Mr. Batha’s encyclopedic knowledge and peripatetic ways make him the hypothetical king bee of the shotgun world, as he travels throughout Europe, England and the U.S. pollinating enthusiasts with his expertise on shotguns, clays shooting, bird hunting and gun fit. He is a writer, gun maker (Boswells), entrepreneur, outfitter and instructor. His articles appear in leading magazines. His two books, “Breaking Clays — Target Tactics, Tips & Techniques,” and “Instinctive Shot: The Practical Guide to Modern Wingshooting” are parts of the canon. He appears in two instructional DVDs: “Mastering the Double Gun” with Bruce Scott and “Take Your Best Shot.” His driven shoots at Highland Hills Ranch are traditionally sold-out affairs. His list of U.S. and British accreditations that apply to shotgunning would run the length of his tweed sleeve. Meet him in person and you’ll encounter a big man with a British accent who’s opinionated, funny and magnanimous. And he is passionate about gun fit.
For Mr. Batha, gun fit helps synchronize hand and eye coordination with target focus. Basically, the gun must consistently enable you to concentrate on the bird. For most people, factory measurements typically suffice when they’re starting out in the sport. In fact, Mr. Batha advocates temporary alterations with pads, washers and moleskin as you refine your fit and skills over time.
From his perspective, a custom fitted shotgun should enhance your instinctual pointing capabilities and eliminate any visual distractions that could break the connection between you and the target. Still, if you’re okay with the factory dimensions of your shotgun and your own performance at wing and clay, then enjoy the ride.
Inevitably, many of us become frustrated when we reach a long-suffering plateau in the shotgun sports. So many little things can go wrong that affect our game. We pick up a few bad habits along the way and compound them into chronic blunders. Perhaps we never really learned how to focus on the target. Our eyes deteriorate with age. We throw a hissy fit every time we miss a bird and screw up our attitude for the entire round. We lose grasp of the fundamentals (or never knew them). We’ve watched too many shotgunning DVDs. We take to heart all that appalling advice from our know-it-all shooting buddies. There’s a Chinese menu of mistakes and excuses that we carry around in our head that forces us to feast on a buffet of missed targets.
Bottom line? Gun fit is not a cure-all. If you don’t consistently fixate on the target after calling for it, if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals of move-mount-shoot, then it won’t matter whether or not you have a custom fitted shotgun: your game will continue to suck for as long as you live.
However, let’s make the leap of faith that a gun fitting can make a substantive contribution to better wing and clays shooting. What’s next?
If you’ve never experienced a connoisseur gun fit, you’re in for a revelation worth a 1,320-mile trek. Face it, for most of us a gun fit involves the guy behind the counter of your local gun store asking you to shoulder your future shotgun as he peers down the rib (yeah, beads line up perfectly); or will tell you to hold the gun by the grip, recoil pad in the crook of your arm and instruct you to bend your arm up. Sure, length of pull is perfect (what a happy coincidence). Now thank you very much, that’ll be $3,000 and enjoy your new shotgun. See you back here in a few months when you can’t hit anything with it and want to trade it in on another.
For the uninitiated, a personal gun fit pertains to fundamental dimensions. Length of pull is the measurement taken from the trigger to the heel of the stock (usually the recoil pad). Drop is the measurement taken from the parallel line of the gun to the stock at the comb, face and heel. Cast is the vertical line that runs through the center of the heel of the stock and is measured against a straight edge from the rib, at the heel and toe. And pitch is the angle created by the butt of the stock and the rib of the gun.
Since each of us is shaped differently, the perfect gun fit requires the same attention to your upper body as you would expect from a tailor measuring you for a bespoke suit.
My gun-fit quest began with the purchase of a used Blaser F3 from Bart’s Sports World in Glen Burnie, Maryland. The 12-gauge over/under was built around the understated, matte-gray receiver with forward-swept gold F3 logo that I always considered one of the most exciting and streamlined industrial designs for a modern shotgun. At 8 pounds, it tipped the scales at the ideal weight for a sporter. The standard 14½ inch length of pull was near perfect for me. Blaser’s F3 mechanical triggers are crisp at a 3½-pound factory setting — intuitive without being twitchy. The shotgun contained the original balancing system in the stock that also contributes to lower felt recoil. Blaser F3 shotguns are delivered standard with Grade 3 wood, which on my version highlighted smoky figuring contrasted against a warm honey walnut finished with polyurethane. The shotgun featured an adjustable comb, comfortable palm swell, 30-inch barrels and set of factory Briley Spectrum chokes. Overall, the estimated six-year-old Blaser F3 retained a handsome appearance. It was tight and lovely.
By all accounts I should’ve been powdering targets on the sporting clays course with the Blaser F3. But something didn’t jibe. Even after patterning the shotgun, the point of impact remained elusive. Clay birds inexplicably whizzed by…eventually succumbing downfield to gravity.
Usually, the number-one culprit in my erratic clays shooting is yours truly. I’m not the kind of guy to pin blame on the gun — especially this Blaser F3. The shotgun came up easily, swung effortlessly and the sight picture seemed right. Still, after several months of shooting it, I started to believe that the shotgun didn’t fit well and I couldn’t figure out why.
I bumped into Mr. Batha at the 2012 Safari Club International convention. After explaining my dilemma with the Blaser F3, he invited me to both a gun fit and a quail hunt at his unofficial U.S. base of operations, Dorchester Shooting Preserve in Midway, Georgia. Who could say no?
The plan called for 48 hours with Mr. Batha. He’d perform a fitting on the Blaser F3, check my eye dominance and we’d hunt bobwhite quail together. By the way, anyone can book the same trip.
For those of us making the journey, Mr. Batha’s hotel of choice is the Marshall House, on celebrated Broughton Street in Savannah, — approximately 40 minutes north of Midway by car. The Marshall House is situated in historic downtown near the SCAD Museum of Art, fine restaurants and urbane shopping, while also situated within strolling distance of several 18th and 19th century town squares central to Savannah’s charm.
The Marshall House merited recognition on the rolls of the National Historic Building registry. Look at the façade and the verandahs evoke Bourbon Street. The Marshall House was founded 1851 by Mary Marshall. Between 1864 and 1865 the hotel was conscripted by Union troops as a hospital. Starting in 1946, the building saw a series of upgrades culminating with a $1.5 million renovation in 2008. Believe in ghosts? You may want to stay elsewhere. During one of the Marshall House restorations, human remains were found by construction workers in the hotel crawl spaces that probably originated from its Civil War hospital duty — contributing to other-worldly sightings revealed in the ghost-walk tours of Savannah.
The hotel’s 45 Bistro restaurant served good food, but I would recommend the Olde Pink House Restaurant and Tavern a block-and-half away on the ground floor of the Planters Inn hotel on Reynolds Square. Another historic landmark, the restaurant’s folding doors open full onto the quaint street where you can dine outdoors. Sitting at the bar, my favorites included the Low Country she crab soup, fried green tomatoes, fried pork chops with mac and cheese, pecan crusted chicken breast, oysters on the half shell and pecan pie for dessert. I opted for a 2010 Stags Leap chardonnay from Napa Valley. Afterwards, I would walk the long way back to the hotel through the scenic streets of downtown.
My suite at the Marshall House conjured the intimacy of an antique-furnished B&B. The old marble floor in the bathroom was quite spectacular. The vintage couch that faced a flat-screen TV provided a comfy place to relax at day’s end.
Morning one at Dorchester Shooting Preserve started with an array of drills by Mr. Batha to evaluate my gun fit — including eye dominance and mount. As a right-handed shooter who is left-eye dominant, my ability to shoot with both eyes open has been on the decline. Even with an opaque patch on my left eye, which is intended to shift focus on the right eye, target acquisition remained elusive.
Of course the patch has to be in the correct position, but even so I recently deteriorated into blinking my left eye just before triggering a shot so that 100 percent of my right eye concentrated on the target. Some experts believe the blink is blasphemy while others acknowledge it as a viable alternative to missing shots entirely. I didn’t like it at all. Blink too soon and you block out the target. On pairs, the blink could easily obscure the following target unless the timing was perfect. Regardless, you’d be surprised how many shooters rely on the blink. Just ask around.
Most instructors will try to talk you out of blinking, since shotgunning is a two-eyed sport that requires peripheral vision. If you insist, they’ll apply a one-eyed work-around such as a piece of tape or a Browning Magic Dot on the left lense of your shooting glasses. The experts prefer to think of it as temporary, hopeful they can train you to shoot with both eyes open. Because let’s face it, with rare exception, champion clays shooters don’t blink.
In addition, Mr. Batha includes a video of your gun mount as part of his gun fit package. That was another can of worms waiting to be opened because, in retrospect, I can attest that watching a video of your own mount is not for the thin-skinned. In fact, you secretly hope that Mr. Batha uses the self-destructing recording gadget from Mission Impossible.
First stop was the pattern board set in a grove of Georgia pines. Mr. Batha asked me to fire at the steel plate in order to determine shot distribution and point of impact. Turned out, the F3 shot high. Next, we climbed the stairs to an elevated station. I shot a series of easy outgoers as Mr. Batha videoed my low-gun mount. During the instant playback, he pointed out the mistakes that required a simple fix. (Note: don’t hold the stock under your arm for low gun shooting. Instead, it’s best to position the stock close to the chest, directly under the right eye). Still, my ego took a direct hit.
He also replaced the Magic Dot with a tiny, self-adhesive Spot Shot Prism. While patches such as the Magic Dot and Scotch tape divert ocular power to the weaker eye, the prism lets you maintain full peripheral vision while repositioning the focal point of the dominate eye — something called positional correction. The underlying idea is to help both eyes work together.
The stimulating morning passed quickly. There was a clubhouse buffet lunch of fried chicken, cabbage with bacon, real mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, biscuits, rice and for desert brownies with vanilla-bean ice cream. The steaming-hot fried chicken that emerged from the kitchen was, in a word, amazing.
Afterwards we went into the lodge conference room. Mr. Batha’s equipment lay spread across the expansive table. His tools of the trade were a drop gauge, bore laser and ruler. The gun is tightened into the drop gauge to measure the precise drop at heel and toe as well as the amount of cast. Finding the correct dimensions involves trial and error, using a bore laser inserted in the barrels to simulate point of impact on the wall.
The F3 proved a tricky fit. Something about the cut of the stock didn’t make sense. Mr. Batha finally identified the culprit: too much pitch. He speculated that my F3 may have been trimmed for a woman, with the deep pitch accommodating her breasts. With the problem isolated, he experimented with pitch adjustment by inserting nylon washers on the bottom recoil-pad screw until the correct number formed the perfect angle. He then concentrated on cast and drop by fine tuning the comb adjustment. Time on the drop-gauge totaled about three hours.
So far, we had spent nearly an entire day fitting the Blaser F3, videoing my gun mount and positioning the Spot Shot Prism. Now that were finished, limited time remained for a trial run on the sporting clays course. Driving the cart from station to station, the improvement in my performance intensified. I was breaking clays faster and harder — my shooting gaining authority and confidence. Hallelujah!
After a full day of fitting and self-scrutiny, the following morning was a celebration of fun and camaraderie and quail hunting. The half-day hunt would be guided by Dorchester owner, Chuck Gaskin.
As it turns out, Mr. Gaskin’s father started Dorchester Shooting Preserve in 1990. Over the years, both men worked together in expanding the property to its current 4,790 acres, grooming the habitat for quail while modernizing the lodging, club house and pro shop. A 10-station sporting clays course offers warm-up before climbing into the bird buggies that take you to the fields for hunting over dogs.
Mr. Batha isn’t shy about telling you that Dorchester Shooting Preserve has the best quail hunts in America. The high expectations at Dorchester require plenty of hard work behind the scenes. Habitat management includes an annual controlled burn and ongoing spot-spraying to eliminate invasive species. Periodic bird releases starting as early as September stocked with pen-raised quail that mix with wild birds for a season that runs October through March. Perhaps most important, though, is that Mr. Gaskin is a native son of Liberty County and grew up hunting the area where he now plies decades of local know-how.
The hunting was easy across the flat terrain through tall broom sage. For walk-up hunts, I shoot a 12-gauge Beretta Silverhawk side-by-side made in 1960, which is a lovely, little shotgun. Single quail would be flushed and coveys burst into view in the warm, Southern atmosphere with the Beretta Silverhawk downing its fair share.
Following Mr. Batha’s advice on gun mount and eye dominance from the day before, one particular shot at Dorchester Shooting Preserve attested to the hard work. A quail had flushed a few yards ahead, catching me my surprise. Strangely calm, I watched it quarter away quickly toward a grove of trees. Slowly mounting the gun, the bird had disappeared under a low-hanging branch — but I knew where to make the shot as gun and eyes reached perfect alignment. Even though the bird was completely out of view by now, I had anticipated its exact location, took the 40-yard shot and the quail dropped. “Good shot,” shouted Mr. Gaskin and Mr. Batha.
After returning home, I brought the Blaser F3 to Bart’s Sports World where they ground-to-fit a wedge-shape spacer between the recoil pad and stock that replaced Mr. Batha’s temporary washers. Back on the local sporting clays circuit, I call “pull” with much more conviction.