hen I first took my class with Gil and Vicki Ash, my concentration was on dealing with keeping my eye on the target (see December 2009 issue). When target acquisition is mastered, the shooter is about halfway to becoming a better clay–bird shot. The next step is seemingly simple, but it takes time and training to learn the breaking point.
Based on Gil and Vicki’s Optimum Shotgun Performance shooting system (click here to see their videos), the breaking point is regarded as the exact place during the flight of the clay the shooter selects to break the bird. Why an exact place? Because, by selecting this very precise location, the shooter is narrowing down his or her perception of the target and its flight path and advancing his/her ability to maintain concentration on the target and not the gun’s barrel. That’s how it all came together for me.
According to Gil, clay shooters often try to select a “sweet spot” downrange or the point at which the clay is just about to drop because of velocity loss. If you read my last review of the OSP system, you will remember velocity reduction is a major reason hunters don’t shoot clays like they would successfully take on live birds. Clays slow down, and live birds do not.
The primary problem with the sweet spot is, while it can be timed and maintained in trap or even skeet, when it comes to sporting clays, that uniform and repeatable area in the sky goes away. Then you’re left with guessing at the breaking point, as it will change with each new station on a full sporting clays course or 5–stand event.
Many times in sporting clays using the best “sweet spot” is not possible. Brush, shade areas in the flight path, clays lobbed over a hedge row into a green wall are all areas where your breaking point needs to be adjusted. Sporting clays shooters are closer to live–bird hunters than any of the other clay sports, and, as such, they must be more flexible regarding the art of hitting the clay bird. As is often stated in sporting clays, just about the time you are at or close to 25 straight, someone changes the game completely and you are back to square one.
By getting that breaking point established, you eliminate a full set of problems. No need to chase down the bird, simply stick the muzzle ahead of it and clap the trigger. Anyplace ahead will mean the clay will fly through the shot string and, at that point, you have a busted target. Establishing that spot can take pressure off the shooter. That is exactly what I found when I went to shooting school.
Selecting The Breaking Point
When selecting the breaking point, some shooters always choose that exact moment when the clay starts to drop off its line. Velocity is low and the clay is just hanging for an instant before falling into a much lower trajectory. But not all stations are that simple. This is why you see accomplished sporting clays shooters request a “look” before starting to shoot from a new station. That shooter is selecting the break point ahead of the official first clay.
How can break–point training on clays transfer into live–bird gunning? For the most part, hunters do it automatically, getting on an angling ringneck pheasant before he clears the corn row at the edge of the field or touching off an a descending mallard closing in on the center of the hole surrounded by decoys. Static hunting like shooting over decoys at geese can allow a clearer “break point” to be generated. In most cases, closing geese are taken at the point where they are descending with feet down or are about to pass through the decoy spread at very low altitude. Sustained observation of the incoming target allows the hunter to set up and, in effect, establish that break point at which he knows the bird is going to meet his load of shotgun pellets.
My own personal hunting with friends in South Dakota has clearly indicated that when the hunter is calling the shot and establishing a break point of sorts, a group of gunners can just about produce a three–bird limit on Canadas in a single pass, or for sure in two passes. I have seen that happen far too many times to dismiss it as luck. No luck involved, just pure, deadly skill. Establishing that break point is so important and critical, harvesting can be accomplished from a position with you on your back, cold as can be in the dead of a Dakota winter, with totally numb feet and hands, swinging like a bush–league baseball hitter. The same is true in the clay sports — find your break point and get to it to score consistently.
What If You Miss?
We will all miss clay targets, as well as live birds. Why? Because we are human, and to err is exactly that, a human experience. Not even the major pros always have perfect days. I know of a very outstanding exhibition shooter who went blank on ringnecks here in South Dakota because he was having a very bad day. During the school I attended Vicki went completely blank on a three–shot attempt on crossing clays. I think very strong winds had something to do with it, but Vicki pulled herself together and went back to blasting the daylights out of every clay bird that came into range.
What Vicki did was draw on her training and re–establish her shooting routine. When I asked her about this, she said she is so dedicated to her shooting system, she will stand in a box in her living room and visualize her mount, the bird in flight and each element of the perfect shot. That’s how she pulls herself out of a brain fade, too.
Last winter while I was hunting with some local cowboys on a warm–water spring, I had a mallard drake roll in from about the altitude of the moon and pull up in a tight turn right over my barrel. I pounded out two rounds that succeeded in punching two holes in the morning fog but missed my target completely. A local boy who had seen me shoot often was amazed and asked why I missed. I answered the best way I knew how, “Because I did, I guess.” The trick is not to let it all get to you; re–establish your game plan and move on. In any shotgun sport, you need to have a plan and stick to it. From target acquisition to breaking point and searching for the sweet spot, each element has a special place in your game plan and your advancement toward the perfect game.
My fix–all program is not totally from the playbook of Gil and Vicki Ash. Some of it is my perspective on the whole process of fixing a missed–target problem. I believe clay shooting is more about practicing “athletics,” as in golf or tennis, versus hunting skills. Shooting a shotgun takes on a whole different element when you move from clays to live birds. I wish I had taken some formal shotgun training to complement the backyard system taught to me by my granddad Jake and my father. I am grateful for the gift of the shooting skills and love of the outdoors they gave me, but they were field hunters, not clays guys. What works on clays can work on birds, but no clay can equal the cunning of a live bird.
Taking a shooting class can definitely improve your success on clays, and a lot of it can carry over into your hunting. I know I’m darned glad I took this class. It has opened my eyes to a lot of things I wish I had learned earlier.
L.P. Brezny has worked in research and development in the shooting industry for 19 years. He developed and marketed the first sub–sonic shotgun and shotshell — The Hastings Metro Gun™ System — and was the first to measure shotshell pellets in real time at target distances, building ballistic tables demonstrating shotshell load performance and chronographing systems. He also developed the Dead Ringer® high–performance waterfowl/upland choke–tube system. L.P. has been writing for various shooting publications for over 20 years.