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Most of us have walked onto a station, and after looking at the presentation, said to ourselves: “How in the world do I break that?” Or maybe the question of lead pops into your mind, something like: “How much lead does this target take?” Then you shoot poorly on the station and wonder what happened. It very well could have been you were afraid you might miss. This is a very common mistake but, more than likely, you haven’t looked at the presentation and developed a sound plan of attack. You didn’t figure out what the targets were actually doing. In other words, you didn’t do a good job of reading the targets.

The things a shooter must consider when reading a presentation are basic. These are: target line, target speed, target angle, height and distance. I would also add being aware if the presentation has any curl or slice is very important. Each one of these aspects will give you an idea of exactly what a target is doing at the chosen breakpoint of its flight. One mistake on any one of these things will cause a miss.

Now, let’s break each of these points down, so we can better understand what a target is doing.

First, I want you to remember there are only three presentations thrown in sporting clays. Yes, you read this right. These three presentations are incoming, outgoing and crossing. All other presentations are made up of one or all of these basic birds. Target setters just vary the options available to them in conjunction with each of these presentations. These are the same options I listed above. You see, the target setter is limited to the types of presentations he can throw. He doesn’t want to throw the same one over and over, so he tries to change them in some way on every station. A good target setter will also use the terrain to make things look different, but in reality a crossing target thrown in a gully or a parking lot is the same. The same can go for a teal or any other presentation.

Now, let’s look at these options and figure out what the setter is trying to do to create a different look. An experienced setter already knows what each of these dimensions will do to the presentation. He understands a small adjustment to the spring or height and tilt adjustments on the machine will give him many different presentations. It is the shooter’s job to figure out what he has done. Using this basic knowledge, you should be able to come up with a good idea as to what it takes to break any presentation thrown.

Target Line
Watching the entire flight of the target will give you a lot of good information on any presentation. Assuming the line is level, try to find the exact place where the target starts to drop. If your breakpoint is before this spot, then you will not have to allow for the drop of the target. If the breakpoint is after this spot then, of course, you must have your muzzle in a position to make a good move to counteract the drop. For most target setters, the best way to fool the shooter is to play with the line. As I mentioned in a previous article, when you are confronted with a target where the line is always in transition or you simply can’t read it, try the intercept method. This method will allow you to find the line at your chosen breakpoint. This seems to be the method my students enjoy the most and the one that lets them break targets they are having trouble with.

Target Speed
The speed of the target can also affect the target line and most certainly will affect the lead. The best way to get a handle on the speed of a target is again to watch it from the moment you can first see it to the point where it hits the ground. If you are standing at the beginning of the target’s flight, this will be the fastest part of that flight. On the other hand, if you are standing at the end of its flight, the target will be very slow. If you are at the middle of its flight and your breakpoint is also in the middle, this is the point where you will normally have to put the most lead on the target. I hope you can see that picking the right breakpoint is very important, and different breakpoints along the line will require a different lead.

There are three things that affect perceived lead. The faster the muzzle speed, the less perceived lead you will see. This is why those people who shoot the Churchill method, for the most part, see very little or no lead at all. This is a great method for shooting birds but, in my opinion, is a very poor and inconsistent way to shoot clay targets. Swing-through, although very similar to Churchill, requires a somewhat slower muzzle speed.

The next thing that affects lead is target speed. A target with a lot of speed will take more lead. If you add distance to speed, you will have the most lead, but remember distance without speed requires less lead. I have seen 50-yard targets that are fast and take a big lead, but without speed the lead is greatly decreased.

Target Angle
By this, I mean quartering shots. This type of presentation can be incoming or outgoing. Quartering presentations will always take less lead than a crossing target of the same speed. When shooting an outgoing quartering presentation (Trap shot), I have found most of my students nearly always miss in front of the target — the reason being the target is going in two directions: across and out. Think about the skeet range, and I believe you will understand. Station 2 High House takes a lot less lead than Station 4 High House. Just as Station 7 Low House, an outgoing target, takes no lead at all. Again, if a quartering target is fast and far, it will take more lead. Distance and target speed once again will increase the perceived lead.

I think I have explained distance in the above paragraphs. The only aspect of distance I have yet to address are mega distances. This is a presentation a long way out — 60 yards and farther. In the case of a mega-distance target, just keep in mind it is hard to shoot too far in front. The mind can’t compute a mega lead until it sees targets at these distances. Once a shooter breaks a presentation with a mega lead, the brain has a reference point to calculate from. The moral of the story is never be afraid to shoot farther in front than you originally think.

I tell my students when shooting a distance that they have never shot before to simply shoot so far in front of the target they are sure they will miss. This suggestion allows the mind to put a lot more lead on a target like this because it has permission to miss. I always laugh when a student hits a target for the first time with a mega lead. The look of astonishment on his face is priceless. There are several great methods to shoot distance. My personal favorite is collapsing lead (also known as decreasing maintained lead or diminishing lead.) Pull-away is another great way to shoot distance. Each of these methods will let the shooter start in front of the target, so they can get a jump on their lead.

Target Height
Remember a target can be as high as the tallest tower, or it can be a foot or two off the ground or anywhere in between. For the most part, you shouldn’t worry much about the height, as long as you can read the line. High targets do look harder, and low targets look faster. As long as you can tell what it is doing and get in front of it, you should just forget about the actual height and shoot the target. The reason a high target is harder to read is because there is nothing to get a reference off of. On the other hand, a low target looks faster because you can reference its speed off the ground. Just think how fast most rabbits look. They actually slow down a lot faster than a target in the air.

Curling Targets
For several reasons, I love to throw this type of target. Not only does a curling target make great presentations, it also is a lot easier to see. For many of our older shooters with older eyes, a curling target can be the difference between being able to shoot at it or letting the target hit the ground.

Being easier to see is one thing, but making a target do things because of a little curl is another. Curling targets always have a changing target line. This can be a chandelle one moment, then in a split-second it can become a full crosser. The curl can also make a target that looks like a crosser suddenly become an incomer or outgoing target. I have been throwing curling and/or looping targets as long as anyone in the sport and have made a lot of unusual presentations with this technique. It is also a presentation that can be changed with very little effort when a small course needs some tweaking for the second hundred. As with any target with a changing line, I would again recommend the intercept method.

I have tried to keep my thoughts simple in the above paragraphs. For many shooters, being too analytical will only create confusion and cause them to look at the barrel. This will cause them to stop, look at the muzzle and miss behind or even go over the top of the target. Try to look at a presentation and figure out what is really happening. The great shooters do this automatically, but us mere mortals have to practice doing this before it becomes natural. SS

Mike McAlpine is the owner of Clay Target Academy and Claybird Specialties ( 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 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. Claybird Specialties builds equipment for clubs and ranges. You can reach Mike at (325) 656-6319 or visit (see ad on page 46).