Clay target games

Sporting clays

The clay target game is good practice. In fact, if one can explore it from all its angles, it is the best available practice.  It teaches timing, lead, angle of flight, and all the seemingly necessary functions of mind and body, but it is still not bird shooting.  – Burton L. Spiller (1886-1973), from his book of stories Drummer in the Woods

Clay target games

To become a good wing-shot, to master the art and science of shooting a bird in flight, you must learn and practice by shooting one or more of the clay target games: trap, skeet, sporting clays, five stand, and a dozen other lesser-known.

In my part of the country, a bird hunter may have been able to become a first-class shotgunner a hundred years ago when the short grass prairies teemed with sharp tail grouse and the brushy waterways supported peak populations of bobwhite quail. In that golden era, he might shoot at hundreds of birds on the wing each year. Even today a shotgunner, at least a wealthy shotgunner, can travel to Central or South American counties where he can shoot at unlimited numbers of doves and waterfowl.

But the vast majority of bird hunters are going to shoot at fewer than a hundred birds on the wing each season, and that is far too few to sharpen or maintain the motor skills of wing-shooting. To do that, you must spend some time on clay target courses. How much time? How many targets? That depends on your level of athletic ability, reaction time, reflexes, eyesight. For me, a shooter who is average in all those categories, it requires a minimum of a thousand clay targets a year. Any less than that and I can expect to have a frustrating year of shooting afield.

Every so often I hear stories of some bird hunter who is a “natural,” a gunner who hits every bird at which he points a shotgun, and of course he has never shot a clay target in his life. I have met only one of these naturals in the flesh when a couple of his friends coaxed him out to the gun club to humiliate all us skeet shooters. As I remember, he broke fourteen of twenty-five targets on his first round. He did a bit worse on his second round. Chastened but not converted, one of his friends insisted, “That’s on these clay targets. He never misses anything with feathers on it.”

Well, we all have our own level of pride.

I will agree with this truism: clay target shooting is NOT bird shooting. Almost all the clay target games were created as practice sessions for wing-shots during the off-season. None is perfect practice. Far from it. But they are the best substitute we have, and we are wise to make use of them.

Shooting the clay target games teaches, or reinforces, the skills of target acquisition, good gun mounting and pointing, timing, tracking, lead, trigger pull, and follow-though. In short, the target games train your body to perform as one with the shotgun.

Baseball, tennis, golf – all require a complicated and coordinated use of your sensory and motor functions to hit the ball. Wing-shooting is much the same. It cannot be performed in a one-two-three-four cadence; it must be automatic, smooth, continuous, flowing, and consistent. Some shooting coaches preach that your eyes and hands must work in conjunction to guide the gun muzzle to the flight path of the target. This is not strictly true; your entire body must work in conjunction to guide the gun muzzle to the flight path of the target.

This is achieved by learning good shooting form, and then training your body to carry out that good form on every shot. It requires repetition and repetition and repetition. And more repetition. Oddly, a golfer who is also a shotgunner will hit thousands of balls at a driving range every year, repetition to perfect his golf game, but he will shoot only two or three rounds of trap and in preparation for the bird season. Go figure.

Having said much good about the clay target games, I will also note there is much that is not-so-good. First, and self evident, clay targets are not birds, and they do not fly like birds.

A clay target is traveling at its maximum speed at the moment it leaves the launcher, and it slows at a calculable rate through the rest of its flight. Typically, an upland game bird takes wing at a slow speed and increases its velocity through the course of its flight.

Allowing for some vagaries due to wind, the flight trajectory of a clay target is consistent. Clay targets do not, of their own volition, weave and dodge or change speed and direction. Wild upland birds frequently (and willfully, bless their pea-sized brains) weave and dodge and change speed and direction.

A clay target shooter knows, within certain limits, the exact moment the clay will take flight, and he knows more-or-less the direction that flight will take. The shooter may mount the gun to his shoulder before calling for the release of the target from the thrower. And he acquires, tracks, and shoots his targets on a field unobstructed by brush, trees, terrain and other impediments, or, in the case of sporting clays, he attempts to break targets that will travel through “windows” of open space where they can best be hit.

The upland bird hunter seldom if ever knows the exact moment the bird will take wing, and he is even less sure of the direction of its flight. He never has the gun mounted to shoulder when the bird flushes, and he frequently attempts shots that are obstructed by brush, trees, terrain and inclement weather. Stepping into the middle of a covey of quail, for example, can significantly affect preparation for the shot and target acquisition. It can also embarrass a skeet shooter and make him search the depths of his vocabulary for the proper words to express his discomfiture.

Upland bird hunters who want to shoot clay targets as practice for wing-shooting must beware a much worse aspect of the games. Most, if not all, are now shot for the sake of the game itself, not as practice for wing-shooting. I do not object to competitive clay target shooting and have no argument with those who love the games and shoot them year-round in tournaments and leagues. It is tremendous fun. But the demon of competitive spirit lives in all of us, and if we choose to play a game, why the object is to win it.

I caution the bird hunter to be wary of this slippery slope. Put too much focus on the game itself, and you will soon be training your body not to perform the skills of wing-shooting afield but instead the skills of shooting clay targets on the range.

This pitfall can be avoided, and here are some suggestions to help you stay out of the clutches of the demon.

First: shoot as many of the clay target games as you can. I will not attempt to list and describe the various games in this essay; doing so would require thousands of words and descriptions that are as boring as the games themselves are exciting. But you should be able to find gun clubs or ranges in your area that offer trap, skeet, trap, sporting clays, and five stand. Shoot them all so that you get the greatest possible variety of targets and target flights.

Second: although the rules of the games say you MAY mount the gun to your shoulder before calling for the release of the target, the rules do not say that you MUST mount the gun. I suggest that you call for the target’s release and mount the gun only when the target appears. Granted you will not break as many clay targets, but you will be training your body to perform the acquire-step-swing-mount-track-shoot-follow through sequence of motion that will serve you well in shooting gamebirds afield.

Third: shoot your field gun when you shoot the games. Go to any gun club and you will see that specialized shotguns dominate the clay target sports. These guns are semi-automatics or over-unders (many trap shooters use single-barrel, break-action guns, of course), they weigh eight pounds or more, and the stocks have prominent pistol grips and raised or adjustable combs. These specialized guns may be equipped with an assortment of features to reduce recoil and muzzle jump, or to assist swing and follow through: ported muzzles, adjustable buttplate recoil pads, release triggers, forend weights, and other devices.

Matched to its specific game, this type of specialized trap gun, skeet gun, and sporting clays gun can certainly increase the number of clay targets the shooter will break. And for the clay target games, the ultimate goal is the number on the scorecard, not the form and fluidity of the shooter – the art of the sport, if you will.

The shotgun you will not see on the clay target range is the one I consider the ultimate for upland bird hunting: the classic side-by-side with straight stock and splinter forend, double triggers, fixed chokes, in 16 or 20 or 28 gauge, weighing less than seven pounds. When I shoot the clays courses with these guns, will I shoot my highest possible scores? Almost certainly not. My scores will be higher if I shoot my semi-auto sporting clays gun or my over-under skeet gun. (Yes, I have one of each. Satan persuaded me to buy them, and I am sure I will have to do centuries of purgatory time as penance for the sin of covetousness.)

But I would rather break twenty-two skeet targets shooting my 28 gauge double gun than break twenty-five shooting the semi-auto. Most days. As I mentioned, we all have our own level of pride.

Regardless of your specific quirks and passions as a shotgunner, you would be wise to shoot the clay target games as often as your time and budget allow. Next fall, in the thick of an aspen woods, a ruffed grouse will flush from an unexpected place, fly in an unexpected direction, weave around a pair of spruce trees, and fall stone dead at the report of a snapshot that you are amazed to discover that your fired yourself, automatically, artfully, smoothly. And a little voice in the back of your head will whisper, “Wobble skeet, low house six.”

Do not say it aloud. Let your hunting buddies proclaim you a natural.

To read the best (in my opinion) book on wing-shooting afield, purchase a copy of The Orvis Wing-Shooting Handbook by Bruce Bowlen.

To read about the passion, foibles and humor of wing-shooting afield, click on this link to buy and read Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to Clay target games

  1. don says:

    do you BUY clay skeet, or is that a machine you have at home where you stamp them out yourself? If such a thing does not exist, it seems like a natural.

    • Standard clay targets cost about 10 cents apiece — less than $9 for a box of 90 targets at the Farm & Fleet store. Special targets (midis, minis, rabbits, battues) cost more. Most shooting is done at ranges where you pay about $4.50 or $5 for a round of skeet or trap (both 25 shots/targets), maybe $6 or $6.50 for a game of five-stand (25 targets), maybe $15-$20 for a game of sporting clays (100 targets). No one makes their own clay targets; it would be time consuming, start-up cost would be huge, and commercial targets are inexpensive.

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