This was a very long time ago and $2,500 was a bundle to spend for a Parker side-by-side with pretty wood, some engraving, and a very straight stock.

Monty was not doing too well and since he shot for money he viewed an escaping live pigeon with melancholy. The shoot still had a long way to go and was presenting a dark financial outlook. Monty decided his new Parker was shooting too high, a technical problem to be solved by technical adjustments: the tree limbs had to be exactly the right distance apart.

When the barrels bent downward they parted company with the elevated rib, which left them with a brisk snap. The adjustment completed, Monty did pretty well on the rest of the “fliers” and he was still shooting with what he called the “floating rib” 20-some years later. No use to screw up a winning combination. The rib wouldn’t flap until after each shot was fired anyway.

Operation Enduring FreedomSHOTGUNNERY is said to be an art as opposed to the science of rifle marksmanship. I know good shotgunners are possessed because they do not know how they do it and something is guiding them. I am qualified on the subject because I once hit 19 Hungarian partridges straight and missed 19 snipe straight, giving me a cross-section view of the sport.

Most American game shots are slow to attend a shooting school or at least pay an expert instructor. This is a result of the popular premise that all Americans are born good shots. Since most of the best shotgunners don’t have the slightest idea of what is going on, a deadly grouse or duck shot tends to be the worst consultant available. Asking him how to shoot is like asking Catfish Hunter how to throw a slider and then trying to negotiate a major league contract after he tells you. The best shot I go with asks me every fall which is the more open barrel on his over-under.

I think history shows the level of thinking that surrounds scattergunnery. As recently as the 1920s there were articles in outdoor magazines explaining why it was unnecessary to shoot ahead of flying birds and only some other articles explaining mathematically why that lead was necessary kept such a doctrine from standing. Even today a deadeye grouse banger is likely to tell you that the only way to hit a bird is to shot right at it, no matter what direction it is headed. Of course he shoots with a built-in swing-through but don’t tell him or he may miss from then on. In fact, it is wise to avoid any kind of technical talk near somebody who is killing more than his share of birds.

ONE OF THE OBSTACLES in the path of good shotgun shooting is the beauty of various models and the tendency to cling to one that’s pretty whether you can shoot it or not. I finally sold the only custom shotgun I ever owned when exhaustive tests proved I could hit better with almost any other gun I owned or could borrow. That took six years, but I am more logical than my friend Luke. That is not his real name.

Luke decided he could afford a really slick custom-built bird gun and when he asked my help in its dimensions I shouldered him aside and grabbed the order blank. I always have known what’s best for everybody else.

If the makers had followed my instructions things would have worked out. As it was, the guy who did the stock had ideas of his own; he had an eye for beauty but not for Luke’s dimensions. When we rushed to a practice trap with the new gun we found that it had been designed for a very unique shooter, one whose eye was level with his shoulder. Of course straight stocks have a special beauty when the wood is fancy walnut and the sidelock is engraved with everything from lecherous Pans to sensual Dianas.

To hit with Luke’s gun we had to point a couple of feet under the target, a bit of physics that became disturbing since you might become intrigued by another part of the landscape and completely forget where or what the target was. Luke talked to his banker and ran down a new stockmaker because the original was on the other side of the ocean.

The new stockmaker used a beautiful piece of walnut, checkered it impeccably, and charged enough to pay for an armful of pumpguns. However, he said that the measurements we’d given him made the gun look rather sloppy, so he had used the same ones as for the original.

The last time I went hunting with Luke he was shooting very well indeed. After 10 years with it he had become used to the gun and never even had to think about holding two feet low any more. Once I started to suggest Monty’s barrel bending with the tree limbs but thought better of it. I think Luke has accepted the fact that holding two feet low is a small price for a really artistic side-by-side.

ALTHOUGH–IN THEORY–A SHOTGUN’S measurements are concrete mathematical fact, there are mystic qualities about certain guns that attract or repel shooters, especially hunters, whose success or failure is not accurately measured. Like Luke, some cannot believe a double gun with a thousand dollars worth of engraving and perfect checkering can be less useful than a pitted mail-order pump with stove bolts through the cracked stock. Since alteration would reduce the value of a classic, few would consider a little judicial whittling.

My friend Joe found himself at loose ends for a full day in a backwoods sector of the South. He was gunless, the dove season was open, and there seemed to be an overpopulation which Joe felt should be remedied. So Joe borrowed a gun from a friendly sharecropper. When it was handed to him, Joe’s basic good breeding prevented him from declining.

The barrels had a patina resulting from repeated rustings, the bores were pitted like overused macadam, and the once-broken stock was tastefully secured with baling wire. The wood appeared to be weathered scrap from a low-cost housing project. The maker’s name had gone the way of abrasion and corrosion but had been cut shallow in the beginning since the maker apparently preferred semi-anonymity.

Once out of sight of the gun’s owner, Joe carefully inspected the barrels to make sure they were not black powder Damascus and then forced some shells into the chambers, displacing a small spider. At about that time a pair of doves came whistling past in the direction of a field of milo and Joe, purely out of habit, came up with his picture swing and spilled both of them.

While he extracted the empties with his pocketknife, Joe mused that he might be able to get a mess of birds if he was careful and didn’t become too apprehensive of the loose breech. (Although I have tried to maintain some suspense, I am aware that by now even a reader who moves his lips could finish the story.) With increasing amazement Joe unfailingly killed doves near and far, regretting that his usual gunning friends could not witness the slaughter.

Much later and back in his distant home, Joe suddenly sat up in bed and realized he probably could have bought the treasure for ten dollars. His Holland & Holland never seemed the same again and Joe quit shooting shortly afterward. He couldn’t remember the sharecropper’s name and couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife he was going to cross the continent to look for a ten-dollar gun.

BUT YOU CAN’T TELL ANYWAY. Such bargains must be stalked with finesse and carefully feigned boredom. Take the time Phil and I found the 32 Remington on the Indian reservation. We’d just stepped outside a little general store; one of those placed where you gradually see that the stock is enormous and varied, even though it looks like junk at first.

“There’s a 32 Remington standing in a corner with a bunch of crowbars and shovels,” Phil hissed. “I’ll offer him 50 bucks after I work around to it.”

This was in the late fifties and the discontinued Remington 32 over-and-under was already being sought diligently by gun nuts. Phil went back into the store and bought some chewing gum and then mentioned that he could see an old shotgun standing over there in the corner. The rustic proprietor handed it to him and just as Phil was about to offer his 50 bucks the old guy yawned, scratched himself, and said he didn’t think he wanted to sell.

“Feller offered me $1,500 for it last week,” he mentioned.

But back to the guns with magic.

Keith came furtively into our house carrying a shotgun as if he had just shoplifted it and was hunting a fence. A gun type who likes pretty ones, he prefers rather costly doubles. The one he was smuggling was a cheap autoloader that had traveled on a fast assembly line. He had tried to make the stock look better and it looked as if someone had tried to make it look better.

“Let’s measure this thing!” he said furtively.

I had already guessed his story. He was shooting the auto better than any of his good guns and it made him queasy just to look at it. He’d gotten it for home protection and at first hunted with it just for a brief novelty. We worked out all of the measurements but we had to ignore the occult features which were undoubtedly more important.

THERE IS A STRANGE THING about strange guns, ruefully reported by good trap and skeet shooters. When things aren’t going too well it is logical to suspect the gun. The logical thing is to borrow another one and the likely thing is that immediately scores will rise. Gun club psychologists have that all figured out: The shooter’s subconscious is sloppily handling his old gun with occasional embarrassing lapses. Then along comes this strange gun and it requires a little more attention so the nervous system snaps to attention and smokes a string of targets, after which the shooter keeps his old car and buys the borrowed winner. A few targets later the subconscious relaxes and he’s back where he started, only the new gun may not be quite as good as old Betsy. This phenomenon delights the builders of gun cabinets, some models of which cover entire walls.

Anyone having trouble with his shooting can usually find helpful advice but should beware of those who call out his shots for him. For example, if an observer tells him repeatedly that he is shooting high at practice targets, even though he points lower each time, he should run a little experiment and fire into the ground immediately below the target. If the observer calls out, “High again!” his coach’s credibility is in question.

There are a great many experienced coaches who can see the shot in the air (it looks like an out-of-focus swarm of gnats) and quite a few less-experienced coaches who say they can but they can’t. We all have our pride.

SHOTGUNNERS HARDLY EVER CONFESS to buck fever but their nervous systems produce something remarkably like it. I am reminded of Paul, the fine skeet shooter, who, nevertheless, had never broken 100 straight. It became known around the club that as the magic number was approached Paul tended to take off the pressure by missing a target by three or four feet.

Came the day when he seemed to be on the way, the clays disappearing in little puffs as he approached the final stations with what appeared to be complete confidence. Tragedy struck at Station Six where he swung on a target and heard only a click. It developed that Paul had loaded a cigarette instead of a cartridge.

But then, Alice was crossing a fence in South Carolina when she noted a pair of rigid pointers just ahead and hurried a little with her reloading, then attempted to drop a quail with her 20-gauge lipstick in her L. C. Smith.

First-timers at plantation quail gunning with shooting wagons and mules behind mounted dog handlers are understandably shaken at first at the formality of the situation when someone calls, “Point!” and he is handed his shotgun by a guy with a flushing whip. I will not even use a fictitious name for the poor soul who scored a double on mules after one of them sneezed.

TYPES OF SHOTGUN ACTIONS have furnished fuel for argument and the British have taken this very seriously indeed for the past 75 or 80 years. Generations of new Englishmen have come on with new argument on the old subject.

The traditional shotgun, of course, is a side-by-side double and I am surprised that the British have not had other types legally banned. And although trap and skeet shooters now view side-by-side as a novelty, the British can stand there in their tweeds and slap down driven grouse with discouraging consistency, using side-by-sides. Some of them insist on calling those upstart guns under-and-overs instead of over-and-unders, the only thing I really resent about English shotgunnery. The British make photos showing how a double (no elevated rib) gives a better view of the target under various light conditions.

Of course “repeaters,” whether pump or auto, have never been accepted in the upper crust of British shooting, even if they bear an engraved image of the Crown. At first, the impression is that repeater pointing is associated with game hoggery, but using a skilled loader to hand him another gun as needed, a top hand can shoot faster than anybody could with an autoloader over the long haul. He never has to stop to reload.

There is a romantic notion today that virtually all of the old market hunters used double guns. That they did until things like the 1897 Winchester pump came along, whereupon most of the more serious commercial types set their old doubles in the corner. Then when the autoloaders began to stop jamming they, too, got a big piece of the action.

Despite the proven fact that in modern shotguns the velocity difference between a 24-inch barrel and a 40-inch barrel is barely measurable and certainly never noticed by any species of bird, there is still sale for goose probers with snouts difficult to conceal in a blind. It has long been known that shotgunners would rather not be confused by facts.

Some who shoot successfully for money are a bit set in their ways and it is difficult to dispute a fellow’s habits when he goes home with new silverware each weekend. One of those guys had a special rack built in the engine compartment of his Cadillac and kept his trapshooting ammunition there, explaining that a little heat increased the potency of his shells.

Efforts at mechanical aids for shotgun pointing have hardly ever been dramatically successful. There were things like the optical device that showed the place to point, the low-powered telescopic sight, the tube device that placed a colored dot where the shot would go, and the elevated rib. Only the elevated rib has proved its worth for experienced shooters and only a few years back a champion skeet shooter said he did better without it for a few rounds. The obvious conclusion is that he was going through the “new-gun” phase that causes temporary marksmanship and I am sure he’s back to the ventilated ribs by now.

Completely logical but of limited value were the “sighting arms” attached to rifles during World War II. The idea (it had been tried before that, I understand) was that by unfolding some little arms bearing front sights you could shoot the right distance ahead of an enemy airplane. However, rifle fire from the ground has never been a major hazard for aircraft. Evidently hitting an airplane with a rifle bullet is much harder than it looks and such things mounted on shotguns haven’t led to new game laws. Besides, they catch in the brush.

Although they still haven’t produced a mechanical aid to the nervous system I think today’s shooter may be better than the old timers. Legendary tales of the 19th-century market hunters and competition shooters of that time have lost little in long repetition but the common remark that “you can shoot at all the clay targets you want to but no game shooter can get as much practice as the old timers,” is no longer valid.

For a price, an American gunner can travel to Central or South America and wear out his gun on endless flocks of doves. I doubt if even Adam Bogardus or Dr. Carver killed more than 200 birds a day very often.

But that doesn’t make it a science.