Human Instinct
Right, so here’s where I tell you my theory about shooting. I’ve already mentioned that shooting makes use of our basic instincts; here’s why. When our ancient cousins the Cavemen roamed the earth they didn’t have many options to find meat to roast on their fires, they could only catch or throw a stone at a rabbit to kill it. (Before anyone says, yes I know the Normans brought rabbits over here, it’s an analogy, OK?) Over thousands of years, our ancestors became adept at throwing stones just in front of a rabbit while it was running, so that by the time the stone had travelled a few yards, the rabbit had as well and he ran into the stone and one of them dropped down dead. This went on for so many thousands of years that humans learnt to throw in front of their prey by instinct, it was an in-built ability.
We don’t have to throw stones now but the instinct has not been lost, we just use it to know exactly how far in front of the target we have to point the gun instead. This is what one of the world’s best shooters, John Bidwell, calls the ‘X factor, the thing between the ears’ You will find that anyone who has not shot before will be able to hit most targets instinctively at first, then after a bit they start to think about what they’re doing and the wheel falls off until they can understand how it works.

Master eye
This is the first thing you’ll be asked when you show any sort of interest in shooting – which is your dominant eye? Most people who have never had anything to do with guns don’t realise that there is such a thing but it’s easy to find out. Stand facing a light switch on the wall and if you’re right handed point at it with the 1st finger of your right hand, keeping both eyes open. If, when you close your left eye you are still pointing at the light switch, then you are right eye dominant and right shouldered – a good combination for a shooter. The same works for a left handed person who is left eye dominant, use your left finger to point at the switch, close your right eye and you should still be pointing at it. The trouble comes when a right eyed person shoots left handed and vice versa. I’ll try to explain: usually people will have one eye that sends a picture of what it sees to the brain which then over-rides the signal sent from the other eye. What shooters want is for the gun to point and shoot exactly where they are looking, hence the test above to establish that someone who mounts the gun to their right shoulder receives the main signal from the right eye which is looking straight along the rib of the barrel and not across the top of it. Having said all that, if your lefts and rights don’t do as they should don’t worry, there are ways around it. There is such a thing as a crossover stock which does as it says, it crosses the barrels from the mount shoulder to the opposite eye, it’s a hideous beast but it can work. Another trick is to confuse the brain by putting an opaque patch on the dominant eye lens of your shooting glasses, this will make the brain think the lesser eye looking along the rib is really the master, that can also do the job. Some people have trained themselves to close an eye just before taking the shot, although that’s not the easiest way of doing things in my book. I could go on to explain that we usually need both eyes open to shoot because eyes work in pairs to establish distance by triangulation but that’s another article somewhere.
As my old grandmother used to say, ‘there is always an exception to prove the rule’ and so there is here. An old friend of mine has always shot right shouldered and has always been left eye dominant. When I introduced him to my hobby, he shot instinctively and well at first, I seem to remember a 90% cropping up. He then started to think about what he was doing and the wheel fell off big time; eye patches, hats, tape, swearing, you name it and he had tried it. Then, during one of our rambling yarns he took my advice and went back to square one with both eyes open, shooting from the right shoulder – he’s now blasting them out of the sky with the best of us again. It shouldn’t work; he should shoot to the left of everything but he doesn’t. The only conclusion can be that his old brainbox has gained so much experience over so many years of his life that it has trained itself to take into account the difference between looking from the left and doing everything on the right. If this has totally confused you, go to your local gun shop where they will produce what you need and you won’t have to think about any of it.

Barrel Awareness
If you’ve studied all that has gone before on this page, by now you’ll either be like my friend mentioned above, who admits to being confused or like me, constantly full of wonder about how our brains handle everyday stuff. I’ll now confuddle you further by bringing into conversation the subject of barrel awareness; let me try to explain what’s going on here. When we shoot clays we’ve already found out that our gun has to be pointing in front of the target to break it, so why are we so keen to look straight down the barrel when there’s no chance of it ever pointing directly at the clay? Surely the whole point of a dominant eye looking down the rib is to shoot where we look? Not really. For a succesful shot, if the gun was pointing directly at the target then we’d either be Laser clay shooting or the target would be heading straight for your muzzles, in every other case the barrel must be under, over or to the side of a moving clay to break it.
The master eye test above is to ensure that the gun comes to the same place every time we mount and for the brain to receive the same sight picture. When the gun has come to the same place and our eyes have seen the same thing several times, our brains learn what’s going to happen and can take things for granted. Once again it’s all down to the thousands of years training that our brains have had. When we catch or kick a ball we don’t look at our hands or feet to work out where they are, as if by magic we can hold out a hand and catch, we can even dive to the ground and still catch – we don’t need to find out where all the bits of our bodies are, we already know where they are, we are aware. This is another handy instinct to have when we shoot but what most of us needs is a regular starting point from which the gun can move so we usually mount into the same place in the shoulder so our brain knows where the gun is; this is barrel awareness. Once the mind is aware where the gun is, it can tell arms and hands to move the gun to the place that it’s needed without us consciously thinking about where it needs to go, once the brain knows the gun is in the right place it sends signals to pull the trigger. If we allow our instinct and inbuilt barrel awareness to do their bit and we can train ourselves to let them get on with it, after a bit of practice it rarely fails.
The missed targets usually come when we try to make sure our sub-conscious mind is working properly, if you hang on to a target to make sure of it you’ll more than likely miss. Anyone who has shot a bit will tell how they powdered that last clay but the stock was nowhere near their shoulder – their brain was aware of the position of the barrel and instinct told them to pull the trigger leading to the best kill of the stand – that’s barrel awareness. Several of the world’s best guns display their clay breaking prowess by shooting from the hip, over their shoulder, between the legs, gun upside down – they don’t line up a dominant eye over the rib, they can do it because their brain knows where the barrel is in relation to the target and instinct says when to pull the trigger. You can prove this in the same way as I did many years ago. Stand some clays on edge in front of you so they look from your shooting position like black discs, anything around 10 – 20 yds away and find yourself an air rifle. Try firing from the hip at the clays – you’ll soon find that you become aware that the barrel is pointing at the clay and it breaks every time. Please make sure you are safe at all times when shooting.

Most people realise fairly quickly after their first go at shooting clays that they have to point the gun in front of the clay to break it – the distance the gun points in front of the target is what we call lead, (pronounced LEEEED). After a bit of sucessful shooting we become able to ‘see lead’, that is we are visually aware that the gun was pointing somewhere else when we pulled the trigger and the clay broke; for instance we are able to see that the gun is underneath a falling clay for a mark on the card.
There are a few ways that the gun can be mounted into position in front of the clay but how do we know when it’s in the right place? Some people say that we build a library of pictures from the clays we’ve shot before and we use those as references for our next shot, I’ve don’t think I’ve ever used such pictures, in fact the only picture I can recall is the first ever time that I saw lead on a high crossing bird about 6 months after starting to shoot clays. My instinct theory comes into play again in that we subconsciously know when the lead is right.
Given that any cartridge will discharge shot at around 12 – 1500 feet per second and it’s still travelling up to 10 times faster than the target which is probably slowing down and changing direction, we just cannot work out speed and distance while we mount the gun and then adjust it for the correct lead. Watch one of the masters displaying their training prowess; they will take someone who’s never shot before from a crowd and within a couple of clays that person will be breaking targets consistently. That person doesn’t have any idea how a gun, cartridge or clay works so how could they have worked it out? They didn’t, it’s all there in the first place. What we do is train our basic instincts to take into acount the pattern of events that make a sucessful shot, once we’ve learnt that all we need to do is to trust in ourselves and allow our bodies to do their own thing.
If you have the chance, use an easy crossing target and shoot it; move back 5 paces and shoot it again, move back another 5 paces and shoot it once more. If you can see lead it looks different every time but with the experience we have, what your brain has done is to work out that the clay is a bit further away and so the shot needs a little longer to reach it. Of course, when we look at a new target we have to have some idea where it is and what it’s doing, that’s why you should watch the previous guns or ask to be shown a pair if you’re first up. Armed with that knowledge and a bit of shooting experience, instinct will take over and give the clay the right lead automatically.
When I shoot I like to help my head along by looking at the target’s flight path and put it into a box; if it comes into the box from the left and drops I tell myself I need to point at the bottom right of the box, if it comes in the bottom right corner of the box going towards the top right then that’s where I need to point – it works for me anyway. When everything comes together and you’ve had a ten you’ll be asked ‘how far were you in front’? Most of the time an instinctive shooter won’t know. One chap I shoot with always says he shot straight at it when it broke – it doesn’t matter that it was a 35yd crosser and everyone else shot at least 8ft in front, it’s just that his perceived lead is not the same, after all he still broke them.