The final straw was my last shot of the 2010 Vermont grouse season. I’ve never been a good (or even mediocre) shot, but for the first time since I had moved back to the Northeast almost a decade earlier, I had gone the whole season without downing a single bird. I was determined to rectify the situation on that cold day before New Year’s Eve.
But after an hour of fruitless hunting, I was ready to give up and started walking back toward the car along a logging road. I remained alert, but hope was certainly waning as the last gate came into view. Suddenly, the whirring of wings bursting into flight sounded from a pine tree to my left, and a grouse flew straight across the open road in front of me, about 30 feet away and 10 feet off the ground. I could not have asked for an easier shot.
I brought my grandfather’s 1930s Savage Fox side-by-side up to my cheek, tracked the bird for an instant, and pulled the front trigger. The bird seemed unaffected, so I let off the second barrel. I stood there dumbfounded as the grouse rocketed into the woods to my right without so much as a tail feather out of place.
“I’ve got to do something about this,” I thought, as I trudged back to the car.
I talked to a couple of experienced shooters at the office, and they had two pieces of advice: get a new gun and take a lesson. So I called down to Sandanona Shooting Grounds and booked the first available spot. My college friend, Morgan, agreed to drive up from New York City to take the course with me. Since she had never shot a shotgun before, I assumed she wouldn’t make me look too bad.
The Right Stuff
We arrived in Millbrook—in Duchess County north of NYC—on a chilly January morning, but Sandanona was bustling. A large group of hunters was preparing for a duck hunt in some flooded timber on the other side of the property, the sporting-clays crowd was gearing up to start working through the stations, and the six students (including us) were getting outfitted for the lessons.
It’s exciting to be at Sandanona, which is to sporting clays in this country what Augusta National is to golf. The facilities are amazing, and the 19th century lodge building is both rustic and comfortable.
The first order of the day was to deal with the gun question. One of my Orvis hunting buddies, Mike Quartararo, had been telling me for some time that my gun was part of the problem, and shooting instructor Larry Stoneham agreed as soon as he saw it. “You shouldn’t use that gun,” he said. “It’s too short for you and there’s too much drop in the stock.” He said that, while he understood that using the same gun my grandfather shot was a meaningful experience, the size and shape of the old Savage made it difficult for me to shoot.
(The “drop” describes the angle of the stock in relation to the straight line created by the top of the barrel. If there’s too much drop, the shooter is not looking directly down the barrel when the gun is mounted.)
He took me over to the gun rack, looked me over, and chose one of the school over-unders. He stood in front of me, had me mount the gun with the barrel resting on his shoulder, and determined that it was the right size. One of the amazing things about all the instructors I worked with at Sandanona is that they have seen so many shooters that their first guess at a solution to a problem—whether it’s about gun fit, mounting mechanics, or gun movement—is almost always right on.
Once Morgan and I had the right shotguns, we met James Ross, the head shooting instructor at Sandanona, who would be our teacher for the morning. Our group also including Mark and Alex, a father and son also shooting for the first time. This was going to a breeze for me. I’d been hunting for years, and I was teamed up with three novices.
Left and Right
After a short safety video in the clubhouse, we headed out to the range. James showed us the correct stance, how to mount the gun, and how to follow through when swinging the gun. Then it was time to put those lessons to use. The station featured clays coming toward the shooter at a steep upward angle, so it appeared as if the clays were going almost straight up in the air.
Morgan was up first. James, who has a very calm and quiet instruction style, ran through the instruction process and then stood slightly behind and to the side of Morgan, so he could look practically down the barrel with her and watch how she moved the gun. Morgan shot one of four targets, followed by Alex, who hit two of four, and Mark, who also broke one.
I stepped up confidently, and James asked me to mount the gun. I did, and he seemed to think it was okay, so we proceeded. I missed all four targets, all to the left. Frustrated and slightly humiliated, I looked to James, who was watching me with a slightly puzzled expression.
“Have you ever been tested to see what your dominant eye is?” he asked. I said that I hadn’t, so he performed an experiment. He stood 15 feet in front of me, with his face pointed downward toward the ground.
“When I look up,” he said, “using your left hand, point directly at my left eye.”
He looked up, and I pointed.
“You’re left-eye dominant,” he said, describing the way I’d pointed first to the middle of his face and then moved outward to his eye. “That’s why you’re missing left on everything. The gun isn’t actually pointing where you think it’s pointing.”
Because the gun was mounted on my right shoulder, my right eye was directly over the barrel, but my left eye was overpowering the right. So I wasn’t looking directly down the barrel, but slightly across it. The gun barrel was therefore always pointing left of where I thought it was.
He explained that his preferred method for fixing a problem with cross-dominance is to have the shooter switch the gun to the other shoulder. Given that I’d been shooting so long, however, he figured that shooting from the other side would be awkward for me, and I agreed. So he offered a different solution:
“Acquire the target with both eyes open,” he instructed, “and then close the left eye and cover the target with the barrel of the gun.”
I readied myself, and when James whispered “bird” I locked my eyes on the rising clay pigeon, closed my left eye, made the target disappear by covering it with the barrel, and pulled the trigger. To my immense relief, the target broke apart. I hit two more of the next three.
In just a couple of minutes, James had diagnosed and fixed a problem that had plagued me for as long as I’ve been a hunter. From that point on, at every station but one, I broke more clays than my novice companions—as you’d expect I would, given my shooting experience. At the end of the day, all I could think was “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” I could have saved myself a lot of anguish and shot a lot more birds.
We stayed at the same station with James for the entire morning, each of us shooting four times. One of the benefits of taking a group lesson is that you get to watch other people shoot and then listen to the instructor’s corrections, so when it’s your turn to shoot you have a better idea of what you should do and the faults you should avoid.
All of us improved considerably as the morning progressed. The single biggest problem for the group was maintaining the proper gun mount all the way through the shot. There’s a tendency to pull your cheek away from the gun as you pull the trigger, so you can admire your shot and watch the target explode. Unfortunately, this impulse causes you to miss, thus defeating the purpose. Until lunchtime, we all worked on maintaining the mount and swinging the gun all the way through the target.
We had lunch back at the historic main lodge building, where we met our instructor for the afternoon, Joe Wassi. Whereas James is very calm and soft-spoken when he’s teaching, Joe is excitable and quick to laugh. Although his style was considerably different, he knows his stuff, and we all continued to improve throughout the afternoon, as we tried several different kinds of shots.
As part of the day’s lesson, students are offered a professional gun fitting, and James came and collected me midway through our sessions with Joe. We went to the fitting range, where he took out an odd-looking gun that features lots of adjustable parts, which allows the fitter to make minute tweaks to get just the right fit.
It was fascinating to watch James measure and adjust the gun. He had me mount the gun just once, made a couple more minor adjustments and then had me fire at a target. The pattern was bunched dead-center, which meant that the fit was perfect. The dude knows what he’s doing. He wrote the measurements on a form for me to take with me, like a prescription for eyeglasses. If I ever want a gun custom made, I can just give the gunsmith these figures and he can produce a perfect fit.
By the end of the day, we were all shooting pretty well. Morgan really enjoyed her first shotgunning experience—as did Mark and Alex—and all three said they’d be back. For me, the experience was more profound. I’d spent a lot of years thinking I was simply a lousy shot, only to discover at Sandanona that most of my problems were not the result of personal failings, but of poor equipment choices and my left-eye dominance.
The downside (sort of) is that I need to buy a new gun and hang my grandfather’s on the wall. But I cannot wait to put my new closed-eye strategy to work in the grouse woods next fall. Of course, I think I’ll spend a fair amount of time at Sandanona between now and then—perfecting my gun mount, working to maintain my swing and follow-through, and trying to develop the muscle memory that will make the whole process second nature when a grouse goes up in front of me.
And if I get a crossing shot like the one I missed last year, I expect to cook that bird in white whine and black current jam that night.