How a shotgun feels when it’s thrown up on your shoulder is typically our first and most important impression. However, that first impression can sometimes be wrong. I’ve had several shotguns that felt really good but never delivered when it was time to hit the targets. Sometimes it’s the point of impact due to rib design but most often it comes down to the true fit of a shotgun where small errors are magnified as the distance increases to the target.
Manufacturers deliver most shotguns with a generic stock that they feel will fit the most people. A solid business strategy but not optimal if you aren’t their average size. Many now are also including shims that can be changed where the stock meets the receiver to provide minor adjustments for shooter preference. Most of us have just made do by adapting ourselves to the gun rather than getting the gun to really fit our bodies.
I’ve used the shims before in my semi-autos but I never dug too deeply into this world until I got serious on sporting clays where often targets are at 40-50 yards and more. After discussing gun fit with local stock folks, we determined what I needed then I got a stock that really fit and started smoking some clays. Now I look back wondering how many more targets in 3-gun, birds in the fields and clays on the courses I could have hit if I had discovered this years ago.
The goal is to get your eye to naturally be centered behind the rib every time you mount the gun. There are several factors and measurements in play to make that happen.
Length of Pull
The distance from the front of the trigger straight back to the back of the recoil pad. Typically you will want the stock length to be a length so that when mounted, your face is about 2 inches behind your hand grasping the grip of the shotgun. You don’t want your thumb hitting your nose during recoil, but you don’t want it so long that you have to stretch to support the gun. Your other arm should be able to support the forearm with a generous bend at the elbow, not a straight arm making it hard to hold up the front of the gun.
It’s important to address Length of Pull first when getting your gun to fit as it affects where your face and eye sit on the stock. The Drop and Cast of the stock will both change as you move position along the stock. Adding length is easy with spacers or a thicker recoil pad. Removing length requires cutting the stock and is typically a job best handled by a competent gunsmith.
Not truly a part of the length of pull but the length from the grip to the trigger should fit the hand as well. I found an aggressive pistol grip curve to be much more comfortable for smaller hands than a straight stock design grip.
This is the distance that the top edge of the stock is below the line of the rib or barrel. The drop is typically measured at the comb and at the heel, but the drop where your face actually sits is what is truly important.
Your eye is essentially functioning as the rear sight of the shotgun and it needs to be aligned vertically with the top of the rib, to allow seeing straight down the rib. If your eye sits too high or low you will generally shoot high or low at your target (elevation error).
Your head, and therefore your eye, should sit naturally at the height to see down the rib, having to lift your head or scrunch down on the stock will not get consistent results. Getting more height is easy with a stick on or slide on cheek pads, or adjustable combs, but getting lower is another job for the gunsmith as removing wood and refinishing the stock is delicate work.
The cast is the amount a stock is bent to the left or right and acts like the windage adjustment to get your eye aligned in the left to right plane behind the rib.
This is typically referred to as cast off or cast on. Cast off is when the butt is to the right of the line of the barrel and is generally what right-handed shooters require. Cast on is when the butt is to the left and for lefties.
This is the correction that made the most improvement in my gun and game. I need more cast and few fixed stock guns have enough for my head size and eye spacing (the main factors that affect cast requirements).
Adjustable combs, factory shims, and stock bending are the only permanent fixes for cast issues. Tilting one’s head, turning your nose in to align your eye, are things that folks do to adapt to the gun, treating the symptom not correcting the cause.
Pitch is the angle of the back of the recoil pad or butt plate. This measurement is important because it affects how recoil is transmitted to the shooter. For details on shotgun pitch adjustment check out this GunsAmerica article.
Toe In or Toe Out
This relates to how the toe or bottom point of the stock is angled from the vertical plane. This is adjusted for shooter preference for comfort and body type depending on chest and shoulder builds to prevent gun canting and fit the shoulder pocket. Angling the toe toward the outside of the body tends to allow the gun to stay more vertical and minimize shooting errors due to tilting the shotgun.
Manufacturers are getting on board with helping solve fitting issues with shims that adjust Cast and Drop as well as interchangeable recoil pads and stock spacers to adjust the length of pull.
The patterning board, clays courses, and birds falling from the skies are the final tests to ensure the gun is hitting where you’re looking. Once you own a shotgun that really fits, nothing else will ever do because you will see the difference, but you will also know just what to look and ask for when buying.