When I began working on a story about gunfitting for a California magazine earlier this spring, I knew exactly what I wanted to go with it: photos of gunmaker Dale Tate.
Dale's the guy who almost singlehandedly transformed my shooting last December after I'd spent a year coming home from the duck blind emptyhanded more often than not. My shotgun hadn't fit me properly - until Dale worked his magic on it.
Shotgun fit matters for everyone, but it's particularly important for women because we're generally smaller than the men guns are made for. Your ability to rest your cheek on the stock in the same spot every time - positioning your eye perfectly as the rear sight of the gun - depends on three things: the stock's length, its cast (left or right tilt, depending on which hand you shoot with) and its drop (vertical tilt). All of those elements must match your proportions.
Dale had already adjusted my gun in December, so I needed to photograph someone else's fitting. That's where Sarah came in.
Sarah's uncle had just given her a shotgun, and she knew it wouldn't fit correctly because she's 5-foot-2, a good 6 to 8 inches shorter than the hypothetical man guns are made for. And beyond that, she's left handed, and most stocks come out of the factory cast for right-handers.
Last week, Sarah and I took the gun to Dale's shop at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve, about an hour and a half outside of Sacramento, and Dale got to work immediately. He had Sarah mount the gun - my favorite part because it is so unnerving seeing someone's face right in front of your muzzle. Then he started making adjustments, sawing off a big chunk of the back end of the stock and gently filing down parts of the front of it, where it meets the action, to change the cast.
He also gave her gun a new recoil pad, but not before etching his initials into the back side of it to leave his mark for the ages.
After he put the gun back together, we went out to one of the sporting clays courses at Camanche, where Dale would give Sarah a shooting lesson and check the fit of her gun where it matters most - in the field.
But wait, you didn't think I'd go all the way to Camanche without my gun, did you? After getting Sarah rolling, Dale put us in side-by-side goose blinds, gave each of us a box of shells and told us he was going to start firing off clays randomly. Our job was to shoot them down.
It was crazy fun. At least twice Sarah and I pulled the trigger at the same time on the same clay, so who knows which one of us broke them. It didn't really matter, though, because I wasn't keeping count of what I hit, and I don't think Sarah was either - we were just having a good time.
These aren't the best photos from the day - I've saved those for the magazine, which will come out sometime this fall. You don't have to wait that long for my advice, though: If you hunt with a shotgun and you're not shooting consistently, get it fitted. It'll cost ya, but it's worth it to hit your targets.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008