Skeet-Field Doves

Station 4 is the best place to limber up for dove season.

Back in the easy days, the opening of dove season ranked right up there with Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July as important dates on our calendars. I was one of a group of 8 or 10 high-school low achievers who, weeks before the big event, scouted fields, water holes and flyways, begged farmers for permission to hunt and reloaded buckets of shells.

In addition to bringing us together on that day of days and perhaps actually providing our home tables with tasty fare, dove hunting was one of our favorite spectator sports. At least it was the way we did it. Our usual shooting strategy was to surround a field where doves were feeding, spacing ourselves so that incoming or out-flying birds would be more or less in range of someone's shotgun.

The most desired stands were around the edges of the field because there were usually trees to hide under and unwary doves would often float over low and slow (at least until the shooting started and they got wary in a hurry). Another reason it was good to hide around the edges was because one's misses were more likely to go unnoticed and thus escape hoots, jeers and other such charmingly subtle euphemisms of Southern sarcasm.

The least desirable positions were the one or two stands in the center of the field. These center stands were necessary to keep the doves flying but they were not popular because your every shot was witnessed. This situation was made worse by the fact that your shots were always at doves who had switched on their afterburners. Finally, most shots were at difficult crossing angles, like the tough station 4 at skeet, only the targets were higher. All of which added up to abundant opportunities to throw shot at empty air and absorb critical commentary.

Learning on Empty
During the course of the season we all had our moments in this scorching spotlight, but our favorite shooter was a kid who earned the nickname "Empty." He was a truly gentle soul and we all liked him despite his ownership of a glistening Browning Sweet Sixteen, which caused the rest of the pack to seethe with envy. He was the most enthusiastic dove hunter I've ever seen, a characteristic that was frequently the cause of his undoing. Whenever he spotted a dove that might even remotely be headed in his direction, he would let fly with three rapid shots from his autoloader. Then, when the dove was actually in his range, he was burdened by a smoking but unloaded Sweet Sixteen. Cries of "Empty" would echo around the field in a chorus of hoots.

Though the nickname Empty stuck for life and will probably be chiseled on his tombstone, he started to get a lot more respect after he joined a gun club and began hanging out with a bunch of skeet shooters. I wasn't a member of that upscale set, but I occasionally pulled targets at the club in return for shells. This gave me the chance to watch Empty translate what he was learning at the skeet stations into steady improvement at center stage in the dove field.

After all, hitting anything that flies-doves, ducks or clay targets-is a study in angles, distance and time. The relationship of the three is so complex that scientists who ponder such things often use the example of shooting at-and hitting-a winging target as a demonstration of the immensely powerful and complex computers we carry around between our ears. Once we unlock these powers we can unthinkingly perform feats with a shotgun that almost defy logic. And one of the best places to learn is on a skeet field. Having said that, let me add that if you could practice at only one skeet station, the most instructive would be the No. 4 position, because that's where the crossing targets require the greatest amount of lead, or "forward allowance," as the British say. Shots at station 4 are also most similar to the difficult shots at crossing doves.

Spot Shooting
An inspired gun writer ccould compose volumes on how to miss doves, but the shortest route to success is learning a good lead technique and sticking with it. There are three basic techniques-plus endless variations-for leading a flying target with a shotgun. The most unreliable yet probably the most used is "spot shooting." Here the gunner simply visualizes a "spot" ahead of the target at what he figures will be the right amount of lead for the situation and simply shoots at the imaginary spot. Hopefully, the target and charge of shot pellets will arrive at the "spot" at the same moment. I've seen some pretty good spot shooters, especially on skeet fields, and have been known to take a few spot shots myself. But it's a "when you're hot you're hot and when you're not you're not" technique that leads to a dead-end trail in your wing-shooting progress.

Swing-Through
Another technique for putting the right amount of lead on a passing target is the "swing-through" method. This is favored by most of the British shooting coaches I've met. I think the main reason they like it is because they don't have to burden the student with too much wing-shooting theory and it generally produces fast progress for a new shooter.

As its name implies, the swing-through method is simply a matter of swinging through the flight line of the target, coming up from behind and hitting the trigger as the muzzle comes even with the target. Of course, the muzzle has to be moving faster than the target, and a sustained follow-through is critical because it is the follow-through that provides the lead. It's all a matter of timing, and the reason it works so well is one of the mysteries of wing-shooting.

Whenever I'm passing through London I always try to schedule a half-day of shooting and coaching at Holland & Holland's famous shooting grounds, especially when they're in the mood to let me use one of their magnificent doubles. The Holland coaches are a forgiving lot and know me well enough not to take anything I do or say very seriously and seem to be of the uniform opinion that I acquired my unsalvageable wing-shooting form somewhere in the American wilderness. Anyway, it's comforting to have them peering over my shoulder and whispering, "Push on, Mr. Carmichel, push on," beseeching me to keep swinging the gun hard and fast after the shot is fired. As I said before, with the swing-through method your follow-through is everything.

A good way to practice is to mount your shotgun over and over, swinging through and dry-firing at an imaginary target and maintaining a long, smooth follow-through.

Sustained Lead
The third technique for hitting a dove, skeet target or anything else that flies is the "sustained lead." This is simply a matter of establishing the amount of lead you want to use and maintaining the lead with your moving gun until the shot is away. It's pretty much a foolproof method when you do it right, or at least as near foolproof as anything about wing-shooing is liable to be. This technique is widely used by most of the top field and competition shotgunners. The difficult part of sustained-lead shooting is knowing just how much lead is necessary for targets flying at different speeds, distances and angles. This is learned the hard way-by experience. Actually, I may be making it sound harder than it is, because when mastering station 4 we quickly learn that a three- or four-foot lead gets the pattern on target, depending on your individual style and speed. Once we get this basic position down pat, other crossing targets, such as a jetting dove, are only variations of the same basic approach.