As an outdoor writer, it’s common for me to show up in hunt camp on a media trip, be handed a gun I’ve never even seen before, be escorted to the range to fire three check-zero shots (if it’s a rifle), and then be expected to hunt with the gun the next day. This is a challenge for anyone, but especially a 5’4” female writer who doesn’t fit any off-the-rack gun very well. To make it work, I’ve had to develop all sorts of quirky coping mechanisms to be able to shoot halfway decently with guns that are too long for me with combs that are too short.
Needless to say, this isn’t ideal, and you should avoid shooting ill-fitting guns if you can possibly avoid it. Sometimes, though, stuff happens—maybe you’re on an out-of-state trip and you drop your gun in a lake, forcing you to borrow one. Whatever the reason, in most cases, you can shoot someone else’s firearm if you need to, as long as you’re able to acquire a good sight picture. This is doable but not ideal, although the level to which it presents problems varies by the type of gun.
Borrowing a Handgun
This is easy: Handguns are the simplest guns to share. Most of us can shoot almost any handgun without major fit problems; the biggest obstacle you might run into is grip size if you happen to have particularly small hands.
Borrowing a Rifle
This gets trickier, but as long as you’re not expected to take super-quick snap shots, you can probably adjust to a rifle that doesn’t fit you well enough to make it work on a hunt. If you have the time and the ability, use any adjustability the rifle might have built into it (many come with shim kits these days) to at least shorten the length of pull so you’re able to reach the trigger comfortably. If comb height is a problem—women tend to need higher combs than men—you can build up the comb with a kitchen sponge and some rubber bands, multiple layers of duct tape, or any number of ridiculous-looking improvisations that will get your eye in better alignment with the scope.
Too much eye relief can be a problem if the gun is too long for you. If you have time to move the scope around and sight in all over again, that’s ideal, but you probably won’t. In that case, spend a few minutes with the unloaded gun getting into field shooting positions and acquiring a good sight picture. A borrowed gun likely will not have a great sight picture right away when you snap it up to your shoulder, so your body will need some time to figure out what crunched-up or stretched-out or neck-rolled-over position it needs to default to in order to see clearly through the scope. The more you can practice this, the easier it’ll be in the field when time is of the essence.
Borrowing a Shotgun
Shotguns are the most difficult guns to borrow if you don’t fit a standard size, because they absolutely will not shoot where you’re looking if the sight picture isn’t just right, and the sight picture won’t be right on a gun that doesn’t fit you. On a turkey gun, you can follow the rifle advice above, because you’ll be aiming the shotgun at a mostly stationary target. But if you’ll be shooting flying birds or clay targets, an ill-fitting shotgun is a problem.
Do your best to adjust length of pull and comb height, if possible, in the same way described above in the rifle section. Then spend some time with the unloaded gun mounting it over and over. Close your eyes, mount the gun as you normally would, then open your eyes and evaluate just how far off you are from seeing a proper sight picture (that is, you should see the front bead on your target and see virtually none of the rib). Adjust your mount until you see the bead on your selected aiming point. You might have to lift the gun higher in your shoulder pocket than you normally would, crane your neck forward or roll it over slightly, or settle the stock slightly outside the shoulder pocket. Practice this over and over until you can mount it this way relatively quickly.
I won’t lie to you: Having to shoot a shotgun this way sucks. First of all, this improvised mount is unnatural, so it won’t be fast. You’ll likely have to check your sight picture every time you mount the gun to shoot it, which is one of the worst possible things you can do when it comes to shooting moving targets—because you’ll be taking your eye off the target. Secondly, the improvised mount can cause recoil to affect you more than it normally would, because the gun isn’t settled into your body the way it should be. I have come home from many a duck hunt with a bruised upper arm, shoulder or cheek from a shotgun that I had to mount improperly in order to shoot it.
The more you shoot this ill-fitting gun, the faster you’ll get at it, but this is still a lousy compromise. Avoid it if you can.
Making an Ill-Fitting Gun Work
First, if you can, don’t shoot a gun that doesn’t fit you well. Everything mentioned here is a compromise based on necessity, and you will never shoot a gun to your full potential if it doesn’t fit you properly. That said, if you have to borrow a gun, do your best to make any adjustments you can, focusing your efforts on length of pull (only possible with an adjustable stock or a shim kit if the gun has one) and comb height, which you might be able to improvise. Keep in mind that improvising a higher comb might also change the cast, which will push your face over slightly out of alignment with the bore—so do the minimum you can get by with.
Depending on what you’re hunting or shooting, red-dot optics can make this process easier, because they lessen the need for a perfect sight picture. If you can see the dot, you’re on target, and that offers a certain degree of forgiveness for an ill-fitting gun. It’s a great option for turkey hunting and closer-range rifle work.