Solutions to superior shotgunning

Anybody who thinks a new shotgun might be the answer for shooting woes is ... absolutely right.

It's a fitting answer to a fitting subject based on the fact that some shotguns naturally fit some shooters better than others.

What every wingshooter needs is a shotgun that comes naturally and comfortably to the shooter's shoulder so that the shooter's eyes are looking straight down the top of the barrel, picture perfect every time.

The problem is that many standard, off-the-shelf shotguns are designed to the dimensions of an "average" right-handed shooter who is 5-foot-9, weighs 165 pounds, has a 33-inch arm length and wears a size 40-regular suit.

That leaves out most men over 40, many women and children and all lefties.

Everyone, of course, would love to have a custom-fitted, custom-made Purdy from old England. Getting one, however, would require a two-year wait and the cost of a couple Corvettes.

A custom-fitted Beretta by Orvis would get the price down to four digits, but that was still too expensive for my budget.

Then I talked to Col. Tom Hanzel, former coach of national champion skeet teams at Trinity University in San Antonio and an expert shooting instructor.

"Every now and then I run into an individual who can handle a standard shotgun, but it's about one out of 100," Hanzel said, noting that proper fit was a "necessity" for maximizing shooting skill.

But the coach also said getting a fitted shotgun was not expensive. In many cases, a gunsmith could adjust a standard shotgun to fit a shooter for as little as $50 to $60 (such as at the Texas Gun Shop in Corpus Christi).

I remembered Hanzel's words when I met gunsmith John Smyrl, who did fitting work for South Texas shooters before departing this earthly plane a couple of years ago.

For his work, the gunsmith used what is called a "try gun" with a special butt stock that can be adjusted in numerous ways to fit any shooter. Once the try gun fits, the measurements are duplicated on the shooter's own shotgun, often at minimal costs.



Often, a skilled gunsmith can spot the most common problems of shotgun fit by simply eyeballing a shooter holding a shotgun in a shooting position.

My suggestion to Smyrl was a before-and-after test, using my own shotgun, to see if there was enough difference in fit to make a difference.

I produced an older model but standard Remington 870 pump gun in 12 gauge.

As a simple eyeball test, Smyrl had me repeatedly mount the shotgun to my shoulder while he stood at the barrel end and checked the position of my eyes in relation to the top of the barrel.

"I can tell you right now that this gun doesn't fit you worth a darn, but let's take it out to the range and see how you shoot it," he said.

We did.

Since my focus was on dove hunting, we set up on a skeet range to try shooting clay birds on various crossing angles. To better judge the fit of my shotgun, Smryl suggested I not shoulder it until a "bird" suddenly appeared.

I broke 13 of the first 25 birds and 15 of the next 25, for a total of 28 out of 50. That was better than I expected, but nothing to brag about.

Smyrl made little comment until the final shot was fired, then he got down to the basics of shotgun fit.

The measurements that count most, he said, are "cast," "length of pull" and "drop of comb." Cast is the measurement of how the centerline of the stock fits to the centerline of the receiver. As the stock varies off the centerline to the left or to the right, it is said to be either "cast on" or "cast off."



Many standard shotguns have a slight cast off for right-handed shooters, which can be a disadvantage for southpaws. Smyrl said many shooters could benefit from a cast that centers their eyes on a shotgun's sighting rib.

Length of pull is the measurement of distance between the butt of the shotgun's stock and the trigger.

For a simple test of length of pull, Smyrl said a shooter can bend his or her shooting arm into a right angle at the elbow with the palm open and flat. Then, place the butt of the shotgun against the crook of the elbow, with the receiver flat against the palm. If the shotgun trigger falls about the first joint of the index finger, the length of pull is about right.

Drop of comb is the distance which the comb section of the stock just behind the grip drops below the top of the receiver. Since the shooter anchors his or her cheek to the stock behind the comb, the drop determines the level of the eye to the top of the receiver.

"The problem with your shotgun," Smyrl said, "is that there's too much drop in the stock. It's too low for you, but that's common for a lot of shooters.

"When you get your cheekbone down on the stock, you're seeing too much of the back of the receiver. So when you shoot, you are lifting your cheek off the stock to see the target better, and you're shooting high," he explained.



So custom fitting my shotgun amounted mostly to adjusting drop of comb, a simple task of slightly bending metal at the back of the receiver.

Back at the skeet range, I shot worse than ever, breaking only 9 of 25 birds, while eliciting a few chuckles from the gunsmith.

"Look," he said, "you're shotgun fits right, but you haven't changed your old habit of lifting up your head when you shoot, which puts you way off target now. I want you to plant your cheekbone on that stock and concentrate on keeping it there."

I broke 38 of the next 50 birds.

Some misses came when I lifted my head, but I wasn't complaining.

The difference between my "before" score of 28 out of 50 and the "after" score of 38 out of 50 represented an improvement of about 35 percent.

It was a fitting exercise.

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