The manager greeted me from behind the counter by saying, "Well Spencer, this is your lucky day. You're getting your first shotgun. I have your gun right here." He opened the box and made sure it was not loaded and handed over the gun as he said, "Make a 90 degree angle at your elbow and we'll see if this gun fits you."
I did what he said putting the butt in the crook of my elbow and the first knuckle of my trigger finger was even with the trigger.
"That is a perfect fit." He said. That was my 20-second shotgun fitting.
Most shotguns bought in America have been "fitted" with this single, very crude measurement. It is a measurement of forearm length and is only a rough approximation of what the length of pull should be.
Other stock measurements like cast, drop and pitch are more important to your shooting than the length of pull. These stock dimensions affect where the gun shoots and how it feels when you shoot. If the same scene had occurred in England fifty years ago, these stock measurements would have been considered and the stock would have been modified before the gun left the store.
The English have carefully considered gun fit since the days of black powder. It has been slow in coming, but Americans are becoming more interested in gun fit. Outdoor writer Bob Brister wrote the first detailed discussion of gun fit that I can remember. Brister is an icon of the American wingshooting community. Brister went to great lengths to describe the various stock dimensions and discuss why the British pay so much attention to gun fit.
When guns began to be mass-produced in this country the factory stock dimensions were made to fit the average man of about 100 years ago. If you are 5' 9" and 165 pounds, that gun out of the box will be close to fitting you. If your arms or neck are longer than average or if you are taller or shorter or had a thick or very thin face, the gun will not fit you and it may even be painful to shoot. Women often need modification of a factory stock to make a shotgun comfortable to shoot.
There are three simple tests you can do to determine if your gun fits you and is shooting where you are looking. First verify that the gun is unloaded. With the gun held in a muzzle up, ready position, pick out an object at a distance and focus on it; close your eyes, keep your head still and mount the shotgun and reopen your eyes. You should be centered on the target. Your gun should have come to the cheek first and then the contact to the shoulder. Your head should have stayed erect and in the same place in the process. Your dominant eye should be looking down the rib or barrel without seeing a lot of it and you should be squarely on the target every time. Do this several times and have someone watch your mounting technique. If the gun fits you, it will come almost effortlessly to the same position every time as you repeat the process. If the gun is off line or hangs up as you repeat the mount, the stock needs work.
After checking once again that the gun is not loaded, the second test is to have a friend stand about 6 feet in front of you to look down the muzzle as you aim at their nose. They should see that your dominant eye is in the center of the rib or barrel and not off to one side or the other. If they cannot see the pupil of your eye because it is below the rib, the comb of the stock is too low. If they see the pupil well above the rib, it is very likely that the stock needs more drop at the comb.
The final test is done in a safe place to shoot where you can shoot at a patterning board. If you do not have access to a patterning plate, you can use a 40"x 40" piece of heavy paper with a 4" dot in the center. Use a modified or full choke and shoot at your target at 16 yards. Bring the gun up to a ready position and mount and fire in one smooth motion with what one might call deliberate speed. Do this five or six times at the same piece of paper. If your mount is consistent you should see a pattern emerge on the paper. Do not try to see the pattern on the paper as you shoot as you may bias the result. It is good to have someone stand at your side to watch your mounting technique as you do this. You have to have a clean and fairly consistent mount to make this test work.
This will tell you where you shoot the gun and if the pattern is off enough to warrant corrections of the stock. Most hunters like a pattern centered on the aim point with close to 60 % above the aim point and 40% below. Trap shooters want more of the pattern above the aim point and sporting clays often prefer a dead on or 50% above and 50% below pattern. If the pattern appears two or more inches off, it should be corrected by altering the stock.
Most factory made stocks have no cast in the stock. They are made to split the difference between right and left eye dominant shooters. They are often off two to three inches. It is common for a right eye dominant shooter to have a pattern that is centered 3.5" to the left of the aim point at 16 yards. That would make your pattern almost two quail-lengths behind a left to right crossing quail out at 32 yards and ahead the same amount on right to left crossing birds. Left to right crossing shots are hard enough to begin with out the gun making you behind a bird before you start. It is easy to see how cast and drop can affect your shooting.
These tests will not be equal to a proper gun fitting by an experienced professional gun fitter, but they will let you know if you need to find a gunfitter. Michael Murphy and his son Marc Murphy of Augusta, Kansas have fitted thousands of shotguns for hunters and competitive shooters. They have a complete facility for assuring gun fit. Jim Greenwood's stock making and gunsmith shop is directly above their office. Just off of the front porch is a patterning plate and it is only 90 yards to a sporting clays course. You can have a fitting from one of the Murphys, have the stock work done by Jim Greenwood, a true craftsman, and be shooting the gun with the altered stock only minutes after you pick up the gun.
Gun makers have started to make it easier to fit a gun to a shooter. If you own one of the newer Browning, Beretta or Benelli auto loaders with a shim system, you can alter the stock to change the point of impact.
A professional gun fitting by an experienced fitter is almost a mini-shooting lesson. You will learn a lot about mounting and shooting just by having a gun fitted. Fitting a gun costs from $175 to $300 and modifications of the stock are generally additional charges. The best place to find a gun fitter near you is to talk to serious shooters in your area and ask who the good gun fitters are. When a name is often mentioned write it down. You can also check a recent issue of Black's Wing and Clay for a list of gun fitters.
Having a gun that fits and shoots where you are looking is the first step toward better shooting. When your gun fits you will be able to improve your gun mount and swing the gun with confidence and you will start shooting more often and that will reduce your misses in the field and put more game on the table.