Sixgun Magic On Flying Targets
By Skeeter Skelton
Shooting Times Magazine
Every now and then anyone who shoots will have a hot streak. On a day like that it seems impossible to miss, and you somehow know before the gun goes off that your bullet is going to slap dead center.
I had one of those days about 30 years ago on my uncle's ranch in Hall County, Texas, where my cousin and I were passing a carefree, adolescent summer, splitting the long days between chousing whiteface cows and shooting up the red dirt countryside with my beat-up 22 revolver.
The resident cowboy, our guardian and mentor, was a guitar playing 20-year-old named Buck. Buck was a man who enjoyed the trappings of the cowhand. When he went to town on Saturday he wore a silk shirt with horseshoes on the pockets, and he usually somehow forgot to remove his Crockett spurs from his boots. His shotgun leggings were trimmed with a buckskin fringe 6" long and his 7X Stetson, which had cost about a months pay, was bound up in a rattlesnake band that he claimed to have shot himself. Buck had seen every movie that Gene Autry ever made, and his goal in life was to join up with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the North Texas equivalent of the Boston Philharmonic.
Buck hated the household chores that attended batching with two punk kids just out of grade school. So did the two kids, and a July afternoon found the three of us on the trash heap in the arroyo east of the ranch house, in a shootout to decide who would have to fix supper.
We used my handgun - a rickety Iver Johnson "Sealed Eight" with a 6" octagon barrel. Cousin Jim and I, who had run around 1000 rounds of Long Rifles through the old gun during the preceding month, promptly cleaned Buck's plow by hitting every tomato can in the carefully-aligned row we had contrived along the base of a bluff 15 yards from our scuffed boots. Bucks guitar-picking trigger finger betrayed him, and he missed all of his targets by at least a foot.
I was holding the gun when Buck lost his temper. Grabbing an empty catsup bottle, he snarled, "Hit this, you little buzzard, and I'll cook all summer!" The bottle sailed up against the light blue sky, its red-coated interior outlining it perfectly. The long, thin snout of the 22 seemed to point itself, and the trigger seemed to move of its own accord. A shower of glass tinkled on the rusty cans of the dump, muffling Buck's oath as he stomped toward the house and his biscuit making. He slung his guitar over his shoulder and took leave of us a few days later, having had a surfeit of both sourdough and shooting. Jim and I have hoped old Buck fared better in the world of the Grand Old Opry than he did at sixgun shooting.
That one lucky shot has lived on to plague me for all these years. Before that moment I had never tried an aerial target with a sixgun. Puffed with pride after Buck's irate departure, I threw up another catsup bottle and snapped a shot at it. I missed. I missed again and again, until I finally had the good sense to conserve what little remained of my ammunition supply while I thought things over.
The resulting cogitating made me swallow my ego and begin at a humble beginning. In the years of shooting that have flown happily by I have learned many of the secrets of hitting a hand-thrown mark. There are others that have escaped me, and I will likely cash in my chips still trying to win a master's crown at this exasperating phase of the handgunning game.
Trying to approach the problem logically, I fished around the trash heap until I had a supply of large cans, gallon size and up. By throwing these miniature washtubs directly in front of me with my left, I found I could raise the revolver and fire with my right and get a hit - most of the time. On those days when everything went wrong I couldn't be certain of puncturing even these generous targets.
Fortunately I had come to the ranch equipped with plenty of 22 shells. After a hundred or so rounds I became more sure of myself and worked down to tomato cans and beer bottles. As these became easier I was able to hit condensed mild cans and small jelly glasses. By the end of summer I could toss a whiskey bottle, break it, retrieve the fallen neck portion and do the same with it. My average by this time was about 8 or 9 hits out of 10 tries. I had fired about 2000 rounds of ammunition.
Over the next few years I dabbed with aerial work occasionally, and improved slightly. My targets got smaller, and I worked through a big batch of ruined flashlight batteries and began an association with small caliche rocks, about the size of a 25¢ piece.
I soon learned that aerial shooting is simply another form of point, or snap shooting. Until a handgunner can throw his gun up, sight simultaneously, and let his shot go into at least the 8 ring of a 25-yard rapid fire target, he really isn't ready to start on high rising targets. The requirements for the two types of work are the same: quick alignment of the front sight on the target, with a strong awareness if not an actual visual picture of the rear sight's relation to the front, and a trigger release that is a speedy squeeze, but still not a barrel-disturbing jerk.
Revolvers are more natural pointers for me. After realizing that it was going to require the burning of a mountain of ammunition to grasp the rudiments of the business. I elected to retain the economical 22 cartridge. About the same time I acquired my first Smith & Wesson K-22 with 6" Barrel. I have never found another handgun that is superior to the K-22 for aerial plinking, although there are several that compare quite favorably.
As I began handloading and could afford to shoot all the centerfire stuff I wanted, I progressed through the 32-20, 38 Special, 44 Special, and 45 Colt up to and including the 357 and 44 Magnums. The 357 is a particularly good cartridge for targets that have been thrown very high and far out from the shooter. Naturally, stringent safety precautions must be observed, and I'll get to those in a moment.
One of the secret skills in aerial handgun shooting is not concerned with shooting at all, but the throwing of the target. Most devotees throw for themselves with their off hand, causing uniformed spectators to envy their dexterity. Far from making the stunt more difficult, it makes it simpler. The shooter, if he can throw straight, knows exactly where the target is going when it leaves his hand, and is already tracking it with his gun as it starts its flight.
The easiest shot is one in which the thrown target rises from a point at the shooter's side to an apex about 10 feet in front of him and not more than 20 feet high. With this throw, he need not cope with any lateral movement of the mark, nor concern himself with leading it.
When only one shot is contemplated, there is really plenty of time. Many shooters try to launch their shot just as the tin can hesitates momentarily at the peak of its rise, before falling back to earth. This is fine in theory, but in reality it puts an unnecessary amount of pressure on the marksman to fire at a precisely ordained instant, perhaps before his sights are lined up.
The boys who are good at it will fire after the can starts down. By holding for the very bottom of the dropping bullseye, and squeezing the trigger while moving the gun down at the same speed as the can, thy force the entire diameter of the mark to pass in front of the flight of the bullet. When this is properly done, a hit is virtually assured.
The moving of the sixgun is not accomplished by the arm alone. With the arm fully extended, the head is held in exactly the same relationship to the gunsights as the target falls, the barrel being brought down by the shooter's bending forward from the waist. This follow-trough technique becomes double important when multiple hits on the same target are essayed.
The most common error causing misses on falling targets is getting behind on the follow-through and shooting high. Stand to the rear of any newcomer to this game. When he misses, it will usually be readily apparent that his gun is pointed a foot or more higher than the mark at the moment of let off.
Pass shots that cross in front of the shooter are exceedingly difficult, and I've never known anyone who was consistently good at them. For one thing, the target is thrown by someone other than the shooter, and he can't "feel" where it will travel. Follow-through is from side to side, making it necessary to twist rather than bend the body at the waist - a bit of a contortionist's feat if the elevation of the pistol is to remain constant. Then, too, constant elevation won't get the job done, because the target will be describing an arc which must be anticipated by the gun muzzle. As in all wing shooting, proper lead must be held, and this will vary according to the velocity of the target and the velocity of the bullet. Occasional hits are made in pass shooting, though, and the gunner may be forgiven for thrusting out his chest a bit when he connects.
As I mentioned earlier, the magnums make fine aerial guns when you are fortunate enough to have some wide-open country in which to shoot. A shooting area large enough to assure that your bullets will fall on empty ground is necessary, of course, no matter what gun you use, but the magnums stretch the space requirements. A good habit to acquire, using any caliber, is never to shoot after the target has fallen so low as to require an angle of less than 45° elevation of the gun arm. About the only reasonable exception to this safety rule would be in shooting against a high cliff for a backstop, and you will find this unsatisfactory because of the difficulty in seeing the target against any backdrop but the sky. The velocity that gives the 357, 41, and 44 Magnums their (in this case) undesirable ranging qualities makes their bullets get to the target faster, necessitating less leading.
The Ruger guns are a bit tricky to use against skyborne cans and bottles because of their comparatively high rear and front sights. In effect, the gun muzzle is pointing one place while the sights are aligned at a point considerably higher. The same holds true to a greater degree with specialized target automatics, both 45 and 22, with their enormously high and prominent sighting equipment. The little Ruger Super Single Six in 22 LR and 22 WMR, although fitted with adjustable sights, is a much better aerial gun than its big brothers, for the reason that its sights lie considerably closer to the axis of the bore.
Target sighted Smith & Wessons are very good for sailing targets, since their sighting apparatus rides fairly low. I have found, however, that fixed sights are best for these exercises, and once did a long string of good shooting with a prewar S&W 38-44 Heavy Duty with 6½" barrel and fixed sights.
Long barrels are a definite aid to good point shooting. One of the very best sixguns for the purpose is the ancient Colt single action with 7½" barrel. This old warhorse seems to have built-in radar when it's assigned to track a moving target.
My son Bart is just starting on aerial stuff. One gun in my kit seems perfect for his small hand - a prewar Colt Police Positive Target in 22 Long Rifle. Sights are adjustable, but in the old style that ride extremely close to the trim, 6" barrel, and the boy is making regular hits on large cans at about 10' in front and 10' high.
Although I started my own high flyer shooting with bottles, I've given them up for safer targets, and would never permit my boy to try them. When thrown a proper distance in front of the shooter, the broken glass usually falls to earth well in front of him. But the longing to bust the shiny jug to smithereens is a great tempter, and most marksmen won't pass up a shot even when the bottle has been badly thrown - directly over their heads. A hit here will mean a shower of razor sharp shards and splinters, and I have had to duck under my Stetson on many foolish occasions to avoid a cut face. Once, when a tyro friend of mine wanted to try a shot with his 45 Colt Commander, I casually tossed up a Coke bottle, never dreaming he would hit it. The silvery glass exploded about 15 feet over my head and I stared at it like a fool as it fell into my face, slicing into the side of my nose. Bleeding copiously, I thanked the Lord I had been wearing shooting glasses and began to cast around for safer targets.
Rocks age good and easy to throw targets, but cause potentially dangerous ricochets. Tin cans are O.K., but don't break up in a spectacular manner, and can move erratically in the wind. Clay pigeons are fair, but difficult to throw well at the prescribed distances.
Here in the Mexican border country, abandoned adobe dwellings abound. Around any old farm or ranch house can be found a ruined pile of crumbling clay bricks that once was home to a hired hand. A fist-sized chunk of adobe is heavy, moves straight when thrown, and shows up well against the sky. When hit by a big caliber bullet, it disintegrates beautifully and returns to the ground as dust.
If you'd like to try aerial shooting, I'd advise starting with a good 22, mainly because of the economics involved in the large volume of shooting you'll be required to do to become good. I like revolvers, but god work can be done with automatics, especially the long barreled models.
Stock up on ammunition, patience, and determination. And if you don't become the absolute master of the moving mark in a week, don't give up. I've been trying for 30 enjoyable years, and I ain't their yet.
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