He who hesitates is lost
The Field|November 2021
Stopping the gun and thus missing the shot sounds an easy problem to fix, but it takes practice, trust and training to let instinct take over
MIKE YARDLEY

To think too much at the wrong moment and stop mid-swing or as you pull the trigger, may be noted as amongst the cardinal sins in shooting (breaches of safety apart). The Marquess of Ripon, arguably the greatest game shot of all (and a man who had despatched half-amillion birds before he died in the heather shooting grouse in 1923), left this brief but sage shooting advice, quoted in King Edward VII, as a Sportsman, by Alfred Edward Thomas Watson: “aim high, keep the gun moving and never check...” The tendency to hesitate, stop mid-swing and then miss afflicts the most experienced Shots as well as novices (myself included). It may be a habitual or occasional error. (It is also notable that many Guns rush to a stop – rushing is another cardinal sin.)

Hesitation is hard to override, something I noted while watching an old friend shoot recently. He is a solid performer on game or pitch disks, but, like many intelligent men, he is in the habit of thinking too much when shooting. When he does, you can see the effect on his barrels: they begin to judder, slow, and his head rises. It almost always leads to a miss. Too much rational thought, especially as we are taking the gun to the bird – that is, mid-swing – leads to physical and mental hesitation. It’s a negative circle: focus comes back to the gun and the gun slows (often to a dead stop) and may come off line. A miss behind ensues.

Sustained visual contact is an important part of this equation, as is commitment to the shot and a positive mental attitude. If you lock your focus onto the bird and have a bit of self belief, there is a positive knock-on as far as your physical movement is concerned. Confidence leads to fluency. Shooting becomes more decisive and enjoyable. You shoot in the present moment without distraction. The gun almost shoots itself (as Eugen Herrigel’s bow did in Zen in the Art of Archery – a much recommended read). Too often, however, you will see someone coming to the bird with the gun, moving in front, then deliberating on lead. You can actually watch the fluency of gun movement disrupted as this happens (the head often rising, too, as mentioned). They almost always miss. Part of the deal, as noted, is learning to trust yourself. If you do and develop absolute focus discipline – looking for the eye, the beak or the head of the bird (or ridges of the clay) – every time, you will unlock wonderful natural hand-to-eye coordination.

Let’s be quite clear: once you are committed to a safe shot, the time for thought and calculation has passed. You need to understand this to shoot well. Having fun is important, too. Not getting too hung up. I set out to enjoy myself when I shoot these days. I lose myself in the act of shooting. I am more fearless, less deliberate, than I was when the result mattered more. It has paid benefits. There are disadvantages to ageing with vision and muscle tone, but this renewed confidence and verve when shooting has balanced them.

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