'Ahead Of The Game'
No aspect of Shotgun Shooting fascinates and frustrates sportsmen quite so much as the question of “Forward Allowance” or “Lead”.
Eavesdrop on any conversation at a Clay Shoot or after a drive on a Game (wing) shoot, and often as not someone will be discussing how much lead the target should be given. And the chances are, there’ll be no shortage of expert advice on the subject.
Defining “Lead’ is easy. It means putting your shot string or cloud of pellets at the right distance ahead of a moving target.
“How Much Lead Did You Give That?”
Anybody who picks up a shotgun for the first time and fires off a number of cartridges, very quickly comes to realize one thing- that to stand a chance of hitting a moving target the gun must be pointing ahead of it when the trigger is squeezed so that the shot intercepts it on its anticipated flight line. Just how far in front (forward allowance) depends on a number of variables- target speed, its distance from the shooter, and of course the shooters individual reaction time which is governed by other factors such as whether He(or She) shoots Gun Up (pre-mounted) or Gun Down and the process they use to apply the required amount of “Lead”.
If we were all able to gauge distance and speed with pin point accuracy and make an instantaneous mathematical decision on how long the shot pellets take to reach each target, the problem would all but disappear: we would simply need to “aim’ the barrels at the pre selected mark and squeeze the trigger to be assured of intercepting the target every time.
Unfortunately, human fallibility rules out this seemingly simple solution.
What we need therefore, is a way of easing the burden on the brain in order to improve its chances of being able to make an instinctive and, usually, correct guess at the forward allowance needed to break the target. This we neatly achieve by abandoning all thoughts of trying to shoot with a motionless gun and instead take on board the idea that the brain can do its calculations much more effectively if the gun is moving with the target before the trigger is squeezed.
This gives us a definite advantage; our eyes are now better able to register all the information needed about the target and pass it instantly on to the hands guiding the gun. Providing the chain of command is not broken by taking our eyes off the target, the shooter can rely on natural hand/eye co-ordination to adjust automatically for any change in the targets flight.
Image 1 - Gun Down Image 2 - Gun Up (pre-mounted)
Our natural ability is so accurate that, by the time a Gun Down shooter has mounted the gun to the face and then the shoulder; the barrels will be fairly accurately aligned with the target, leaving the shooter free to make any final adjustments to the forward allowance hundredths of a second before firing.
Experience plays a part in this because the brain has the ability to store mental pictures based on previous trial and error. In other words, experienced performers can, to some extent, control the urge to squeeze the trigger until the relationship between the barrel and the target is instinctively right. Here instinct has been moulded by previous success, but it should not be forgotten that negative movements are also filed away and will return as regularly as the good points.
Image - Basic way of showing the concept of Forward Allowance (lead) for a target moving left to right.
While it is right to allow these considerable natural talents to influence our style of shooting, we must realise that, on our own, they will not guarantee the level of consistent accuracy both a Clay and Wing Shooter is seeking. To achieve this, instinct and ability must be harnessed into a sequence of pre-planned movements which can be controlled and used to our advantage shot after shot.
In other words we need a “Method” or “Technique”.
There are basically five methods, along with variations and combinations. Some will work for you and others will not. Many shooters use a mixture of different methods without knowing what they are doing. When none of them work they end up having a bad day, they never shoot consistently well, their performance tends to be patchy and this all because their technique is based on a cocktail of unrelated information and guesswork.
Remember all we are trying to achieve is the conjunction of two moving objects, the target and the cloud of pellets you have just fired from the barrels of your shotgun.
So, let’s look at the various “Methods” or ‘Techniques that we have to choose from:
The Method: Mount onto the target and pull away in front.
Swing Through: Approaching the target from behind and then accelerating ahead.
Churchill: A short and very fast gun mount and swing.
Maintained Lead: The barrels come up in front of the target and stay ahead.
Interception: An “Ambush” with no lateral gun movement.
This is the basic style recommended and taught by the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association (CPSA) of the UK.
It is an effective and simple technique on which novices can build.
You mount the gun directly onto the target, point at it, move with it for as long as necessary to establish the line (a second or two), then finally pull away in front of it as you squeeze the trigger.
The strength of this technique is that it provides accurate information on the targets line and speed relative to the shooter.
The key point to remember is that the gun, like the target, must keep moving. Once this has been learned successfully it can be streamlined and adopted especially for wing shooting in the field by mounting on to the bird and pulling straight ahead without holding on to the target, of course timing and gun mount are crucial but this Mark Two version works excellently in the game field.
As a Coach the CPSA Method is the technique I promote to all my pupils from novice to experienced gun and I will explain my reasons for this later in the article.
Image (right) The Method Streamlined
This is where the barrels of the gun start behind the target and are swung through the target, firing when the shooter perceives the correct lead picture is achieved. Simply imagine the target is emitting a smoke trail like a jet plane and swing along it and out the other side. The line of the target is generally well established, so all that’s left to do is accelerate the gun and swing ahead.
If you start well behind the target, you really will have to put considerable energy into the swing of the gun to catch up and get ahead. If you use this system and find you are missing behind, then start your movement closer to the target or even directly on the back edge. If you are missing in front, you have swung too fast and your movement to generate lead is out of control.
To apply lead you have to swing at the correct speed, trigger timing, too, is crucial. Fire too late and you will miss in front; fire too soon and you will miss behind.
Coaches will tell you that “lead pictures” vary from person to person- which is why recommending “lead” in terms of physical distance such as meters or yards is counterproductive.
The swing through system can be used with success on Driven and some Crossing targets, however in my opinion it tends to be rather imprecise mainly because muzzles and target never end up moving at the same speed, and subsequently leads to inconsistency, especially if the shooter is feeling fatigued, either physically or mentally.
The Churchill Method
This technique was just right for Robert Churchill and the 25 inch XXV barrels of the gun he designed; he was short stocky man and was a fast shot on the grouse moors, which is the essence of this style. The Churchill method is about economy of movement and elegant efficient gun mounting. Because the swing is based on our natural ability to point, the mount and the swing, although appearing visually slow, are actually very quick and it seems you are shooting directly at the target, leaving the very speed of the moving gun to achieve the lead.
The Churchill method calls for a conscious swing onto the target followed by what the originator called a Subconscious swing ahead. The front or leading hand is the motive force to move, lift and direct the barrels, in his words: “The hand must point the barrels at the target throughout the process of lifting and mounting”. To do this successfully your gun must be a perfect fit and it requires a square shoulder line stance not a “Rifle Shooters” shoulder forward position.
This style, when executed perfectly, can be quite devastating but it doesn’t suite everyone, badly done it can turn into a prod and a poke in the sky. With this system virtually no lead picture is perceived and it becomes a truly instinctive shot.
On a personal note this is my own preferred style of shooting and has been for me, very successful at both International Competitive Sporting Clays and Wing Shooting in the field, especially on European Driven game birds.
In this system the barrels start off a measured distance in front of the target and then stay there maintaining the gap ahead throughout the mount and final shot. The gun must constantly move at the same speed as the target which means you must have a good idea of the lead required for different targets, their speeds and distances.
This method is a favorite of Skeet Shooters who are dealing with targets on predictable flight paths at set distances and angles; it can also work out in the field for wing shooters when faced with “Small Windows of Opportunity” such as in Woodland Drives and Valley’s.
The main advantage with this system is that you can always place your pattern in front of the target, as the target never ever gets past your barrels. With practice Maintained Lead produces a steady, measured shot which can create great confidence, the trick is to get in front, stay there and keep moving.
Interception (Or Ambush).
This is often referred to as the “Ambush” or “Chop Off” method, which is a snap shot taken straight in front of the target with no swing and in my opinion what Rifle shooters tend to resort to when faced with shooting a moving target with a shotgun.
An “Ambush” shot can be handy when there is little time to see the target and can work effectively when shooting Pigeon or Dove from a Hide, it’s good to keep it in reserve to use when shooting in woods or in tight spots where barrel movement is restricted.
It’s not a form of shooting I would recommend and has no place on the Clay target course or when Wing shooting in open areas with a good amount of sky.
Before moving on, a brief word of warning on all these various methods. If you attempt all or several of them all at once you are doomed to failure.
As mentioned earlier I recommend and promote the CPSA Method for all my clients to use as a base to build from and eventually they will work out what is the most successful style for them provided they give it enough thought and practice.
Consistency is all that is required, you may not break them all but you will hit most.
Technique Into Practice.
Whoever coined the phrase “Good Shooting Is No Accident’ was obviously promoting safe gun handling but it can just as easily be used to explain how some shooters manage to achieve a level of excellence while others struggle to maintain even a modicum of mediocrity.
Good shooting is certainly no accident, it rewards effort. But the encouraging thing is that better shooting is within everybody’s reach provided they realise that there is more to Shotgun marksmanship than 20/20 vision and perfect reflex action.
It is important to talk of this now because some people are apt to lose heart rapidly in their own abilities if progress is not made quickly, as I see sometimes in lessons when the Client applies too much pressure to them self to generate instant Success. Others, too, severely limit their progress by hiding behind a smokescreen; they convince themselves that they will always be second rate because the people who do really well are “naturals’, people who seem to have been blessed with this talent at birth.
Few would deny that excellent eyesight is worth having but being able to spot a flea on the back of a dog at ten paces does not necessarily mean this person will become a terrific shot, neither will lighting fast reflexes guarantee a place on the winner’s podium. Good shooting relies on much more than this, above all, it demands an ability to channel the signals the brain receives from the target into a sequence of easy muscular responses which allow the body to pivot with it and which can be controlled and conditioned to our advantage.
This means developing a technique and style that is both simple and uncluttered, because the fewer signals that need to be sent to the Gun Muzzles, the better chance we have of programming a bodily response which can be relied upon.
Image (left) Coaching a pupil to focus on the target and to “Point” not “Aim”.
With all the different shooting systems we have looked at they all rely on one vital element and that is to “Concentrate on The target”, never be tempted to let your eyes drift from the target to check its relationship with the gun barrel because this will simply result in the swing of the gun being stopped momentarily and the shot ending up behind the target. It can also lead to the shooter committing another deadly sin: lifting the head away from the stock to get a better look at the bird. Now the shot will miss over the top as well as behind!