It’s only natural; hunting is in our genes. Being the best is in our DNA. The evolutionary drive that the spoils go to the winner is built in our cells. So it only makes sense that when shooters and hunters are exposed to a shooting sport that mimics hunting wild game, we embrace it and use it as the yardstick to measure our skills.
So for the fun, camaraderie, challenge and the need to test ourselves, are the reasons shooting clays is a natural step in the evolution of most hunters and shotgun enthusiasts. Most of us start out when we are young breaking clays that are hand tossed or come off of a tire mounted backyard thrower. Then that clays game turns into a competition between close friends for bragging rights. After that, we continue to the real birds and small game hunting.
One of the greatest appeals of shooting clays is there is no closed season or bag limit, never having to wait to get in on the fun. Many also use the clays sports as a means to sharpen their offseason shotgun and hunting skills.
Sporting Clays type shooting has been done in the US for over 100 years, using trap throwers in the woods to simulate hunting scenarios. Though formalizing it and adding the current structure has been a rather recent event, first introduced in the USA in 1980, with the first “official” match being held in 1982.
In 1989 the National Skeet Shooting Association formed the National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA). The NSCA provides the rules, promotion, and governance of Sporting Clays as we know it today.
Trap and skeet, though certainly challenging, are somewhat predictable and fixed in comparison with Sporting Clays. The standard Sporting Clays course consists of 100 birds thrown from 10 or more stations with multiple throwers, presenting a wide variety of clays for the shooter to engage. Due to the variety of targets available, different terrain, an infinite number of angles, pair combinations. and varying speeds that can be presented on a course, you will always find a proving ground for improving your skills.
Sporting Clays is commonly referred to as “golf with a shotgun” since you walk or ride in a golf cart between stations to work your way through a course. This definitely sounds like a better use of the terrain and a cart to me than golf. Courses can be found in all types of terrains, low country marshes, forest, fields, and high deserts; each has its own challenges and appeal. Just like in the wilds during a hunt, the birds can come and go at almost any angle- incoming, flushing, crossing birds, running rabbits, from behind you, from an overhead tower, singles or in pairs.
All you need to go enjoy Sporting Clays is a shotgun that will hold two shells (the max allowed by the rules and ranges), eye and ear protection, a few boxes of shells, and the cost of your local range. Most ranges have guns available to rent and shells for sale as well. Charges vary depending on the facility but typically start at about $35 for a 100 bird round course.
Courses can be as simple as machines placed around open fields or as elaborate as winding pathways through old plantations. Most facilities modify their courses every couple weeks to keep the challenges fresh. No predictability in this game.
Courses also tend to be geared toward the local clientele. If most patrons are recreational shooters, a course may be set up a bit softer than if the majority of the shooters are focused on higher level competitions. Having shot both, they are all enjoyable, challenging, and require you to focus on every bird. Don’t take even the easy ones for granted.
Any type gun but a single shot will get you on the road to enjoying this sport. Having screw in chokes is certainly a favorable feature, allowing you to control pattern based on birds at each station. Don’t be concerned about taking your favorite camo hunting gun to the range to give it a try, you won’t be alone. Though less than optimal, my field grade Benelli semi-autos have broken thousands of clays over the years and are more than adequate for the job.
As long as your gun is reliable and hits where you point it, you’re good to go. It’s always great to see someone who can really work a pump gun out there hitting some true pairs. Every year there’s a big increase in shooters in late summer as they flock to the range prior to opening day of dove season to knock a little rust off.
Most shots on a standard course can be made with an improved cylinder choke; however, a light modified choke is my top choice. Shells for 12 gauge guns should be 1 or 1 1/8 oz of 7 ½, 8 or 9 shot, 20 gauge loads are limited to 7/8 oz loads or less.
Tip: the choke needed not only depends on distance but also target presentation. It takes a tighter choke to break a flat edge bird than it does to break one presenting a partial or full dome shot. Consider surface area and distance when choosing your chokes.
Most of the top pros use long barreled over/under shotguns for their balance, sight radius, and reliability. While you don’t need an expensive over/under shotgun to enjoy sporting clays, there are advantages to having those twin barrels.
The good news is more and more manufacturers are offering guns loaded with features and designed for competition at lower costs than just a few years ago, like these offering from Benelli, FABARM, and Barrett.
When you arrive at each station the first shooter gets to see a “show pair” of the birds for that station. This makes it fair, as everyone else gets to see the bird’s path as the shooters in front of them shoot their birds. Courses vary, but you typically get a couple of single birds and then a couple report pairs or true pair birds at each station before moving on.
You only load when you are in the shooting position and must ensure you are unloaded and your action is open upon finishing a position. Sporting Clays allows you to start with the gun at low ready or already mounted on the shoulder. Years of hunting have made it much more natural for me to start with my gun off my shoulder and mount it as I see the bird.
The next step is to say “pull” and watch the birds fly, focus on the clays, and shoot where they are going to be in that split second it takes the shot to get there. If it is a well-balanced course you will find birds that are easy for you to break and also the ones that make you walk away shaking your head. It’s always a challenge.
Fear not, it’s really just a matter of focus and timing, so it is a problem that can be solved. Though it may take a little help from a friend or coach to correct your lead and get you on target.
One of the greatest things about shooting sports is the community and camaraderie. Most ranges and shooters are more than willing to help newer shooters or visitors get comfortable and feel at home. Just be prepared, asking for a bit of advice on how to hit a particular bird or an explanation may lead to opening the floodgates of information, as most people love to share their sport.
The local sporting clays range (Limestone) in this area is often used for team building, fundraising and charity events, in addition to the standard shooting schedule. These events are a prime time to get some friends together, form a team, shoot, meet people and compete in a friendly no stress environment.
Typically there’s never been a good way to get instruction on how to improve while in the field hunting. Since Sporting Clays are tailored to mimic hunting scenarios, it seems there has been a tremendous resource developed that can do just that. A trap or skeet instructor may help on specific type birds but a sporting clays shooter is the generalist of the shotgun world.
Getting a Masterclass Sporting Clays shooter as an instructor for a few lessons is a great way to cut down the learning curve, sharpen your skills afield, and maybe relieve some frustration on those tough shots.
There are several ways of finding an instructor; this link takes you to the instructor listing on the NSCA website. Instructors are listed by state and by the level of certification. Getting a quick lesson from a Level 1 instructor will help you with your first sporting clays experience, or you may want one after so you can figure out how to hit those birds that got away.
Another option is to do a quick internet search and identify a Pro or one of the nationally ranked Masters scattered across the US teaching lessons. This is how I found Wendell Cherry in TN.
I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from Mr. Cherry and even after a lifetime of shotgun shooting and years of competing in other shooting sports, I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose as he was sharing the details of the sport he has refined to an art form. I left wishing I had taken lessons years ago.
If you’re not quite ready to train under an All American, check out your local range Pro and he can help get you on target. Getting quality instruction early is money well spent; you’ll enjoy shooting more and have fewer bad habits to unlearn – trust me on that one.
The Big Time
For those that really get bitten by the Sporting Clays bug, the next step is joining NSCA and shooting in some larger matches. Registered matches are held at the local, state and regional levels, all the way up to the Nationals.
The NSCA rulebook explains the structure, equipment, classification system, and advancement through the seven classes ranging from Master to E class. The NSCA website has an event finder that allows you to search to find events in your area.
OK, all the mystery is gone now. There are no excuses. Anyone can and should give sporting clays a try. You may be humbled a bit by some birds, but you will also be proud of the ones you break and the improvements that can be gained. One thing is certain, if you take a group of friends and go you will have an unforgettable time and if you have to go by yourself, well you may find a whole new group of friends already there.