Shooting for Fun
The Exotic World of Sporting Clays Offers Outdoor Settings to Test Your Shooting Skills
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95
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Despite the sport's exotic and somewhat intimidating nature, getting started is not difficult. If you are unfamiliar with a shotgun, basic instruction is available at many local ranges. Most formal
sporting clays ranges have one or many full-time instructors on staff. Like teaching professionals in other sports, they are geared to walk you through your first shot or elevate a veteran's skills to championship level. Many courses also have guns to loan or hire.
Learning to shoot isn't as difficult as it might seem. One begins with an unloaded gun, first mastering safety and general handling techniques. Then very basic, even stationary targets are addressed as the shooter learns the skills needed to attempt more-difficult shots. Learning to shoot is not a fall-off-and-get-back-on proposition. Instead, with a shotgun, you learn to stand, walk and then run. You simply are not allowed to fall, even on your first step. The worst that ever happens is that you will miss some targets. Everyone does.
With some very basic knowledge of shotgunning and mastery of safety, anyone is ready and welcome to shoot a sporting clays course. Like the casual round of golf, most sporting clays are shot in noncompetitive environments with, or often delightfully without, a scorecard. The average course will be open on weekends and during one or more weekdays. Many will be in operation during the long summer evenings. With an average 50-bird course taking just over an hour to complete, there is plenty of time for a round after a day at work. Or with a few acres in an area that allows shooting, a hand or mechanical target thrower turns the area into an instant sporting clays course. There are also a growing number of elegant charity events where the actual shooting performance becomes secondary to the atmosphere and charitable purpose. These are perfect arenas for gaining experience in tournament shooting without the pressure of formal competition. Most of these events anticipate the attendance of first-time shooters and cater to them fully.
But back to the course. By the time my three companions finished up on Station One, I was ready and waiting at the second shooting platform. Station Two carried a "springing teal," that is, targets that launch vertically, like dim skyrockets. The two targets flew simultaneously, and I broke the first by sweeping the barrels through its climbing flight and pressing the trigger as the target disappeared from the vision of my right eye. Searching for the second "bird" begins just as it reaches its apex. At this point, experience, timing, judgment or a good coach behind you will direct the shot: at, below, or toward the downwind side of this almost stationary target. One almost never "aims" at the target, but instead must "lead" the clay so the shot arrives where the target is, not where it was when the shot was released. I managed to break 10 teal and maybe, just maybe, was on a roll.
Station Three said something about doves, a word that generates trepidation. A dove, like its real-life counterpart, carries connotations of doing many things, none of them twice. The targets were true to their namesake. Released from a trap (a mechanical target launcher) some 30 yards out and to the right of the shooters' position, their path crossed from right to left along a ditch lined with intermittent trees that obscured the clays from the shooters' view. The occasional interruptions were distracting, and the outcome was demoralizing. One of the pair seemed to leave as if it had been fired from a gun itself and at a much greater distance than its brother, who lumbered along and then fell from the air without reason. The second target was clearly a batue. The fast target had to be addressed first by swinging the barrels along its course and firing some three feet in front. Then the more sluggish batue could be shot as it turned its broadside. Hitting it required a lead well to the left and below. I missed the first screaming target cleanly and hit the batue. Then my mind clicked: that first target was a mini. It wasn't as far away, or as fast, as my mental computer had calculated. It was simply a glorified bottle cap, less than half the size of a real, grown-up clay target. The little targets are a mental complication. It's somewhat like having a Ping-Pong ball occasionally tossed onto the tennis court, just to see if your mind is on the game. I made it through the third station with an eight, after allowing my concentration to slip on a batue.
I eagerly approached Station Four, "the running hare," because, unlike many shooters, I can hit these. The rabbit targets are thick, heavy disks that are thrown rolling or bouncing along the ground. They are capable of bad hops, just like a baseball on uneven ground, but a cool head takes the bumps in stride, leads the uneven hops and watches the pieces fly. I was absolutely in command of the situation until I called "pull" the first time. Twenty-five yards away, from behind an old log with several other logjams in their path, something unleashed a whole husk of rabbits. My mind basically went into blind panic, forgot all it knew about shooting and shot somewhere into the midst of the bounding clays. Lost pair!
The bad news was that there really were only two rabbits that looked like a dozen. I pulled myself together for the next pair and shot with great deliberation, a method that is fatal to successful shotgunning. The first round was well behind. My head screamed concentrate, and I did, taking perfect aim on the second target as it rolled into a sandy field. It was absolutely surrounded by the impact of 300 pellets, covered in dust and bounded away unscathed. Lost pair! The second was too far away and turning its solid edge to me, making it fairly bulletproof. I won half of round three, hitting the first and repeating the long-distance error on the second shot. At the fourth pair, I was thoroughly demoralized and beginning to even dislike the Easter Bunny, but with many years of competitive-shooting experience, I began reassembling in my head. When they're beating you, stop thinking, get tough, get aggressive and look at the target. I jumped on the first rabbit I saw, hammering it only a few feet from its burrow, and made an honest miss just under the second. I won round five, pounding both hares to dust just a few feet from their house. A small revenge to compensate a sickly four on my scorecard.
The fifth station loomed out of the forest like an iron monster. The sign said High Pheasants and jolly well meant it. Here we faced a tower, not just any tower, but a giant. The red-and-white framework lifted the target trap 120 feet high. The targets were mercifully thrown as a "report" pair. That is, the second would be released on the report of the first shot being fired. The first pair came straight overhead, seemingly so high and fast as to be untouchable, and to most they were. The next pair left the tower 30 degrees to the right, with the third at the same angle to the left, followed by a right pair and a left again. I broke the first overhead and then missed seven more, feeling totally helpless, testing different leads and techniques that might put the clay in the pattern of shot.
I was shooting with a female friend who had shot this course several times before and out of desperation turned to her for advice. "How do you hit these?" I asked. "Lead them." "I know; how much?" "A boxcar!" No, she hadn't said a Volkswagen or even a Cadillac; without a stutter she had said a boxcar! The advice was sound. It would be very unlikely to miss such a target in front. Odds were better than 10 to 1 that I was shooting behind them. I called "pull" on my last chance, stroked the barrels an impossible distance in front of the black dot and then pushed them some more. When the lead seemed ridiculously long, I pressed the trigger. My mind had paused to accept the inevitable miss, watching the continued flight of the target well after the shot...when it broke. Its distance was great enough that there was an appreciable time lag between firing the shot and the pellets reaching the target. I'm sure my mouth was still open from that hit when I missed the 10th target.
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