The SxS & Instinctive Shooting

by Ron Jones

The SxS and Instinctive Shooting by Ron Jones

Much has been written about double guns and how shooting styles influenced their design over the decades. The author explores one area of influence — instinctive shooting.

ack in the November 2012 issue, Thomas Buck and Editor Johnny Cantu squared off in a debate to define the important issues separating the side–by–side from the over/under shotgun. Thomas outlined the “wide sighting plane” benefits of the side–by–side as it relates to the multitude of micro–adjustments the shooter makes in the field to acquire and harvest the target, while Johnny countered with aspects of the over/under that have made it the defining gun design of our time. I’d like to offer another perspective.

Those of us who are devoted to the side–by–side hold to our traditions, in part, because we have been taught the English–inspired design (classic double gun) evolved over time to support the “instinctive” style of shooting. (For a complete and thorough analysis of instinctive shooting techniques, including when, where and how to apply them, I would refer you to The Instinctive Shot by Chris Batha.

O/U vs. Double

The design features that distinguish the classic double from the American O/U are subtle but significant to the instinctive shooter. A German Merkel 280 and Browning Citori are shown here.

It occurred to me it might be useful to review those design aspects of the SxS which some say make it uniquely applicable to shooters who use an instinctive technique. My own personal definition of instinctive shooting is any shooting style that relies almost totally on the subconscious mind to determine the lead. That is, undoubtedly, an over–simplification, but when I shoot instinctively, which is limited exclusively to the field, I try to fix my gaze on the bird to the exclusion of everything else in my peripheral vision. If I am consciously aware of the barrel of my gun and its relationship to the target, I’m being distracted by my conscious mind… and almost invariably miss.

Upland hunter

Upland game hunters most frequently are faced with scenarios which dictate a style controlled by the subconscious. The shooter took this Michigan woodcock with his classic American double.

The Double Gun Design

Let’s start with that ridiculously inadequate splinter forend and the arguments which have been made over the years to support that design feature of the Classic SxS. It appears to be totally nonfunctional, and it is in the way we’ve grown accustomed to looking at forends. That minimal piece of wood and metal was designed to hold the barrels onto the frame, not to be gripped like a handle for the purpose of securing and directing the barrels with the hand. The instinctive shooter points his gun much the same way we point our finger — instinctively, without any significant conscious control. And that is best accomplished by grasping the barrels (not the forend) in a manner that allows the index finger to be placed adjacent to and pointed parallel to the bores. The splinter forend plays no role in directing the gun, but it does, in fact, play a secondary role most don’t consider. It reduces the weight of the gun forward of the frame (compared to more modern forend designs).

And while we’re talking about weight distribution, let’s look at the grips on classic doubles. They are straight. We’ll talk shortly about why SxS proponents need a straight grip to complement the instinctive shooting style orchestrated by the finger pointing hand on the forend, but first let’s consider the straight grip also reduces the weight of the stock in the precise area of the gun which balances the weight loss from that splinter forend. That keeps the balance point between the hands, which is, coincidentally, the location of the hinge pin on most doubles. And, if the weight of the barrels and the remaining part of the buttstock balance, you end up with a gun which is not only balanced but dynamic. The distribution of the gun’s weight ends up being such that the gun will mount and point effortlessly if the shot is executed using an instinctive technique.

But there are more reasons a double gun needs a straight grip. Let’s start with the weakest argument first. Many say the straight grip on double–trigger guns (most true English–inspired guns have double triggers) allows the shooter to move the trigger hand rearward slightly on the grip after the execution of the first shot, making the execution of the second shot (rear trigger) more natural and relaxed. With the American pistol–grip design, the shooter’s finger is placed in a less favorable ergonomic posture when activating the rear trigger. You be the judge.

But the number–one reason the straight grip is important to an instinctive shooter is the positioning of the grip hand. It places that hand in line with the bore and parallel to the leading hand on the forend and, additionally, places the grip hand in a weakened position. We’re told the former is the most natural for the grip hand to be in when pointing with the finger parallel to the barrels, and the weakened grip prevents the grip hand from placing undue influence on the shot. Right–hand shooters with a dominant right eye and hand, often try to muscle the gun around with the grip hand when, in fact, the shot needs to be executed with the left (forend) hand with the finger leading the way (assuming a right–hand shooter).

Secure the barrels

Instinctive shooters are told to secure the barrels in the leading hand — without regard for the location of the splinter forend — and point the index finger in the direction of the shot. This is most easily done with the classic double.

While straight grips may not make you shoot better as a result of superior esthetics, they definitely make classic SxS shotguns look cool! Few will disagree with that point.

Now let’s discuss the contrasting positions of the barrels in O/U versus SxS designs and how that relates to instinctive shooting. We’re told that the SxS places both barrels naturally in line with, and on the same plane as, the pointing finger on the hand controlling the forend, and that makes them “instinctive.” The O/U design, particularly the large–bore guns, cannot do that. The difference in the design feature, and how that relates to instinctive shooting technique, is obvious, and the differences are relevant.

That is what I’ve gleaned over the years from listening to and reading the words of those who passionately believe in the classic double and who are convinced instinctive shooting is best executed with the original English design. But now I have to relate some observations I’ve made in the field and at the gun clubs which seems contradictory.

The most phenomenal wingshot I ever knew was a neighbor I met in 1960, right after I graduated from college. I was a fledgling pharmacist trying to establish myself in the profession and an absolute neophyte at shotgunning. All I had was my grandfather’s Ithaca Flues 20–gauge SxS double and a desire to hunt birds. My father was more interested in fishing than hunting, so I had absolutely no training or background in wingshooting.

That first fall in 1960, Tom Hatton took me grouse hunting, and what I witnessed was truly amazing. I couldn’t hit a grouse with that old Ithaca if it sat on the ground in front of me, but Tom never missed. One day we walked out of a stand of aspens into an open area which was part of an abandoned farm. A single scrub apple tree stood near the edge, and Tom suggested we approach the tree from either side. Two grouse exploded from under the overhanging branches, and Tom had both birds on the ground before I had any thought of raising the Ithaca. Wow! I had to learn to shoot like that!

The next week, Tom took me to Saginaw Field & Stream with my Ithaca, an old Remington hand trap and a dozen clays. The club was closed, so we walked around the edge of the woods surrounding the trap fields. He walked just behind and to my right, utter the sound of an exploding grouse (“brrrrrr”) and near–simultaneously launched a target out in front of me as I walked. When I’d miss, Tom would say, “Just look at the target and shoot it; don’t look at your gun barrel.” Before long, I was breaking targets and, over time, began to kill grouse. I never ever approached the wingshooting skill of my mentor, but the experience started me thinking about wingshooting technique.

In retrospect, I can unequivocally say Tom was a pure instinctive shooter. He never shot clay pigeons but had a natural talent that permitted him, without ever practicing, to intercept a game bird in flight with no conscious effort. Oh, did I mention Tom only had one gun — a 20–gauge Remington Model 11 Sportsman?

The second wingshooting wizardry I’d like to recount is a gentleman who shot with our muzzleloading black–powder shotgun group on Monday nights. I always prided myself in being one of the top scorers in our skeet and trap league, but when it came to skeet, I could never beat Harold Smith. I tried both single and double–barrel guns, but I’d always drop the occasional target with my caplock that never seemed to escape Harold’s fowler. One day in desperation, I asked how much lead he saw on Station 4 targets, and he responded: “Ron, I never see any lead on any of my targets. I just shoot right at ’em.” Like Tom Hatton, Harold used his own personal instinctive shooting style. Oh yes, I forget to mention, he shot a single–barrel flintlock. I never saw him shoot a modern gun (although he may have), and I never saw him practice… except for the 25 skeet targets we shot twice a month.

Historians generally agree that, until the introduction of the percussion ignition system (caplocks, circa 1820), not one sportsman in ten could master wingshooting with the flintlock fowler. By 1840, nearly everyone who tried could develop acceptable proficiency with the caplock. It’s my conjecture the rare flintlock hunters who mastered “shooting flying” in the late 18th century kept their locks finely tuned and shot like Harold.

Any shotgun can be used successfully

Any shotgun, in the right hands, can be used successfully in conjunction with instinctive shooting methods. Your skill level may be more important than the gun.

My third example is a shooter by the name of Jack Armstrong. He got so bored with skeet, he started shooting from the hip. On the day he broke his first 25–straight, I asked him how much lead he gave the birds on Station 4. “Well, Ron,” I don’t actually see the barrel, but if I had to guess, it’s my impression I shoot right at them.” Jack used a 12–gauge Remington 1100. Later, I tried shooting from the hip and, guess what, when I could hit one, I shot right at it. I doubt if there is any more obvious example of instinctive shooting, unless it is shooting targets behind you… back between your legs.

So what can we glean from these three examples? It’s my personal opinion some people are blessed with, or have developed, superior instincts that allow them to shoot a shotgun with a degree of proficiency that seems to defy logic. They claim not to see the gun and its relationship to the target most of us rely on to determine lead. Almost every shooter uses instinctive technique on occasion, and usually those occasions are when the shooter doesn’t have time to execute the shot employing a consciously measured lead. I would add, however, game hunters are more apt to be faced with an instinctive shooting scenario than target shooters, and they are the ones who will benefit most from a shotgun designed to complement that style of shooting.

As a lifetime SxS shooter, I still believe the English–inspired design improves the efficiency of the average shooter when combined with instinctive shooting techniques. There are, of course, shooters out there who can use any single or double–barrel gun, regardless of the configuration, and wow all of us with their feats of prestidigitation. But all of us use instinctive technique to shoot targets and game at sometime and don’t even think about it. Maybe that’s the key — don’t overthink it. Let the gun’s design work with your subconscious technique and reap the rewards.