he complexity and challenges of sporting clays can leave even the most experienced shooters scratching their heads. The sport is far from easy. Just when you think you have found the method that works, you may find your approach leaving you with less than desirable results.
Over the last 15 years, in an effort to fix the flaws in my own shooting, I developed what I call a “dynamic approach” to sporting clays. This dynamic approach is simply a combination of a few commonly used shooting methods. The choice of which method to use and in what situation is determined by understanding a few core principles of sporting clays shooting.
Unlike clay–shooting sports such as skeet and trap, sporting clays targets fly in a diverse array of angles, speeds and distances. It is precisely this diversity that calls for a dynamic approach. The steadfast rules associated with more predictable shotgun sports can leave even the most experienced shooters “in the woods” when it comes to the complexities of sporting clays. Skeet and trap fields are built to exacting specifications, while sporting clays courses, by their very design, are intended to test the shooter on a wide variety of presentations.
While it’s easy for shooters to understand why they need a systematic approach to the predictable flight lines of skeet and trap targets, some question the value of something like that when it comes to sporting clays. Sporting clays is flexible and dynamic and plays to the strengths and weaknesses of each shooter. Still, you can benefit from understanding and applying some basic rules.
The best way to develop a successful approach for sporting clays is to recognize the core principles of the sport that have proven successful. Proper instruction and ongoing practice of the key fundamentals of sporting clays provides the foundation for your shooting. This allows you to recognize a presentation and then apply an approach based on the principles you have learned. The objective is to arm yourself with both the mechanical basics and strategy to achieve a reliable and consistent success on sporting clays.
Before moving on, I feel it is important to give credit where credit is due. I honestly could not have developed this approach without the instruction I received from Dan Carlisle at a young age. His guiding principles have become a fundamental part of my shooting.
The Core Principles
What are the core principles of sporting clays? The principle I feel is the most critical in determining how you approach a sporting target is related to the visual clarity of the target. Simply put, you should shoot the target where you see it clearest, or at the point of the target’s flight where it looks largest. You need to determine an approach that lets you shoot the target where you see it best.
Another principle is to avoid excess gun speed. If the target is traveling 20 m.p.h., your gun should not travel much faster than 21 m.p.h. On the same note, if you have already met the target, your gun speed should not be slower than the target. If the target is traveling 20 m.p.h. and your gun speed is 19 m.p.h., you either started your gun too far in front of the target and are slowing to catch it or you are going to shoot behind.
Determining the angle of a target is also a critical part of the decision of what approach to use. Is the target crossing, shallow quartering, deep quartering, incoming or quartering in? The angle of the target helps determine the insertion or placement of your gun relative to the target (hold point). Angle is also critical when making the decision to pre–mount or shoot with a lower, unmounted gun.
Develop Your Approach
Understanding these principles will help you determine the best approach to sporting targets. You should be able to answer the following questions: Should I pre–mount or shoot low–gun? Should I use a pull–away technique? If so, where should I insert the gun? Should I use a maintained lead? Should my gun ever start behind the target? If so, what type of target would require that?
I believe you should be able to shoot pre–mounted and with a low gun to do well at sporting clays. Keep in mind, a low gun means having an actual mount, not just lifting your head. Moreover, how low the gun starts in your shoulder can vary, depending on the amount of time you have for the shot.
Let’s start with pre–mounting. You should always pre–mount on anything you consider a trap shot. Specifically, you can pre–mount anytime the trap is located between 5 and 7 o’clock if you are standing a 6 o’clock (see Diagram #1 here). If the target gets past the point where you see it clearly before you can mount the gun, I recommend shooting pre–mounted on that particular shot. When pre–mounted, the most important factors are your hold point and being able to settle your eyes around the gun so you make the barrel invisible.
As the angle of the target becomes greater, there comes a point where you may want to shoot low–gun. If the traps are at 4 or 8 o’clock while you are standing a 6 o’clock, the decision to pre–mount or shoot low–gun depends on the speed and distance of the target and your break point. It may often be a tough decision when faced with these angles, and that is why being able to shoot both approaches is always an advantage in sporting clays.
Shallow quartering and deep quartering targets require less lead than crossers of equal speed and distance due to the angle of the target. Starting on the bird or on the back edge of the bird and “stretching” to the front by moving slightly faster than the target is the best approach for a shallow quartering target. With a pre–mounted gun, you will meet or get in sync with the target by letting it come to your gun and starting your move then to prevent the bird from getting ahead of you. On deep quartering targets, you may move before the bird actually touches your gun in an effort to start with some lead.
On crossers and targets that give you plenty of time, you should be shooting low–gun (see Diagram #2 here). The advantage of a low gun when shooting crossers is the movement of the gun to your face gives you timing. The purpose of a mount is to merge the gun and the target together seamlessly. If you are shooting a form of pull–away, time your mount so, when the gun hits your face, you have inserted the gun to the front side of the bird and are in position to focus and finish the lead. If you are using more of a maintained lead, the timing of your mount is critical so, when the gun hits your face, you have mounted to the necessary lead and are ready to fire.
I suggest using some form of pull–away as your main approach and maintained leads only as needed. You must first determine where you see the target the clearest. If you have plenty of time to shoot the target where you see it clearest, I suggest using pull–away. When using pull–away, you do not always start the gun on the front edge of the target. You should start the gun far enough in front so, if the target is moving 20 m.p.h., you can move your gun 21 m.p.h. and establish the required lead. A long crosser may require starting your gun a good bit in front and then “stretching away” to finish the lead.
As distance and speed increase, you should insert farther and farther in front. The biggest misconception of pull–away is you must first touch the bird in order for you to see the gun pull away. I use the term “stretch away,” as it better describes what actually happens. You may actually insert the gun ahead of a long crosser and then “feel” the lead stretch out. You must work very hard to see the target as clearly as possible as you enter your break zone.
Most of you would likely say you “focus” on the target. I’m going to challenge you and make the argument you do not focus on the target nearly as well as you should. You may work really hard to see birds, but you must always be under the assumption you need to see the target a bit clearer. Seeing the target clearly is vital to your success.
Use a form of maintained lead when you want to shoot a target rather quickly. You can accomplish this with either a low or pre–mounted gun, depending on your preference. Choose this method when the target looks clearest or you have determined a break point that does not give you a lot of time to execute the shot (for instance, when you see the target clearly for a short period of time and then it turns on edge or you are trying to shoot the first bird of a pair rather quickly to get to the second target). When the presentation does not give you enough time to meet the target and stretch or pull away to finish the lead, you can either time your mount inserting to the lead or pre–mount and let the bird close into the lead, maintain for a moment, focus and fire. I urge you to try to have at least some stretch–away from the target anytime the target gives you a bit of time to do so.
You can’t simply follow a set rule of thumb as you would in skeet that says your hold point should be X distance from the center stake to the house. In general, you should choose a hold point that does not allow the target to get in front of your barrel. If it does, you are either holding too close to the trap or are not starting to move your gun when you see the target. Choosing a hold point that is too far out from the trap is almost as bad as holding too close.
The ideal hold point allows you to move with the bird without feeling like you are waiting for or chasing after the bird. In general, I suggest holding back one–third to one–half of the distance from the break point to the trap for crossing shots. For pre–mounted shots, such as trap shots and quartering birds, I suggest holding as close to the trap as possible without letting the bird get ahead of you or feeling rushed.
If you understand break points and angles and are able to shoot with a pre–mounted or low gun, you will be more able to differentiate the necessary approach to each target and have more control of the target. Nothing worth doing comes easy. You must learn these fundamentals as you are developing your technique, and you must continually work on seeing the target.
Anthony Matarese, Jr. is a 2007 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College. He started shooting sporting clays competitively in 1995 at the age of 10 and began coaching at the age of 14. In 2008, Anthony became the first person to win the NSCA U.S. Open and National Championship in the same year. He is recognized as one of the top competitors in the world, having earned his way onto 14 All–American Teams. Learn more about Anthony in Connie Mako Miller’s “Look Who’s Talking” interview in the September 2008 issue of Shotgun Sports. For more information on Anthony’s coaching services, see his ad or visit www.clayshootinginstruction.com.