First-Time Shooter: Sporting Clays

I didn't grow up in a family that used guns, but I wanted to learn how to shoot. And I know I'm not alone. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there has been a 60 percent increase in women target shooters since 2001. While self-defense is still the number one reason many learn how to handle a firearm, the other two main reasons are learning how to hunt and being able to shoot with family and friends. Those are exactly the reasons I decided to take up sporting clays shooting, so I could properly prepare for my first upland-bird hunt this fall. But besides the basics about shotgunning technique and mechanics, there's much to be learned about the basics and etiquette of the sport. Here are the four things I learned from my first experience.

1. Learn the Etiquette

I grew up watching golf on TV with my dad, stealing the first sips of foam off the top of his Budweiser, and poking fun at the eerie silence of the audience punctuated by whispered play-by-play and polite clapping. Little did I know how similar the social etiquette of golf and sporting clays would be until I decided to visit the Orvis Sandanona shooting range to experience shooting clays for myself.

Located in upstate New York, Sandanona is the oldest permitted shotgun club in the country. I arrived on a breezy morning, excited to learn the basics of shooting clays with Chief Shooting Instructor James Ross.

Ross explained that like golf, silence is expected when a group of shooters are queued up at a station. This is a game of focus and concentration, not chitchatting and laughter. Because safety is always the first rule, no one chambers a cartridge except for the shooter, and only when he or she is ready to shoot.

The shooter will ask to see the presentation—clay birds sent into the air without the shooter firing--which allows everyone in the group to see the arc and speed of the clays for that station.

“When the shooter is ready, he will say ‘pull,’ which indicates that the trapper [the person operating the machine that sends the claybirds into the air] can release the clays,” says Ross.

Everyone in the group takes turns shooting at that station. Like golf, groups move from one station to the next in an orderly fashion.

2. Use a Shotgun that Fits

A properly fitted gun is the first step to proper wingshooting. It’s well worthwhile to take the time to have your shotgun adjusted to fit your frame by someone who knows how it should conform to your body. The drop at comb (the part of the stock on which your cheek rests) will affect where the shooter’s eye lines up when properly holding the shotgun. The drop at heel, or the top end of the stock that rests on your shooting shoulder, affects to general gun alignment; too much can cause more noticeable recoil. Too long of a stock can catch under your armpit or drag on your lower shoulder; if it is too short, you may feel more recoil in your shoulder or cheek.

When Ross reviewed how my 2015 Browning Citori Micro Satin Hunter fit to my frame, he noted there was too much drop at comb for me, which caused my eye to be too low when the gun was properly held. He added a gel cheek protector to raise the comb a bit and ensure that my eye was consistently in line with the bead when I aimed.

First-Time Shooter: Sporting Clays
Sporting clays has often been called the golf of the shooting sports. You walk through a course and shoot at various stations. Many rules of etiquette similar to those in golf--such as not talking when someone is shooting--also apply.photo courtesy of Howard Communications

3. Stand Properly

How you stand when shooting had a great effect on your shooting ability. “People who are self taught often do not have a proper stance,” says Ross.

If you are a right-handed shooter like me, your left foot will always be your lead foot, meaning that you should point your left foot at your breakpoint (where you want to break the clay). Then follow Ross’s formula for a perfect shooting stance:

  1. Picture the face of a clock.

  2. Stand with your lead foot at the 12 o'clock position.

  3. If you are right-handed, the 1 o'clock will represent the gap between your heels and the 2 o'clock will be where you should position the toes of your right foot.

  4. If you are left-handed, the 11 o'clock will represent the gap between your heels and the 10 o'clock will be where you should position the toes of your left foot.

  5. Maintain a shoulder-width distance between your feet, nothing wider.

The idea is to create a comfortable stance that allows you to move smoothly when you swing the shotgun up, aim, and fire. “Anytime your feet get outside your shoulders, you’ve told the body to brace. That becomes awkward. This is a game of movement. Any awkwardness will make it harder,” said Ross.

4. Figure Out Where You’ll Hit the Target

There is a big difference between shooting at a clay target and at a live bird. Target shooters have at least a general idea of where the target is coming from and its path, and so can anticipate where to point the gun. Hunters, of course, never know where a bird is going to fly. When preparing to shoot a target, it’s important to focus on a point in the sky where you know your eyes will acquire the target, rather than focusing on the complete travel arc of the clay after it’s released from the machine. This eliminates chasing the target and allows you to clearly and consistently hone in on where the target will appear.

“The ideal place to break any clay target would be as close to the apex as possible, because that is where the target is at its slowest,” said Ross. He also recommended aiming at the leading edge of the clay.

By focusing on a spot in the sky above a specific tree, I was able to shatter a claybird within my first few shots. Understanding these basic principles not only gave me the confidence to keep shooting, but also proved just how fun shooting clays can be.