Shooting instructor Keith Coyle explores the history of Robert Churchill and the methodology of the Churchill Instinctive Method of shotgun shooting
During my last 30-plus years as a professional shooting coach, if I had a pound (or dollar) for every time I’ve been asked, “The Churchill Instinctive method, what really is it?” I could have retired some years ago as a wealthy man.
I remember the first question I was asked by my gun fitting mentor, the great Christopher “Chris” Craddock (friend of RobertChurchill himself), as we sat in the library of his house in the City of Bath, England. “Keith, what is a shotgun?”
As I started trying to come up with some ingenious answer, Chris, observing my brain wheels turning, looked at me with a smile. He said, “I’ll tell you what a shotgun is: it’s a clever idea thought up by a simple man!”
In his lilting Somerset accent, he explained that one day as a simple man was walking across his field, a rabbit ran across his path. The man simply lifted and pointed his finger, making visual contact with the rabbit as his finger lined up with his eye, all done without thinking. A bit further on, a big fat wood pigeon flew out in front and above. The man again lifted and pointed his finger, which again made visual contact with the bird as his finger instinctively lined up with his eye.
He stopped in his tracks for a moment, realizing that he had the wonderful natural instinct of “pointing ability” which enabled him to make quick, accurate decisions about speed, angle and distance without having to think about it.
Realizing this, he said to himself, “If I had a gun what my finger could do, I could feed my family!” From there arose the birth of the “Shotgun” or more accurately, what could be called a “Pointing Gun.”
To this very day, this is the story I tell every pupil coming for their first lesson with me to get them to understand that you just simply point a shotgun, you don’t aim it. It’s not a rifle. It’s just an extension of your pointing finger.
How the Churchill Method came to be
Robert Churchill, being brought up in the family business of his Uncle Edward (E.J.Churchill) and shooting on the grouse moors and driven game estates of England from an early age, naturally understood, practiced and promoted this simple instinctive method. When combined with a properly fitting gun and, most importantly, the correct gun mounting technique of aligning the eye with the rib of the barrels (the extended finger), this method proved to be consistently effective when shooting all forms of game birds and rabbits.
As Churchill states repeatedly, “A shotgun is a weapon of movement. You must swing on to the bird, trust the unerring ability of the eye to make the necessary forward allowance and leave it to the gun to do the rest! Train the eye and front hand to take charge of these matters and learn their job without brain interference!”
Which really sums up what we refer to as the “instinctive method.” I guarantee that all of you who upland hunt with your dog in the field, the bird you most often hit is the one that gets up without any warning and surprises you. That’s the one you don’t think about, the one you shoot instinctively, the one you just “point at!” As opposed to the bird you most hate, which is the one that gets up some 30 yards away, flying across or towards you, and gives you far too much time to start thinking about the response you are going to have to make to cleanly shoot it. And worst of all, asking yourself the question, “How much lead do I give it?” That’s when you start measuring and riding the bird.
In Churchill’s style, there is no question of trying to compute muzzle movement, forward allowance, or any other complicated matters. All he asks the shooter to do is look at the bird and by correct gun mounting, shoot naturally. Without constraint or effort, you are making contact with and shooting at the bird, but subconsciously over throwing (swinging on) a little and so giving compensation for flight time. In that way, you are successfully completing what in any other terms would be a complicated mathematical problem.
Leave your calculator at home. The Churchill method is about economy of movement and elegant, efficient gun mounting. Because the swing is based on our natural ability to point, the mount and the movement, though appearing visually slow, are actually highly efficient. With the flat, diagonal converging approach (which gives the visual impression of shooting directly at the target), it’s the increasing momentum of the moving gun (the barrels) that naturally achieves the lead. So as the comb of your stock comes up under your cheekbone and the butt reverses back into your shoulder pocket, that’s the moment you simple squeeze the trigger.
A brief history of Robert Churchill
Robert Churchill was born October 23, 1886, in the suburb of Wandsworth, London. His occupation was that of a forensic ballistic expert and expert witness. For the wingshooting world, he is the famed creator of the “Churchill Method” as well as author, shooting instructor and gunmaker.
Robert’s uncle, E.J. Churchill, taught his nephew all he knew about gunsmithing, ballistics and the art of craft in English sporting shotguns. His uncle died in 1910, leaving his London gunsmithing and gunmaking business to Robert.
While continuing to innovate in gunmaking, Robert Churchill became one of the foremost authorities of his time on firearms ballistics, testifying as an expert witness for the prosecution in countless cases brought by Scotland Yard against criminal suspects. His expertise was unquestioned, as were his courtroom opinions during the years 1910 to 1920.
He introduced and perfected his newly-designed short barreled (25 inch) game guns. He was “perhaps the last of the great gunmakers of London,” wrote his friend, MacDonald Hastings. In addition to being a famous London gunmaker and ballistics expert, he was one of the greatest shooting instructors of his day. As Hastings further wrote, “The essence of Churchill’s Method is that he taught his pupils to swing on to the bird; to trust the unerring ability of the eye to make the necessary forward allowance, and to leave it to the gun to do the rest.”
(See the book “The Other Mr. Churchill” by Macdonald Hastings)
Quotes from Robert Churchill that will help your wingshooting
(From the First Edition of Robert Churchill’s book “Game Shooting”)
“In practice, the shooter should not be conscious of his muzzle, the rib or sight. His eye, or rather his attention, should be fully occupied with the bird and, if he holds his gun properly, he will hit whatever he is looking at.”
“Dismiss all ideas of calculated allowances.”
“All systems founded on allowances are inherently unstable and unscientific. Indeed, it is only in the sport of shooting that the matter even arises. I have never heard the question raised in any other form of game where the hitting of a moving object, such as a ball, is involved.”
“It is high time that the whole allowance system was deposited in the wastepaper basket. It is not practical and it establishes an entirely false foundation of thought at the back of the shooters mind.”
“Your job is to keep your eye on the bird; forget all you ever knew about the thousands of different allowance and the thousands of varieties of shots and let your eye and the natural over throw of the gun take care of everything else.”
“In my method there is no question of trying to compute muzzle movement, allowance, or any other complicated matter. All I ask you to do is to look at the bird and by correct mounting and body work, shoot naturally without constraint or effort apparently straight at the bird; but subconsciously, over throwing a little and so giving the necessary lead or compensation for time flight”
“When I say ‘look at the bird,’ I mean it. You must glue your eyes to it, focus on it and see nothing else”
Keith Coyle has been a wingshooting instructor for over 30 years. Keith has traveled all over the world as a world class instructor, operating shooting facilities, and hosting seminars. He trained under Christopher (Chris) Craddock of Holland and Holland who mentored under the legendary Richard Churchill of the Churchill Method. He currently teaches at Green Acres Sportsman's Club in Illinois.