A look at the correct way to shoulder a shotgun to keep your shots on target and ensure you don't let recoil get the best of you.
Shooting a shotgun is considerably different than shooting a rifle. In fact, if you’re shooting your shotgun like a rifle, you’re doing it wrong (unless you’re shooting slugs at big game. If that’s the case… carry on).
Shotguns excel at shooting moving targets, whether sporting clays, birds in-flight, or bounding whitetails. Hitting fast-moving targets requires a certain amount of instinct. Thankfully, this “instinct” can be cultivated by practicing proper shooting technique.
As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” When it comes to shooting a shotgun, this adage is only partially true. If you’re practicing improper form, you’ll be hard-pressed to improve your shooting, and probably get frustrated in the process. Besides, perfection isn’t the goal in wing shooting (or when jumping deer or rabbits in a thicket). This isn’t the time for precision aiming. With a shotgun, you point and shoot rather than aim. However, practicing the proper way to shoulder a shotgun, will make your point-and-shoot a lot more effective.
How To Shoulder A Shotgun
Start With Your Cheek
Discussing how to “shoulder a shotgun” is kind of misleading. The key to proper shotgun shooting isn’t in the shoulder. It’s actually in the cheek.
A proper cheek weld is the most important element in consistent shotgun shooting. Some shooters try to accomplish the all-important cheek weld by jamming the stock of their gun into their shoulder and then swinging the muzzle up until the weapon meets their cheek. Others may plant the butt firmly on the shoulder and then bend their cheek down to meet the stock. Both of these are wrong and will cost you shooting speed and accuracy. And you need speed and accuracy to shoot targets on the move.
To get your head properly aligned, while keeping your eye on your moving target, you want to mount the gun to your face, not your face to the gun. The best way to do this is to bring the stock to your cheek as the main point of contact,
Keeping your head erect and maintaining visual contact with your target, bring the shotgun up to your face. You want the comb (the top edge of the stock) to sit firmly just under your cheekbone. This puts your dominant eye right at the top of the shotgun, staring straight down the barrel to the bead. It also puts the butt of the gun right on your shoulder (at least if the gun is a proper fit).
The video below demonstrates what the correct way to shoulder a shotgun looks like:
Finding the Pocket
After you bring the gun to your face, the butt should fit right into your shoulder pocket. Once the stock slips into the pocket, you can either bump your shoulder forward or pull the gun tight into the pocket. Neither of these movements should be excessive, because the gun will be basically in the proper position. However, you want the stock pressed rather firmly into that pocket, especially if you’re shooting something like 3 ½-inch magnum 00 buckshot, which can produce some tough recoil.
You can find your shoulder pocket just underneath of your collarbone, right where your shoulder meets your clavicle. This muscled area forms a natural pocket that fits around the butt-end of a stock like that’s what it was made for. It also provides some nice God-given cushioning from the weapon’s recoil.
If your gun sits anywhere outside of this pocket, you could end up with a bruised collarbone or bicep, neither of which is particularly fun.
If you have trouble fitting the stock into your shoulder pocket while maintaining a good cheek weld, your shotgun may not fit you properly. Feeling like you need to tilt your head to keep your cheek mount as you slide the butt back into the pocket is a sure sign you have an improper fit.
It may be due to leaning back and away from the firearm, which is a natural tendency for apprehensive shooters. You want to lean slightly into your weapon, hinging from the hips and keeping your knees slightly bent. If this small correction in form doesn’t solve the issue, you may need a shotgun with a higher comb.
Many female shooters also struggle with maintaining a proper cheek weld while hitting the shoulder pocket. Women tend to have slightly longer necks. Even just a fraction of an inch creates a greater distance between your cheekbone and the shoulder pocket. If you have to fight to keep from tilting your head as you pull the stock into your shoulder pocket, a higher comb or a stock with a slightly different pitch may be all you need to correct the problem.
Comb Raising Kits
One way to achieve a better fit without trading in your favorite shotgun is to try a Comb Raising Kit. These handy kits come with a spongy neoprene sleeve that fits easily over the stock of your shotgun. Most kits also include a selection of foam inserts that can be combined with the sleeve to raise the comb of your stock.
These kits are also a great way to experiment with different comb heights before you resort to permanently altering your weapon.
Keep Your Eyes Open, Point, And Shoot
There is a reason most shotguns only have a crude bead at the end of the barrel. When shooting flying or running targets, you need to focus on the target. This can be hard to do when you’re trying to line up iron sights. With a shotgun, you don’t even need to aim. You simply place the gun on your cheek, keep your eyes on the target, point, and shoot. If you try to aim, you’ll hit behind the target every time.
One great tip for beginners is to point the index finger of the off hand straight toward the target while grasping the forend. The finger can stretch alongside or below the forend; it doesn’t really matter. Then, you simply point your finger at the target (and then pull ahead of it if necessary) as you raise the gun to your cheek. We’ve been pointing since we were toddlers, so pointing at something you’re focusing on is a pretty natural tendency.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Because the targets we shoot with a shotgun are typically fast-moving and often appear without warning, shooting form needs to be a no-brainer. You won’t have time to walk yourself mentally through the steps of raising your gun to your cheek and then finding your shoulder pocket. These movements need to be natural, fluid, and instinctive.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take talent to be a proficient shotgun shooter. It does, however, take practice.
Ammunition is expensive and missing targets is frustrating. The best thing to do is start training at home before you hit the shooting range. It’s cheaper and a lot less discouraging.
Before you begin practicing the correct way to shoulder a shotgun at home, you want to make sure your gun is unloaded. Each year, there are serious injuries caused by handling a firearm thought to be unloaded. You can never be too careful, so check and then double check your shotgun. It’s probably a good idea to triple check it, and then have a buddy check it just to make sure.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
One practice drill you can try at home is to watch yourself in the mirror. Facing a mirror, look your reflection right in the eye. Make sure there is adequate distance between you and the mirror. Maintain that eye contact as you lift the stock to your cheek, letting the butt slide into your shoulder pocket. The shotgun should remain level during the whole exercise. You shouldn’t see the muzzle dip or your face lean toward the stock as you shoulder the shotgun. Repeat this exercise until you can complete the motion perfectly each time you shoulder your shotgun.
Use a Flashlight
Once your body knows what to do, you can take your practice a step further right in the comfort of your own home. A small Maglite fits pretty easily into the muzzle of an unloaded shotgun. You can use this handy flashlight to help you practic shouldering your shotgun.
Switch on your flashlight and insert it into the muzzle of your unloaded shotgun. (AA Maglites fit pretty snugly in a 12 gauge. If a 20 gauge is more your style, try a Maglite that takes AAA batteries.)
Stand with the weapon tucked loosely between your arms and ribs. Focusing on the upper corner of the ceiling, raise the gun to your cheek, shining the beam of the flashlight directly into the corner of the room. Remember to bring the gun to your cheek first, letting it slide into the shoulder pocket. You want the stock to sit on the same part of your cheek every single time you raise the weapon.
With any sport, it is important to practice the fundamentals over and over until you can do them without thinking. With shooting, we practice the fundamentals for the same reasons.
When we train repeatedly, we create muscle memory. In the heat of the moment, you don’t want to have to run through a mental checklist of how to stand, mount the gun, and keep both eyes open. If you have to talk your way through every shot, you are likely to miss, especially on the fast-moving targets you’ll be shooting with a shotgun. So, practice the correct way to shoulder a shotgun until your body knows exactly what to do. That way when your brain turns off in the heat of the moment, it won’t matter. Your body will already know what to do.
That is instinctive shooting, even if you did have to work to develop the instinct.