Our timing could be better. Kevin and I are no spring chickens. We’re much closer to doddering antiquity than robust youth, and middle age is not the best time to adopt a lifestyle that requires both A) learning and B) physical exertion. The older you get, the harder those two things become.
The physical exertion part, we choose to see as a positive; we’re counting on our lifestyle to help keep us stay fit as time and gravity do their worst. It’s the learning part that’s killing me.
Back in New York, I was making a concerted effort to learn French. I took a class, I listened to audio instruction, I slogged through books. But my forty-something-year-old brain balked at the very idea that it should be introduced to a new language, and the words just wouldn’t stick. I’d find myself hunting through memory for a French word, only to have the German word, or even the Hebrew word, assert itself. My German was never great, and my Hebrew was laughable, but I acquired them both back in the days of my robust youth, when you’re supposed to learn languages.
It’s also when you’re supposed to learn gun skills.
This past March, for my 47th birthday, Kevin gave me my first gun, a Remington 870 20-gauge shotgun. We shot trap and skeet a couple of times at Bass River Rod & Gun, but then the guns got put away for most of the summer, when we were occupied with other things.
Now, though, with hunting season around the corner, I’ve got to get serious.
I need to be a better shot, but that’s not the most important gun skill. Every hunter has to learn, first and foremost, to handle a gun safely.
The hunter education class I took last winter emphasized one thing over and over: always point the muzzle in a safe direction. It’s obvious and straightforward, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget when you have a gun in your hands. You start thinking about something else, like whose turn it is at trap or how many shells you have left in the bag, and you find yourself turning around and pointing the gun straight in front of you.
Handling a gun in such a way that the muzzle is always pointed safely is something you have to learn to do automatically, without thinking about it. It’s a physical skill you have to internalize and, like other physical skills, it’s best to learn it when you’re young.
We went to the shotgun range yesterday with our friend Andre, who volunteered his clay target thrower. Andre’s somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty years old, but unless you’re pretty tough he could take you. He does everything we do, with energy to spare. He hunts and fishes and shellfishes. He takes care of his seven-acre property, including garden and sheep. He’s active in the community, and works tirelessly to protect our Cape Cod waters. He’s funny and good-natured and smart, and he throws a mean lamb roast every spring. We’re happy and lucky to count him and his wife, Elsa, among our friends.
Andre learned to handle a gun when he was eight years old. That’s when his father gave him a wooden shotgun and let him come out on hunts. He carried that gun for four years. Four years! It was only when he was twelve, and had proven to his father’s satisfaction that he could handle a gun safely, that he got his first real one – a 410.
What Andre learned as a child I have to learn as an adult, and when I have a gun in my hands I repeat to myself, over and over, always point the muzzle in a safe direction. If you do that, you’re likely to achieve the single most important goal of hunting: don’t shoot anyone.
That’s necessary for a good hunt, but it’s really not sufficient. If you’re going to be satisfied with your hunting experience, you probably need to actually bring down your quarry. Which brings us to the second important hunting skill: marksmanship.
Kevin learned to shoot when he was in his twenties, and he’s good. He took his Browning Citori 12-gauge (a beautiful gun) to the range yesterday, and he was up first. He must have hit nine out of the first ten, and that’s after not having held a gun for a good six months.
“You’re a good shot,” Andre said, clearly impressed. (It’s very satisfying to impress Andre.)
Then it was my turn. While I didn’t disgrace myself, I probably only hit about three or four of the first ten, and they were the easy ones – thrown from behind me and going away from me. I struggled more when I moved to side of the range and had to shoot targets that were going across my field of view.
Andre helped me figure out that I was making a couple of fundamental mistakes. For starters, I was tracking the target with the gun so the muzzle was always a little below. What you’re supposed to do is cover the target with the muzzle. If you can see the clay (or the bird) hovering over the bead on your gun, you’re going to miss it low. Cover the target, and move with it as you shoot.
My biggest problem, though, was that I wasn’t mounting the gun to the same spot every time. The essence of marksmanship is consistency; if you don’t put the gun in the same place, you won’t get the same shot. Mounting a gun is like any other repetitive motion – a golf swing, a tennis serve, a rowing stroke – and the only way to get it right is to make your body learn it by doing it the same way over and over and over.
One of the reasons I was having particular trouble with the whole “same way” thing is because I happen to have a long neck. When you shoot, the butt of the gun rests against your shoulder, and your cheek rests on the top of the stock (the comb, it’s called), and those of us overendowed in the neck department have to do considerable scrunching to get both cheek and shoulder to where they need to be.
Fortunately, Holly of NorCal Cazadora is a fellow long-neck and wrote about the problem a couple months back, so I know I have options. Her solution was a stock with an adjustable comb, but I’m reluctant to go with a $250. solution for a gun that isn’t worth much more than that. There are, however, slip-on pads that raise the comb, and recoil pads that adjust so you can put the stock higher on your shoulder. Between the two of them, I’m hoping to get a more comfortable fit.
Once that’s done, it’s just a matter of making my forty-something-year-old body internalize the motion of putting the gun to the same spot on shoulder and cheek. I’ll be walking around our property with my shotgun (unloaded, of course), doing it over and over, hoping the practice will make it easier to do it right when an actual bird flies up.
All that, while not forgetting to always point the muzzle in a safe direction.
Since this is my first hunting season, I’m not expecting great things. I know it takes a long time to get proficient with a gun, even under ideal circumstances (i.e. youth). I hope, though, by the time I really do dodder into antiquity, to be able to say that I was a good hunter. Maybe I’ll even be able to say it in French.