Becoming a Better Wing Shot by Randy Rowley


The act of hitting dove and other birds on the fly causes emotions for the vast majority of hunters that range from frustration to abject humiliation. It is a practice that defies mastery and has even been known to cause preachers to cuss. Yet, even though the vast majority of us often head home dejected at our performances, we will eagerly look forward to the next opportunity to throw lead at our elusive quarry.

As the vast majority of FCS bird hunters are dove hunters I will use them for most of my examples. Dove have several advantages. They have been clocked at 65 MPH for short distances. They are a small target (averaging less than a foot from beak to tail feathers) and will fly erratically (especially when they spot hunters). Their coloring blends in with overcast skies and thus makes them difficult to spot. They are quick to put to flight. Dove on the ground will often flush beyond gun range. They also have exceptional eye sight and are quick to spot movement.

However, they also have disadvantages. Foremost is their ease of being harvested. Usually only a couple of #8 shot in the breast area is sufficient to stop most dove in their tracks. Dove are usually able to be decoyed. They are also much easier to hit when coming in to a grain field or a tank. In the final analysis though, the dove will always have the advantage over the hunter. However, there are several things that hunters can do to swing the odds in their favor. The first step for becoming a better wingshot is to improve your confidence.

Psychologists have stated for years that that the most important factor for success in any endeavor is confidence. A person with confidence will hit more free throws, make better grades, and kill more dove.

There are many methods to improve a dove hunter’s confidence. The first and foremost method is practice. Sporting clays is an excellent game to improve shooting skills and thus confidence. Most of the presentations mimic situations that are commonly experienced when hunting dove. Skeet is the next best game. It’s main drawback is it always throws the birds exactly in the same place, but it is a great game for learning how to swing, lead, and hit a moving target. An experienced friend can offer insight as to why you are missing targets. If skeet at a range does not fit your budget, a hand thrower and a box of clay targets will not set you back much and there are plenty of FCS members who will be happy to throw the targets for you. There are also several of us who have clay target throwers.

Another method to improve confidence is to know your limitations. Whether they admit it or not, most hunters keep score of how many dove they harvest on any given day and approximately how many shells it took to harvest them. From these two facts a dove harvest batting average is easily determined. Depending on which article you read, the average dove hunter bags one dove for every five to eight shells fired. Naturally a hunter who bags one dove in every twelve shots will not have as much confidence as a hunter who bags one dove in every three shots.

However, the 1 in 12 shot hunter should not automatically assume that he is a below average shot. He could simply be shooting at dove that are out of range. The latest statistics show that 90% of doves harvested are shot at 35 yards or less. Our 1 in 12 hunter might actually be a 1 in 3 shot at 30 yards and under, a 1 in 6 shot at 31 to 40 yards and a 1 in 20 shot at 41 to 50 yards. This hypothetical hunter would improve his confidence simply by sticking to his limitation of 30 yard shot and under.

I have seen numerous hunters waste shells and torpedo their confidence by shooting at long range dove. An easy method to ensure that the dove that you are shooting at are in your established maximum effective kill range is to place yourself in the middle of land features that are at that range. Trees, boulders, fence posts, bushes, etc. are all easy landmarks to spot. A hunter who knows that the tree in front of him, the bush to his right, the fence behind him and the boulder to his left are all at his maximum effective kill range will know not to shoot beyond these markers.

The second step to become a better wingshot is to evaluate your gun. Although there is room for argument as to what is the best action for dove shooting, a hunter would be placing himself at a tremendous disadvantage is he uses single shot, bolt action, or a side by side. Single shots do not allow for quick follow-up shots and bolt actions are hard to load and operate for the average hunter.  The sight picture that is offered by side by sides makes tracking a moving object much more difficult.

Semi-automatics, pumps, and over/unders are the most popular actions for dove hunting. Piston (gas)-operated semi-automatics are softer on the shoulder than recoil operated semi-autos, pumps, or over/unders but are less reliable (they can jam or fail to eject when they get dirty). However, manufacturers have improved their offerings and the reliability issue is not as prevalent as it once was.  A good piston-operated semi-auto not only rarely jams, but they kick a lot softer than recoil-operated guns.  I recommend the Browning Gold or Silver/Winchester Super X3 or X2 (which use the same basic action); Beretta AL391 or AL390; or Franchi 712 or 612. Remington 11-87’s are popular but one of the two that I have owned/own was finicky (if the outside of its magazine tube got dirty it started to jam). However, there are several FCS members who swear by them.

Benelli, Franchi, and Stoeger make several inertia (recoil) operated semi-automatic shotguns, along with Browning’s Auto-5, that, because they don’t have pistons that get gunked up by powder and oil, have eliminated the reliability problem. The trade off is they are harder kickers than gas operated semi-autos. The Benelli’s have a recoil absorbing comb and chevrons and a gel recoil pad that makes it more shooter friendly.

Pumps and over/unders kick considerably more than piston-operated semi-autos.  When the average dove hunter shooting a 1:8 kill ratio, it will take him 120 shots or almost five boxes to bag his limit of five birds.  A hard-kicking gun will make hunting a much less pleasurable experience.  Over/unders are also not preferred by most shooters as they only hold two shells (1/3 less than a semi-automatic or pump).  In addition, opening the breech to load a new shell is more difficult than ramming a shell up a semi-auto’s or pump’s magazine tube.  And it’s less safe.

Another factor to consider is weight. Both the weight of the gun and the shells can affect accuracy. A fatigued hunter will miss more. If you are too tired from hauling around an eight pound side by side 12 gauge then maybe it’s time to switch to a lighter gun (but realize that, all things being equal, a lighter gun in the same gauge will kick more) or a smaller gauge (a couple boxes of 20 gauge shells are easier to carry than the equivalent 12 gauge shells).

The last factor to consider with guns is point of aim. Different shotguns put patterns in different places. The same gun will even put different loads in different places. The smart hunter will pattern his gun and loads to find out exactly where his gun is shooting.

Choke selection has also been known to spur debates. However, these debates are almost always centered on whether to use improved cylinder, light modified, or modified chokes. A hunter who owns a gun that has only a full choke barrel limits his capabilities considerably. This type of choke, although great for pass shooting ducks and geese is not a good choice for dove. With it, a hunter will either mangle a dove at normal shooting range (under 35 yards) or miss entirely. I am partial to improved cylinder. I use it 95% of the time. I only use light modified or modified for high flying white-winged dove, ducks, and geese.

The length of the barrel, contrary to popular opinion, does not affect the choke. Instead it primarily affects swing and follow-through. A longer barrel has more weight at the end and helps the hunter/shooter to swing smoothly and to continue to swing after the shot. It is much easier to not follow-through with a short barrel. The best, and most popular, barrel lengths are 26 and 28 inches (I used to be partial to 26 inch barrels but I now prefer 28 inch ones as they are more helpful with swing and follow-through). Shorter barrels than 26 inches are typically found on quail and turkey guns and longer barrels than 28″ are typically found on sporting clays and duck/goose guns.

Shotgun shells are also no strangers to debate. However, the major manufacturers have made it easy for us. They have manufactured shells that state “Dove Load”, “Dove and Quail Load”, or “Heavy Dove Load” on the box. These shells have several factors in common. Take the 12 gauge “Dove Load” for example. The length will be 2 3/4″, the dram equivalent will be 3 1/4, the brass will be low, the shot will be 1 ounce and the shot size will be 7 1/2 or 8. For factory loads, I prefer the Remington Heavy Dove Load with 1 1/8 ounces of #8 shot (I use 7 1/2 shot for white-wings). Winchester makes a load called Heavy Dove Load that is almost identical to the Remington load.

A dove hunter who insists on shooting #6 shot will be placing himself at a disadvantage. Depending on the type and hardness of the shot, a one ounce load will average 220 pellets of #6 shot, 350 pellets of #7 1/2 shot and 410 pellets of #8 shot. The #8 shot will kill dove just as dead as the #6 shot and the extra 190 pellets (almost twice as many as #6 shot) will come in handy with hitting the crazy things. #6 shot is often used on wild pheasants, which are considerably bigger than dove. Many shooting preserves, such as Upland Bird Hunting Inc. (where we hunted in 2006 and 2007) do not allow you to use shot bigger than 7 1/2 for pheasants. Out of the nine pheasants that I killed on the 2/24/07 Upland Bird Hunt with 7 1/2 shot, eight of them were dead before they hit the ground).

The third step to become a better wingshot is to select shots that will ensure success. There is a world of difference between a dove that is coming towards you at 40 yards and a dove that is heading away from you. The dove heading away will have traveled five more yards away from you (now 45 yards) before the shot string catches up with it. The dove heading towards you will have traveled four more yards towards you (now 36 yards) by the time that the shot catches it. That’s a difference of nine yards (give or take a couple depending on velocity of the load, barrel length, and wind conditions). A more important difference is the fact that a dove that is heading towards a hunter is presenting its most vulnerable areas (chest and head) towards the incoming shot. A dove that is heading away from a hunter is presenting its backside.

I cannot count the number of dove that I have seen blasted from the rear that have flown on minus their tail feathers. They were hit solidly but not in vital areas. On the other hand I have seen numerous dove downed from the front that were hit by only one or two #8 shot. The only advantage of shooting a dove from the rear is that the dove cannot see the hunter and therefore will not be trying to dodge (rather it will be at warp 9 trying to get out of Dodge). Conversely, the disadvantage of shooting at dove who are heading towards you is the dove will probably be involved in taking evasive action after having spotted your movement.

This tendency can be combated though by not moving until you are ready to point and shoot. A hunter who puts his gun to his shoulder and tracks a dove all the way in from 70 yards out is inviting the dove to see the movement and veer away. I like to wait until the dove is almost directly overhead. I then mount my gun and fire immediately. I have been “swinging” in my minds eye already as I have tracked it inbound. It is also much harder for dove to evade when they are almost directly over a hunter. Dove that are missed when shot at from the front is due to the tendency of hunters to pick a spot ahead of the target and shoot at that point. The shot is missed because it lacks a swing.

Another shooting situation that hunters have difficulty with is multiple birds and flocks. In many cases a hunter will become overwhelmed with all of the movement and will simply pick a spot in the middle of the flock and fire away. More often than not, all of the dove will continue to fly and the hunter will stand there scratching his head and inspecting his gun for faults. In this scenario, the hunter should concentrate on one dove and shoot at another only after he has downed his first target.

The fourth step to become a better wingshot is to learn the art of leading a moving target. There are four primary methods of leading moving game. The first is the sustained lead. In this method the shooter estimates the range to and speed of the target. He then points the bead the guestimated range ahead of the target, swings with the bird and pulls the trigger. With the sustained lead the shooter has a tendency to get in front of the target and stop his swing. This is the equivalent of throwing a baseball and stopping with the arm in the vertical position. Also with the sustained lead the shooter has a tendency to not swing fast enough.

The second method is the swinging point. In this method the shooter places the bead directly on the target and swings with the target. After he has gauged the targets speed and range he swings the barrel in front of the bird and fires. This is very hard to do.

The third and most popular method is the follow through swing. In this method the shooter places the bead behind the target. He then steadily pulls the bead across the target and after swinging the appropriate lead squeezes the trigger. In this method (which is taught at the skeet ranges) the shooter will be more inclined to follow through. Not following through is one of the two reasons that hunters have a tendency to shoot behind targets (not leading enough is the other).

The fourth method of hitting a moving target is called intercept. The shooter follows the target with his eye, gauges the speed, and then throws up the gun, aiming where he thinks that the target will intercept with the shot. There is no swing to it. This method is used best for incoming and outgoing targets.

Other shooting techniques from the experts include: 1. Don’t use the ventilated rib as a sighting device. The essence of wingshooting is based upon hand/eye coordination with absolutely minimal visual contact with the gun, 2. Focus sharply on the leading edge of the target (The human eye cannot focus clearly on objects both near and far). The gun should be only a fuzzy, out-of-focus blur, and 3. Use as light a grip on your shotgun as you safely can control it. Clenching the gun causes your arm and shoulder muscles to tighten, producing a stiff, jerky swing.

Experts also tell us that birds that are missed traveling across a hunters position or diagonally across are usually not hit due the hunter not leading the target enough. A dove flying at 50 MPH requires a 3 3/4 foot (4 dove lengths) lead at 20 yards, an 8 1/4 foot lead at 40 yards, and a 14 foot lead at 60 yards! These tremendous leads are the main reason that hunters usually miss dove over 35 yards. If a hunter is off by two feet either way, the pattern will miss or the dove will fly on after having been hit lightly (and will usually die a slow death).

For crossing shots, if I miss my first shot I will lead about a foot of so more for my second shot. If I miss that shot I will lead the third shot two feet or more. There have been numerous times when I downed a dove on the third shot, after leading it what seemed like a ridiculous amount. In reality that was how much I needed to lead it on the first shot. There have also been times for groups or flocks of birds when I have led the lead bird and hit the second or third. I just wasn’t leading it enough. Experts say that 80% of misses are due to not leading the target enough.

The frugal part of me cannot understand how so many hunters are so willing to waste three shells at a dove that’s 60 yards away and flying away at Warp 9. They don’t have a prayer of hitting it. That’s like opening a can of coke and pouring it on the ground.

Dove hunting is meant to be enjoyed. It could be called the ultimate shooters real life video game. There are times when there are so many birds in the air that you feel like the fleet at Pearl Harbor being attacked by a swarm of Japanese Zeros (fortunately for us dove are not armed). During these times most hunter concentrate of reloading as fast as they can and forget about leads, hit ratios, and just about everything else.

Then there are times when a hunt is so slow that hunters entertain themselves by mentally kicking themselves for blowing the only shot that they will probably get that hour. By implementing the above steps you will kick yourself a lot less and will have more fun in the sport we love.

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