Among those who do not shoot, and have not watched shooting with the shot-gun, there is a somewhat prevailing notion that, to shoot flying or running objects, the gunner lays his cheek against the stock, shuts the left eye, and peering down the barrels fires only when he has covered the object with the sight. But, if this were the method of the sportsman, he would have to restrict himself to large objects travelling slowly ! The truth is, you don't use the sight at all when you shoot rabbits running or birds flying. Then how is it done ? There is so much about the process of achieving a hard shot at a running or flying mark, which is what may be termed sub-conscious,1 that it seems to me very difficult to depict it in words. The gun is raised, swung with firmness and ease to the spot where the moving object is or will be in less than a second, and fired. The cheek is laid against the stock, as it is in the case of shots at stationary objects, and the eye without doubt takes a lightning survey along the barrels, though it does not seek the sight, and there is no thought on the part of the shooter of getting that sight exactly between the eye and the moving object. To me the perfect union or working together of arm and eye in shooting is a marvel—a mystery. We see much the same partnership of course in other pursuits and games—in billiards, in golf, in cricket, in croquet, for instance. In some games it is hard to say which is the chief, which the junior partner. In dry-fly fishing the hands, wrists, and arms, I suppose, constitute the senior partner ; but where would that senior be without the junior ? And ah how badly, when one is shooting, they do run in double harness at times ! One begins to think in disgust that the partnership is dissolved for good, that it were best to take out the cartridges and go home.
1 Take the pulling of the trigger. The forefinger pulls the front trigger for the first barrel and the back for the left without the shooter thinking of the thing at all. Once for a long while I somehow had the habit of pulling the back trigger first, and so of making my left barrel my opening one. I was as sub-conscious in this case as the other.
It is obvious that if you shoot straight at a small object travelling fast, on the ground or in the air, you will be liable to hit the ground or the empty air rather than the moving object, which will have passed the spot by the time the trigger has been pulled and the charge has arrived there. The charge scatters a good deal, if the distance is, say, thirty or forty yards, so that the sphere of danger for the object fired at is considerably enlarged ; but you should not count on this : you must be ahead of the swiftly moving object fired at to succeed in shooting. It would be possible, I suppose, by mathematics to show the distance you must be ahead of a moving object travelling at a given pace, taking into account the distance and the rate the charge travels, etc. But such precision would not be of the least practical use to the shooter. The shooter, when he takes a snapshot at a rabbit moving swiftly in covert, does not want mathematical calculations as to these matters. In my experience, he swings the gun at the rabbit and shoots in front of it without making any conscious calculation at all as to the rate the rabbit is going at, etc. He does not say to himself, " I must shoot well in front of this rabbit; he is going very hard." He, if in form, does so without consciously planning it. This at any rate is my idea of how the thing is done.
From the very beginning cultivate the habit of shooting ahead of your game : I believe there is scarcely a more important habit to acquire in shooting. On some days one shoots most of the rabbits in the head, or at any rate in the front parts ; on other days there is that ghastly breaking of hind legs, especially in the case of broadside shots. On yet other days the rabbit so often does not stop at all—because he is not hit. I believe that when the rabbit thus goes on, one has generally been over or behind him if he has offered a broadside shot; and behind if he has been moving more or less straight away from the shooter. But I suspect it is generally a case of behind. The curious thing is that, when for a while I am killing a fast rabbit dead every other shot on an average, I am not particularly conscious of shooting well in front. Eye and arm, being on excellent terms, seem to do the work without the active intervention of the will. Still, I advise that you should constantly bear in mind the necessity of shooting in front, of being well up to the moving object ; it will then tend more and more to become an unconscious habit. I should say but few gunners are often too much ahead of fast-moving game.
What has been said about the necessity of shooting ahead of the object aimed at applies to all game, furred and feathered alike, offering broadside shots, as well as to rabbits going away from the shooter. How far ahead you must fire you can learn only by experience ; there is no other way. I have not shot driven grouse. I have shot a certain number of partridges and pheasants going at about the top of their speed, and many, many rabbits moving as fast as they possibly can, and what has struck me has been that the successful and clean shots have not been aimed quite so far ahead as might be supposed, but still distinctly ahead. As to pheasants, partridges, woodcocks, and other birds going away from the shooter, here, I believe, though I cannot be perfectly sure, that when I miss I have been beneath my bird. Be, if anything, a little above the bird that is going away from you; be a trifle beyond the rabbit that is going away from you. How easy it is sagely to set down these injunctions, and how hard often it is for him who sets them down himself to carry them out!