“A properly fitted stock is the final step in becoming the best wingshot you can be.”
--Michael McIntosh, author of "Shotguns and Shooting," "Best Guns," and 16 other sporting titles
Indeed it is, Michael, indeed it is. There are thousands and thousands of upland bird hunters and serious shooters who have no idea how much a properly fitted shotgun would benefit their shooting.
Why would a person buy a handsome new sporting gun with no idea of whether the gun fit the shooter or not? Why have a gun safe full of expensive weapons without having them adjusted to a set of measurements that will allow maximum shooting success? When Barry Bonds steps up to the plate, he’s carrying a bat that he knows fits him. When Tiger Woods steps on the golf course, his clubs fit him. Your gun should fit you as well.
Jon Hollinger, owner of Aspen Outfitting Company and a master gun-fitter for over 30 years, is recognized as one of the best gun-fitters in the country. His experience as a gun-fitter began in the late 1960’s when he was invited to a driven bird shoot in the English countryside.
“I was dating a lovely English girl, a model, who came from an old country family. She invited me to meet her parents and go shooting. She told me to bring my best gun,” Hollinger recalls. He was raised in the countryside in Lanark County, Ontario, and had spent thousands of hours as a boy decoying ducks and rough shooting grouse and woodcocks. He was a pretty good country boy wingshooter. “So I showed up with my Model 12, and my host just about swallowed his tongue. ‘That’s quite a mechanical contraption’, the gentleman said, and then showed me his collection of double guns, beautifully made side-by-side shotguns that would no doubt be extremely valuable these days. As it happened, he had a pair of Beesleys that fit me perfectly. We went out on this driven pheasant shoot, and I had never shot so well in my life. I hit most of the birds I swung on.”
Later, Jon had a long conversation with his host. Still in disbelief, Jon asked why he had been able to shoot so well on such difficult targets. “It’s because the guns fit you,” said the gentleman, and then began a long discourse on the mechanics of a properly fitted gun. Jon asked how those measurements are reached, and the gentleman explained about a “try gun”, which is a good shotgun whose stock has literally been cut to pieces and then put back together with a series of gears and screws. The stock can be lengthened, raised, lowered, bent—contorted in every which direction in order to find the ideal measurements for any shooter.
Never has a student been so apt. A few months later, when Jon was back in the States, he called the Englishman and said he had managed to save some money, and wanted to invest in a “try gun,” the gun that gun-fitters use to measure clients for a custom gun. “A few weeks later, the gentleman wrote back and told me he had found one, and even in those days, 35 years ago, it was several thousand dollars,” Jon said. “I sent off a check, and it’s the same gun that I use today for my gun-fittings.”
Jon Hollinger with the try gun he ordered from England 35 years ago. He has fitted several hundred shotgunners over the years with this gun.
The shotguns that can be purchased off the rack at a gun shop are designed for “Joe Average”—a man who is between 5’8” and 5’10” and wears about a 33” dress shirt sleeve. However, if you sit in an airport and watch all the people come and go, how many people are men between 5’8” and 5’10”? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Personal gun measurements are very important, because we’re all built differently. The goal is ultimately to hit more targets. To accomplish this goal, it’s important to first accomplish a nice fluid gun mount. After a consistent gun mount has been accomplished (and that’s an entirely different discourse), the gun, when mounted, should easily come to the same place every time on the shooter’s shoulder and face, where the shotgun barrels are lined up right under the shooter’s dominant eye. Shotgun stocks are measured in several different ways:
- Length of pull: this is the distance between the trigger and the center of the gun butt. On a double gun, this distance is measured from the front trigger.
- Pitch: the angle of the butt in relation to the top of the barrel.
- Cast: the distance the centerline of the stock is offset to one side or another of the centerline of the barrel.
- Drop: the distance from the top of the barrel or rib to the top edge of the stock at the comb and the heel.
The “Joe Average” length of pull is around 14 ½” to 14 ¾”, and that’s the length of pull for most off-the-rack shotguns. A man who is 6’3” might need a 15 ½” or 15 ¾” length of pull. A 5’2” lady might need a 13 ½” length of pull. A petite lady shooting an off-the rack gun will have trouble shouldering it, and a big man will find it annoyingly short.
Pitch is important, because you want 100% of the surface area of the butt to fit snugly into your shoulder pocket. If the pitch is incorrect, the placement of your pattern will be adversely affected.
Drop is measured at both comb and heel, which means that if properly fitted, the gun aligns right below your eye without having to move your head up or down. The amount of drop at comb varies with the shape of the shooter’s face and the length of his or her neck. The same goes with the drop at heel—the goal is to instinctively mount the gun so that the top of the stock fits right at the top of the shoulder or just below it. This measurement is dependent on the length of the neck and the shape of the shoulders. Standard measurements for off-the-rack guns are 1 ½” drop at the comb and 2” to 2 ½” drop at the heel.
Most American shooters don’t even know what cast is, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s one of the most important measurements. If you take a good double gun and look from the butt of the stock down to the front bead sight, the stock should be slightly angled to the left or right from center. However, if you’re building pump guns or semi-autos for both left- and right-handed shooters, you don’t want any cast. A gun for a right-handed man with a square, blocky face might be properly set at ½” “cast off”—to the right. A gun built for a left-handed shooter with a narrow face might be “cast on” only ¼”.
While most people can have some degree of success shooting a factory gun built to “Joe Average” specs, they won’t be lighting the world on fire. However, if you pick up a gun that’s been customized to someone else’s measurements, unless that person is a body double for you, you won’t hit a thing. That’s how important a good set of measurements can be. On the other hand, if you have your gun customized to a good set of measurements from a good gun-fitter, your shooting will improve dramatically.
Measurements don’t seem to change radically over time. Once people have reached adult growth, their arms don’t grow longer and the length of the neck and the shape of the shoulders is usually constant. Of course, often people add bulk over the years, so sometimes measurements may change slightly, but usually measurements are good for many years.
Jon Hollinger is known not only as a superb gun-fitter, but an outstanding shooting instructor as well. When you book Jon for a gun-fitting, it’s a fun experience. You come away from the session not only with an accurate set of measurements, but much better shooting technique as well.
Once you have your measurements in hand, it’s important to give them to a good gunsmith. Our gunsmith is an expert with double guns and can accurately transfer your measurements to your gun for dramatically positive results.
©2006 Gary Hubbell. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the authors' written consent.