Detours on the path to gun fit
“Tips to get you on target”
Many shooters experience a feeling of helplessness and confusion when it comes to getting a shotgun to fit properly. Perhaps the biggest challenge is figuring out whom to go to and from whom to seek advice. In my practice as a full-time coach and gun fitter, I have a regular stream of new clients that, at some point, have taken a detour in pursuit of a fitted shotgun.
There is the tragic case of the 5’8” shooter who purchased a beautiful $5,000 shotgun with an adjustable comb and later asked me to evaluate his gun fit. It was clear that he needed a shortened stock but, with the adjustable comb already installed, his $5,000 purchase was worthless to him. There is the case of the shooter who came to me following months of work with a stock maker to have his gun fitted and re-stocked. The wood was gorgeous. He complained that his shooting had declined dramatically since his $3,500 stock job. After a few pointed questions, it was clear that the stock maker’s protocol was to fit the stock in the workshop. The fit was not validated on the patterning board or on actual targets and he was consistently shooting high and over the top of many targets. Then there is the shooter who went to see a gunsmith for fitting advice. He was not seeing the targets well over the barrel. The gunsmith’s solution was to install a heavy adjustable butt plate and increase the pitch. The correct solution would have been improved stance, consistent mount and an adjustable comb. I wish I could say that these cases are rare.
In your quest for the perfectly fitted shotgun, knowledge is power. I have three basic tips to help you stay on the right path and clear of detours:
Tip #1: Know the difference between a gunsmith, a gun fitter and a stock maker and with whom you are dealing. Beware of the person who claims to be all three (or even a combination of two). In very general terms, gunsmiths don’t know much about gun fitting despite the fact that many claim expertise. I am a gun fitter, not a stock maker nor a gunsmith, although I work hand in glove with those I consider to be the best stock-makers and manufacturers in the sporting shotgun market. My experience as a professional coach and competitor give me valuable experience that I draw from when I fit a shotgun to a client. Philosophically, I believe a proper gun fit starts with a shooter in a proper shooting stance with a good mount. Further, I believe that a proper gun fit must always be validated on a patterning board and on actual targets. I have worked with many a client that has had a “gun fitting” with no validation of the fit on a pattering board or on actual targets. The fact is, many shooters mount differently in the field than they do in the gun room. When I perform a gun fitting, I start with a “static fit” in the gun room or club house. I use one of two adjustable try-guns and fit the gun to the client. I look for subtle but consistent indicators of fit: proper alignment of the eye over the rib, proper and consistent stance and mount, ability of the shooter to control and maneuver the shotgun, and comfort. I then verify point-of-impact on the patterning board and watch as the shooter engages actual targets. I then adjust the shooter’s ideal specifications as necessary until I achieve the precise fit. Does the “point-of-impact” of the shot pattern match the shooter’s “point-of aim”? In other words, does the gun shoot where the shooter is looking? This is the ultimate test of a shotgun and whether or not the gun fits the shooter. Once I am convinced that the fit of the gun is perfect, I measure the dimensions of the try-gun using 17 different measurements including the palm swell and grip. I then work up a final measurement sheet for the manufacturer or stock maker from which a custom stock or bespoke shotgun will be created.
There are many fine stock makers around the country. In the sporting and bird-hunting world, Rich Cole (Cole Gunsmithing), S&S Plus and Jim Greenwood are at the top of the heap. These folks are masters at shaping wood to a gun and doing so to exacting specifications and in such a way that the gun moves fluidly to the target. While there are exceptions, and some may disagree, stock makers and gun fitters are rarely the same person. Few stock makers understand proper mount and posture and often fail to address eye dominance issues that may bias the point-of-impact results on a patterning board and in the field. It is my opinion, admittedly biased, that a partnership between a gun fitter and stock maker is most likely to produce the best fit. If your goal is a custom shotgun from the factory, your best bet is to work with a gun fitter who routinely works with your manufacturer of choice. I work most closely with Perazzi, Caesar Guerini and, most recently, Zoli to deliver bespoke shotguns to my clients from the factory but I also work with a number of stock makers for clients looking to re-stock their existing shotgun.
Last but not least is the gunsmith. A gunsmith, knowledgeable about fine shotguns, should be able to fix most issues related to the internal workings of your shotgun. Trigger issues, malfunctioning ejectors or a pattern of operational malfunctions are all situations in which you ought to seek out a gunsmith. I wouldn’t take your custom Perazzi to the gunsmith at your local pawnshop. If you believe your shotgun needs the attention of a gunsmith, go to one that has experience working on shotguns similar to yours. In general, visiting a gunsmith for gun fitting advice will likely end poorly although most will tell you that they can fit shotguns. Save the questions on gun fitting for the gun fitter. With specific instructions from a gun fitter, your gunsmith may be able to perform the necessary stock modifications but make sure that the gunsmith is familiar with fine shotguns. Once your gun fitter has evaluated your shotgun and the needed modifications identified, a stock maker is likely a better resource than a gunsmith to install an adjustable comb, change length-of-pull or add an adjustable butt plate. If you need a stock bent (change cast using heat and pressure), the stock maker should be your first choice.
Tip #2: Understand the perspective and expertise of the “expert” with whom you are consulting. The sales person at your local gun shop may not be the most qualified nor the least biased resource for advice on gun fit. Stock makers certainly have the expertise to make a stock to any specifications but may not be the best resource for proper gun fit. While I am not a stock maker, I will occasionally order a pattern stock for a client from one of my stock makers. Pattern stocks are made to the client’s specifications and usually out of an inexpensive piece of pine. Ordering a pattern stock for a client affords me the opportunity to take a palm impression with bondo for the palm swell and pistol grip. I can make small adjustments to the stock based on the client’s feedback before sending the pattern stock back to the stock maker for duplication from a nice piece of Turkish walnut. The shooter also has the opportunity to shoot many shells through the gun to gain confidence in the dimensions and reaffirm the fit from a comfort perspective.
Tip#3: Ask around….a lot. Before settling on a particular gun fitter or stock maker, check and double-check references. If you receive good reports from three or more shooters as to their experience with a particular gun fitter or stock maker, chances are good that you are traveling down the right road.
Having been a novice shooter many years ago, I understand completely how confusing and frustrating it can be to find the right answers regarding gun fit. Knowing who to turn to for gun fitting or stock making expertise can be a real challenge. Hopefully, these tips will help straighten your path to a fitted shotgun and help you save time and money in the process. After all, the sooner you get a fitted gun in your hands, the better!