By Kevin Michalowski
If you see your thumb when mounting your shotgun, the shot could be low.
There are plenty of old sayings about why shotgunners hit birds and why they don’t. One of my dad’s favorites was, “It’s not the gun. It’s the nut behind the recoil pad.”
He might have thought I needed more practice, but I came to find out that sometimes it might just be the gun. The truth is, if a shotgun doesn’t fit the shooter, the only reason birds are breaking is pure luck.
Shotgun fit is everything because the shooter’s eye is working as the rear sight. If the eye is not in a straight line behind the receiver, the barrel and the target, the shot will be a miss.
So what does that mean in the field? Well, consider that most major manufacturers build shotguns to fit shooters who are 5 feet, 9 inches tall and wear a size 40 regular suit. If you don’t fit that description, your gun will need some fitting. Once the fit is right, you’ll have a heavier game bag.
But how do you know if a gun fits? The commonly held belief is that, with your arm bent at 90 degrees, if the butt pad rests in the crook of your elbow and your hand wraps nicely around the grip and trigger, the gun fits. The late Don Zutz, perhaps the best-known modern shotgun writer, called that system a farce. He said stock length relating to your elbow tells nothing about how the comb (the top of the stock) will relate to your eye. The more important measurement is the height of the comb.
Here’s how it works. If the comb is too high, the shooter will be looking slightly down at the top of the barrel and seeing the rib pitched upwards. This will put the shot pattern consistently high. If, when the gun is mounted, the shooter has to adjust his head position to see over the top of his thumb or over the receiver, the shots will often go low.
So rather than putting a shotgun in your elbow to see if it fits, pull it up to your shoulder. Put your cheek firmly on the comb of the stock in a natural shooting position and look at what’s in front of you. If you see a lot of rib, you’ll shoot high and might benefit from a longer stock. If you see your thumb, the shot will go low and maybe a shorter stock or a raised comb will put your eye where it needs to be.
This type of problem is an easy fix for a competent gunsmith. Some companies are even making adjustable stocks that anyone who’s reasonably handy with simple tools can put in place and adjust.
Where things get a little more complicated is with the cast of the stock. This is the amount of angle on the stock at the shooter’s cheek. It’s easy to see. Most shotguns have the comb directly in line with the rib. Cast on has the stock angled away from the right-handed shooter, and cast off is just the opposite.
The idea of adjusting the angle of the stock is to have the shooter’s master eye directly over the sighting plane without the shooter tilting his head over the top of the comb.
Most shooters will do fine with no cast, but for those who need it, nothing else will do. A few gunmakers are producing synthetic stocks with small angled spacers that fit between the action and the stock to change the cast. On a wooden stock, something more drastic is required. Loosen the stock-retaining screw just enough to allow a sliver of wood or a kitchen match to fit in the gap, then tighten things back up. This introduces a temporary cast, and a few quick practice shots at the patterning board will tell you if the gun is shooting where you point it. Once it is, you’ll need to remove the same amount of wood from the opposite side of the stock. If you are squeamish about taking a rasp and sandpaper to that good-looking piece of walnut, this operation might require the services of a competent gunsmith.
The improvements in your shooting can be amazing with just something as simple as a stock that fits the way it should. Take a long, hard look at your barrel and buttstock and find out if what you’re seeing isn’t being reflected in the number of birds you bag. It might not be the nut behind the recoil pad.
-- Reprinted from the September 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine