Ben Upson looks a little like Fess Parker. If you're old enough to know how to drive a standard transmission car, you probably also remember that Parker was the actor who played Davy Crockett, who was a pretty fair shot himself. This Crockett look-alike was telling us: "In this country we go to golf pros and tennis pros, but when it comes to shooting, everybody's Dan'l Boone. They're going to learn to do it by themselves. Ninety percent of them are doing something wrong."
So began the three-day Orvis Upland Shooting School, a crash course in shotgun handling designed to dispel the notion that there is such a thing as a "born shot." Good field shooting, it turns out, can be taught. After 23 years at the sport, that came as something of a surprise.
This isn't to say that today I'm Deadeye Dick or, conversely, that I couldn't hit the broad side of the proverbial barn before attending the Orvis school. I have hit some and missed some, like everyone else I've hunted with. But I didn't have a clue why. Too much of a lead? Too much time? Too much coffee? Each shot was an adventure in the laws of probability.
"The mistake I've seen most often," Upson said that first morning, "is people aiming the gun instead of pointing it." I nodded knowingly. What in the hell is he talking about? Wasn't that the idea? To aim the gun carefully rather than point it helter-skelter at the heavens? To take a bead, swing the gun and fire? Later in the day I actually put a shotgun to my shoulder, paused to take aim and obliterated a departing clay pigeon. Score one for probability. "What did you wait for?" asked Rick Rishell, director of the school.
"I wasn't on it at first," I answered confidently.
"As soon as that gun hits your shoulder, fire anyway. You should be on it," said Rishell. There is a method to such seeming madness. To be precise, the Churchill instinctive method, a theory of shooting that was developed by Robert Churchill in England early this century. Simply stated, this method of shot-gunning relies on the shooter's natural hand-eye coordination, the ability to point at an object accurately on the very first try. That doesn't sound like a radical notion, but if you have learned to shoot as most Americans have—with a rifle, Davy and Dan'l's weapon of choice—then radical it is.
When you shoot a rifle, you take careful aim—alternating your focus between the sight on the end of the barrel and the target—hold very still and squeeze the trigger. These same fundamentals—aim, hold, squeeze—are, to a certain extent, reinforced the first time you pick up a shotgun at a skeet range. Only instead of "aim, hold, squeeze," it becomes "aim, swing, squeeze." The clay pigeon flies at a fairly predictable speed and trajectory; nothing interferes with our sight line; and we practice the same shot over and over again. This is how most of us learn.
Skeet shooting is good sport, but it does not even closely resemble field shooting. Nor are the fundamentals of the two the same. In the field, birds fly at unpredictable speeds in unpredictable directions. Visual obstructions abound: trees, leaves, sun, companions. And the element of surprise is ever present: Where's the bird? When will it flush? Where will it fly? Is it a safe shot? Is it my shot? All these questions must be answered before the gun is mounted to the shoulder, which leaves precious little time to "aim, swing, squeeze." Instead you must take the shot that's there, or forever hold your fire.
The Orvis school—from July through October the campus is Manchester, Vt.; November through January the course is held in Tallahassee, Fla.—addresses itself to field shooting. Each of five shooting areas duplicates situations encountered in the field but not on a skeet range. There is a quail walk in which varying numbers of clay targets fly at devilishly unpredictable speeds and angles, culminating with the flush of a covey of four. There is a tower that launches clay birds some 65 feet over the shooter, in a flight similar to that of incoming doves. At another station clay birds skim past the treetops like low-flying mallards and, true to life, are often hidden for all but an instant by a tree or the low-hanging sun.
It is interesting shooting, and there's plenty of it; each student shoots 500 rounds. Aside from a half-hour talk on technique and gun safety the first morning, the instruction takes place at the shooting grounds. And the instruction is excellent—sometimes it is inspired. Bill Reed, one of six instructors for my 15-student session, was working the high tower when a classmate was having trouble hitting the straight-overhead 65-foot flier. Reed made several unsuccessful attempts to get the student to increase his lead. Then he tried this: "O.K., you've got a fuchsia paintbrush on the end of that barrel. I want you to paint the sky, to paint right through that bird until it's covered in fuchsia, then fire." The student dusted the next four targets.
The shooting technique that Orvis teaches stresses certain fundamentals. The shooter's stance should be narrow, the better to pivot from. If you are a righthanded shooter, your left arm should be nearly straight, extended as far along the forearm of the gun as one can comfortably extend it. The left is your "killing hand," as the instructors call it, the hand that points the gun. All the right hand—the dominant one—should do is pull the trigger. The eyes should be on the bird, not the gun barrel, and the gun should be mounted in two movements. First, to the armpit; next, to the shoulder, with the stock pressed firmly to the cheek. Bang!
If it had been a two-day course, I would have left a dispirited wreck. It was as if my golf swing had been taken apart—not a bad idea, that—and reassembled minus a piece. I was worse than when I had started.
But something clicked on the third morning. Something seemed to click in all the students the third morning, some of whom had never before fired a shotgun. The little light bulb went on for me when Reed pointed out that when the shotgun was in its "ready" position—cradled in my armpit—the barrel should be in my line of vision and I should already be pivoting with the bird. Now reach for it with the left hand. Bang! Now reach for it. Bang! I was firing the gun the instant it hit my shoulder, because the swing had already begun. It worked. I was so surprised by the frequency of my hits that I was tempted to laugh.
I can't wait to try it in the field, when a grouse explodes beside me and my pulse jumps from 68 beats per minute to 140 and a quart of adrenaline floods my brain. Now reach for it. Bang! Now reach for it. Bang! See the lovely grouse fly to freedom. Feel the blackberry thorns in your thigh. Ah, the hunt.
But I'll tell you one thing: There was one morning late in summer when I couldn't miss.
Rishell oversees a student about to add to the clay-bird mortality rate.