Having good equipment, and equipment that is tailored to you personally can go a long way in helping you satisfy your goals. But you probably wouldn’t hear Todd Nelson finish that phrase in that manner. After spending only a few moments with Todd, you will realize why his business is called, and his nickname might as well be, the “Country Gentleman.” His relaxed, respectful, and God-fearing manner is only superceded by his knowledge of gun fit, and how a shooter and their gun should interface.
Before this trip, my only knowledge of Muscle Shoals, Alabama came from late nights with Lynrd Skynrd. But situated just a few miles outside this northern Alabama city lies the home and workplace of Todd Nelson. The purpose of my visit was to get my new Beretta 391 12 gauge automatic to fit and feel the same as my Krieghoff K-80. After a few hours in his shop, we sat down and discussed gun fit, gun mount and how those things fit in with what he does.
TB: Todd tells us a little about your experience and background in shooting and stock fitting.
TN: I got started quite by accident. My career started in trapshooting, I won the sub-junior title here in Alabama, and that qualified me for the Champion of Champion event at the Grand American in Vandalia, Ohio. So each year I went to the Grand to compete. We met a man at the Grand named J. C. Griggs. HE was in the gunstock business, and hired Dad to help him. That association opened the door for tons of hands-on experience. Then over time and observation Dad noticed that people weren’t standing right, or they were mounting their gun in different ways. He noticed that this guy’s head was straight on the stock, but this other guy’s head was crooked on the stock, and nobody was really addressing gun mount along with stock work.
TB: And this was in the early eighties?
TN: Yes, this was about 1980. So dad started working with people with their stance, their form and their gun mount, and we didn’t know anything about pitch or length of pull at that time, and people trusted us to experiment with them, thank the Lord for that. So we started experimenting with pitch and length of pull, cast, is this good, is this bad, and we found out what worked and what didn’t. Before long we figured out how to make bruised cheeks and bruised shoulders go away, and improve peripheral vision through better gun mount, and we developed a three or four step approach to a more consistent gun mount through check points and balance points, “nose over the toes”, things of that nature. As we got better, we developed a cult like following and it turned into a full time business.
TB: So you have been doing this for twenty years. It sounds like you are like John Shima and I, in that even though you started with some direction, the bulk of your expertise, and the reason that you are so good at what you do is just because of experience and the sheer numbers of clients who have passed through your shop door.
TN: We observe as much as we work, and we have watched an awful lot of All-Americans shoot, and found out what is common to their form, the type of form that yields the proper balance and proper vision required to shoot championship scores. So we implemented the things that we learned though trial and error, and it has been working pretty well.
TB: And that is what I think is unique about what you do. You basically address two things, proper gun fit and a proper gun mount, and correct me if I am wrong but it is difficult to have one without the other.
TN: Yes, and it is very possible for a shooter to have a gun that fits him or her, but they are mounting it incorrectly. Or a gun that does not fit at all, but the shooter is trying to mount it properly, they are fighting both ends. However the form is probably more important than the fit. If your form and mount is correct, then the fitting is easy. If the fit is incorrect, it will force you to fit yourself to the gun, creating a compromised form and bad habits that are hard to break, i.e. head lifting, rolling the shoulders, etc.
TB: So, if I come to you, as a client, like I did today, what is the first thing you want to look at when I am standing in your shop?
TN: The first thing I am going to ask is ‘Todd, mount your gun for me.’ One of the last things that I am going to check, contrary to popular belief, is your alignment.
TB: When you say alignment, you mean where my eyes sit in relation to the gun?
TN: That is correct. But the very first thing that I will check is your stance. I am going to look at where the gun is seated in your shoulder, see if you are crunching your shoulder up, dropping your head down, or doing anything funny with your balance or your foot position that would hinder your ability to see the target well, and move smoothly to the target, and to consistently repeat those actions. So I am looking for form flaws first. Most anybody who knows anything is going to get lined up. The only thing that would prevent that is a stock that is too high. So it is my job to look past your alignment, and to see what you have to do with your body to achieve that alignment. I want to see where the face is coming into contact with the stock. I am going to study your approach to the shotgun. I am going to see if your approach is consistent. I am going to watch for any unnecessary movement, a shoulder crunch, the barrels canting, and any form mistakes. Then the form will be corrected, and the gun fit to the proper form. Then I must make a decision based on experience as to whether that position, that finished form if you will, is conducive to good scores.
TB: Would it be safe to say that ninety percent or more of your clients who walk through our door have some issues with gun mount before you even get to gun fit?
TN: Yes, and it would be safe to say that ninety percent or more of the people who walk through my door are lined up, meaning eyes lined up with beads, when they come in.
TB: So why do they come to you?
TN: Because they are not breaking targets, and they have bought new guns, and traded guns, and nothing is working. They are stuck in A or B class, and they have hit a plateau.
TB: This is going to be a tough question to answer, because it is like someone calling me on the phone and saying, ‘Fix my High Two.’ Of course unless I can actually witness them in their execution, and also be able to put my hands on them, a correct diagnosis and a correct resolution to the problem although possible, would be difficult. But without you seeing a client, how can our readers assess themselves, if they have a gun fit or gun mount problem? Are there any compact steps to approaching a good gun mount?
TN: There is no way without me putting my hands on you, that I am going to get you to have a proper stance, and weight distribution, and get your head and your eyes where they need to be without the shooter and myself being in the same room, and we certainly cannot do this in print. People will say, ‘I’m lined up, I’m lined up’, but they cannot see past the alignment unless they have a pair of educated eyes looking back at them. But there is one thing that I can suggest and it is simply take your gun and go to a mirror. Bring a little pocket level, something that you would get at Home Depot, with you, and mount the gun. Place the level across the rib…
TB: Perpendicular to the rib?
TN: Yes, across the rib so that you can see the bubble. If the gun is not level, level it. Then have a buddy remove the level. If the beads are not lined up, the gun does not fit. Secondly, look at your eyes. If your eyes are not parallel to the floor, and your barrels are not level, then the gun does not fit. This lets you know that you’re having to fit yourself to the gun, to some degree or another either with a head roll or canting the barrel. Unfortunately that is the only test you can do yourself, without consulting a professional, other than a basic length of pull assessment.
TB: I know this is shaky ground, but let say most people fail this mirror test, what can they do themselves, if they can’t get to you. Can they get an adjustable comb or butt pad, to resolve any problems that they might see staring back at them in the mirror?
TN: Well, trying to fix it themselves, is kind of like going to the doctor and saying, ‘Doctor, my stomach hurts, operate.’ You have to go to the doctor and say, ‘Doctor, my stomach hurts, what’s wrong with me?’ Other than that, if they take the test, they level the barrels, then make sure that your eyes are square, and then the beads do not line up, then that’s cast. This can be fixed with an adjustable comb, and then moving the comb laterally toward or away from the face until proper alignment can be achieved. Now, “toe out”, which is kicking out the toe or bottom of the recoil pad away from the shooter will help align the barrels, and will cure a small cant of the gun. Also, unfortunately, the left-handed shooters live in right-handed world. Many left-hand shooters have form problems because most stocks by and large are made for right-handed shooters. Generally, a left-hand shooter mounting a right-hand stock will mount the gun way low and hunch over the gun, getting their eyes off parallel and cant the barrel for some type of alignment. But the poor gun fit has developed his form. And this is not opinion, it is fact, poor gun fit generates poor form. If the gun does not fit right, you have to fidget around and find that comfort level. Then you are the mercy of that gun fit and you have no alternative but to get into the gun and get your alignment as best you can.
TB: Without good gun fit and good form, you are fighting an uphill battle.
TN: Sure, but that is not to say you won’t shoot good scores, you will. However your learning curve will be much longer, your clinics will be a lot tougher, because your concentration level has to be heightened, to such a degree, just because it takes so much effort to get into the gun, and that could all be made much easier with a proper mount and fit.
TB: What is the most common mistake in gun mounting that you see?
TN: The biggest problem especially in new shooters is no concept of good form. Even more so with women because their form is usually generated by trying to counteract the weight of the gun, because the gun is heavy they want to lean back, they mount their head way back on the gun which makes the gun seem longer than it really is. Until the correct upper body posture is achieved every thing is much more difficult.
TB: Is there a simple way to explain the proper posture?
TN: There is a simple way that I teach it, and that is when you tip your hat to a lady, you bow slightly and say, ’Good morning ma’am.’ When you do that, there is your shooting form. Your nose is over your toes, your weight distribution is about 60-40 over your leading foot, and by leaning forward you positioning the head out where the gun is about to be. You are also giving yourself a check mark, if you will, a step to proper mount. The goal is to execute the mount with very little upper body movement. No crunched shoulders, no head ducking, and no unnecessary fatigue building contortions that lead to poor balance and compromised vision.
TB: A lot of compensation.
TN: Oh yeah, so with a beginner, I have to put them in the correct form to delete a lot of this unnecessary movement. Any time you duck your head, it is muscle movement, any time you crunch your shoulders, it is muscle movement, and those are variables that should be erased from the mounting of the gun.
TB: And the more complicated your mount becomes, the more difficult it is to reproduce time after time.
TN: If you will remember when we were in Memphis, I showed one of my clients three different gun mounts that yielded three different sight pictures, and I didn’t even move my head. It does not take a quarter inch either here or there to make your beads swim around, and at twenty yards, that’s half a pattern. So my gun fit is only as good as the gun mount. If the gun mount is sloppy the fitting won’t work.
TB: Well let’s talk about gun fit. In our clinics the first thing that we deal with is the height of the comb. It is the easiest to fix, and in my opinion of all of the dimensions that are measurable on a stock, height of the comb is the most important. That is because the comb dictates where the eye sits in relation to the barrel. Is this a correct assumption?
TN: That is correct.
TB: And everything else, length of pull, pitch, and so on is more comfort, unless of course those measurements are way off.
TN: Pitch and length of pull are just for comfort. And I want to dispel a myth here. Pitch does not control point of impact. Let’s talk about point of impact, and for example, let’s say your shotgun has no rib. What controls your point of impact?
TB: It is your eye in relation to the front bead and or barrel.
TN: Is it not your pupil, and the height of that eye in relation to the mid-line of that bore? Sure it is. That controls point of impact. Pitch, which is the angle in which the butt of the stock is cut in relation to the mid-line of the barrel, on the other hand, has nothing to do with point of impact. Nothing back here that you do on a gun can make a gun shoot higher or lower. Now here is where the myth comes in. Recoil and the gun’s reaction to recoil will always follow the path of least resistance. If there is too much toe in the gun is going to move upward, if there is too much heel, it will move downward, or becoming more hindering to an upward move. Pitching the stock to try to make the gun shoot higher or lower is impossible unless you change the sight picture in the process.
TB: You mentioned earlier that recoil is like water, it flow where it wants, or like you said where there is no resistance.
TN: Yes, and the pitch can change your recoil signature. I can make the gun kick your face, or I can make the gun kick away from your face, simply by adjusting the pitch, but all in all, pitch is just for comfort. You want an even pressure from the heel of the pad down to the toe of the pad. Top to bottom, good and even. That way the gun stays put and does not have a pivot point in the shoulder.
TB: Now something really interesting happened today, I brought in a Beretta 391 and my Krieghoff that I have shot for seventeen years. In my mind the length of pull felt the same on both guns. But when we measured them, the 391 was a good ¾” longer than the K-80. What’s with that?
TN: Your Krieghoff measured just over 14” and the automatic measured 14 7/8”. The lesson that we learned was that both guns felt the same mounted, and that is what is critical. You take a gun like your K-80 that is tried and true, you’ve whipped everybody in the country with it five times. Some might have come to me with this automatic and said, ‘OK Nelson, whack this baby off at 14 1/8”.’ Now we shortened it by about that amount just removing the recoil pad. We made it the same length as your K-80, then you mounted the gun and your thumb was all up in your nose, it felt terrible, it was way too short. So we had to finish that gun about ¾” longer for both guns to feel the same. That’s the goal.
TB: So when you are looking at a client’s length of pull, what are you looking for?
TN: We have to go back to form. When a shooter crunches his or her shoulder forward, the gun will appear too long. Now do I teach the shooter to relax their form and then make my length of pull assessment, or do I cut 3” off the stock to make it fit a crunched shoulder? So again the form must be good before I can make a correct assessment of any dimension. But assuming the form is good. A general rule is one to two fingers width between the thumb and the nose when the gun is mounted, given of course that you do not have an exceptionally fat thumb or an exceptionally long nose.
TB: Let’s go back to recoil. If you are taking a lot of recoil, something is wrong.
TN: Something’s wrong.
TB: Is it generally the pitch? Is it the height of the comb? If your getting popped in the shoulder, does it mean one thing, if your getting popped in the face does it mean another?
TN: Yes, and that’s an excellent question. Not surprisingly we are getting back to form, but also personal build. Are you a body builder, or are you thin as a rail? Too much pitch either way will generate face recoil. Too much pitch either way will generate a hot spot in the shoulder, because you absorb more recoil in spot as opposed to another. Face recoil is not always a factor of improper pitch. Case in point, when a shooter takes the test, points his barrel into the mirror, puts the level across the barrel, gets his eyes straight and barrels straight and removes the level. But then the gun is not lined up, you have to roll that eight-pound head into the gun, putting the head in harm’s way, the gun is going to do two things. It is going to kick up and kick back simultaneously. However it might be the cast-off, or the mid-line of the stock in relation to the barrel.
TB: So nothing is cut and dry. Every gun is a little different as is every shooter. I guess it is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle and you have to just make all the pieces fit.
TN: Todd, I have seen two guns that were identical in every sense of the word. One kicks the shooter in the face and one does not. Sometimes there is just not a fitting explanation to what occurring. Then we just have to experiment, take away a little pitch here or there, or do whatever is necessary to make one gun behave the same under recoil as the other. There are no two receivers that are identical. There are no two barrels that are harmonically balanced, the same as the other.
TB: What about adjustable combs and adjustable butt plates? I did not realize that there is a patented “Nelson” adjustable butt plate.
TN: My dad developed this adjustable butt plate system, simply for ease of use. Most systems require that you remove the pad for adjustment. When you are coming in and out of a hard case, especially for tall guy like myself or yourself, I require a lot of drop at the pad, a double Monte Carlo if you will, to keep my shoulders relaxed. So when you go back to a hard case the gun does not want to fit. So dad developed a reach through the pad design, so you go right through the pad readjust the pad and your set. Very easy. It gives you 3” of movement up and down, 3/8” left to right, unlimited movement of the toe, in or out, backed by a lifetime warranty, and it is called the Nelson Pad Adjuster. If you see the two ¼” aluminum plates on the back of a shotgun, there are probably ours.
TB: And adjustable combs, I assume you are a big fan of those.
TN: I wouldn’t live without one. Simply because the closer to Christmas it gets, the more weight I gain, and that affects my stock fit.
TB: Boy, I hear that.
TN: So, adjustable combs are great, if for nothing else than to compensate for minor weight fluctuations. For a beginner, who does not really know yet what sport they want to compete in, within the shotgun disciplines, an adjustable has it’s advantages. Or they may just want to shoot a little trap, a little skeet, a little clays. So you could take say a flat rib Browning 425, and have the comb cranked up for trap, and flatter shooting for skeet or clays. So for a $200 adjustable comb, you can technically have a “do-all” gun. The adjustable combs and the adjustable butt plates are the tools. They are the hammer and nail.
But that does not mean that every customer needs either or both. Every once and a while, about one in a hundred, a customer will come in and once we make small adjustments to their mount, they don’t need anything else. About five or six in one hundred will come in looking for gun fit, and I can’t find anything wrong.
TB: How about “soft” combs? We put one on mine, because I am used to having it. Are they popular?
TN: I do all of Krieghoff’s aftermarket soft combs. I love a soft comb, however I do not like using a soft comb to cure a headache. Someone can come in and say, ‘Hey, put a soft comb on my gun, it is kicking me in the face.’ I am more interested in finding out why it is kicking them in the face. Let’s address the problem at the root of the problem. But a soft comb is also an advantage to lessen the fatigue factor that can occur with the number rounds that can be shot in one day in today’s tournaments.
TB: What is the one piece of advice that you can give to a shooter?
TN: The most important thing that any beginning shooter can do is get with somebody qualified. Like I said earlier, you wouldn’t trust your teeth to a part time dentist, don’t trust your gun work to a part time gunsmith. Get the gun fitted, get your form and your stance correct, and practice mounting the gun correctly until you do not have to think about it anymore, then your ready for a shooting clinic. Of course a real beginner is going to need some primary instruction to know what lead is, and what the proper hold points might be. But your like me, Todd your teaching is multi-level, there is no way that you are going to teach a beginner doubles timing at Station Four. They’re not ready for it. They do not understand the concept. But what they can do is start working on the basic fundamentals, and no matter what, do not stay in a factory fit very long. You can take a field grade (Remington) 1100 with a little moleskin, and shoot yourself into AA class. But that doesn’t mean that it is right. Remember, poor gun fit generates poor form.
Jerry, Todd, and Aaron Nelson run the Country Gentlemen Gunfitting Shop. They travel the nation with two mobile workshops, serving thirty states at skeet, trap, and sporting clays tournaments. To find out about his schedule, or to schedule an appointment with him at his home base just an hour west of Huntsville, Alabama, you can contact him at www.gunfitter.com