How high was that bird? How to judge your range is vital when shooting high birds. Follow these basic principles to give your performance a boost says Mike Yardley

How to judge your range and shoot high birds, and how to estimate their range and the required forward allowance, is a topic of perennial interest to shooting sportsmen. Reaching out at range with a shotgun is a fascinating business. Let’s start with the 10 basic tenets that enable you to shoot high birds and judge range accordingly.


judge range

Judge the height of birds in relation trees, poles and pylons. Pic credit: Liz Pepperell.


A low comb is a particular disaster for high work. As you raise a low-combed gun above 45 degrees with normal cheek pressure, you may lose sight of the bead, causing the wrong eye to take over and leading to inexplicable misses to one side. Too long a stock may impede your swing too (as will clothing that is too tight or bulky).


I prefer 30in barrels, regardless of barrel configuration or bore. Some manage with 28in or shorter, others favour 32in on over-and-unders or even 34in. Long barrels are fine provided the whole gun does not become too heavy and cause you to slow or stop mid-swing. Whether 12-bore or 20-bore, 30in is a good compromise in a modern game gun. Many seem to see less perceived lead with long barrels than with short ones. Shorter barrels don’t suit deliberate, more calculated shooting methods in my experience (nor those with eye issues).


While I am not an advocate of extremes of choke – particularly as many are now moving to steel, which is usually restricted to 1/2 – choke is important. It’s the first few thou of constriction that has the greatest effect in improving pattern. My go-to chokes are ¼ and ½ because they work well with lead or steel at sensible ranges. Meanwhile, 1/3 and 1/3 (about 15 thou constriction) or ¼ and ¼ might be considered ideal for steel, which does not need as much choke as lead to achieve its maximum potential, disregarding other factors. For lead alone, my favoured long-range choke is light full (about 35 thou constriction).


How to judge range is vital to shooting. Shooting at any bird more than 40 yards away, arguably 35 yards, is inadvisable with standard steel. A high bird might be defined as anything over 35 yards. Most people overestimate range substantially. A true 40-yard bird is a cracking shot (and the absolute limit with standard steel). A 60-yard bird is excessive regardless of pellet material – no sportsman wants to see a shivering tail. 


Keep things simple. For normal game shooting, I opt for 5 or 6 shot in lead cartridges in a 12- or 20-bore. I would usually use 26g or 28g in a 20-bore, and 30g or 32g in a 12-bore. For dedicated high birding, 34g of 4 shot in a heavier 12-bore might be advised; some specialists go to 36g 3s (goose loads, effectively) or even heavier. A heavy payload puts more pellets in the pattern, but does not itself improve individual pellet-striking energy unless the charge is upped. Don’t assume the 12-bore is a better killer than the 20-bore, although it may allow for the delivery of more pellets. Shooting these big loads, meanwhile, is generally more comfortable using an over-and-under than a side-by-side because they control recoil better. With modern, much-improved steel, I would go up one pellet size rather than two, as once advocated. We are still at the development stage for all non-lead cartridges. Further improvement may be anticipated.


Guns in current post-1954 nitro proof (and good condition) can use standard steel provided 1/2 choke is not exceeded. The official advice from the proof authorities is that guns with earlier proof should now be reproofed before using steel. This, unfortunately, creates a dilemma for vintage guns. I would not want to subject some of my currently in proof for lead old/vintage guns to reproof just to shoot steel. One must carry on with lead where possible or a non-toxic, non-steel alternative, such as bismuth. Bismuth would not be first choice for high-bird work, though, so the dilemma of old guns and steel remains partially unresolved. One answer is to buy a base-grade gun or guns to handle steel. Meanwhile, if you have any doubts about the condition or proof status of your gun, get it checked by a competent gunsmith.


There are two types of steel shot cartridge: standard steel, which will manage 35 yards on driven birds – still a fair shot (and might be pushed to 40 yards based on trial) – and so-called high-performance steel. High-performance steel requires a gun with fleur-de-lys proof marks. With high-performance steel, which is travelling at significantly higher velocity, range might be extended to 45 yards or, possibly, a little more. You would not, however, want to use high-performance steel in a gun that weighs much under 8lb, and such loads are best handled in gas-operated semi-automatics, although other guns may be proofed for them. Loads are still being developed. Some wildfowling homeloaders are experimenting with large-pellet, light-payload cartridges that exceed current CIP high-performance velocity criteria and consequently are not commercially loaded or advised. Steel pellets, meanwhile, may be pushed to greater velocities than lead without damage to them, but barrel effects remain a potential issue.


Consider terrain. Birds pushed off high ground may drop in flight. Low ground in front of you may cause your judgement of the range to be overestimated too. Buy a pocket rangefinder and experiment, visit drives before you shoot if possible and also note the height of trees and pylons. A typical mature oak tree is 25 yards high (they can grow bigger). National Grid pylons are a minimum height of 118ft – about our limit. Shooting school towers tend to be 70ft, 100ft and 120ft (some are higher); 120ft, of course, equates to a 40-yard bird. With the onset of steel, you must develop the discipline not to shoot higher, but get these birds within your comfort zone and learn what they look like relative to your barrels.

judging range

It is crucial to learn your leads on birds crossing the line at different heights. Pic credit: Liz Pepperell


People see forward allowance differently. If someone speaks of inches, they are probably looking at the barrel end too much. Roughly speaking – and with much variation for individual perceptions, cartridge velocities, wind and so on – the physics dictates that you want to be about 5ft in front of the mark (assuming a 40mph flight speed) at 30 yards, 8ft at 40 yards and 11ft at 50 yards.


Practise as much as you can. It is particularly important on high birds because they are outside most comfort zones – consider training on clays to bring them within it.


judging range

Graduated swing-through involves judging the range of the bird and then starting behind it about the same distance as you intend to move in front of it, always with a still-moving gun. Pic Credit: Liz Pepperell

Essentially there are three ways to shoot a driven bird, regardless of its height. You can come up along its line through its tail, moving forward and shooting with conscious or unconscious forward allowance. This is commonly called swing-through. You can come on to the bird, moving with it momentarily, and push forward. I call this point and push (don’t dwell on the bird or track it too much). Or you can maintain a lead, never allowing the bird to catch up with barrels. Maintained lead does not help to find line and is not advised for those with eye-dominance issues.

My form of swing-through, which I call graduated swing-through, is my first choice. It’s a simple system where, having estimated the approximate range of the bird, I will start behind it about as much as I intend to move in front. This should not be too deliberate a process. For example, on an average 30ish-yard bird, you might start two yards behind to go two yards in front, always shooting with a moving gun.

Another tactic is to turn on the bird and take it as a crosser, as sometimes advocated by Chris Bird of Holland & Holland. Some with eye issues are forced to do this more or less on every shot, but it is preferable if you don’t want to lose sight of the bird. Whether you are taking the shot as a crosser or not, it is always vital that you step into the line of the bird. The muzzles and front foot should move together as if attached by a wire. When you pull the trigger, it should always be at the anticipated kill point of the bird or, as I often call it, the point of minimum tension.

I shoot a modified Stanbury style. When I pull the trigger, my rear foot will be at about 90 degrees to the line of the bird, my shoulder level with the line (unless it is a straight oncomer) and weight still primarily on the front foot. Head and eyes stay up throughout. Do not look at the feet, but practise stepping into line enough so there is no need. Remember front foot and gun barrels move together.

Another vital issue is timing. Birds should always be shot to three-beat time – ONE, TWO, THREEEEEEE. Note the THREEEEEEE. It implies finishing the shot well with the head still down on the stock, the gun still moving and power for the swing being generated by the body more than the arms. Tempo will change depending on the range (and angle) of the shot. Really high birds are shot to a relatively slower tempo (with exception). Finding the tempo is part of range estimation.


How to steer clear of the pitfalls associated with shooting high birds

judge range

Not lifting the gun enough with the front hand is a common error. Pic credit: Liz Pepperell

1. Don’t be over-optimistic on range estimation – learn when to let a really high bird fly on.

2. Don’t unlock focus prematurely. Keep hard focus locked on – stare each bird to death.

3. Don’t come off-line – often caused by poor foot position. Line is as important as lead. Step into the bird’s line whenever possible (practise this). The shot should always be taken with the least possible body tension.

4. Don’t check the swing. Keep moving. Use core body movement to do this – the arms and hands provide lift and fine control.

5. Don’t let the rear hand dominate the mount (this will cause windmilling of the barrels, again bringing you off-line).

6. Don’t fail to lift with the front hand enough – another common error. Keep lifting with the front hand and arm, as you bend or arch (or rotate, if taking a crosser) to push you through your mark. Your body, not the arms, provides the primary power for the swing, but use of the (usually weaker) front arm is still critical.

7. Don’t let weight come on to the back foot unless that is your intention. Stay in balance. My preference is to shoot off the front foot in classical fashion for most situations, with the rear heel slightly raised. This doesn’t work for everyone (and doesn’t work for me on a bad-back day or on difficult ground). The alternatives are to shoot with the weight equally spread between both legs or to deliberately transfer weight to the rear foot as you swing through and back. Again, remember to keep lifting well.

8. Don’t swipe at the bird, but brush smoothly: ONE, TWO, THREEEEEEE. The eyes remain focused on the mark throughout as your body anticipates where you are going to take the shot.

9. As noted, but worth repeating – don’t stop prematurely. Keep holding the gun up on the line. Keep pushing on. As Lord Walsingham said: “Hold high and don’t check.”

10. Finally, confidence is essential with high birds. It promotes good movement. You cannot measure every shot. But, you will develop an understanding for what the bird looks like relative to the barrels at different heights and what the lead for that picture looks and feels like.

Michael Yardley is the author of The Shotgun: A Shooting Instructor’s Handbook; Positive Shooting; Gunfitting: the Quest for Perfection as well as many other works. He is a fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors and may be contacted at