Grab your shotgun and come with me. I just shot my first round of Sporting Clays and I’m hooked. The sport is fast, challenging, and more fun than is normally legal. Now that the weather has warmed up, it is a great way to get outside, and it isn’t too expensive.
It all started with an invitation from a friend to shoot a round of Sporting Clays at the Vernon National Shooting Preserve (VNSP) in Central New York State (www.vernonnational.com). It’s a lush 500 acres of rolling hills, standing timber, open fields and hedgerows. The attached photos don’t do it justice; you really have to see it for yourself to appreciate what a find it is. For those of you who think of New York City when you hear the words New York, be advised that NYC makes up less than 1% of the geographical area of the state. Most of the remaining 54,250 square miles is primarily rural. It’s one of the most beautiful states in the Union made up of woodlands, mountains, streams, lakes, rivers, and meadows. The summer weather is gorgeous, a welcome reprieve from the blistering heat of Dallas. The people are genuinely friendly and guns are welcome!
The Vernon National Shooting Preserve Sporting Clays course, set up by Owner and Hunt Manager, Ron Acee, is state-of-the-art. Each of the 14 stations has a remote control for launching the clays. If you get a prepaid card for the clay targets, you can shoot anytime, day or night. They even have a delay that can be set on your card so if you’re shooting alone you have time to push the button and get your gun ready before the birds launch. In addition, there’s a 600 yard rifle range, pistol range, live pheasant hunts (no hunting license required, bring your dog), and a clubhouse. It’s for members only, but the membership fee is only $100. In other words, it’s a steal.
So what should you expect on a Sporting Clays course?
A course is comprised of a series of shooting stations equipped with one or two traps to launch the round clay targets. They’re the same targets that are used in skeet and trap shooting, but the presentation is much different. First of all, you shoot in a uniquely different setting for each station. One may be in a field, while another has you shooting into the woods, over a ravine, or across a pond. Besides making the course more interesting, it also makes it more difficult to judge distance and the speed of the targets or “birds.”
Secondly, the traps are set up to launch the clays in a number of different trajectories. You’ll see quartering birds that fly away from you at various angles…or towards you. There are crossers that fly straight across from one side to the other. One of the most challenging is battues or chandelles that fly a high arc and turn over in flight. You’ll see these basic presentations at various distances and speeds which makes it necessary to vary your gun speed and leads just as you’d have to do shooting live birds in the field. In fact, sporting clays is the closest to actual field shooting of any shotgun sport, and the naturally varied terrain and flight paths of the birds is great practice to prepare for bird season.
The third element that makes sporting clays so much fun is that you generally shoot birds in pairs. There are what’s called “report pairs” and “true pairs.” When you’re shooting a report pair, the second bird isn’t launched until you make your shot at the first bird. In a true pair, both birds are launched simultaneously. You have to decide which bird to shoot first and you have to be quick to get them both.
In the presentation of true pairs you’ll find one bird stacked on top of another, or one bird in front of another, or birds that diverge. That’s the setup that gave me the most problems.
Finally, there are rabbits and squirrels. Oh yeah, not all of the birds are launched into the air. Rabbits are clays that roll past you similar to quartering birds or crossers, but on the ground. And when they hit a mogul or bump, they jump! Squirrels are the same as rabbits except they’re aimed at a tree so they run up the trunk before you break them or gravity wins out and they drop to the ground.
Because sporting clays courses are all different, shooters travel from course-to-course to experience the full diversity the sport has to offer, similar to why dedicated golfers like playing on different courses. But, unlike golf, sporting clays courses regularly change the setup of their stations to provide shooters with a new experience without having to travel. At the Vernon National Shooting Preserve, Ron confided that he tries to keep a balance between being challenging enough for the more experience shooters, while not being so hard that it would discourage new entrants to the sport. In my humble opinion, he does a fabulous job.
Equipment and costs
My host, Rita Scharman, a local businesswoman and regional sporting clays competitor, not only hosted my shoot, but provided some valuable instruction for this newbee, including what it takes to get started in the sport:
- All you need is a shotgun that can fire two rounds fairly quickly. Doubles and semi-autos in 12 gauge or 20 gauge are the favored guns, but when someone shows up with a pump action, people pay attention. You’ve got to be really good to score well with a pump.
- If you’re planning on buying a gun to shoot sporting clays, shoot as many different guns as you can first. You’ll know when you have the right gun. Many sporting clays courses, including the Vernon National Shooting Preserve, have guns to rent.
- Watch the bird, not the sight on your gun.
- Shooting well requires intense concentration. But if you just want to have fun and fling shot at the birds with your buddies, that’s OK too. It doesn’t have to be a competition.
- Try the sport. If you like it, get some instruction. Most courses have instructors. They may not work full time at it and you may need to do it by appointment, but it will greatly accelerate your learning curve.
Buy a Beretta A400 on GunsAmerica: /a400
Buy a Beretta 682 on GunsAmerica: /682
How about the costs? The biggest costs are the shotgun, ammunition, and targets. For ammo, Rita likes the Fiocchi Target loads (www.fiocchiusa.com ). They run about $7.50 a box when you buy them in flats which are comprised of ten boxes of twenty-five rounds each. All of the leading ammo manufacturers make skeet and target loads so check out your favorite brand. They are typically loaded to propel a 1 or 1 1/8oz. load of #7 ½ or #8 shot at about 1200 fps with relatively mild recoil.
Rita’s favorite gun is the 12 gauge Beretta A400 XCEL with a 30” barrel (www.beretta.com). She’s a serious competitor and likes the way the Beretta shoots. She can get it on target fast and the recoil doesn’t beat her up. The action in a semi-automatic absorbs some of the recoil and some guns, like the A400 Xcel, also have a recoil absorber in the stock. She brought along a very nice Beretta 682 Limited over-and-under (O/U) for me to shoot. Although this isn’t a rule, what I saw was that men generally shoot O/Us and women generally shoot semi-automatics. No doubt the recoil absorbing properties of gas operated semi-autos is a major consideration for smaller shooters. The advantages of the O/Us are that they’re shorter for a given barrel length and they have two choke tubes to facilitate breaking near and far birds.
Although new Beretta A400s list for $1,895, I’ve seen them for around $1,500-1,600. Of course there are much more expensive offerings from manufacturers like Perazzi, Krieghoff, and Blaser. Got a spare 85 grand, knock yourself out. But you can also get a TriStar Viper G2 semi-automatic with a synthetic stock for around $400. I even saw a Ruger Red Label O/U on GunsAmerica for $950, used but 98% condition which is virtually a new gun. In other words, there are a lot of great shotguns available to fit anyone’s pocketbook if you don’t already have one.
For ammunition, look around to see who has the best prices. Or if you’re into reloading, load your own. The more you shoot, the more you’ll save. Targets (clays) run about 30 cents each when you buy in quantity at the range. A typical 100 bird round will use 100 birds plus two to look at before you shoot at each station. You should figure in some breakage too since the clays are fragile and occasionally break coming out of the trap. 150 birds will run around $45-50.
I’m hardly qualified to give advice on how to break clays on the range, however Rita provided some advice which helped to improve my shooting. There are basically two things going on in sporting clays shooting. First is the mechanics. Basically a geometry problem, you need to figure out the speed and direction of the target and position your gun so that when you pull the trigger your shot pattern will hit the bird. Fortunately, you don’t have to measure everything and calculate an answer. The human brain is pretty good at estimating these things. It’s even better at determining the exact moment to pull the trigger.
The idea is to set yourself up so that what you’re doing is repeatable, target-to-target. One of the basics is to launch a pair of birds to look at them and see where they go. At some point in the bird’s flight it will appear to slow or it will appear larger and you’ll be able to see some detail on the target like the rings and ridges. Where that happens is where you want to break the target. You can use a tree or stump or cloud in the background to help mark the spot. Face that spot with your body like you were going to take the shot, then move your gun barrel back toward the trap a little bit and you have your hold point where you’ll pick up the bird before you shoot it. From your hold point, call “pull” and whoever is launching birds for you will push the button that sends the target on its way. Pick up the bird and move the gun barrel in front of it at whatever lead you feel you need while focusing on the bird. Don’t look back at your barrel. When it feels right, press the trigger and you should see the bird disintegrate into a puff of color. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Take a look at the Pat Lieske’s promotional video in this article (www.sunriseproductions.us).
Pat does a good job of demonstrating the analysis and movement necessary to break targets consistently. By-the-way, this isn’t a paid ad. I bought a video from Sunrise Productions myself and thought it was good so asked if I could use this preview to give you a little better idea of how shooting Sporting Clays looks. There are a lot of other good videos available online as well. If you can, get a coach to spend a session or two with you to improve your form and correct any problems you may be having. It could make a big difference.
While I was in NY, Rita took me to a Sporting Clays tournament to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation which grants wishes for children with life threatening medical conditions (www.wish.org). The shoot was held at another fabulous course — the Clinton Fish and Game Club (www.clintonfishandgameclub.com) near Clinton, NY. The members are a warm hearted group of people and the club has granted sick kids a thousand wishes in the 15 years they’ve been doing this. So not only did I have a lot of fun and meet some great people while enjoying shooting, but also did something very worthwhile that will have a positive effect on kids fighting for their lives. Wow!
There were trophies for a number of categories plus one for the overall best score. Rita won the women’s division. But, get this — the overall best score was shot by a 14 year old girl! I’m telling you, this is a sport for the entire family.
Sporting Clays is a rewarding sport and a lot of fun. You get to shoot a lot, what you learn is transferrable to hunting, and it’s a perfect excuse to get out into the woods on a nice day. More than 3 million people of all ages shoot Sporting Clays. The sport is dominated by men but more women are joining the ranks every year.
The governing body in the US is the National Sporting Clays Association (www.nssa-nsca.org). Check out their website to learn more.
Beretta – www.beretta.com
Clinton Fish & Game Club – www.clintonfishandgameclub.com
Fiocchi Ammunition – www.fiocchiusa.com
National Sporting Clays Association – www.nssa-nsca.org
Make-A-Wish Foundation – www.wish.org
Sunrise Productions – www.sunriseproductions.us
Vernon National Shooting Preserve – www.vernonnational.com