The following information on snap shooting and wingshooting with a rifle comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
Wingshooting with a rifle of the kind rendered familiar by the professional trick and fancy shots is a very entertaining recreation. Moreover, such work is of considerable utility; the man who can burst a walnut tossed up at forty feet is very apt, within reasonable range, to double up a bounding deer.
This description of rifle shooting is much the most sensational of all rifle work, with practice feats being accomplished that border on the marvelous. It is, too, I believe the easiest branch of rifle firing in which to develop skill, since anyone who is expert in the use of a shotgun will make very rapid progress in the game of fancy snap shooting with a rifle. Many become proficient in this style who could never make a great reputation in the more legitimate lines of rifle firing. Nevertheless, many of our professional snap shots, like the Topperweins, practice long and faithfully, their rifle shooting ability, though guided in a different channel, not being second to that of our greatest military and match shots.
The so called “champion” rifle shots, who proclaim themselves such from having broken the greatest number of glass balls in a thousand or fifteen thousand, do not deserve much credit except for endurance. Striking a three-inch disc at fifteen feet is not a wonderful performance. Maurice Thompson demonstrated that he could do it with a bow and arrow, getting forty-four out of fifty his first public attempt. I believe the fifteen foot, three inch record is fifteen thousand straight, which alone should tell the story. However, the snap shot who is in earnest about acquiring actual and practical skill need not confine himself to three-inch blocks tossed straight up at fifteen feet.
The choice of rifle cartridge for snap shooting should lie between the .22 short, .22 long-rifle and .22 automatic—the .22 short is good enough, but the automatic would have to be used by those who preferred a self-loading gun. Cartridge economy is worth considering now because snap shooting eats up ammunition with an insatiable appetite. The rifle ought to be light, well balanced, with a fitted stock, in model either a pump-action or an automatic; the latter is the fastest, but the other is fast enough and has the better trigger pull. Of course a single-shot would do for wingshooting, but the ambitious student will soon reach a point where the firing of one shot at an object will not content, but he must get off two or three ere his mark strikes the ground.
In sights, some profess to be able to use the tang peep with large aperture, but all professionals prefer open sights of a rather coarse description, large bead front and wide notch in the rear. The Lyman jack sight is a good bead or the Sheard, with a slightly crescent shaped rear bar. Align the sights to shoot center at fifty feet when the full front bead is taken, no effort being made to draw the bead fine, since that is impossible in snap shooting.
Let the trigger pull be quick and sharp without the least perceptible drag or any irregularity whatever; the customary weight of pull on the shotgun is about right, yielding with a pressure of three to four pounds. The automatic has a heavier pull than this which prevents the rifle from being acceptable to many, though others do good work with it.
Having the rifle, the next thing is to practice with it, everlastingly practice. The ordinary rifle wingshot will fire a hundred rounds a day to begin with and may presently find himself using a thousand.
Begin at the beginning, that is with the easiest possible feats. Throw up empty quart cans (the assistant does this) straight into the air ten feet high and ten feet distant from the gun. Almost any ten year old boy can begin to hit these after a few attempts, but if the cans prove to be too small try an old tin pan. Success will beget success in this game in very short order.
When the cans can be struck with considerable regularity at ten feet, increase the range a few feet at a time until they are being tossed up at a distance of thirty feet from the gun. With the longer range, it should be noted, the targets are to be thrown up a trifle higher. Keep up the work with the cans until nine out of ten and ten hits straight are frequent; then blocks of wood can be substituted for the tins, but have large blocks at first, not less than four inches in diameter, and when changing to the smaller targets go back to the shortest range again and run through the list of objects.
The original practice should now be repeated with the blocks, gradually increasing the range to thirty feet. With gaining skill reduce the size of the mark, but be satisfied with reasonable progress—early attempts to duplicate the work of a professional are very discouraging, and it should never be forgotten that they learned the A, B, Cs before they could read. By and by, the targets being thrown straight up at a moderate distance, the marksman should find little difficulty in striking an object the size of a walnut with great regularity.
In this work one important thing may have been noted by the shooter, he doesn’t swing on his target and shoot with a moving barrel as he would with a shotgun, but throws his sights beneath the moving mark where he stops his piece until the falling target cuts the line of sight, when he pulls. The difficulty of the game is not so much holding the rifle as gauging his pull so that the trigger will yield exactly as the descending target cuts the line of sight. Where the marksman is slow on trigger he may have to pull just under, while if quick and sensitive of nerve the shot can be directed at the lower edge of the mark. The real allowance at thirty feet is not so much for the speed with which the block is falling as it is the time required for putting thought into action in pressing the trigger. In the matter of acquiring instantaneous nerve response to the will the snap shot is superior to any other class of marksmen.
The principle of snap shooting with a rifle is to fire with a still arm only, the target alone moving. If the rifle and target are both moving, the problem becomes much more complex, indeed practically impossible with difficult shots. It follows that no great amount of lead can be given in fancy rifle shooting, but the marksman must catch his target when it is moving slowly, as when just beginning its descent, and the range must not be so great that much consideration will be required for the bullet’s time to the mark, or for the space covered by the latter in the interim. Not one fancy shot in a hundred could strike a six-inch disc tossed up at fifty yards, which shows us the strict limitations of the game.
Nevertheless the amateur who is desirous of acquiring practical skill should not stop where many of the professionals do, that is with targets thrown with great uniformity at a stipulated distance, but having acquired the knack of placing his bullets upon the mark when it is tossed straight up, it is now time to vary the flight. Have the assistant begin throwing the blocks across the gun from right to left. Misses will surely follow for a time, but by and by the marksman will begin to learn the new curve of flight, getting his rifle in front of the mark on its exact line of movement, when he can do this regularly it is only a matter of gauging the time to pull as before.
Now other angles of flight can be tried, as from left to right, incomers, or the helper can stand beside the marksman throwing the block straight away. As noted previously a point will always be found where the target is moving slowly while descending to cut the line of aim. I might say here that I have never yet seen a man who could do much with the target while it was rising. Such work would be contrary to the principle of the game, shooting with a still barrel, also fatal to the trick and knack of it.
When beginning practice with a new line of flight, it will generally be wise to return to the large target like the tin can, but the smaller blocks can soon be substituted again. The smaller the object shot at the greater the skill required to strike it, of course, and the man who can regularly hit a marble tossed up at forty feet is a dandy. Indeed, except for the sensation of the thing it is never worth while to shoot at objects so small that they would be difficult to hit if at rest. Rather ground yourself on variety of flights, the target being of moderate size, say two inches, and increase your distance from the mark as much as your skill will possibly admit. The longer the distance at which the mark can be struck, in the greatest variety of flights, the more beneficial the practice to either the shotgun shooter or the rifleman.
Having become expert at the tossed up targets, firing but the one shot at them, doubles might now be attempted, especially if the student is anxious to shine as an exhibition shot. Naturally for the doubles and triples speed must be developed. Rapid aiming not only for the first bullet but those following, would entail some sacrifice of accuracy, so return to the tin can again. When it can be struck from three to five times before it falls, replace with the smaller blocks as usual. The beginning of the rapid repeat work should be with the targets thrown straight up, afterwards all the various angles can be learned. I need hardly mention that the nearer the target gets to the ground, or the farther it has fallen, the more allowance must be made for its speed of movement, but the manner of holding is always the same—align the sights under and shoot with a still gun.
Bursting bricks and then the pieces, striking coins, bullets, etc., is merely a matter of long and hard training. It really seems that the crack fancy rifle shot can hit an object in the air about as readily as he could at rest. Very few of them, however, are able to make any practical use of their acquirements when it comes to game shooting.
Many would conclude that the men who can hit a bullet in the air would surely stop a wild duck or a quail, yet I have never heard of anyone who even claimed he could do it with any certainty. The secret of their failure in game shooting lies in the fact that their customary tossed-up target is governed by fixed laws, except as its flight may be disturbed by the wind, while the flight of the bird is controlled by its own will and none can foresee what it will do the next instant. At best very few birds fly in a straight line with unvarying speed which would have to be the case if they were to be killed with a rifle.
However, we will now continue our snap shooting practice beyond the point where trick shots stop with the direct idea of developing a skill that may assist us in shooting running or even flying game. Take a dart some five feet in length, with a head two inches broad, and a shank four inches across and eight long, and have it thrown by hand, Greek fashion, past the marksman at a distance from him of thirty or forty feet. The rifleman can attempt to place his shot either upon the head or the shank and with practice will be able to accomplish the feat. He can augment the speed of the dart, too, if he likes, by having it sent by means of a throwing stick and cord, until it is traveling at such a rate that he will have to make a two-foot lead at twenty yards.
Having graduated with the dart, our expert can take up clay bird shooting with a rifle. It will soon become evident to him that he cannot hit straightaway birds, sent at ordinary speed, and the strength of the trap will have to be reduced. Then instead of standing behind the trap as does the shotgun man, he should go out into the field and try the targets as they go past him at lessened velocity. After a little practice he will be able to hit some of them, though I have never yet seen a man who could break any great percentage—one in three would be excellent shooting.
Fair overhead birds, sent at a height of about twenty-five feet, can be struck with considerable certainty, shooting shotgun style, covering the bird, barely hiding it by the barrel and firing. This is hardly rifle work, though, since all the shooting should be accomplished on the system outlined in the beginning, throwing the rifle in front of the line of flight, steadying it, and pulling as the flying object cuts the aim. As previously noted, swinging shooting will not do with a rifle; even when the mark is as large as a deer, the swing will generally prove a failure.
The post-graduate course for the fancy rifle shot is shooting game. A running squirrel, or a cottontail is a fair mark upon which to test skill—in fact so far as the squirrel and the cottontail are concerned, I believe it is the only sportsmanlike method of killing them. Neither has much chance for its life in front of a shotgun, and little more when sitting before a rifle. Let bunny be bounding down a corn row, though, or circling through the trees, and he who trips him up with a small bore rifle has done something worth remembering. A squirrel, too, is a beautiful mark as he runs to the end of a limb where he pauses to make his leap just long enough to permit a lightning snap shot, then jumps, catches another limb, and hangs while the marksman pumps in another. Again he glides along a limb, barely showing the top of his back, while the gunner send splinters and bark flying before, behind, and under him, finally landing a bullet home.
For this work I would advise a heavier cartridge than the .22 short which will not kill half of the time it hits, especially with a tenacious little beast like a squirrel. The .22-11 rimfire is a good cartridge for this work, though I think the .25-20 is better. It should be borne in mind that no such quantities of ammunition will be used in game shooting as have been devoted to the tossed up targets.
Quail and wild ducks are not entirely beyond the skill of the rifle snap shot. I have known a man to kill five quail in the course of a day, all shot fairly on the wing with a rifle. He was only successful with one style of flight, a bird that rose close to the gun and bore away, not straight, but at any easy angle. He then shot in the usual way by throwing his sights in front and pulling just before the game covered them. Any shot in which an allowance of more than a couple of inches had to be given was nearly sure to result in a miss and straightaway birds were rarely hit. The wildfowl that I have seen killed were rising birds, angling gently off, and never passing ducks, however close they might come. Snap shooting game with a rifle is withal a fascinating pastime, one bird so killed affording more satisfaction than several dropped before a shotgun.
Prairie chickens can be killed on the wing with a rifle, where they are plentiful and tame, especially the sort of immature birds that used to be shot in August. I have been told that a professional trick shot, on a wager, once hit seven swallows in a hundred shots, but I didn’t see it done. John Winston, the live pigeon shot, used to go quail shooting with a rifle occasionally, bringing back bags of birds which he said were all killed on the wing—I never happened to be out with him. Yet I think it is within the skill of man to kill an occasional bird of any kind on the wing with a rifle, quail, chicken, wild goose, duck, crow, or hawk.
The finest work I have ever heard of was described by Stonehenge, the English sporting writer, who tells of a British gamekeeper who killed fifty live pigeons in a hundred shots, fifteen yards rise, muzzleloading rifle. Nevertheless, when all is said, the man who would do his wingshooting with a rifle must possess a deal of patience and fortitude. What anyone can do though is vastly to improve the accuracy of his wingshooting with a shotgun and his chances at big game with a large bore rifle.
The professional shot’s stock in trade, such as firing while standing on his head, bending over backwards, aiming with rifle upside down, aiming by means of a mirror, etc., are all silly and not to be imitated by a selfrespecting amateur.