By Lorraine Lawrence
If you spend much time hunting birds or shooting shotguns you have probably been invited to participate in some clay shooting sports or perhaps fund raising or charity events that involved some shooting at clay targets.
For those that don’t regularly compete in clay sports they tend to lump them all together. Many are reluctant to participate in a “Fun Shoot” or charity event when they don’t know the rules of the game or what to expect. If you are a reluctant participant I am here to help. The first thing is to know what game you will be playing.
While most involve the same equipment the rules and way the “clay” games are played are different. In the same way baseball is different that cricket even though both are played with a ball and bat, the games of Trap, Skeet, and Sporting Clays (the main three games) have differences too. There are also many other clay shooting games you might never encounter: Five Stand, Bunker Trap, Double Trap, FITASC, Super Sporting, Helice, and County Doubles to name a few. The principal may be shooting and breaking targets, but often the presentation, type of targets and rules vary.
Here are the basics of the main three games.
Trap is the game that most people have heard of. A version of it is also included in the Olympic games and there are many National and International competitions for those that enjoy this game. In American Trap the playing field is a semi-circle with five positions all facing the “trap house” a small bunker low to the ground that contains target throwing machines. The competitors take turns in rotation calling for targets to be thrown. Targets come out of the trap house in random horizontal directions fanning out and away from the trap house to simulate how flushed birds fly. Shooters alternate shooting single and report pair (two targets, one at a time) until all the shooters have shot five targets at a station, the group will then rotate until everyone has shot from each station for a total of 25 rounds. It is a game where the ability to concentrate and repeat a move is key. You will often see avid shooters of the sport using a “High Rib” Semi-Auto or Over and Under shotgun. The high rib helps keeps a “heads up” position that is an advantage for Trap shooting.
Skeet is a game that has targets coming from two locations or “Trap Houses” with shooters working their way around a semi-circle field that runs from the base of one “House” to the other, with a total of eight stations; seven arranged in the semi-circle and one at the midway point between the ‘houses’. The targets are thrown from both the high house on the left and the low house on the right, both singles and in pair combinations. Unlike trap these are crossing targets which vary depending on the angle of your station to the target house. One thing most people don’t know is that the way these targets are thrown is calibrated. There is a point at mid field where the targets MUST pass through a target setting hoop. Targets must fly through this hoop and only travel in prescribed directions and distances and at set speeds. The complete rules as to how fields are set and clays are thrown can be seen on the National Skeet Shooting Association’s website (http://nssa-nsca.org) along with complete rules of the game. Again the main way to win at the game of Skeet is to learn consistent shooting and being able to flawlessly repeat this over and over. Many competitions are determined by process of elimination; stamina and concentration are a key to winning. Skeet will teach you seeing the line of targets, understanding lead and good follow through for crossing targets. Here is where you should be practicing a good stance and gun mount fundamentals so it becomes habit when you move to other games.
Both Trap and Skeet are good places to start with to learn the foundation of shooting clay sports. Because you become familiar with many of the principals that you use in other clay games; from the basics of how to stand, mount your gun and how to properly “aim” or lead a target. Shotgun sports differ greatly from rifle shooting and this often makes it difficult for those who come from a rifle hunting background to switch over. Many things that you learn in rifle shooting targets are counter productive in shotgun sports. Breaking the habit of “Bead Checking” is something that many novice shooters must deal with. Becoming confident that you will shoot where you look if you have properly mounted your gun and move the gun with the correct gun speed and follow through is a key to breaking targets.
Sporting Clays is the newest of the three major clay sports, it was imported to the USA from the UK in the early 1980s. They had been having formal competitions in the UK since the 1920s. You will sometimes hear this game described as “Golf with a shotgun” in that the course is laid out on a considerable tract of land with various shooting stations much like a golf course with 10 to 15 shooting stations laid out over natural areas that can include trees, shrubs and other features. This is the game you will often see for charity fund raising events or big “Fun Shoot” gatherings. Unlike trap and skeet the targets are widely varied and much like a golf course you often are challenged by the skill of the course setter who plans the target presentations. Targets on courses are frequently changed to make new presentations for regulars at a club. You will see your biggest variety and presentation of targets in this game including the specialty targets like the “Rabbit” or “Chondelle” which are never thrown in trap or skeet games. The game is designed to closely replicate shooting wild game and depends on the shooter to quickly read the targets and plan the best method to break both “birds”. The game usually consists of 50 or 100 clays thrown over a course of stations in combinations of pairs. You can have pairs thrown in either “report” (first one and then the second thrown when the trapper hears the first shot; on report) or what is called a “true pair” (both targets thrown at the same time). The shooter enters the “Cage” or marked place to shoot from. The first person in a squad (a group of shooters who can travel around the course as a group) is allowed one or two sets of “show birds” or a demonstration of the targets for the squad to look at. The shooter in the cage calls (usually the word “Pull!”) for the trapper to throw the targets for the squad to view. Following that the shooter then loads their gun and shoots the numbers of pairs for that station. Each shooter gets their turn but squads typically only get the show or view targets as their squad starts. Players typically rotate order as they move around the course. Rules and etiquette dictate that the trapper or course referee has the last say on whether a target is broken or not. It is not good manners to argue the point with the trapper but to ask for the course manager if you or other shooters dispute a call. Trappers typically will call out loud how they see the targets broken (or not). The call “Dead” is a broken target, “Lost” is a missed target. The trapper then marks the score card accordingly. In practice or fun shoots it is common for squad members to serve as trappers and score for one and other. If a machine throws an already broken clay it is a broken or “NO bird” and the bird is thrown again.
In some instances a squad can compete in fun or charity shoot as a team with an aggregate score, and/or individually depending on the shoot. For more information on rules and how the game is played visit the National Sporting Clays Association at (http://nsca.nssa-nsca.org)
Like in many sports there can be a language thats all it’s own that is used when shooting clay sports. Many of the terms relate to shooting game or live birds and some terms can be mixed such as “Clay”, “Bird” or “Target” can all mean the same thing.
A clay “bird” or target is a clay saucer shaped disc. In most fun shoots and trap or skeet you will mainly see “Standard” clays thrown (usually a 4 1/4” diameter clay) but it is good to be aware that there are other targets you may see in the game of Sporting Clays. These are a Midi (3 1/2” diameter), Mini ( 2 3/8” diameter), Battue (a thin target), and Rabbit (a thicker target designed to roll on the ground). There are usually “menu cards” or labels in the shooting “Cage” or station that will alert you to these special targets. There are also games that use ZZ or Helice targets equipped with propeller blades but these are less common and seen only in the game of “Helice”.
A “Trap” or throwing machine is typically a spring loaded machine designed to throw targets. Usually they are thrown by a remote device where a button is pressed or in the game of “Trap” sometimes voice activated mechanisms are used. A person who throws the targets is often called a “Trapper” and will often also keep score. And just to confuse some people there is also the game of “Trap” (see above)…
The right equipment will make playing the game easier (and safe).
Safety first; you will find that both eye and ear protection is required for all clay shooting sports. Ear protection can be as simple as foam, rubber or custom molded “Plugs” and electronic aided devices to various types of Ear Muffs or “Defenders” as they are sometimes called in European countries.
Eye protection should be actual shooting or prescription glasses that are rated to withstand impact, look for something that is rated with an ANSI Z87 or above to protect from high velocity impact. Your ability to SEE the targets will play a big part in how well you shoot so do not depend on cheap sunglasses (that lack the impact resistance). Different tints in shooting glasses can help you to filter out or enhance certain colors and therefore see the target better. Many shooting glasses come with sets of lenses and you may want to experiment with these during practice to see what works best for you under various conditions.
Some ranges will have their own minimum requirements and standards so you may want to check so you are properly equipped.
What gun to use? Coaches and serious shooters are asked this question all the time. What type or brand, or should the person change the gun they are shooting. Shotguns are a personal thing. One of the first “rules” should be if it's not broke… don’t fix it. Many students who are shooting perfectly good guns that fit them well will think themselves into another gun because they have some problem in their game. For the intermediate shooter the problem is seldom the gun that performed well the previous week.
As a novice shooter you should seek out the advice of an experienced coach, gun fitter or gunsmith who can help judge if your gun fits you properly. When you properly mount the gun your eye should align over the rib of the gun without having to cock your head to the side or scrunch awkwardly. It is this mounting of the gun that if done properly will be the key to you hitting or missing targets. Don’t scrimp here, a proper fitting gun can make the difference between you enjoying and being good at clay shooting and bird hunting and you never being able to hit anything despite your best efforts. Shot gun shooting shouldn’t be a struggle. Don’t make shooting more difficult by using a gun that doesn’t fit you or that you struggle to operate.
What style and gauge? Most shooters use a 12 gauge gun as it is most popular and easiest to find ammunition for. You may also choose a 20 gauge gun if you find the recoil of a 12 gauge is difficult for you or you simply like the gauge better. There are specific classes in competitions for what are called “Sub-gauge” shooting. These usually include the 20, 28, and .410 gauges. There are also often special classes for pump and side by side guns. All of these can be used in regular shoots without special classifications. Gauge can be a matter of personal preference much like the style or type of shotgun. Most clay sport shooters predominantly use the over/under shotgun or a semi-automatic. While you can use a pump gun most novice clay shooters will find a pump gun isn’t efficient for taking double targets such as a true pair (two targets thrown at the same time). Side by Side is a classic style of gun. It was developed specifically for shooting game birds and gives you a clear view of a flying bird above the barrels. While gun types come in and out of “style” a well made side by side can be a perfectly good gun in the hands of someone experienced with them.
Ammunition is typically regulated both by ranges where a shoot is held and in the rules of the various games. DO NOT try to avoid these rules, they are there for both safety and fair play. Most clay games are restricted to No shot larger than 7.5 and none smaller than 9. While some people feel that ‘heavy’ loads give them an advantage it is good to remember most sporting clays events involve shooting 100 targets. Your stamina is an important part of this game. Often in big events shooters will compete in games back to back. Taking a beating with every shot will wear on your accuracy and not particularly gain in target breaking except on very far shots. (See the shotgun shell “Cheat Sheet” for detailed information on various shot loads). A shooting vest with pockets for shells or a shooting bag or pouch is helpful for managing ammunition in the cage. Be sure to bring enough ammo that fits your gun and is proper for the game you will be shooting. Don’t assume you will be able to buy ammo at the event. Bring enough spares for practice or broken (no bird) clays where you reshoot the pair.
Chokes are often a mystery to novice shooters. The handy chart at the bottom of the “Cheat Sheet” will help answer most of your questions on what to use. The thing to remember is the tighter the choke the further the compacted shot stream will go and retain its effectiveness. Chokes come in several ways; interchangeable tubes that are either recessed or extended (which are easier to change quickly without a special tool and easy to see what choke you have in) and ‘fixed’ chokes which are permanent constriction at the end of your gun barrel (barrels without changeable chokes are usually marked on the barrel with their choke diameter). The function of choke is to affect the size and density of the shot pattern by constricting the load as it exits the barrel. It is good to “pattern” your shotgun to get a more accurate idea of how the chokes you own perform. You can find directions on line but it involves shooting at a pattern board (unmarked sheets of paper or cardboard are sometimes used) to actually see the pattern your shot creates. This is best done with ammo loads that you intend to use regularly. Remember shot size and load will effect pattern as well. Larger shot patterns more tightly than smaller and increased velocity can cause patterns to open up.
Like most things it's the basics that will effect your shooting the most. Use a sound technique and it will become second nature each time you enter the shooting cage, Start with your stance in the cage. Put a bit more weight on your front foot and face the direction which you intend to shoot, not the direction where the clay throwing machine is. Mount the gun to your shoulder. The heel of the gun should rest in the hollow of the shoulder. Your fore hand should run along the side of the gun. Its helpful to point your index finger along the barrel, the stock should press lightly against your cheek. Not mounting firmly into the shoulder or holding the gun firmly is how a shooter feels more recoil or get a smack when they shoot the gun.
When you are given show birds in Sporting Clays notice where the targets are thrown from and where they go. It is the time to plan ahead where you plan to break the targets. Keep your eyes open and on the target, not the end of your gun. Looking at the end of the gun will often cause you to slow your swing and shoot behind. Most “Missed” birds are shot at from behind. Do not rush and loose sight of the bird. One of the other typical “mistakes” is lifting your head off of the stock. Your sight down the barrel to the target is your aim mechanism. If you disengage your cheek from the stock by lifting up your head you are no longer aiming the gun.
And finally, remember a fun or charity shoot is intended to be fun. A few lessons or shooting a few rounds with an experienced friend before an event can make the process more enjoyable. Practice and patience are key.