Hunting can be one of the toughest hobbies to get into if you didn’t grow up doing it. Not only is there a relatively high cost of entry, it can often feel like there’s a lifetime of knowledge you have to learn before you can even lace up your boots and step out into the field. But if you’re reading this article, you’re in luck. Over the course of this series, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to become an effective upland hunter. Or at least I’m going to try.

First things first, congratulations! You took one look at the wild world of hunting out there and realized that you’d rather be walking in a field with a dog at your side than freezing your cheeks off in a deer blind at 4am. In other words, you made the right choice. Second thing, hunting is a sport that takes a lifetime to master. While I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped make me the wingshooter I am today, I still learn new things every season and am certainly no expert. So feel free to take what works for you and ignore what doesn’t. 

So what is upland hunting? Stated simply, upland hunting is the pursuit of (usually) ground-dwelling birds like pheasant, quail, chukar, and grouse through (usually) fields and prairies. Obviously there are some exceptions and additions to that definition, but at its core, upland hunting is about the active pursuit of wild birds in their natural habitats. We’ll cover more on exactly where to find birds and how to scout for good habitats later in this series. But today, I want to focus on the first questions I usually hear from new hunters—what kind of gun should you buy and how can you learn to shoot it? 

The Best Beginner’s Shotgun

While we could debate the “best” upland hunting shotgun for days, when it comes to what your first shotgun should be, there’s no debate—buy a Remington Model 870 Express.

Here’s a picture of my Remington 870 Express 20 gauge I got from “Santa” when I was about 10. Twenty years later, and it still works just as well as the day I got it. 

The Remington 870 is one of the best selling shotguns in the world. I would bet buttons to dollars that at least half of all hunters, myself included, have a Model 870 in their gun safe. There’s a good reason for that. The Model 870 checks every box you could ask for in a beginner’s shotgun—it’s reasonably priced, simple to operate, and it will shoot through the apocalypse. 

With respect to what gauge shotgun you should buy, my recommendation for most new hunters is to buy a 20 gauge. While a 12 gauge is more versatile, you can realistically hunt almost anything other than geese with a 20 gauge. As a new hunter, you’re going to need a lot of practice, and your shoulder will thank you for buying a 20 gauge. However, if you think you’re ever going to hunt ducks, geese, or turkey, and you’re not worried about how hard your gun will kick, by all means feel free to get a 12 gauge.

The Greatest Training Tool You’ll Ever Own

Speaking of practice, this brings us to the second gun you need to buy. This gun will be your greatest training tool, and, in addition to helping you recapture your youth, it will also make you a better hunter. I’m talking, of course, about the Daisy Adult Red Ryder BB Gun (available for about $50 on Amazon). Really, any BB gun will do, but the key is buying something cheap, low-power, and accurate. The Red Ryder is what I used as a kid, so it’s what I recommend. 

As a new disciple to the shooting arts, you need practice and lots of it. There’s no better way to get practice than by knocking down cans off of an old cardboard box with a BB Gun. (Just be careful not to shoot your eye out and be sure to find a place where you can safely and legally practice). A BB gun is the perfect way to get comfortable shouldering a gun quickly, practicing good trigger discipline, and developing a natural point with a shotgun. Before I get into a few drills you can work on, let’s cover the basic Firearm Safety Rules, which you should always follow at all times:

  1. Always treat every gun as if it’s loaded. 
  2. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. 
  3. Keep the safety on and your finger outside the guard and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
  4. Never point the gun at anything you don’t intend to destroy. 
  5. Be certain of your target, your line of fire, and what’s beyond it. 
  6. Keep your guns unloaded when not in use. 
  7. Wear proper eye and ear protection. 

A more in-depth overview of good firearm safety rules can be found here. Take the time to review these rules carefully and reach out to a firearms instructor at your local shooting range if you have any questions. 

How to Practice With Your New BB Gun

While it may feel a little silly to practice firearm safety with a BB gun, it is essential that you drill these rules until they become second nature to you. Everyone who hunts or shoots long enough will experience a malfunction or a misfire at some point. The difference between life and serious injury, or even death, may come down to where your weapon was pointing when it happens, so always practice controlling your muzzle and good trigger discipline. 

Now that we’ve covered safety habits, let’s talk about how to shoot a shotgun. First, if you’ve never shot a gun before, or even if you have and you’d like an overview of the proper form, take two minutes to watch this video about how to properly mount a shotgun to your shoulder by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The first thing you have to understand is that, unlike a rifle, you don’t “aim” a shotgun. While there’s a sight at the end of your shotgun, it’s often referred to as the “Miss-Me Bead” because if you try and aim down the barrel of your shotgun using that bead, you’re going to miss. Instead, you need to develop a natural feel for where your gun is pointed while keeping your eyes focused (yes, both of them) on your target. 

This is where your BB gun is going to come in handy. Mounting and shooting a BB gun without looking down the sights is the perfect way to learn how to instinctually “point” and shoot your gun where your eyes are focused. When I was first learning to shoot, I would set up empty cans and plastic bottles across a bench and just practice mounting my BB gun and shooting the cans down without using the sights. After a few afternoons of practice, that quickly became too easy, and my brothers and I would take turns throwing cans and shooting them out of the air. By the time I got my first real shotgun a few years later, I already had a natural feel for how to point and shoot a shotgun, and after a few practice rounds at the skeet range, I was consistently breaking clays and ready to hunt birds. 

As a new shooter, these same exercises will help you develop a natural feeling for how to point and shoot a shotgun, and they’re a lot of fun. So take my advice and spend some time with your BB gun working on your form before you head out to the shooting range and start trying to bust clays with your new shotgun. When you can hit a crushed soda can out of the air with your BB gun, you’re basically one afternoon of clay shooting away from being ready to hunt birds.

Coming up next, we’ll cover basic field etiquette and how to plan your first hunt.

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