The season is long past, dark February and dreary March have gone by, spring has sprung and summer beckons. This is when game-shots should think about getting their guns out. Spring drilling provides opportunities for pigeon control, but those who are serious about their game-shooting should consider clay pigeon shooting both as a sport in itself and as a means of shotgun training. There is also the possibility of an invitation to a summer charity clay pigeon shoot – and none of us likes to look like a fool.
Essentially, there are three forms of clay-shooting: skeet, trap and sporting. Skeet uses two traps either end of a compact, semi-circular layout. It was devised by a couple of American grouse-hunters looking for off season practice. It is designed to simulate every angle you might encounter walking-up in the field. Shot gun-down (ie out of the shoulder), it is challenging, and superb grouse, pigeon and partridge practice. I often shoot skeet with friends using vintage side-by-sides, and we have a lot of fun.
SKEET AND TRAP
A skeet range useful for improving technique and for experimenting with forward allowance, not to mention trying new guns. Skeet is particularly useful because the angles and distances are set. If you are shooting alone or with friends, you do not have to shoot the normal sequence. If you’re right-handed start on Station 2 (there are seven stations on an English layout, eight on an American or Olympic one). Shoot the bird from the low house, which is a fairly soft crosser, to warm up. Use different methods. Try swinging through from a yard or two behind; try coming up on to the bird immediately and pushing forward; and try maintaining a lead deliberately of about a foot and a half (or whatever works for you). This exercise will make you much more aware of what you do or don’t do normally and help you to refine your gun control.
On a skeet field, as well as experimenting with lead, you can perfect your mount and swing, not to mention your footwork. Get in the habit of adjusting your feet and body to match the intended break point (I like to have the rear foot at about 90 degrees to where I want to smash the clay). Once committed to the shot, use the upper body, keeping the shoulders level. The body, not the arms, should provide the power.
Don’t rush. Start the body moving before you mount the gun. Co-ordinate the action so that the front hand takes the barrels of the unmounted gun to the bird as you begin to rotate the upper body. The gun should not come to the shoulder prematurely (nor should it dwell in it too long). The perfect shot is always performed to three beats: one; two; threee… And, as you complete the shot, the eyes should remain locked on the bird with head down and the gun moving until all you see is fragments. Many game-shots unlock the head from the stock prematurely. Exaggerate the follow-through and the general smoothness of your actions, and you may be surprised at how much you improve.
Trap, also called Down the Line, traces its origins to box-trap pigeon shooting (the direct ancestor of clay pigeon shooting). If shot gun-down, a trap layout can provide excellent live bird training. A trap layout may also be used as a walk-up with permission from the ground. Assuming safety is satisfied, walk in slowly towards the trap and release it (the trap may be left oscillating or locked to any angle). This is great practice for the moors and surprisingly difficult. The sport, and the lesson, is in trying to wrong-foot yourself. The common problem is mounting too quickly, windmilling the gun and shooting high. So, the maxim here is keep cool, bring the weight on to the left foot (assuming a right-hander) and “shoot the legs off” the bird. Try shooting trap conventionally, too, gun-up. Start with the muzzles pointing at the top of the trap house (or slightly to one side as you change position). Don’t move until you see the bird. As ever, the eyes must remain in command. Start “soft-focused” in front of the trap house.
SPORTING: SIMULATED QUARRY
What about sporting, the commonest form of clay pigeon shooting? It developed from practice shooting at Victorian shooting schools and evolved into a sport of its own in the Twenties. The rough idea is that the “birds”, usually presented in pairs, should simulate quarry species. Shoot sporting gun-down on a regular basis and you will become a much better game shot. Driven stands are obviously ideal live quarry practice (on high birds you can experiment with lead and also centre of gravity; try shooting off the front and back foot and with a central weight distribution and see which you prefer). Don’t discount the value of teal, rabbit and quartering presentations, either, not to mention the really challenging long crossers that are a common feature of many sporting courses today. These will teach you more about technique and forward allowance than any other shot.
When shooting sporting, ask yourself where the bird is coming from and what it is doing. Is it deceptive? Is it wind-affected? Is it slowing, dropping or going off line? Identify a spot where you first see the clay if you can. Also consider what sort of target you are facing; clays come in three sizes (standard, midi and mini) and you may encounter battues and rabbits, too. Common errors include shooting behind and over (when the weight comes back and the head rises during the swing). Midis and battues tend to be deceptively fast – initially at least. My usual advice on battues is, “50% more than you think and forget about any curve in line”. On quartering birds, it is often, “shoot the bottom front edge”.
For teal, I break my general advice, and usually suggest shooting gun-up to begin with. Rules permitting, mount the gun on the intended breaking point and wind halfway down the predicted line of flight if you shoot with two eyes and three-quarters of the way back if you squint, dim, or close an eye. Call for the bird and shoot it without hesitation. A teal angled back may require more control (there is a danger in shooting above it). A single vertical presentation may require a deliberate allowance above. A vertical pair may need a little allowance above on the first shot but a bit under on the second. Other tips? Rabbits are often missed over the top (so, always shoot the bottom edge). If clay bunnies give you nightmares try squinting an eye as you take the shot. On high birds, you’re probably behind, but you may be off line, too (just as with pheasants). Don’t discount the possibility of shooting in front because of eye dominance problems, either. If in doubt, try squinting again, possibly with a side-on stance.
HELICE OR ZZ
Another form of artificial target-shooting that many game-shots especially enjoy is Helice or ZZ which simulates live pigeon-shooting but replaces the pigeon with a plastic whirly-bird. The shoots are set up much like a live pigeon match. You go to the firing point alone to face five traps, pronounce that you are ready and then call for the bird. Once you have shot the first you must gamble on which of the remaining four traps will come into play. It’s exciting and really tough to shoot even 10 birds straight. Try it.
Any game-gun may be used for clay pigeon shooting. You may, if you are competitively inclined, find special competitions or classes for side-by-sides. Ideally, though, the most efficient tool for skeet or sporting would probably be a 30in-barrelled, multi-choked over-and-under (28in-barrelled guns, which may be better in the field, are not quite as pointable or precise). That said, I’ve managed respectable scores with an 1880s Holland & Holland 16-bore hammergun. Over-and-unders, 32in-barrelled, are preferable for trap (and a higher comb than average and a bit of choke may help). In the case of sporting, 32in guns may be considered experts’ tools; in experienced hands they make some birds significantly easier. For sporting and skeet, you might also consider a light-recoiling semi-auto which might do double service on pigeon and duck.
As for choke and cartridges, don’t obsess. Start with quarter and half in a double (if you have the option of choke changing). What about cartridges? If you are using a traditional gun, side-by-side or stack-barrelled, go for a light 24g 7½ load such as the Lyalvale Express HV (which I have also found an especially good side-by-side clay cartridge). Semi-automatics usually require 28g to be reliable.
Mike Yardley is former British Side-by-Side Champion, an AA sporting shot, and winner of the side-by-side class at The Field and Range Rover Top Shot Challenge
HOW TO SHOOT CLAY PIGEON
When clay pigeon shooting on a sporting layout or skeet field, one has the great advantage of knowing where the bird is coming from and where it is going (trap-shooting is not quite as predictable, but one knows the birds will be launched forward in a predetermined arc). For this reason, clay pigeon shooting allows for good preparation (and the difference between good and indifferent clay-busters is that the former routinely prepare themselves for each shot).
One should select a “killing point” so that one can swing on and through it without tension and without dropping a shoulder. I usually tell people to keep the rear foot at about 90 degrees to the point they want to break the bird. Holding this stance, and keeping the weight over the front foot, one should rotate back towards the trap. The muzzles of the gun should stop at the place where you first see the target clearly (in focus as a solid object). The eyes should be brought back to where you first see the target as a blur (and not to the trap itself).
(1) Where do I want to stand to break this bird?
(2)Where do I first see it clearly (because that is where I start the gun)?
(3) Where do I see it as a blur or streak?
Shooting becomes a simple, natural process if you are disciplined about your approach work. Call for the bird smoothly (how you call affects how you shoot). Pull! As you see the bird, lock your focus on it. The muzzles of the gun, which should begin just under the flight line, come to the bird and push through smoothly. Focus is sustained. Your upper body moves like a tank turret. You move through the bird with perfect control and fire instinctively when you believe the forward allowance is correct. The bird breaks. You follow through and keep your head down and eyes locked on to the bits.
Should the gun be pre-mounted? For trap-shooting, the answer is “yes” if score is paramount, “no” if clays are being used for live quarry practice. For sporting clays and skeet, game-shots are generally best advised to shoot with the gun unmounted. Again, this turns clay-shooting into better practice for game and makes it more enjoyable as well. Gun-down shooting promotes better vision, timing and style. I would, however, advise pre-mounting for teal-type targets, fast rabbits and anything that is going away from you in the manner of a trap bird (for example a long, long bird quartering out)
if you’re taking the scores seriously.