By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
The first hunting adventures I took part in were September dove shoots, conducted over prepared fields in the company of the men whose footsteps I’m now attempting to follow. All of them were practical outdoorsmen, wearing the equivalent of jeans or Army surplus camo, sitting on lawn chairs or overturned buckets, drinking un-bottled water from Coleman coolers and watching for birds on the move with a calm intensity.
They were practical in every regard, which made the nature of the shotguns they carried stand out even more. Not given to extravagance, the balance of their hunting equipment was strictly utilitarian, but their shotguns stood a cut above.
Carried from home to the field in soft, handled cases, these tools of the wingshooters’ trade received special care and a reverent attention that made them stand out to a youthful observer. They were the only piece of gear reserved to the adults only, and watching the best shooters shoot was like watching the best pitchers pitch – there was a confident grace and power, and you knew they were going to succeed.
There’s a natural magic to good wingshooting form and style, and it’s definitely something that must be learned. Instructions are simple: right-handed shooters should stand with their left foot slightly forward, bring the shotgun up so that the comb of the stock stays in contact with their cheek, follow the target with both eyes open, then fire when the lead feels right while swinging the barrel on a smooth, continuous plane.
You can take those instructions and go shoot like Tom Knapp and John Satterwhite just as easily as you can read “keep your left arm straight and your head still” and go hit a golf ball like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Written instructions are short because most of what makes for good wingshooting can’t be put into words.
It takes practice, and lots of it.
Another part of the magic of good wingshooting is the length of time its mastery remains with its masters. I never saw my Dad or Uncle Glyn play baseball or football because those days were gone by the time I arrived, but I’ve seen them both in their element behind a shotgun. On live game, shot on the wing at varying angles, distances and speeds, natural shooters who’ve practiced through thousands of rounds are exciting to watch. Satterwhite and Knapp would have to be perfect to be any better, and they’re not perfect.
What is perfect, though, is the joy of remembering seasons gone by. Our step slows and our vision fades, but a fine shotgun well maintained returns to the field each fall the same as it ever was. When its user has practiced hard and hunted well, a part of his spirit remains with it, even when it eventually changes hands.
Maybe that’s why they receive such careful selection and special treatment, and why those shotgun cases felt so heavy to a young boy tagging along for the first time way back when – inside, along with the wood and steel, were the memories.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Mossy Oak Productions in West Point