Shooting for Fun

The Exotic World of Sporting Clays Offers Outdoor Settings to Test Your Shooting Skills
| By Ross Seyfried | From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

The clubhouse was appointed with bronzes, oils, oak and leather. Each participant had a scorecard in his pocket. Beyond the door the water, green fields and massive old trees awaited. It could have been St. Andrews or Pebble Beach or Hilton Head. The arrival of a Bell Jet Ranger on the lawn outside, as well as the arrival of a very worn, beat-up van, each carrying players, suggested that the crowd here wasn't going to be the ordinary club crowd. There was a big difference. Instead of a golf cart protruding with bags and clubs and towels accompanying each player, virtually everyone in sight had a gun in the crook of his arm. This wasn't a golf course, but a shooting clays club, and everyone here was readying his weapons for a tournament.

The first squad of four men, including this writer, strolled along a gentle path to a point where a "station judge" waited. The judge invited us to "view" the first pair of targets. A sign at the station declared that we were at the Driven Grouse point. Because this type of game bird is one of the more difficult to shoot, a more appropriate title might have been Demon Chased. As the referee called "pull," a pair of black clay disks appeared at the head of the gully some 40 yards away. The gully's walls were 15 feet deep and just slightly greater in width. The targets flew straight toward our position; their speed was something more than 40 mph. Just 20 feet in front of the firing line, the clays shattered as they simultaneously curved and smacked into the gully walls. Their flight had consumed only one-and-a-half seconds. Our goal was to step into a two-foot-square firing box and break the targets with the shot from a gun...before they broke themselves.

We shuffled scorecards, and I won the dubious privilege of stepping to the line first. I called, "trapper ready?" to alert the person who would release the targets. At his affirmation I dropped a pair of shells into a double-barreled 12-gauge Beretta and closed the breech. The next few seconds were critical. The adrenaline surged, and I waged a miniature battle to control it, knowing full well that the powerful substance could spark speed and coordination. Otherwise, I would fight my own muscles, yank the trigger and hear the inevitable "bird lost!"

With a tight focus on the spot where the birds would appear, I called, "pull!" I saw the left bird first as I lifted the butt to my shoulder and pushed the barrels to an apparent point an inch in front of its course. At the recoil of the firing cartridge, the target shattered. Now, find the right bird! My eyes saw it as it screamed within feet of the wall. My left hand accelerated the barrels toward its line of flight as my finger pressed the trigger for the second shot. The act was pure reflex, there was no time to "aim." The target exploded into black smoke just inches from its own suicide against the gully wall. When the shot "pattern" struck, the pellets' spread was no larger than the target itself. The referee called, "dead pair." I breathed again, knowing the second hit was only luck, having spent too much time on the first shot.

With a total of five pairs to shoot at this station, there were eight clays to go. With each pair, the tension built rather than declined. But the first eight targets were broken, and I shattered the last pair, too. There was immediate relief. The applause from the rest of the squad penetrated my concentration. The first 10 of 100 targets were all X's. These were targets that I could hit; there would be ones that I could not.

Welcome to the world of sporting clays. On this course, really a compendium of sporting clays stations from courses around the world, there were nine other stations, with 10 clays each, for a total score of 100. But with this sport, in contrast to many other sports and especially shooting sports, perfection is more or less out of the question. On the trap and skeet fields, the two other principal shooting games, every course and most targets are the same. Scores of 100 or even 500 straight are expected from top-level shooters. However, the sporting clays world is different. Its very essence is variety. Each range is very different from another, and on the same range, each station will be regularly changed from day to day. A shooter breaking 90 percent of the targets will win many of the major tournaments.

Sporting clays is designed to simulate the kinds of shots encountered in the wild hunting fields. It began in England in the early 1900s as a means of practice by dukes, earls and kings for pheasant and grouse shooting. Sporting clays formally took hold in the United States little more than a decade ago. However, in its short time here it has grown dramatically, attracting people from all walks of life--including becoming a social event for many of the rich and famous. It is a sport where the rackets and clubs are shotguns and the balls are little flying saucers made of pitch and carbon.

In addition to the variety of courses and presentations, there are also different kinds of targets. Three of them are more or less conventionally shaped saucers of varying size. A cupped underside makes them fly much like a Frisbee...unless a course designer chooses to launch them upside down, drastically altering their aerodynamic quality. The full-sized target measures 110 mm, or about four-and-a-quarter-inches in diameter; the middle-sized version is 90 mm, or three-and-a-half inches, and the minisized clay is just 60 mm, or two-and-a-quarter inches in diameter. The rabbits and batues complete the selection. (A batue is a thin, heavy disk with relatively poor aerodynamics that sails for the first portion of flight, turns sideways in a more or less predictable manner and then falls like a greased brick.)

For those who do not understand, or who even recoil at the thought of a gun of any kind, think of it as a sporting clays tennis racket. A firearm, like a golf club, a motor car or the lighter that might ignite the end of your cigar, is an inanimate object. Any of these instruments, in the wrong hands, has the power to do hideous damage. But they do not act alone; their capability is absolutely limited by the will of their users. The shotgun can be an instrument of great pleasure, intrinsic beauty and a grand test of human skill.

The "typical" sporting clays gun is an over/under, double-barreled, 12-gauge--it has two barrels, arranged one on top of the other. The gun holds two cartridges, and a single trigger mechanism fires those cartridges, one after the other, with successive pulls. Good entry-level guns include an American-made Ruger, the Japanese Browning and the Italian Beretta; each offers models that are priced between $1,500 and $3,000. Even though these are entry-level guns, do not assume they are a handicap. Shotgunning is a difficult place to buy skill. Any one of these guns, in the right hands, has world-championship potential.

The next level of over/under guns are tailored for the sophisticated tournament niche. They are without ornamentation but possess the finest mechanisms and workmanship and almost unlimited lifespans. They are like race cars with the very finest steering and brakes that can be made. These are the famous Italian Perazzi, Beretta ASE-90 and Krieghoff from Germany, along with several other serious tournament-grade guns by lesser known names. These occupy the $7,000 to $10,000 price range.

There is an even more expensive level of guns. These guns qualify as collectible art, although they are very functional and are made by the top manufacturers of both the over/under and side-by-side double-barreled guns. Each maker uses a foundation of the highest mechanical standards with varying degrees of ornamentation. This list now spans many nations of the world and dozens of makers. The English firms of Purdey, Holland & Holland and Asprey are almost household names and for centuries have turned out exquisite firearms. The Italian Fabri firearms are viewed by many as the finest of their kind, and Beretta, the oldest industrial firm in the world, turns out handmade guns in their SO series that are without peer. The finest steel and wood are fabricated into a shotgun, then an artist carves the hard steel with finesse that rivals the master painters. These guns start at $20,000, and many cost more than $100,000. At this price range, one not only owns a functional tool but a piece of art that appreciates in value.

An expensive piece of art or even a double-barreled gun are not essential to the enjoyment of sporting clays. A Remington Model 11-87 Sporting Clays, with a softer recoil, may be one of the best sporting clays guns for beginners. In fact, one of the charms of the sporting clays course is its compatibility with almost any kind of shotgun. The classic, early double-barreled game guns, made before the turn of the century, are perfectly compatible with sporting clays courses. As an antithesis to these old thoroughbreds, I have seen shooters with inexpensive, newly made pump-action guns shoot very credible scores. Because sporting clays simulates hunting, shotguns made for hunting, as a vast majority of them are, excel at the sport.

Part of this universal adaptability is due to the fact that most good shotguns will break the targets. They deliver a "pattern" or elongated cloud of small shot pellets, and it is the shooter/athlete who is responsible for success or failure. While some of the mechanics of a shotgun can be likened to a race car with varying degrees of sophistication, every shooter has access to the same engine: the cartridges. If the shot pattern finds its way to the clay target, it will break the target without caring who or what released it.

The actual target-breaking performance of most shotguns is controlled by the cartridges used and the choke. The choke is a constriction at the muzzle of the gun barrel that controls the spread of the shot pellets in flight, much as a nozzle controls the spray of water from a garden hose. A "full" choke will hold the pellets as closely together as possible, while a "cylinder" choke will allow the maximum reasonable spread. In terms of your hitting a clay target, this means that with the full choke you have a shot spread of about 20 inches at 25 yards, while the cylinder will offer you a 40-inch pattern. It is easier to hit targets with the larger spread. And most modern guns come equipped with threaded sections inside their muzzles that accept "choke tubes." These tubes allow the shooter to alter the degree of choke present in their barrels. While it becomes tempting, especially for the novice, to change these chokes regularly to suit the shooting situation, almost every shooter will be best served by a minimal degree of choke for almost all sporting clays shots.

Along with the variety of kinds of guns themselves, there are different sizes or gauges of shotguns. The most common is the 12-gauge. The gauge refers to the diameter of the bore, or inside of the barrel. This designation relates to the number of lead round balls of that diameter that it takes to weigh one pound. The larger numbers have smaller bores, hence 16-, 20- and 28-gauge, with the smallest common shotgun being a .410-bore (referring to its diameter in inches). From a shooter's perspective, the basic difference is the weight of the gun and the amount of shot it uses. The standard 12-gauge will weigh between seven and eight pounds, while the 20- or 28-gauges may be as light as five to six pounds. A standard 12-gauge "target" cartridge uses one-and-one-eighth ounces of shot, the .410 a mere half ounce. While most beginning shooters are best served by a 12- or 20-gauge, there is a gun and cartridge to suit almost any situation and whim.

Sporting clays competition is geared to include this wide variety of tools and shooter skill. Instead of handicaps, shooters compete within a class system based on their scores for their most recent 200 or 300 targets. The classes range from AA, representing an average of 77 percent, down to D class with 56 percent or less. Additionally, there are usually women's classes and youth awards as well as separate awards for small gauges and side-by-side guns. There is an opportunity for almost every skill level or kind of gun to share in the winning.

In addition to a firearm, two pieces of safety equipment are essential. Eye and hearing protection are as mandatory and logical as a helmet in a football game. The noise from gunfire can damage hearing. Protection can be as simple and inexpensive as foam-rubber industrial earplugs or as sophisticated as the electronic earplugs made by ESP. These are individually molded to the shooter and fitted with electronic circuits that amplify normal speech and sounds, while eliminating the high decibels of a gun's report. Safety eyewear is also essential. While there is almost no danger from the firearm or shot, broken pieces of clay targets can represent a very real hazard to unprotected eyes.

Beyond safety, the choice of lenses can also be beneficial to a shooter's success. A light-yellow lens helps brighten dull light, much as it does on a cloudy day on the ski slopes. Light-rose glasses dampen dark-green backgrounds such as trees and make black or orange targets more visible. Some of the most popular shooting glasses feature interchangeable lenses, offering the shooter an immediate choice of lens color to match the conditions.

Like other sports, shotgunning has its array of almost-necessary and luxury accessories. Shooting vests can be had in great variety, ranging from utilitarian to designer fashion. Cartridge and accessory bags come in ordinary canvas or very fine leather. There are gun cases designed for show and others that are made more or less crash-proof for airline travel. The shotguns can also receive special treatment. The inside of gun barrels are often bored and honed with meticulous care and science that nudges witchcraft. Choke tubes come in an extreme variety and are offered in sets that increase the constriction in increments of five one-thousandths of an inch.

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.

This was a world-class station, difficult in the extreme. Six was an exceptional score; zero was common. Walking away from this giant, the best I could do was hope to conquer it some day, swallow my pride and shoot as well as I could for the next 50 birds. It wasn't so bad. After all, there would be other days and other courses.

In fact, there are sporting clays ranges everywhere. These are not dusty, remote outposts but are often right within the confines of major resorts specializing in golf, tennis, skiing or equestrian sports. Mildly exotic locations such as Acapulco, Maui, Vail and Casa de Campo at La Romana in the Dominican Republic (near a Consolidated Cigar factory) all feature sporting clays courses. The current National Sporting Clays Association directory lists ranges in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Most countries in Europe and the United Kingdom also have one form or another of clay target shooting. The best sources for information relating to ranges, instructors and equipment are the National Sporting Clays Association and Sporting Clays magazine. The magazine comes as part of your annual membership in NSCA, or can be had separately. This dedicated journal lists ranges, tournaments and instructors and has the advertisements that sell the toys. The NSCA headquarters address is: 5931 Roft Road, San Antonio, Texas 78253. Telephone: (800) 877-5338.

Shotgunning is a sport of kings that is accessible to almost everyone, especially cigar smokers. I have not encountered a range where cigars are not welcome. Of course, the aroma of a fired cartridge is a wondrous thing to a sporting clays aficionado, but it's made all the more so by the sweet smell of a great cigar.

Ross Seyfried is a sporting clays enthusiast who has written for various shooting journals.

The Director's Shot

With a subject like shooting sports, so foreign to so many, it seems that a translator would be appropriate. Who better to play the role than writer, director, filmmaker and connoisseur of fine firearms and cigars John Milius (The Wind and the Lion, Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian and Geronimo)?

CA: Your taste in firearms is extraordinary. Do you collect other things?

Milius: No, actually, I don't--possibly excepting cigars. My firearms collection more or less covers all of the collecting bases. They are fine art and history. I smoke my cigars and shoot my guns, even the finest ones. They are art that I can use and enjoy. Fine arms, like the great cigars, are part of the renewed interest in fine, handmade things.

CA: Why would you collect guns? I'm sure that concept is lost on many people.

Milius: People have again realized that these are one of the great triumphs of men. They are truly art. It might take 1,000 man-hours to create the best gun. A gun in many ways is even more precise than a watch. It has to endure the great stress of firing, and it ages with you. When you get something that is so well made, by hand and machine, that it works perfectly, it is as pure in its function as it is in form. Very few things exist like that today. A fine shotgun in heavy use not only will last through your lifetime but through five or six lifetimes.

In a small way [a gun is] like a truly fine cigar--the best of its kind in the world. They both take literally years to produce. Even though an individual cigar is gone when it is smoked, there is an immediate and lasting pleasure from it. And that box of cigars contains another for tomorrow. Like the gun, the pleasure continues for a lifetime. [Smoking] a fine cigar is something done alone, simply for your own pleasure.

CA: You not only collect these guns, but you use them, for target shooting and hunting. A lot of the so-called civilized world will have a problem with that. Why would you shoot, rather than pursue one of the more "acceptable" pastimes?

Milius: When I was a young boy I would go with our neighbor, who was a hunter. He gave me the idea that to go walk the uplands with a fine Parker shotgun and a good dog was like the dessert of life. This was a reward that you granted yourself, the greatest thing you could do in life, one that would put you at peace with everything. It would cleanse your thoughts; get you away from the pressures. And it is a lot of fun.

CA: We are talking in a sporting clays environment. Tell me your thoughts about this sport.

Milius: The enjoyment derived from that gun and shooting it are far more important than the score. To be successful, get a gun you like, shoot it a lot, get to know it better. Sporting clays has most of the thrills of the hunt [and] all of the variances of hunting, without the restrictions. You can shoot clay targets out of season--even during mating season, and there is virtually no limit.

CA: Cigars?

Milius: I have so many favorites. I smoke a lot of domestics as well as Cubans. My favorite domestic by far is the La Gloria Cubana Wavell. I like all of the Arturo Fuentes and Licenciados. Another great cigar that a lot of people put down because it is so popular is the Montecristo No. 2. It is a truly great cigar. My favorite is a Romeo y Julieta Belicoso.

CA: You hear so many complaints about cigars. Do you encounter objections when you are in a duck blind or on the sporting clays course?

Milius: No, no. People with guns are very polite. That may sound bad, but it isn't. Shooting is one area of endeavor [in which] people are doing what they want. It is basically about freedom. [There] may also be a happier frame of mind associated with shooting. I smoke cigars and shoot all of the time. Other shooters, including women, constantly come up to me and comment on how good [the cigars] smell.

I will give my advice to the prospective cigar-smoking sporting clays shooter: never shoot with your cigar in your mouth [because] it will get you in the thumb. What you do is hold it in your left hand the way the British held their extra cartridges during an elephant attack. Hold your cigar in your left hand, wrapped around the fore end, then take a puff after a superbly smoked target.

Ross Seyfried