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Shooting The Towers by Mike McAlpine, Photos by Johnny Cantu

Towers come in many different heights and offer different presentations. The shooter’s job and the real fun in the game is to figure out what the targetsetter has done and how to best take the shot.

h my god, would you look at that thing? It must be at least 100 feet tall! It’s a wonder an airplane hasn’t crashed into it by now. How in the world can anyone possibly hit a target thrown that high?”

I’ve heard comments like that since I first started shooting sporting clays way back in 1984. I even made a remark about a 40–foot tower on the first range I shot at in Midland, Texas. Being a trap and skeet shooter back then, the highest target I had ever seen, much less shoot at, was the high house on a skeet range. Occasionally, while shooting trap (more occasionally when shooting in San Angelo or Midland), we would have a very strong north wind that would drive targets almost straight up a few yards out from the house. I guess that’s why all of us converted trapshooters were able to break a teal sporting clays target the first time we tried one.

Many shooters today still fear towers when they actually should love them. I can hear some of you thinking “What did he say?” I would like to change your opinion of the dreaded tower, so let’s look at that 100–foot tower shot I mentioned in the beginning of this article (the vast majority of towers are nowhere near that tall).

120-foot tower at the Dallas Gun Club

A 100–foot tower is only 33–1/3 yards long. When you include the angle, it’s not much more than a 40–yard crosser. You’ve shot plenty of 40–yard crossers, I’m sure. This beauty is the 120–foot tower at the Dallas Gun Club.

I am going to use part of an old Aggie joke to make my point. That tower is 100 feet high, but I wonder how long it is. Silly joke, but a solid thought when you’re tackling a big tower. Think about it: A 100–foot tower is really only 33–1/3 yards long. When you figure the angle, it’s not much more than a regular 40–yard crosser. Are you afraid of fairly close crossers like that? If you have been shooting long, I am sure you have had the opportunity to attempt such a presentation. With a steady line, that target just takes a little more lead, but it’s really nothing special as presentations go.

By starting with that thought, you have taken some of the fear and doubt away from the big tower. When you realize this target will normally show a lot of belly, the shot becomes easier yet.

Probably the hardest part of breaking a tower presentation is reading the line of the target. There normally is nothing to get a reference from because of the height of the target. But here is a trick that may help you, something I use in my target–reading schools. Take a shell box and tear the ends out of it, leaving a four–sided tunnel. Hold the box steady at your chosen break point and, with both eyes open, watch the target fly through it. By using the sides, you have four reference points — two horizontal and two vertical. These points of reference will let you see exactly what the target is doing. You will be amazed how easy it now is to read the line.

Now that you understand what the target is doing, simply adjust your hold point in relationship to the line. It will either be higher or lower, depending on what the target is doing as you look through your “tunnel.”

Now the question is: “How do I tell how much lead I need?” Is it 2 feet or 10 feet? First, let me say the worst thing any shooter can do is put lead in measurements like feet or inches. Doing so will only make you try to “measure” the lead so you can make it perfect. Ask any top shooter and they will tell you lead is more of a “feel” than a precise measurement. The human brain is the best computer ever created. It can make more calculations than the best super computer, but just like any computer, it needs the right information (in this case, visual information).

I would suggest all shooters think of lead as “no lead,” “a little lead,” “a medium lead,” “a lot of lead” or “a train load of lead.” You have to remember lead is a perceived thing and can be different to each shooter. Some people take lead from the barrel (in inches) and some people take lead from the target (in feet). Your lead may be very different than the shooter next to you.

Target tower

The hardest thing about breaking a tower target is reading the line; there is no point of reference. But knowing the target normally shows a lot of belly makes the shot a bit easier.

Here is a question from a shooter who shot the tower on my Red Course at the 2011 NSCA National Championships. I felt it was a great question, as this was a real–life situation and not just a hypothetical scenario. The shooter said: “I saw many shooters attempt the presentation in different order. I would imagine each went with how they felt confident. The targets were not only crossing, they were also curling away, both at the latter part of their flight. This was likely due to the wind, but if shots were timed perfectly, the pair was very breakable. I took the back target first, under power, and used a sustained lead (a 4–5 foot lead) and crushed the target every time. The midi, I obviously had to swing through. I suspect my muzzle was moving too fast in an effort to catch up, but once I got there, the target was finally losing momentum. I recall slowing down once I got in front of it but misjudged distance/angle, had stopped the gun (victim of swing–through) and was missing behind. I shoot pull–away predominately but can shoot all methods effectively as needed. How would you approach the pair?”

I saw a lot of shooters attempt the target the way that shooter described, and many were successful. I estimated the leading target would take more lead than the second because it had less curl than the back target. I made the targets curl simply to give shooters a better view and make the target easier to see. The second target had a lot of curl and, if shot first, would require the shooter to move faster to catch up to the first target. I felt it would be better to start in front and stay in front of the first target. I used a decreasing maintained lead on this presentation and did okay. By using this method, gun speed was not an issue for me. Shooting the leading target left my muzzle in front of the second bird.

I did have a little trap set for shooters, though. I made the first bird a little higher than the second bird. If the shooter didn’t pay attention to the line of the second target, he or she would likely shoot over the second bird. Target reading is important.

Towers come in many heights, and targets come in many presentations which can and will differ because of weather. Just because the target was shot one way yesterday doesn’t mean it will take the same tomorrow. Good targetsetters try to give shooters a safe, fun, easy–to–see presentation that is out of the sun and not over the top. The shooter’s job is to figure out what the targetsetter is doing and how to best take the shot. To me, this is the real fun in the game.

So, the next time you see a tower target, remember it is just like any other presentation and should be shot the same way. It just starts a little higher up and usually goes farther because of the height. Now, get out there and smoke those tower targets!

Mike McAlpine is the owner of Clay Target Academy. His three–day Target Reading & Presentation Seminar (TRAPS) teaches shooters of all levels how to read targets and their lines, as well as how to break any presentation. Mike was NSCA Chief Instructor for seven years, has been a clay–target shooter for 40 years and is a member of the Texas Sporting Clays Hall of Fame. He is recognized nationally as a premier targetsetter and course designer and has set targets and taught in three countries and 40 states. You can reach Mike at (325) 651–7810 or visit his website.