I missed the same quail four times on a single rise. I did this with a 20-gauge over-under Browning shotgun, which is unusual although I am sure many quail have been missed four times with autoloaders or pumpguns. By telling you how I missed the quail I hope to explain why I have long been interested in shooting schools and instruction and have become an authority on them.

I had known where the covey of quail lived for some time. They were what I call “swamp quail.” Now swamp quail are not really a different species, but are simply bobwhites who have learned they are safer in swamps. There is a rumor that they always walk or wade and cannot fly but this is a silly idea since a swamp quail can fly like hell, being able to circle a cypress trunk in a tight bank at roughly 125 miles an hour. This is the reason why many swamp trees are mutilated by shot charges.

Quail living in really tight cover usually don’t find much to eat back there and they generally come out to the edge to feed, probably in both morning and evening. If there is plenty of the proper seeds and greenery at the edge of the thick stuff a quail can comfortably fill his crop in a few minutes and scuttle back into the shadows. The covey I knew about was one of quite a number that hung out not far from town. I could not show you the place today because there is a shopping center there. I have tried to figure the exact spot where I missed the quail four times and as nearly I can make out it is now the kitchenware section of a department store.

I used to take my old Brittany out late in the evening when the quail were outside the rough stuff and packing in the weed seeds. Old Kelly had it pretty well wired, figuring they would be within 50 feet of the edge, and he didn’t waste much time farther out. Where he located the birds that evening they were at the border of a broom sedge field with no trees. Kelly specialized in suspense. When Kelly made game he did it with a breathless, conspiratorial attitude likely to reduce a nervous gunner to quivering protoplasm. After you followed him for a few vibrant yards he’d turn his head slowly toward you and check you over. The implication was: “Man, they’re here and you’d better be ready!”

He did that along the edge of the broom sedge, and since I was no rookie at this business I had things figured out. If the birds hadn’t already heard us coming and scooted back into the woods they’d be sure to fly in there when they flushed. The first thought is to get between them and the heavy cover to cut them off–but that isn’t so smart because they’re probably pretty close to the edge and probably will fly right at you, freezing you with their beady little eyes and roaring like artillery shells. By this time I am sure you have perceived that bobwhite quail have my number–more so than ruffed grouse, Canada geese, or intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Anyway, I walked straight to where I figured the birds would be waiting, and they were, going up pretty well together, and although it appeared there were a couple hundred of them I think a dozen is a more accurate estimate. Most of them bored into the forest while I was sorting out the controls, finding the safety and trigger, and getting a hazy view of the rib. But one bird was really stupid and so shook he didn’t know which way to go. He headed right out across the broom sedge field about nine feet high.

My sub-conscious (the instructors explain that’s what you shoot with) took charge at this point, noted that the open shot would be easiest and diverted my attention from the main covey and to the single boring off out of what is now the Kitchenware Department and over the Children’s Wear Section. I was more than ready and missed him at approximately 11 feet, saw I had been in too much of a hurry, and then missed him very carefully when he was almost out of range.


My reflexes broke the gun, the ejectors worked and I was subconsciously stuffing in two fresh shells when I saw the quail had noted his original error. Somewhere over Sporting Goods he realized he was alone and that he was passing no protective trees so he made a 180-degree turn and headed straight toward me and the thick stuff. Disconcerted at this turn of events, I fired too soon while he was still pretty well out, then was very careful with my fourth shot, missing at about 11 feet again. At 11 feet and closing a flat-out bobwhite rooster can look menacing.

WHILE ALL OF THESE MISSES are excusable, I thought they should be mentioned as a background for my studious approach to shotgunnery, my attendance at shotgun schools, and my attention to the experiences of a wide variety of shotgun masters. Not only am I obsessed by literature on how to shoot but I even love to watch the hotshots at work on skeet or trap fields. This sure beats a weakness for professional football or boxing as the seats are free and easily found. Shotgunnery isn’t a spectacular sport but I don’t think golf is either. All those people are confused.

When a trap or skeet shooter runs more than a thousand targets without missing I am impressed since I can’t tap the end of my nose with my finger that many times without missing. And some of the game shooting achievements are almost as spectacular.

In a quail shooting tournament, Rudy Etchen killed five birds on a covey rise with his Remington pumpgun–and although I understand a good shucker can work one faster than an autoloader, I am disturbed about the pointing part. I have a pretty good Remington pumpgun with a figured walnut stock and every time I hear about things like what Etchen did I get it out and look at it. I know Etchen, and I have studied him carefully too, but except for being pretty big he looks like other people.

Gough Thomas, whose real name is G.T. Garwood of England, and who has written a lot of good stuff about shotguns, tells how Percy Stanbury, using a pumpgun, had five dead pigeons in the air simultaneously in the Teign Valley. Of course I had to buy Percy’s book on shotgunnery and it’s good, but the part that bothers me is that Stanbury was using a pumpgun in the first place and I have long thought that the British figured pumpguns and poisoned corn are in the same category.

The British, when shooting driven game, do not approve of repeaters ordinarily but have “loaders” standing behind them to hand up charged double guns as needed. This keeps a lonesome Purdey or Holland from getting too hot to handle, and while a repeater is considered a hoggish contraption a good loader can keep your double supplied with loaded chambers until either the birds or your shoulder gives out. I do not have a loader.

The Second Marquess of Ripon (England) kept track of his shotgunnery and killed more than half a million birds, dying of a heart attack in 1923 after knocking off his 52nd grouse of that day. My personal feeling is that the Maker had decided that was enough shooting for one guy, even a marquess.

Fred Kimble, using a singleshot muzzleloader, shot 1,365 ducks in 19 days, which was a heck of a stunt back in that other century, but when modern gunners shake their heads and say that no one can get that much game practice these days without living in England and being a duke or something they’re just copping out. For the price of a vacation in the Black Hills you can go to Central America or South America and shoot at doves until you or your gun breaks. I have watched pretty good shooters knock off more than one hundred in a morning or evening shoot in Honduras, and in Colombia, where I never went, they say you needn’t ever quit unless it gets dark. Some of those shooters get well over a thousand birds on a single trip so the Marquess of Ripon may have been outdone by eager-beaver dove poppers who don’t keep track or report their sources, possibly because they don’t want to keel over after batting down one last bird.

Now Captain A. H. Bogardus, who admitted to being the world’s greatest at the time, would bet you that he could kill 100 snipe with 100 shells. Maybe he’d shoot two at once after a miss. I never had enough shells to kill 100 snipe.

NOW, SINCE CURRENT HIGH-JUMPERS and weightlifters seem to have little trouble in outdoing those of years ago, I have no doubt that some of the shooters of today could wipe out the old timers, especially if they used modern guns and shells. Some skeet and trap shooters have such long runs of hits that a single tournament-losing miss may rate a whole page in their publications. Although most of them are pretty vague about how they do it I have unashamedly followed their instruction. Sometimes it is pretty humiliating.

Bob Carter has been a very discouraging contact concerning shotguns. I have avoided shooting where he was close enough to hear me but Carter was once a member of a world championship skeet team. He did his career in the Air Force and was a pilot. I have found that fliers, whether they are gunners or airplane drivers, are likely to be disgustingly good at winged game since they have been coached in “deflection shooting” and may have spent a great deal of time near skeet and trap ranges with unlimited ammunition. They have also had the incentive that involves being shot dead if they didn’t shoot pretty good and pretty fast. I got the dope from Carter while bonefishing with him. As usual with such people, I asked questions regarding his reloading equipment, his experiences in competition, and finally, his choice of guns for quail shooting.

Bob said he used a full-choke shotgun for quail, even in Florida brush, and I needed more information since the usual disagreement is whether a quail gun should be bored cylinder, skeet, or improved cylinder. He explained that he shoots the first bird with just the edge of the pattern, then gradually moves in as the birds get farther away, finally centering the long ones with the pattern center. I knew something about this because I have always shot all quail with the edges of the pattern but had personally preferred improved cylinder. I am sure there were other things I could have learned from him but at the time I couldn’t think of any more questions. I believe a bonefish came by. He can’t catch bonefish any better than I can although he once trained a German shorthair to drive pheasants out of posted property for him.

I BUILT A CRAZY QUAIL PIT many years ago–a clay pigeon trap located in a hole so that the targets can be thrown out at any angle, high or low. It was wonderful training but even the good shots made poor scores most of the time and one trap champion threw his custom over-under in the mud after missing eight straight. Finally, I was left alone with the setup, not because I was good but because nobody else would face the poor scores. Experts, I note, like to see them break.

So I mounted a practice trap where I could pull it myself with a long string and shoot from all angles. That was more than 20 years ago and I am now on my ninth practice machine. That first year I was getting ready to write a book on hunting upland birds and thought I had better learn to shoot. After shooting something like 14,000 rounds I could pull the string and break about two out of three. After 20 years of practice, I can now pull the spring and break about two out of three.

I went to skeet and trap ranges and listened to instruction, learning that shooters don’t necessarily know how to teach although some do. Like a football coach who has never played football, it is hard for a bum shot to get the respect of his pupils. I got the full treatment from Fred Missildine, a trap and skeet champion, who runs his own school and really teaches instead of handing out rumors and telling how he did it. Fred helped me a lot and broke me from fooling around after I had a target lined up, which translated into faster shooting. Fred shoots American style, which means his left hand is fairly well back. The British teach you to shoot with your left hand (for a right-hander) pretty well extended and they swing the weight of the arm instead of the barrel–a fine distinction I have heard no one else mention–but if you’ll practice it you’ll see what I mean.

The British have the reputation of being the world’s greatest game shots, largely because they shoot a lot of birds if they can afford it and shooting is pretty social over there. They say the fore-end of a double is just to hold the gun together and they often use a leather-covered handguard on the barrels so they can reach way out there toward the muzzle with a left hand without burning it.

Bruce Bowlen, who wrote the Orvis Wing-Shooting Handbook, sort of crosses the English dope with American systems. A veteran U.S. uplander who I thought would sneer at anybody’s instruction, even if it appeared carved in stone during lightning flashes, memorized the Bowlen text and swears it has boosted his kill percentage, which was already sickening. It sort of louses up a hundred years of British scorn for the provincial American “riflemen with shotguns” but the two systems are getting pretty much alike, taking some fun out of the whole thing.

Anyway, the British are long on gun fit, stressing subconscious pointing and no attention to things like ribs and sights. There are, of course, marksmen who swear they never see the gun at all in wingshooting but, of course, they do see the barrel or barrels subconsciously or they couldn’t hit with a strange gun.

The greatest tool for gun fit is the “try gun,” which has an infinitely adjustable stock so that you can turn screw adjustments until it feels right. Unfortunately, an occasional stock fitter will sell somebody thousands of dollars worth of custom gun the customer must use for home defense while he goes back to hunting with the one that has rust on the receiver. I once knew all about gun fit and had all of mine (I have quite a number of shotguns, not because I collect them but because I kept thinking a new one would solve my problems) worked to the same dimensions. I had all sorts of tracings drawn on wrapping paper and had the drop at comb and heel, point of balance, and stock length all figured out. Still, some of these guns wouldn’t shoot a damn for me. I bought a custom Italian gun, which was made to my measure but wouldn’t kill birds very well.

It was after the Italian gun and its pretty engraving had been sold for a miserable price to a friend who didn’t really want it, that I discovered “pitch.” Before then I’d known that pitch was the angle at which the barrels leave the stock. Lean the gun against the wall with the butt flat on the floor and the pitch is measured in the distance of the barrel from the wall. Since a little change in the recoil pad shape or a little mud on it can give an impression of great alteration in pitch, I figured it wasn’t too important.

Then I got a gun that didn’t match any of my custom whittled marvels in drop at comb or heel. Before I had it altered to the magic formula I went out and discovered I shot better with it than I did with most of the others. No changes. Then I checked the pitch and found there wasn’t any. None. Then, while tossing fitfully, I realized that pitch can change almost anything and that bending a stock is likely to be just as good as carving it. I no longer tell my friends what kind of stock they need. I don’t know what kind of stock I need.

And I concluded the way to get a gun that fits is to put it up with your eyes closed and then open them. If it’s pointed in the general direction you are looking it ain’t bad and drawing outlines on wrapping paper is a lot of work. Stock and fore-end bulk is seldom considered but is likely to make a big difference in how you shoot. This means that you may shoot a lot better with a light but bulky 12-gauge than with a toylike 28 that you lose somewhere in the folds of your vest when you’re in a hurry.

I morosely consider that I, myself, think I could help most shooters with their problems, convinced that although I can’t do it myself I know how it should be done. Since almost everyone owning a shotgun feels he is a competent instructor, it is essential that those seeking shooting secrets be good judges of alleged experts.

I once went to a pretty big skeet shoot, planning to write something about it, and the management gave me the red carpet.

“I’ll get someone to help you with anything you need,” the man said, whereupon he produced a beautiful young lady carrying a shoot program and a devastating smile. She accompanied me to a good place on the bleachers (they’re never crowded) and wanted to know if I’d like a cup of coffee.

In most circumstances I’d have been entranced by such companionship but in this case I was just a little miffed, feeling the host should have handed me over to some well-known competitor for a few minutes so that I could collect a quote or two of shooting wisdom. Instead, he’d obviously felt a girl-shaped girl would keep the old fud happier. Anyway, I muttered along with a monologue concerning my learned opinions on skeet shooting and the lady listened with wide-eyed attention.

“Of course,” I expanded as I warmed to the subject, “the 28-gauge scores can’t be expected to match anything done by the 20-gauge.”

“Well, gee,” she said, “I don’t know. I broke a hundred with the 28 when I took it at Phoenix last week.”

THERE IS A SPECIAL HUMILITY that comes when I receive unsolicited instruction from someone I know is short on credentials but sees I am in need of help. There was the time in Honduras when I started slow at a dove shoot. My pickup boy (I should call him a secretario to show I’m a real international sport) had rushed me to a good spot before dawn and the birds were moving well. Other shooters banged away happily and doves were falling all over the place while pickup boys darted about noisily.

I believe I missed the first six birds. Anyway, my secretario was standing in a cloud of gloom at my side, looking forward to three days of embarrassing misses by his sport and wishing he were somewhere else. Finally, he yelled something in Spanish and held out his hands for my gun, which I surrendered. He then swung it to his shoulder and raked the sky briskly, shouting “Bang!” at intervals. Then he handed it back to me with words which obviously meant, “See what I mean?”

Now just what gunning breakthrough he was demonstrating I do not know but it happened that I got the next dove that passed and did pretty well for the rest of the morning–for me, which means maybe one bird for three shots. Every time I stole a look at the secretario he was beaming with fatuous self-satisfaction, sure he had taught the fundamentals to a rank beginner. Every paloma he picked up was a personal triumph for his instructional system and each hit came with enthusiastic cheers and congratulations.

I know all about shotgun teachers.