I’m a pretty good shot with a pistol, particularly when I’ve been practicing regularly. I’m not entirely awful with a rifle, and could be a decent shot if I had more opportunities to practice. Until today, however, I could honestly say that I knew absolutely nothing about shooting shotguns.

I’ve fired them before, mostly at stationary paper targets on an indoor pistol range, but unless you count a very brief trap lesson twenty years ago, I had never shot them the way they’re most commonly used: clay pigeons. My grandparents were champion trap-shooters, but for some reason it had never appealed to me.

A few weeks back, I decided to do two things: buy a decent sporting shotgun, and learn to use it. The purchase decision was motivated in part by the large number of very decent shotguns stocked by Bridge Sportsmen’s Center in Paso Robles. As much as I admired the $5,000 high-grade Citori over/unders, though, when it came time to put my money down, I decided on a semi-auto, a 12-gauge Browning Gold Fusion.

Beautiful wood, terrific balance, solid construction, and a brand I’m known to be fond of. The light-gathering fiber optic sight appealed to me as well, and was in fact one of my favorite features on the Buck Mark pistol that had led me to Bridge in the first place.

After familiarizing myself with its operation and maintenance, I took it to the pistol range for some function-testing (and just plain fun). Gas-operated semi-autos are much easier on the shoulder than other shotguns, and I had picked up a case of extra-light target loads to practice with. [naturally, I also ran some buckshot and slugs through it, just because they make such lovely holes in the paper]

Then I paid a visit to the nice folks at Coyote Valley Sporting Clays and hired a certified instructor to show me how it’s done. After ninety minutes and 125 shells, we had managed to identify most of the bad habits I brought over from rifle and pistol shooting. I’ll try to iron out a few of those over the next few weeks, and then hire the instructor again to work on the next batch.

The bad habits? Fifteen years of pistol shooting has driven the words “focus on the front sight” deep into my brain, but you don’t do that with shotguns. You focus on the target, always. Breaking this habit was encouraged by Coyote Valley’s owner, Nancy, who threatened to punch me if she saw my eyes shift to the front sight again in the middle of a swing.

My second most significant bad habit is based on a physiological quirk: my left eye is dominant, but I’m more comfortable shooting long guns right-handed. With pistols, I primarily shoot southpaw, but I switch back and forth often enough that I long ago started closing the eye I’m not sighting with. Lack of binocular vision is a serious drawback when faced with a moving target, but it’s not nearly as bad as sighting with the eye that’s not aligned with the gun barrel.

Of course, I was also standing wrong, swinging wrong, leading wrong, stopping the gun, etc, etc, but those are easy to work on. Seeing wrong trumps them all. I can fix the eye-dominance problem by partially blocking the view from my left eye so the right will take over, but fixing my focus habit is harder.

Late in the day, I realized that a large part of the problem was that spiffy fiber-optic sight. It was larger and brighter than the targets, and it was located precisely where my non-shotgun practice had trained me to focus. We popped it off and I shot the rest of the session with a bare barrel, with much greater success.

Lots of fun. I’ll give it another go next week.