turn in incredible long break scores shooting this way. It is also a good way to start beginners because it needs minimal explanation and seems logical to a newcomer when you tell them they need to be in front, and stay in front of the target before they pull the trigger.
‘Move, Mount, Shoot’
A variation on the sustained lead method is that taught by World Sporting Champion John Bidwell from England. His method is called ‘Move, Mount, Shoot’ and relies on him looking for his target and when he sees it, he moves his gun in a coordinated smooth manner, never letting the target get in front of his barrels. When the gun is mounted, the shot is fired. It is a whole method involving foot position and looking for the target and following a smooth mounting process that leaves you in a position to pull the trigger as the gun is mounted and the sight-picture is confirmed. It is a very interesting concept and makes sustained lead seem a lot more natural and less rigid. John Bidwell says he uses it exclusively on virtually all target presentations and it must work, as he is a multiple World Sporting Champion.
Famous London gunmaker the late Robert Churchill recommended his method where he was very instinctive and quick and essentially shot straight at every target, allowing his brain and speed of swing to make the various allowances needed to hit the targets, irrespective of speed or angle. While it may have seemed that he was shooting straight at the target, he suggested that your brain will compensate and the correct lead comes instinctively or subconsciously. While I like this concept, it seems to me you would need to do a lot of shooting and have tremendous faith in your brain to get it right. Personally, I think there are times when a more conscious approach is more likely to succeed, especially on very long targets on sporting layouts.
There are other ways to shoot targets and these can be successful depending on the skill of the shooter. Snap shooting is where the gun is mounted in the quickest possible time and the shot taken as soon as the sight-picture looks right. This can sometimes be the only method when targets are presented in very narrow gaps or where the sun can limit the places a target can be shot. I don’t recommend this style unless it is your only option. A more measured approach is invariably better. A slower, more deliberate, gun mount is much more inclined to put the gun in your shoulder more comfortably and ensure you have the right sight-picture down along the rib.
An even less reliable method is spot shooting, where you fire at a predetermined spot in the hope that the target and shot pattern will collide. This is probably the least effective method of all. It is often the way newcomers think they should shoot a shotgun and it doesn’t take long for them to realise it is a pretty dismal method.
In Down the Line (DTL), Olympic Trench, Skeet and English Sporting, where you are allowed to mount your gun before calling for the target, you can get comfortable with your gun mount and sight-picture and decide on your method of lead before calling for the target. In these disciplines, it is possible to hold out along the flight path of the targets and shoot them with less gun movement.
In DTL particularly, this can be achieved by holding high on the trap house and almost spot shooting the birds as you identify their flight path below your barrels. At the very least, you are minimising gun movement and saving time on assessing the target’s flight line and the time it takes you to get onto the target.
With Trench, it is a matter of getting your line and lead right and doing it very quickly, otherwise these truly demanding targets are out beyond reasonable shotgun range. When I shot Trench, I tended to find holding on the edge of the trench more effective with these fluorescent rockets, otherwise they can get the jump on you and encourage snap shooting, which is never a recipe for success in what is often said to be the most demanding clay target discipline of all.
Starting low and blotting out these targets is often an effective method of lead because they are moving so quickly up and away from the shooter. It is possible to use a high hold at Trench and it can be a tremendous advantage, but you have to be careful to keep sight of those dastardly low left or right crossers that bring so many people undone. This really is a method for expert shooters only who know exactly what they are doing.
In ISU Skeet and Sporting, you must call for the target with the gun well out of your shoulder and touching your body in what is called the ‘ready position’. You can only mount the gun when the target is visible. This adds a new dimension to the whole process of shooting the target, as you must incorporate mounting the gun and seeing the target before leading it accurately and pulling the trigger. It is more of a simulation of field shooting and means we need to learn to mount our guns quickly and smoothly.
In the field, a more instinctive style of shooting is much more common as the gunner walks around with their gun down and often broken to ensure safety for their shooting partner and themself. Sneaking around stands of bracken or blackberry is a great way of surprising rabbits and quick instinctive shooting is usually the order of the day. There are few things in the world of shotgunning more fun than this type of instinctive shooting.
I remember many years ago spending a splendid afternoon with my cousin shooting rabbits near Waubra in Victoria. After several days of very heavy rain, the rabbits’ burrows were flooded and they were all resorting to taking cover in every stand of ferns on a sodden hillside on an adjoining property to my uncle’s farm. We were young and keen and the ancient army coats we were wearing were relatively ineffective at keeping the persistent rain at bay. The more we walked, the wetter we got, but the more rabbits hung from the baling twine we had tied around our waists for just that purpose.
The trick was to walk up to a patch of ferns and then wade in with our shotguns held at chest height and pointing in opposite directions from each other. It was a great help me being left-handed and Andy, a right-hander. We would invariably hear the rabbits thumping about in the bracken and then, as we reached the far side, they would flush out into the open and the shooting would begin. It was unbelievably exciting and instinctive, and is a memory I will cherish forever. I was very new to shotgunning at this stage and it was this very day all those years ago that saw me smitten with the smoothbore.
When we got back to the farm just before dark, after what seemed like an eternity and endless kilometres walked under threateningly grey clouds, we must have looked a pretty wretched sight, soaking wet and draped in rabbits for the farm dogs. My aunt gave us both a delightful look that was a mixture of amazement, pride and resignation at the thought of how she was going to deal with two such messy young boys and all those rabbits!
I remember feeling a tremendous sense of pride at being trusted to go out safely together with two nice old Beretta side-by-sides and a couple of packets each of Eley Blue Stars, one in each side pocket of those old army greatcoats. The rabbits never knew what hit them and at the time, our only technique was our instincts and youthful reflexes.
When we really get down to the nitty-gritty of lead, it becomes a very personal thing. New shooters are just grateful for a method that breaks them more than a few targets. More advanced shooters are looking for ways to improve their scores and are searching for every technique that may help them along the road to shotgun mastery.
Ask any shooter how they led a particular target and by how much and you’ll get a different answer. One man’s 3ft lead is another’s ‘half a semi-trailer’! Some people shoot very clinically and others seem to throw caution to the wind and just bring the gun up and trust their instincts. The very best shots seem to be somewhere in the middle and show complete mastery in their timing and smooth repeatable gun mount. Their secret is probably a combination of consistency and an incredible mental photograph album of various sight-pictures that have been successful for them in so many situations over the years. This allows them to use different methods either consciously or subconsciously on different target presentations, whether they are in the field or pursuing any of the clay target disciplines.
Time spent chasing clays is never wasted and the lessons learned and stored away are of invaluable use in the field. The sight-pictures and the smooth gun mount learned invariably tips the scales in the shooter’s favour, and there are even times when field shooting those rascally rabbits and quick brown foxes seems almost too easy - almost!