My friend Dave and I started a high school trap-shooting club when his youngest son was a junior and mine was a freshman. Seven years later, our sons have gone on to college and we’re still coaching. For me, teaching kids to shoot has become more fun and more rewarding than shooting.
Our coaching careers began with a 3:00 a.m. wakeup to drive across the state and take a daylong coaching certification class offered by our state department of natural resources. That was then. The exponential growth of youth clay target sports means now there are lots more DNR and NRA coaching classes, and chances are you’ll find one within an hour or two, not five, away.
The Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation coordinates youth target shooting across the country. They will help you get started, register your team, and provide sanctioned competitions and insurance. Some teams work with schools and school boards and become affiliated with a school. Some are even able to earn letters and varsity status. Others, like ours, get little more than permission to use the school’s name.
You’ll need to find a gun club where you can practice and hold shoots. Most gun clubs see aging, declining memberships and are eager to help start a new generation of shooters. Teaching that new generation is your job. Here are six important points I have learned while coaching kids:
1. Eye Dominance
Just as everyone is left or right handed, they are also right and left eyed. It’s much easier to shoot from the side of your dominant eye, even if it doesn’t match up with your dominant hand side. Cross-dominance is especially common among girls, but I start any shooter off with an eye dominance test whether they have fired a gun before or not.
The most common test involves having the person hold both arms outstretched, palms out and overlapping to leave a golf ball-sized gap between the thumb webs. Have your student frame an object in the gap, then keep it in sight while drawing his or her hands back over one eye or the other. The gap will wind up over the dominant eye.
I will teach any new shooter to shoot from the side of the dominant eye, and have made several kids who had shot before switch sides as well. They almost always pick it up quickly and shoot much better.
For those who can’t change or are center-dominant (have two strong eyes), a smear of lip balm or piece of translucent tape on the lens of shooting glasses is enough to block the vision of the off-side eye.
2. Holding the Gun
Kids who learned at a young age want to lean back to support the gun. Teach them instead to lean forward slightly, just enough to put their nose over the front big toe. Feet should be no more than shoulder-width apart, knees neither bent nor locked.
Teach them that the gun doesn’t go on the shoulder but on the upper part of the chest just inside the shoulder. If you show them how to hold the elbow of their trigger hand high it forms a pocket where they can put the butt of the gun. Holding the gun to that part of the chest allows your body to absorb recoil. Putting the butt out on your shoulder hurts.
Finally, new shooters want to lean their heads sideways over the gunstock, not push it forward as they should. Sometimes you have to take their head in your hands, straighten it up and move it forward to the right spot on the stock. Always ask permission before you touch anyone on the team to correct them.
3. Two-Eyed Shooting
Most young shooters learned on BB guns and .22s, and they want to shut an eye and aim a shotgun. Aiming works in the short term, but shooting a shotgun with both eyes open is faster and much easier once you get used to it. You let more light into your eyes and see better, especially in bad-light conditions. Shooting with both eyes open also makes better use of your natural eye-hand coordination. Kids will struggle with it and you have to be persistent. They have their whole shooting lives ahead of them and it’s important to help them learn good habits.
4. Tight Focus on Targets
Insufficient focus on the target is the cause of many mysterious misses. Looking in the general area of the target isn’t enough. Tight focus on the bird sends the gun to the right place. I tell kids to look at one part of the target: the bottom edge if it’s going away, the left edge if it’s going left, the right edge if it’s going right. You can tell if someone isn’t focusing tightly on the target. The shot usually goes high.
When the eyes go off the target and onto the barrel to double-check or aim, that’s when the gun stops moving. A trick that works magically to keep young shooter’s eyes on the target is to ask them to tell you how many pieces the target breaks into, and which way the biggest piece flies. Trying to do that keeps them focused on the bird until after it breaks.
5. Head on the Stock
Your head is the rear sight of a shotgun. It has to stay in the right spot (dominant eye centered over the rib, just high enough to see a little bit of it) all the way through the shot. Lifting your head up for a better view of the bird invariably means a miss over the top. Dropping the gun away from your face too quickly after the shot can pull the gun off target—this is a habit you see in kids who have been kicked hard by learning to shoot with too much gun. A lot of young shooters wear ballcaps down low, and the bill over the gun creates a kind of tunnel vision that makes them lift their heads for a better look. Tilt their hat back or turn it around and the problem goes away.
6. Guns and Ammo
Younger kids (our club runs grades 8-12) show up at their first practice with Mossberg and Remington Youth pumps that they are about to outgrow. Those little guns kick surprisingly hard with target loads. Once you have taught a new shooter how to hold a gun correctly, most can shoot heavy, full-sized 12 gauges more comfortably than they thought, and they quickly find that shooting light 1 ounce or 7/8 ounce target loads through them produces less recoil than their 20s. We discourage use of any ammo heavier than one ounce at a velocity of 1180 fps to prevent recoil from creating bad habits, such as flinching and head-lifting.