Five Steps to Teaching Shotgun Shooting

The key to taking someone on their first trip to the range is to keep it fun, and not give them a gun or ammo that will make shooting uncomfortable or painful.photo by Jeff Wilson

A sporting clays course, with its emphasis on doubles and tricky targets, isn’t the best place to start anyone shooting shotguns, much less a 9-year-old boy, but that’s what I did the other day. The story has a happy ending, but it was also an illustration of the pitfalls to avoid when starting someone, young or old, shooting shotguns.

The father and son arrived at the gun club with no guns and no gear, just a very old beagle. They took the dog out of their pickup and asked the manager if it could sleep in the cool clubhouse while they shot and, by the way, did he have guns they could use? One look at the clueless dad in his aloha shirt and his young son, Noah, leading the beagle into the clubhouse and I knew they were headed for disaster if they didn’t get help. I volunteered to go with them around the course.

Long story short: We started at: “Owww! I don’t want to shoot anymore!” and eventually reached “Clay shooting is awesome!” It wasn’t easy. In the process of helping this boy have a good time shooting, I relearned a lot of important lessons about kids and shotguns.

1. A shooter should weigh at least 85 pounds

I have always used 85 pounds as the minimum weight, largely because I read it somewhere and that number seemed to fit in with my observations. That’s a good rule of thumb, and while it’s useful, I have found that it also depends on the child. Noah, at 85 pounds exactly, was barely able to handle the gun, and would have done better to wait a year or two. But he was not very athletic. I have taught tiny girls who barely pushed 70 pounds and had them grinding targets in a few minutes.

2. Use the right gun

The boy actually broke the first target he shot at, a result either of luck or great coaching. I am claiming the latter, although I suspect the former. It didn’t matter, because he was staggering backward and yelling in pain from the recoil and didn’t see the target break. That’s when he said he never wanted to shoot a shotgun again even after I told him he had hit the target.

A gun that hurts or doesn’t fit makes shooting miserable. We had to rely on the guns and ammo at the club. The choice was either a lightweight, youth size 20-gauge pump or a full-size 20 gauge gas-operated semiautomatic. The pump was light, short, and easier to handle, but I knew it would kick hard, even with the target loads available from the club. The semiauto was heavier and slightly awkward, but I knew it would recoil much less.

A 20-gauge gun is a good choice for a new shooter because it’s easier to handle than a 12-gauge, but much easier to break targets with than a .410.

photo from Windigo Images

3. Start with low-recoil ammunition

Choosing the right ammunition is just as important, maybe more important than choosing a gun. Adults don’t think 20-gauge target or field loads kick much, but they do in a light, youth model gun. Getting kicked teaches bad habits—flinching, head lifting, and dropping the gun off the shoulder at the shot. Start new shooters out with specially marked low-recoil ammo, let them build good shooting habits, and when they switch to harder-kicking target and hunting loads, they will be shooting with good form and be better able to withstand recoil.

4. Choose easy targets

Toward the end of the 10-station course I found the target I had been looking for: a slow incoming clay. I like incomers for new shooters because they give you more time than outgoing targets, and beginners don’t have to rush. That said, a straightaway or slightly angled outgoing bird that you can throw with any portable trap runs a close second. I dislike hand-throwers for new shooters because it’s very difficult to throw consistent targets when you are slinging them by hand.

I was fairly certain Noah could break it, and by that time I had talked the boy into taking another shot or two. He missed the first. I told him how to correct and he smashed the second. That’s when he exclaimed, “Target shooting is awesome!”

5. Keep lessons short and fun

As Noah’s father and I shot the course, I let Noah pull targets for us. He was fascinated with my electronic earmuffs, so I let him wear them. Later I took him downrange and we found a spent wad. I showed him how it fit into a shotgun shell and explained what components went into a shell. And, luckily, I had water and snacks in my bag to share.

When Noah finally broke a target he was thrilled, and the long morning was, in his mind, a success. I overruled his father, who thought he should try the next station. I said Noah was done shooting clays. For him, one broken bird was enough, but I did let him shoot again. I fished an empty pop can out of the trash barrel at the station and let the boy ventilate it, twice. I think he enjoyed that as much as he liked hitting a target in the air, and he left the course with a big smile on his face, and a Mountain Dew can full of holes as a souvenir.