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Shooting Tips

How can you shoot like Tom Knapp?

Tom’s shooting ability is the result of talent and countless hours of practice. Even today, Tom’s relentless practice schedule would be hard, if not impossible, for the average shooter to even think about undertaking.

That said, everyone can improve their shooting. Tom knows that the rest of us have limited time to practice, so he has developed some quick tips that will help you become a better shooter.

Of course, this is just a sampling of the many invaluable tips that Tom has to offer. You can get the full line-up by joining Tom’s Gun Club. As a member you’ll receive tips guaranteed to improve your next hunt or trip to the range.

  1. My Favorite Chokes
  2. Selecting The Right Load
  3. Bench-Resting Your Shotgun
  4. Comparing Chokes
  5. Pattern – string - know the difference
  6. Hitting Those Seemingly Straight-away Shots
  7. Colored Lens For Shooting Glasses
  8. Your Built-In Range Finder
  9. Determining The Proper Forward Lead
  10. Choosing The Correct Targets

My Favorite Chokes
Most fresh water or field waterfowl hunting is done at a distance of 35 yards or closer. Therefore hunters can up their odds of a successful shot by using a more open choke. Many of today’s shotguns come with 5 internal – screw-in chokes. They are marked with notches, stars, or some kind of etching indicating a range of 1 through 5. Some are even stamped with abbreviations. The breakdown is this: - 1 mark = full, 2 = imp. Mod., 3 = mod., 4 = imp. Cyl. And 5 = cyl (or “skeet” for some of us semi-geezers). Full, being the tightest and the # 5 - cyl., being the most open. Do yourself a favor and test the pattern of each of these chokes on a large sheet of cardboard covered with freezer paper before you go hunting.

If I’m shooting 35 yards or closer, I like the #4 “imp. Cyl.” choke. When using high energy pellets, this choke gives me the best pellet distribution, with the least chance of a shot-up bird at close range.

Selecting The Right Load
When trying to determine what load to use, just remember that the closer you are to your target – smaller shot sizes are better for head and neck shots but as the distance progresses, they don’t have the mass or momentum to penetrate into the vitals. Therefore, choose a shot size that will fill the bill - out to my expected shooting distance. If I am pass shooting at longer distances, I up the shot size to assure the proper energy delivery.

Hunting over decoys, I like the federal premium high velocity steel with the number 4 shot size. When I’m pass shooting at longer distances I use the Federal Premium Tungsten Iron with BB’s or BBB’s. Just make sure that you extend your lead at those longer distances.

Bench-Resting Your Shotgun
One of the most used methods of bench-resting a gun is the use of two rests…one in the front and one to the rear….position the front rest under the forearm at a place where you can comfortably reach around and grasp the forearm in front of the rest (or sand bag). The rear rest should be placed directly under the end of the pistol grip so your hand can grasp it as normal…this presents a two anchor rest which is far more stable than trying to rest the front of the gun against something and relying on your steadiness for the rear anchor. If you need to adjust the height (either front or rear) get some short wood scrap in different thickness, which are placed under the rest bags to bring your line of aim where you want it without having any movement in the guns rest.

Comparing Chokes
If you plan on comparing chokes with the same load, make sure that you’re using the same sight picture for each shot. Tax your memory and pay particular attention to where your front bead is in relation to the guns receiver….a 1/6 of an inch high at your eye can produce a much higher point of impact than if your eye was looking flat down the receiver.

I advise that you purchase a selection of bench-rest shooting bags or adjustable shooting rests from your favorite retailer that will fit your budget as all are able to suite the job of a two-anchored rest.

Pattern – string - know the difference
A good shot pattern or imprint that is left on your paper target may look like a nice even oval or round pattern with even spacing between the pellet holes. A bad pattern may appear to have odd spacing or large voids on the paper inside the circumference of your pattern. The question is…when did each of those pellets hit the paper…many people look at a shot pattern (on paper) as if all of the pellets hit at the same time…kind of like a fly swatter smacking the wall. But that’s not the way it is…depending on the cartridge make-up and how the pellets leave the muzzle, those holes (or voids) that you see within the pattern (on a paper target) may not be such a concern.

A shot string is sort of like a short burst of water from a garden hose. If you were able to let a specific charge of water go, it could be 3 feet long, like the some of the water-burst fountains that you may see in amusement parks. Your shot string is the same way. There are pellets in the front, middle, and rear. When shooting a pattern on paper, the imprint is produced as the pellets arrive.

Making clean kills on airborne birds depend on placing the front of your shot string in front of the bird. If you should strike the bird with the leading pellets, the majority of the shot string will pass behind the bird.

The longer your shot string is, the more chance a bird will find its way through it with the least amount of hits… a bird passing through a shorter shot string usually ends up in your game bag. Got your pencil ready…to look at cartridge specifications and be able to compare loads of many different kinds, go to …federal cartridge company produces shot shells with some of the shortest shot strings in the industry.

My rule of thumb---if you’re going to miss, miss in front…in other words, when you think you have the appropriate forward lead, add an extra foot or so…you may be pleasantly surprised.

Hitting Those Seemingly Straight-away Shots
The wind is hitting you on your left side at 15 mph. A pheasant flushes 20 yards ahead of your dog and flies seemingly straight away. It's a natural maneuver for any flying bird to eventually turn into the wind. Even if they get caught in a corner and flush down wind, you can bet that they will turn into the wind to achieve lift. Paying attention to the wind's direction during the hunt can give you the edge that could minimize the need for a second shot to bring down the one rooster.

READING the flight path of the pheasant is critical to success. These birds are masters of illusion and they can look like they’re going straight away, but actually they are making a subtle bank to one side.  Don’t be fooled, READ the angle of their wings, if the left wing dips below the right, regardless if they’re flapping or gliding, then he intends to bank to the left.  Adjust your sight picture to favor his left side and pull the trigger. This procedure is quite useful in the late season when your shooting distance is extended due to spooky or experienced birds. The farther the bird is from you, the longer it takes for your shot string to arrive on target. At those longer distances, the bird can move several feet to the side by the time your shot string arrives.

Colored Lens For Shooting Glasses
Many of you may have seen me at live shooting exhibitions or on television and know that I’m quite consistent with wearing my yellow or amber tinted shooting glasses. This is not because of sponsored promotions or endorsements. I was introduced to tinted shooting eyewear by a fellow shooter that happened to be an optometrist. I tried many different colors and for the way I see things, the yellow spectrum suited me the best. Up until my 40th Birthday, my vision was 20/15. This is better than 20/20 (I’m told)…but even then, a wood duck passing across an oak-studded farm pond would present a very difficult target because its black & white dominated body would seemingly blend with the dark shadows and skylight flickering through the trees. The same presentation when wearing my medium-yellow lenses (with no prescription at that time) allowed me to zero in on the duck regardless if it was a drake or a hen and stay with it throughout my shooting window. This enhancement also aids target identification when only the male of that particular species is allowed to be taken.

Although color is a personal preference, the amber or yellow tints help define and enhance all colors that you look at. Whether I’m hunting in the dim light of the morning or late day or under overcast skies, my yellow lenses help me identify my intended target in adverse lighting conditions. Yellow lenses will also penetrate fog and falling snow, preventing the normal blending effect that accompanies similar backgrounds. For example, when trying to trail a bird or animal in the snow during humid, foggy or snowy conditions, their tracks are very difficult to define. The yellow lenses help me see the tracks in those conditions. They also greatly enhance the visibility of a blood trail that has been lightly snowed on.

Your eyes may use light and color differently than mine so keep an open mind when investigating the many possibilities. Each color will have a range from light to dark. I use my light yellow in low light conditions or when driving at night. In bright sun, especially when hunting in snow cover, I’ll change to dark amber. There are many intermediate tints to experiment with as well. Those of you who hunt primarily with a dark green background or a bright blue sky (such as dove hunting) may want to check out the purple tints. Whether you wear prescription lenses or not, you may want to check out the many different offerings of interchangeable, high impact shooting frames & lenses.

Your Built-In Range Finder
Built-In Range Finder – Every Hunter that hunts with a firearm has one! Regardless of the shape or diameter of your front sight, it can serve as a quick reference to determine the distance between you and your intended target. This comes in handy while trying to determine the proper forward lead that is required for passing or moving targets. Unlike the electronic range finders, this method requires your memory and ability to obtain your sight picture quickly.

Here’s how it works…Find (or sketch) a life-size image of the bird or animal you intend to hunt. For this example, I’ll refer to dove hunting. Oh, and by the way, this procedure does not require any shooting so you can do this in your back yard in preparation for your hunting trip. Take the life-size image of a dove and run it through your fax copier 3 times or sketch 3 images (of the same). Then you’ll need 3 stakes or cardboard boxes to attach the paper images to. Place the first image a measured (paced off) common shooting distance from your aiming position… normal dove shooting near a water hole could be as close as 15 yards. Then pace off another 10 yards from the first image, keeping in mind to set the second image a little to the side so you can see past the first and view the second. Then, pace off another 10 yards and place the third so it can be viewed without having to move from your aiming position. Now, we have the same size targets, the first at 15, the second at 25, and the third at 35 yards from your aiming position.

By looking at the three images, the furthest appears quite a bit smaller than that of the closest, even though they are all the same (life size) images. You already know the measured distances, so here’s where you turn your memory chip on! By using the same gun that you intend to hunt with, take aim at the first image. Pay particular attention to the front sight’s diameter (or width) in relation to the image’s size. You’ll note that the 15 yard image is much bigger than that of your front sight, perhaps the front sight is about the same size as the doves head. RECORD this bead – bird relationship in your brain factory as CLOSE – or – SHORT LEAD. Then do the same with the second image. Note that the front sight will cover maybe half of the image. RECORD this as MEDIUM – or – DOUBLE THE LEAD of the close one. Now, don’t be surprised when you aim at the third and find that your front sight completely covers the image. This is the no-brainer of the bunch! If your front sight covers the entire image, you may not know the exact distance, but it should tell your brain to extend your forward lead UNCOMFORTABLY in front.

Somewhere down the trail, I’ll be offering more ways to determine proper forward leads on moving targets. Until then, just remember to use the same gun for this exercise that you intend to hunt with.

Determining The Proper Forward Lead
If you have MAJORED in physics, algebra, and mathematics you may be able to figure out the proper amount of forward lead necessary to make a clean kill on a passing goose within a very short amount of time (meaning small parts of a second). If you haven’t the aforementioned criteria, my RULE of thumb may help you out.

One of the reasons for making the VERY typical mistake of shooting behind your airborne target is miss-judging the speed (or velocity) of said target. Not long ago, In another shooting tip I explain how I use the diameter of my front sight as a range finder to judge the distance but the velocity of your target also plays a big part in determining the proper amount of forward lead that you should apply. It’s been documented that an average speed of most passing waterfowl is approximately 45 – 50 mph. I have personally clocked mallard ducks and greater Canada geese flying together and parallel to my truck at 50 mph plus.  The key words here are “Ducks & Geese Flying Together”; therefore we can assume that they were traveling at the same speed. A goose presents one of the most deceiving targets in the sky!

When viewing only geese, with nothing else to compare to, their large appearance and slow wing beats make them look like slow moving, cumbersome objects. One wing beat of a goose will carry him just as far as six wing beats of a duck. Then couple that with a close encounter, let’s say 20 yards, and it becomes easy to think that you can aim directly at your focal point. It’s common for a person (regardless of how good their eye sight is) to focus on the center area of their intended target. The moving wings of a bird draw visual attention as well. If you fall for this typical scenario, and use your optical mathematics, the only thing you’ll be having for supper is TAIL-FEATHER SOUP.

After you have placed your goose decoys and have settled into your blind, program your mind as if it were to look your expected quarry square in the eye! Regardless of what direction a goose approaches you, if you can see its eye, it is well within range. Pay no mind to its flapping wings or its seemingly slow moving antics, just make sure your head is on the stock as it should be, then aim for the eye, and let’er fly! If the goose is far enough away to where you can’t see its eye clearly, but you know he’s within 40 yards, just move your sight picture uncomfortably forward, making sure that your looking forward of its head, not its body. This procedure works the same for ducks. You may have to adjust for the ducks shorter neck with a few inches more lead but AGAIN, make sure your leading its head and not its body.

Choosing The Correct Targets
When you’ve got doubles or triples on your mind, you not only need to know where your subsequent targets are but you need a plan of attack. In other words, seeing the position of your expected second and / or third target is important… BUT having a practiced approach to each target is MORE important.

Waterfowl can present some of the most challenging targets in the sky. My following suggestions can help you become more proficient at choosing the correct target first when trying to set yourself up for those elusive doubles or triples. Of course there are many factors and variables (such as the habits of various waterfowl species) that can spoil even my tactics. I’ll start with the more predictable specie of the Mallard Duck. As a flock of Mallards approach your decoys, they are usually changing places with one another faster than a sheeny shuffles walnut shells. This is NOT the time to be choosing your first shot, in hopes of harvesting multiple green-heads. Many of us have had the experience of firing our first shot on their approach, only to cause the gliding ducks into their only course of escape, which is usually a deliberate wing-flapping steady flight upwards, revealing a much more rewarding display. Rather than throwing the first (of your three shots) away, I prefer to let myself be seen and perhaps give out a shout in order to flare the ducks into the aforementioned escape route. At that time, TIME is of the essence. We all know that shooting with both eyes open is safer but learning to shoot with both eyes makes it easier to use your peripheral vision to locate and identify your second (and even third) target while paying attention to your first, all WITHOUT a blink of an eye.

The excitement that is generated by a flock of committed mallards tends to make the hunter try to choose his (or her) expected shots on the flock’s approach. Too many times I have heard the story of 3 shots fired and not even a cripple hitting the water. Of course adrenalin goes hand in hand with excitement. Have you ever been in the blind when the leader of the group calls the shot by Screaming…TAKE’EM…with enough volume to where the shock waves of his voice compresses your foam ear plugs so far into your ear canals that it takes a pair of medical forceps to remove them? I’ve seen this behavior cause a chain reaction of safety clicking, coffee spilling, fumbling, babbling, trigger bending idiots. (I fell prey to this scenario more times than I care to share). This is the moment where one must think, rather that react. This particular leader actually set the stage for you to calmly take your shooting position and choose your “Pre-flared” targets in a deliberate manner.

Once the flock has started their accent, they don’t usually do a lot of bobbing or weaving like they do when they’re coming in. Even though there may be a hen or two between the drakes, the brilliant green head of the drake is fairly easy to see. Here’s where your self control comes in. When trying to shoot doubles or triples, many of us tend to think that the lead target will become too far away, too soon. We tend to try for the target that will be the first to leave our shooting window, and then come back to the target that WAS closer. This becomes very awkward because you’re moving your gun BACK to a target that’s moving FORTH. Here’s what works for me… if the ducks are moving upward, choose the lowest (or bottom) green head. Two eyed shooting is a must because you need your peripheral vision to see the green head that is above. By shooting the lower target first, this creates a comfortable follow-through lead for your second shot, and then the third if it applies to your particular circumstance. This method works the same even if the ducks are moving latterly. Shoot the trailing duck first and then swing through the duck in front, causing a natural swing through movement. Many sporting clay courses offer similar target presentations where you can practice this until it becomes a natural thought process.