The most versatile of all firearms, the shotgun has earned a special place not only on trap and skeet ranges but everywhere that waterfowl, upland birds and small game are hunted. Today about 15 million Americans own shotguns and, as-teen-age shooters have demonstrated, when properly handled they are as much fun for youngsters and women to shoot as they are for men.
In fact, one of the finest and one of the best-known shotgun shooters in the world is a woman. Carola Mandel of Chicago (shown at left) has won more shotgun shooting trophies, medals, awards and honors than any other American, male or female. In 10 years of active competition in this country and Europe she has successfully defended her many skeet, pigeon and trap championships against the world's most outstanding shooters, proving that excellence with a shotgun depends neither on size nor physical strength but on practice, reflexes, coordination and timing. Here and on the following pages, Carola Mandel shares for the first time in print the techniques and precepts that have earned her top ranking in the sport.
The first and most important step is choosing a shotgun. The three basic types for all shotgun sports are the autoloader, the pump and the double-barrel. An autoloader ($109 to $994), as the name implies, automatically ejects spent shells upon firing and feeds new ones into the chamber. Pump guns ($64 to $967) eject shells automatically, but new shells must be pumped into the chamber manually by means of a sliding forearm. The most expensive shotguns are double-barrels ($67 to $3,500). Both side-by-side doubles and over-and-under doubles are actually two guns in one, with the advantages of two different chokes and a minimum of working parts to malfunction. All three are made in a variety of barrel lengths, chokes and bores for specific kinds of shooting.
Regardless of the type of shotgun chosen, or the amount of money spent for it, the gun must fit the shooter. Custom-made guns fit best because they are made to individual measurements, but the cost usually is very high. Minor adjustments, on the other hand, can easily and economically be made on factory-produced guns and will solve most fit problems. A gun expert or dealer is the one to decide whether or not a gun fits properly, but there are some rough guides which the shooter can follow. When the butt of the gun is placed in the crook of the elbow and the arm is bent along the stock (left), the tip of the index finger should just touch the trigger. Another excellent test is to stand before a mirror (below), close both eyes and bring the gun to firing position with the stock anchored firmly into the shoulder and against the cheek. If the gun fits properly, the shooter should be looking directly into the barrel when he opens his eyes.
Form is the key to everything
The basic elements of gun handling and of firing position are the same for all shotgun sports. These basics become conditioned reflexes to experienced shooters, but beginners must concentrate on them. Always remember the following six fundamentals: 1) Grip gun firmly with three fingers of right hand so that gun's weight is supported securely. Thumb and index finger should be relaxed. 2) Anchor gun butt firmly in shoulder. 3) Rest forearm of gun on palm of left hand (do not grip), with index finger extended in direction of barrel. Left arm and hand are used to swing gun and must not be tensed. 4) Raise gunstock to cheek and lodge firmly so line of sight is along barrel. The head is master of the gun, so always bring gun to face, not face to gun. 5) If gun is now positioned properly, body will automatically be in correct shooting stance. This means weight is on left leg, with knee bent, and body is leaning forward into gun. Keep right leg straight and right foot about 12 inches behind left (above right). The left leg acts as a pivot to permit upper body and gun to swing from side to side. 6) Last, place tip of right index finger lightly on trigger. This finger must be relaxed so trigger is snapped, not squeezed or pulled, when firing.
Once these elements have been mastered, the next step and the best exercise for a beginner is dry-firing at moving targets. Clay birds or tin cans thrown into the air are equally suitable for this practice. Point the gun at a moving target, then swing in the direction it is traveling, overtake the target and pass it. How to lead a moving target (the distance the gun must be pointed ahead of it when fired) is the beginner's most difficult lesson to learn. Remember that the gun's barrel is actually an extension of the eyes, so look at the target, not at the muzzle. When the gun has passed the target so that a gap, or a space of air, is visible between it and the gun, snap the trigger. Continue swinging the body and gun as the trigger is snapped. A smooth, even swing before, during and after firing is essential. If this swing is interrupted by hesitating, stopping or jerking, the shot will be behind the target. A coach can be of invaluable help in teaching proper lead, but only regular practice will assure consistent hits.
Shooting ranges offer best practice
The best way to improve lead, timing coordination and skill with a shotgun is to fire it often. Trapshooting is a pleasant and practical means of doing so. In trap, 12-gauge guns with 30-inch full-choke barrels are preferred, and a standard round consists of five shots fired from each of five shooting stations. Targets traveling at 80 feet or more per second are released from the trap at any angle up to 45° left or right of a straightaway. In judging correct lead it is necessary to consider not only the rise and fall of the target but the speed and angle at which it is traveling. Beginners rarely know why they miss trap targets, but the most common reason is shooting behind and under the bird. This is especially true at the end stations (see diagram above), where target angles are sharpest and require greatest horizontal leads.
Five rules will help the beginner: a) Lean forward into the gun, with weight firmly on left leg to increase freedom of swing, b) At each position, stand as close to station 3 as permissible and face trap with body angled a quarter turn away, c) On stations 1 and 5 point gun below outside corners of trap roof; on stations 2 and 4 midway between center and outside corners; and on station 3 at exact center of trap roof to reduce angles of side birds, d) Keep head down, gun tight against cheek and shoulder and follow through on swing, e) Shoot fast. The farther a bird travels from the trap, the harder it becomes to hit. More birds are missed by waiting them out than are ever missed by shooting too soon.
Skeet trains field shooters
Ever since the sport of skeet shooting was introduced some 35 years ago, shot-gunners have argued its relative merits as compared to the older and more popular trap. Like trap, skeet is shot on a semicircular course and the targets are clay birds, but here the similarities end. Instead of five stations, in skeet there are eight, and targets are released not from one but from two traps: the high house, which is 10 feet above the ground and located directly behind station 1 (see above) and the low house, which is three feet above the ground and directly behind station 7. Birds travel a fixed line of flight crossing midway between the houses, or 20 yards from their point of release.
Any number of shooters up to five make up a squad, and each shoots from the same station before moving on to the next. A standard round consists of 25 shots, two fired separately from each station, two fired at double targets released simultaneously from both houses at stations 1, 2, 6 and 7, and an optional 25th shot that must be taken whenever the first target is missed. A shooter with 24 hits may take his 25th target from any station he chooses.
Because shots in skeet are at much closer range than in trap, guns with 26-inch barrels, cylinder or improved cylinder chokes and muzzle devices to smooth out patterns are preferred. There are four standard events in skeet involving guns of different gauges: the 12-gauge event, 20-gauge event, 28-gauge event and the .410-gauge.
Skeet, like trap, is excellent year-round practice for field shooting. Where trap is of particular value to the waterfowl hunter because it provides shots at a variety of angles and ranges, skeet is specifically geared to the upland shooter and was developed originally as an offseason exercise for quail and grouse hunters. Targets from the high house represent birds in full flight, while those from the low house simulate birds flushed from the ground. Both move at the same speed as trap targets and generally travel 55 to 65 yards.
To further simulate field shooting conditions, until recently the gun in skeet was not placed in actual firing position, or mounted, until after the call "Pull." While this is no longer required under U.S. rules, it is still practiced in international competition and by many bird hunters. The preferred skeet shooting stance is somewhat straighter than in trap, with less forward lean into the gun to permit swinging on the target as quickly as possible.
Figuring the leads and shooting doubles develop gun skill
Because the angles at which targets travel in skeet are fixed, an experienced shooter can judge where the bird will be when he fires at it and exactly how much lead is required to hit it. On each station, a good rule is to face the point at which the target is expected to be hit rather than the point from which it is released. The right distance to lead the target varies from station to station, but on each it is consistent enough so that with practice it can be estimated in advance. Below is a general guide for the beginner to proper leads. He will probably find station 8 (see box) the most difficult because it is comparable to a snap shot in the field. Point the gun directly at the target and fire as quickly as possible. Doubles targets also give the novice trouble. The best rule to remember is that there are two separate targets, which must be treated separately. On stations 1 and 2, shoot the high-house target first; on stations 6 and 7, shoot the low-house target first. On each, forget about the second target until after shooting the first, then swing on the second as though it were a single.
SKEET FORM before, during and after firing should be smooth and relaxed. At left: Carola Mandel mounts gun and begins swinging on target as it leaves house. Swing is uninterrupted when firing (center), and upper body continues pivoting from hips (below) after target is hit. Note that position of feet remains unchanged throughout.