“Stop trying to hit me … and hit me.”
Morpheus’ command to Neo while sparring in a digitally generated kung-fu dojo in the genre-bending movie (and body-bending, as parodied in so many subsequent films) “The Matrix,” sums up my thoughts on shooting. Morpheus’ encouragement for Neo to stop thinking about everything and simply execute his attack often rings in my ears after a slide of bad shooting behind the trap house or in the field and echoes after connecting on what seems like a particularly difficult shot, putting a bird down for my dog to retrieve in the moment where you just pull up and pray and the bird suddenly falls. Coupled with the right kind of flush, it often gets me back on track and is a constant piece of advice I reserve when a young shooter struggles at the range or a buddy gets frustrated in the field.
I remember it when dealing with those fast cutters that get me fired up behind the trap house; the hard rights and lefts with the perceived increase in velocity due simply to the extreme angle in comparison to those easy floaters that come out in the middle. If I think about them, they’re as good as gone, sailing off into the pile of clays that make up the outer boundary of the trap range. If I just fly after them, connecting the bird to my eyes to my brain, to my gun, they end up as dust in the wind and not pieces on the ground. Similarly, give me a streaking rooster exploding low out of cover, or a ruffed grouse that blurs across the slight opening in the forest trail, offering only a single quick shot before I know they’re out of range, and often they’re in the bag taken on a quick reactive process.
Switch it up however, with a nice, slow-rising, left-to-right pheasant taking its sweet time in the breeze and it almost feels like I have a day to think about everything, and when I do, it spells trouble. Oh, I’m wearing an extra layer, should I adjust the mount a bit? Is the rib flat? Can I feel my cheek? Am I looking at the bird or the bead? Did I leave the water running in the bathroom sink and forget to put the cover on the toothpaste? Two shots and an unphased bird often escapes with little more than an elevated heart rate and maybe some ruffled feathers.
Sometimes it’s a function of a day’s worth of caffeine crammed into the hour or two before the start of the trek in the field, and on others it could be due to that adrenaline rush that still comes with being behind a solid point or in hot pursuit of a running bird that’s just ahead of the dog. In the end though, much like the pot of coffee poured directly onto my cerebral cortex, my missing the target involves an overload of thinking or too much trying to get it right, when it really needs to come down to just seeing the target and shooting.
Those moments of instinct — where the zipping grouse or fast-flying pheasant triggers an automatic response in the form of the stock settling into the crook between my shoulder and chest, the eye leading the barrel and the explosion of feathers in the waft of charcoal and sulfur from the spent shell — confirm that it’s less about thinking and more about doing. Letting the mechanics of a practiced shot fall into place, permitting the perception of depth, motion and speed to flow naturally and allowing the active mind to check out and the passive, organizing brain that works in the background to take over, is ultimately what not trying to hit the target and actually hitting it is all about. In those times where a few missed shots begin to mount and what was fun becomes the embodiment of frustration in the field, it’s best not to think about it. Wait for that fast flush, focus on the bird, stop trying to hit it and just hit it, finding a way to get back on track without really wasting another thought or shotgun shell…in our outdoors.