How I Taught Myself to Shoot Left-Handed

After a lifetime in the field, a bad eye forced the author to make a difficult decision: give up the sport he loves or learn to shoot lefty

Illustration: Jack Unruh

I knew something was wrong on the opening day of  dove season. It was a splendid Alabama autumn afternoon about five years ago; cool, and with a few wispy clouds pasted against an azure sky. Suddenly, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The Point Clear Dove Club, during its twenty-odd years of existence, traditionally put on a sumptuous opening-day feast of grilled Conecuh County sausages, fried fish, baked corn bread, and the perennial pièce de résistance: a huge steaming pot of seafood gumbo. It was a jolly occasion for old friends to come together for a Southern tradition harking back to time immemorial. The hunt master promised good shooting (as he always did, right or wrong; e.g., “There were twelve hundred fifty doves in that field yesterday afternoon—I counted them myself!”).

On this opening day it turned out that he was right. Plunging in from a distant stand of pine trees, the birds inspired what soon began to sound like the Second Battle of Bull Run, twisting through a pecan grove and barreling in all directions across a field of fresh-cut soybeans. A bird came high over my left shoulder, heading right. I caught a glimpse of the gold-tinged white breast, and dropped him. It was my first—and last—bird of the day.

I shot up two boxes of shells and blued the air with profanity as dove after dove sailed merrily on after I’d pulled the trigger. I hadn’t hunted or shot in more than a year, but this was astonishing, infuriating, and embarrassing. Even before the sun began to sink, I folded my stand and slunk back to the car.

A few days earlier, I’d noticed a problem with my vision driving down from the North Carolina mountains to my home in Point Clear, Alabama. A couple of years prior, my eye doctor had diagnosed
cataracts and said if they began to interfere with my sight, they could be removed in a simple procedure. I determined this must be the problem and made an appointment.

The ophthalmologist first decided to check my retina to make sure it was strong enough for the cataract operation. He drew back from the chair with a somber expression. The good news was that my retina was fine, but the bad news was that I had advanced glaucoma in my right eye.

Glaucoma is one of the worst things that can happen to your eyesight. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, but pressure builds up slowly but surely, killing the optic nerve. This occurs without pain—a “silent” killer—and once damaged, the nerve cells can’t be restored. There is no cure for glaucoma, but it can be treated and often arrested if caught in time. In my case my vision was “fractured,” meaning that in my right eye there were some angles where vision was normal, but from most angles sight was absent. In other words, when I locked on to that dove, just as I was about to pull the trigger he flew into a black hole in my vision.

There would be treatment for the glaucoma. Daily eye drops to be used “in perpetuity,” and surgeries, laser and otherwise, in the future.

But it was a life-changing development.

I sat down in my office to take stock. I could give up tennis, I decided; I had a bad knee anyway. I’d enjoyed being on the court with my daughter, who at the time was eight or nine, and she could carry on that family tradition (today she has a shelf full of trophies to prove it).

But hunting and shooting was a different matter. This was something I’d done since I was old enough for my first BB gun. It was in my blood. When dove season opened early in the north zones of the state, my parents would pack me and my single-shot 20-gauge Iver Johnson shotgun aboard a Greyhound bus up to the wilds of Marengo County, Alabama, 150 miles north of Mobile, and some of the finest hunts in the country. Old-timers gave me tips that even my father hadn’t thought of, and before long I was knocking doves down all over the sky. Afterward there were fabulous feasts in the big downstairs room of the old home, and I distinctly remember the image of an enormous fireplace with a deer turning on a spit over low coals, and the men talking loudly around a bar while outside under the trees were the sounds of guitar, banjo, and fiddle music.

That was long ago, but back in my office, after a short period of brooding, I started pulling shotguns down from the gun cabinet I had built into the wood paneling. I’m not a “collector,” but I do have a few nice guns and decided there must be some way one of them could help me overcome the handicap. Within a day or so I found myself at the local skeet range, standing at the number one position next to the high house.

“Pull!” I said. The clay sailed off, and I broke it at twenty feet out. I said “Pull” again, and the same thing happened, filling me with excitement. The third time the excitement turned to relief. The humiliating performance in the dove field must have been an aberration; I was back on form. Then I moved to station number two.

Pull, bang—nada. Again—nada. And again—nada. I’d come to the range early and had one of the attendants throwing for me alone. I never hit another clay through the whole course—didn’t even scare one. I changed guns, from a Browning 12-gauge over-and-under to a lighter L. C. Smith double—a 20-gauge. The pattern repeated itself. At station one, where the bird came flying up from my left to my right, I hit it early and right on. But after that, nothing doing. Only at the angle where the bird came directly and tight over my left shoulder could my fractured vision pick it up.

I crawled all over that gun that morning, trying to find some position or configuration where I could use my good left eye to point down the barrels. I shot up most of a case of shells and was seething in frustration and, frankly, embarrassment. I returned to the table where I had one more gun to try. As I reached for it, a voice from behind said, “Having some problems?” I turned to face a slight, small balding man who looked to be of Asian extraction and who spoke perfect colloquial English.

“Yeah,” I told him, “I’m half-blind in my right eye—more than half, in fact.”

Illustration: Jack Unruh

“Then you better switch to shooting left-handed,” he said.

I told him I doubted I could do that. “Been shooting this way for fifty years,” I said.

“Well,” he said cheerfully, “you’re not getting any better. Why don’t you try it left-handed? You might be surprised. I taught my wife to shoot left-handed. She’s great at it.”

As it turned out, he was a retired U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant, a native of Guam. Furthermore, enjoying his retirement, he had become a tournament skeet and trap shooter and was just passing through, he said, on his way to a match in Florida.

“Use one of my guns,” he told me, offering me a slick-looking 12-gauge over-and-under with a high-vented rib. We went to station four, the middle position. I threw the gun up to my left shoulder. It felt…hell, you try it sometime if you’re right-handed—like combing your hair with your left hand. In a word—ass-backward!

I yelled “Pull” and got an awful mount, even from a few inches away, and just let the clay sail past.

“That’s okay, it takes getting used to,” he said. “Now, this time, just mount the gun first and get it comfortable. Don’t try yet to mount after the pull.” I did and missed the bird but suddenly, with a good mount, felt as if I had a fighting chance.

I missed three or four more and then, to my surprise and relief—I actually busted one! Then, as if to put a finer point on it, I busted another! Suddenly I could see the possibilities.

I thanked him profusely, for even though the idea of trying to learn to shoot left-handed at my age seemed absurd, at the same time the reality was that I had just done it! Awkward as it felt, with time and practice, I thought, I might be able to stay in the game.

Still, I wasn’t sure. It takes a lot of convincing to abandon something you’ve been doing pretty well for a half century. On the drive home I remembered once seeing in a book on the history of Beretta a photograph of a special gun the company had made for some muckety-muck who wanted a left-handed shotgun he could shoot from his right shoulder. It was an over-and-under right-angled contraption in which the stock sat on the right shoulder while the barrel contorted way out to the left, so that it looked sort of like a tire tool.

I asked Jimbo Meador, who had recently been Beretta’s high-end gun marketing manager, about this. Jimbo, a longtime friend, was dubious and gave me the name of Beretta’s chief gunsmith, Ed Anderson, in the New York City Beretta store, who was also a Beretta- certified shooting instructor.

“Nah, you don’t want something like that,” Anderson said. “The recoil [since the stock isn’t there to absorb it] would probably dislocate your shoulder. Better to relearn left-handed. But you’ll still need a left-handed gun.” By that he meant that the gun stock needed to be bent or “cast on”—the stock wood heated and “turned” or twisted a few millimeters to the left—rather than “cast off,” to the right, as almost all standard guns are.

That night at home I took down one of my doubles and practiced throwing it up to my shoulder. About two times in ten I got a good mount. The rest of the time the gun butt was improperly seated—low, high, or wide. That meant that eight of ten shots would have no chance whatsoever of hitting a bird. The only blessing in the whole affair was that I am left-eye dominant, which means that my left eye controls where the gun points. That is good, but the mount continued to be a problem.

I finally decided to get a left-handed gun.

Through the good offices of Christopher Merritt, then head of Beretta’s American operations, I acquired a fine new Beretta 687 Extra Grade EELL 20-gauge which I had bent “cast on” and fitted with an English pad for more length of pull.

By then hunting season was long over, but I spent spring and summer practicing my mount, sitting in my office chair in the evenings watching old movies on TV and throwing up the gun at figures on the screen. By the time dove season arrived, I assumed I had mastered the mount.

To put it mildly, that was premature.

I was not long in the field before it was apparent I could still not hit a bird. The reason lay with neither sight nor stock but instead with the fact that mounting a gun to your shoulder sitting in an office chair is not the same as mounting a gun standing up in a dove field, which I discovered, seated, while resting on the lip of a cattle feeder where I brought down three or four birds. After that, it was back to practicing mounts for me, pacing around the office and throwing up the gun at lamps, vases, pictures, statuary—even the dog and cat got aimed at if they happened by the door—as well as figures on the TV screen who looked like they needed shooting.

In time, I’ve gotten about as good at it as I suppose I’m going to get, meaning that I shoot less than half as well as my old self; but that’s okay. If my friend Pat Browne, twenty-three-time U.S. national champion blind golfer, doesn’t mind shooting eighteen holes in the mid-seventies instead of the low sixties, I guess I can get over the embarrassment—in my case, of not being a very good shot anymore. It was either that or hang it up, and I am not ready to hang it up.