Clay shooting sports and how practice can make you perfect

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There are several different clay shooting disciplines, and each type can help you in some way depending on the birds you are hunting. (Photo by: SolidMaks/Shutterstock.com)


As a child, I was blessed to spend countless weekends in the tall grass swamps and wide open cornfields of central and eastern South Dakota hunting roosters and waterfowl. I became very passionate about bird hunting and wanted to see how well I could do it. Heck, I would even put in three different shotgun shells ranging from #2 Steel, Steel BB, and Tungsten-Iron BB shells, thinking I was getting an advantage by shooting a larger pattern.

I ended up turning my passion for wild bird shooting into a competitive trap shooter and went on to win several world championship titles. My knowledge and understanding of consistency in killing birds and hitting targets has changed over the years as I improved my abilities and developed a better understanding of proper shooting form and technique. These days my brother Matt and I continue to teach various aspects of the shotgun – stance, footwork, eye dominance, fulcrum and tracking.

A few words to the wise

Whether you’re hunting waterfowl, upland birds, or both, you know how much your success in the field increases as the season progresses. You can improve your success rates on Opening Day by spending time in off-season shooting sets. There are several different clay shooting disciplines, and each type can help you in some way depending on the birds you are hunting. Before we dive into the different clay shooting sports, here are some universal tips that will help you be more consistent and accurate on the clay course as well as in the field.

Position: Your consistency and accuracy come from being solidly positioned to provide proper direction and follow through. The stance will allow you to smoothly swing a shotgun, or if you have the wrong stance, will prevent you from swinging to and through a target.

As a general rule, I always recommend that your stance be about shoulder width apart or slightly wider than your shoulders. I stand up straight with a slight bend in the knees. If you’re directly facing the hatch and a right-handed shooter, shift your feet and body to the right about 45 degrees. This gives your body the ability to swing to the right much more easily. When you break this down for hunting, it will allow you to shoot upland birds and waterfowl very consistently.

When your stance is not correct, you will maximize your swing. It is, quite simply, where your body can’t move or swing anymore. What happens is that you’ll only be using your arms to move the gun, which will usually take your cheek away from the butt, or your knees will bend to compensate to try to swing you farther. This incorrect positioning will usually end up swinging you over the target.

Conduct: You want to make sure you’re directing the bird’s head, not its body. While hunting pheasant, I have too often seen a shooter focus on the body and end up shooting the back of the tail.

Focus on steering completely in front of the bird. One thing that works for me is to raise tail, body, head, beak and desired leash to pull the trigger and follow at the same swing speed as the bird is moving. Keeping the same rounds in your bag will also help you develop a better understanding of the trails, and when you’re out in the field, you’ll hit your targets more efficiently and consistently.

Followed: Most people think swinging a shotgun is all about your upper body and arms, but I’m here to change that thought process. Using your whole body and hips from a solid stance will give you greater mobility from start to finish, which is usually why waterfowl hunters seem to shoot better in pit blinds and blinds A-frame.

One thing to remember with your swing is that a gentle squeeze of the trigger translates to smooth tracking and will move your barrel forward. If you stop the gun right after pulling the trigger, you have a good chance of shooting behind the target.

Another point worth mentioning is to keep your head down and locked on the stock as you follow: essentially, you’ll be like a turret on a tank. You want everything locked before, during and after the shot. While hunting, I see a lot of shooters looking up from the stock right after shooting a bird to see if they hit it or not. My advice is to keep your cheek on the stock. Your eyes will naturally seek out the falling bird as you continue to swing through the bird.

clay shooting sports
Shooting clay targets during the off season can help wing shooters refine their shooting form and technique for more success and enjoyment in their upcoming fall hunting season. (Photo by: txakel/Shutterstock.com)

clay shooting sports

The three main clay shooting sports in most regions are trap shooting, clay pigeon shooting and sport clays, with each discipline having a unique set of advantages for the different game birds you will hunt.

Trap shooting

In the “trap” game, you have a trap with five shooting positions behind it. You fire five shells at each “post”, making a round of 25 shells. Typically, in a competition, you will fire four rounds to make an event of one hundred shells in total.

Trap shooting is most like any situation where birds swoop in front of you and fly right past you. Of course, not all hunts are like this, but you get the gist.

trap shooting
A trap game includes shooting from five different positions around the trap house. (Photo by: joe arrigo/Shutterstock.com)

clay pigeon shooting

In the game of “skeet” you have two trap houses, one called the high house and the other called the low house. The shooters move in a semi-circle with seven positions around the semi-circle and an 8th position in the middle between the high house and the low house. Gunners fire at single targets from the High and Low House, followed by a pair at Stations 1 and 2. At Stations 3, 4, and 5 you will fire at a single separate target from the High and Low House. At stations 6 and 7, you will shoot single targets from the high and low house, followed by a pair at stations as you did at stations 1 and 2. To end the round, you will shoot at a high target and low separately from station 8. If the shooter never missed, they would shoot another low target to end the 25th round with a perfect score. The skeet shot has four rounds to make the event 100 shells in total.

Skeet shooting is a great off-season option for upland bird hunters and duck and geese hunters looking to improve their tracks and tracking.

    pigeon shooting
Skeet shooting involves shooting at various presentations from different stations, as well as single and paired clay targets. (Photo by: Miguel Serrano Ruiz/Shutterstock.com)

Sports Clays

A typical sports clay course will consist of 10 to 18 stations, with each station featuring multiple target sizes, speeds, and directions from multiple trap machines. Typically, 6-10 targets are shot at each station for a total of 100 targets per person in an event. A shooter will see everything from a single bird thrown to a “true pair”, where two targets are thrown at the same time, as well as a “ratio pair”, when two targets are thrown sequentially (the second after the shooter shoots at the first clay).

Sporting clays offer the most realistic live bird hunting simulations, with clays flying at many different speeds and angles, with varying levels of difficulty that upland bird and waterfowl hunters are likely to see in the field. The only downside for wing shooters is that it’s not as common to find sport clay courts as traps or skeet, so if you have the ability to shoot on sport courts, take full advantage of it.

    sports clays
Sporting clays are often recognized as one of the most beneficial clay shooting sports because they most closely represent the targets that wing shooters might encounter in the field. (Photo by: Rionegro/Shutterstock.com)

Why shooting clays is important

Although there are more clay target disciplines, it is the three main ones that are most common and available to hunters across the United States. Ideally, practicing one or all of the clay shooting disciplines will help bird hunters acquire targets, hand-eye coordination, memorize muscles, and learn how to swing a shotgun in a more consistent. If you do your reps in the offseason, you’ll naturally be a more confident and capable hunter next season.

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