You look up to see a pheasant coming. In a flash, it’s going to cross right in front of you. Are you going to take that second to think about swing, angles and lead, or are you going to just shoot?
“Shotgun shooting is all about disengaging the conscious brain,” says Shane Naylor, a wingshooting instructor at his Shane’s Sporting Clays in Summerfield, N.C. “You don’t want to think about the shot; you want to up and shoot.”
The conscious mind is slow. It requires a portion of a second to recognize and react to “Okay, there’s a duck. Shoot it.” The duck has flown on to greener fields by the time your shotgun has reached your shoulder. The subconscious, though, acts in the present tense. With the correct conditioning, it knows instinctively how to act when a bird flies into range.
he proper shooting practice helps coordinate that instinct with your muscles. “The more you shoot, the better,” Naylor says. It’s important to try as many different shots as possible. “That way, you’re loading your brain with all sorts of different angles, distances and leads. Then when a similar shot comes along, you can adapt to it because you know from past experience where to point without wasting the time to think about it.”
When Naylor approaches a shot, whether it’s on a sporting clays course or a bird flushing in the field, his subconscious mind is already at work. “I’m not figuring yards to the target so much,” he says. “The back of my mind is saying ‘I know this shot, I’ve done it before, so I understand what to do’.”
If a shooter breaks 22 or 23 targets in a round of trap, he might think he’s shot pretty well. But those two or three missed shots are now ingrained in his subconscious. The next time those shots come up, his subconscious asks, “Now, what did I do last time on this shot? Oh yeah. I was behind the target but pulled the trigger anyhow.” Chances are he will shoot and miss the same way again and again.
You must have the proper picture in your subconscious to make a shot, and that comes from the ones you’re comfortable shooting. If you get out of your comfort zone, you put pressure on yourself. Say you shoot 95 out of 100 at trap. Your goal is to shoot 98. But that’s probably too big a step at one time and puts pressure on you. Then the next time you shoot, you will most likely shoot a 92.
Naylor says providing the brain with the correct information to master difficult shots literally starts with small steps. Say in skeet shooting, the incoming high-house target from station eight gives you fits. The only solution is to erase the incorrect picture of that shot and replace it with the proper picture. That target’s flight is the same from station seven, so go back and get the shot down pat. Then take a step toward station eight and practice that shot. Once the clays continually fly into fragments, take another step and practice until you reach station eight. Each of those small steps moves you to the edge of your comfort zone, and at the same time programs your mind to deal with that difficult shot.
An Uncluttered Mind
Naylor was young when he first started on the shotgunning circuit. “I had nothing on my mind to worry about, and I really burned up the targets.” That relaxed state of mind can help anyone shoot their best. As evidence, Naylor points out that some of the best sporting-clays shooters are under 20 years old. “These guys don’t have worries about a job, family or a mortgage to mess up their training or train of thought. They just go out with nothing on their mind but shooting.”
It’s amazing what can go through one’s mind at the moment of taking a shot. The jabber in the mind from the score of the last week’s lost football game to unpaid bills can mess up a shot. Add the stress of wanting to break all of the targets or drop every bird, and our conscious mind will talk us right out of an easy shot. “That’s why it’s important to disengage your conscious brain,” Nayor says.
A quiet moment or a deep breath helps make the switch. The subconscious brain governs fine motor control of the muscles and the concept of space, which shotgun shooting is all about.
Stumbling blocks can trip you up while switching to your subconscious. Naylor says proper gun fit is critical to allow the subconscious to perform what it has learned. A properly stocked gun removes having to take time to adjust your face and shoulder to the gun. That distraction interrupts the subconscious mind from performing its task. A comfortable fit of the comb is the most important aspect of the stock because it aligns the eye, the shotgun’s rear sight, in the same place every shot.
“Remington shotguns are stocked to fit the average person,” Naylor says. “Most of us can shoot pretty well with those stocks,” he says, “because through the repetition of mounting the gun, we become accustomed to it. A lot of stock fit is personal preference, too. I like a little longer stock because it places my grip hand away from my face.”
In an Internet chat room, one hunter wrote that he was sure the stock on his new over/under 12 gauge was the cause of all his pheasant-shooting sorrow. The hunter had shot well with the gun on the sporting-clays course during a summer of practice. But during the hunting season, he missed every pheasant that flushed in front of his new gun — even the easy straightaway birds that he never missed before.
Replies to his post ran the gamut of advice that his gun was too light or too heavy, his loads and chokes were incorrect, to his shotgun had an improperly fitting stock. The exasperated hunter heeded all the advice, shooting magnum loads and even installing a fiber-optic bead on his gun, all to no avail. His last desperate post stated that he was preparing to alter the stock by taking a rasp to the beautiful walnut of his gun’s grip and comb.
The exasperated hunter should have taken a clue that he shot competently at first with the gun at sporting clays, and his mind was the only thing that required alteration.
Naylor says not to give your mind a chance to ruin a shot. “Go to it,” he says. “Get the barrel up there and pull the trigger. If you hesitate, you’ll have better luck trying to put a saddle on that bird and ride it than shoot and hit it.”
With the proper practice, your instinct won’t let you down when that pheasant or quail crosses in front of you like a red streak. Trust your subconscious. It’s been around for a long time and knows all the angles.
This article was published in the September 2007 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.