When you want to improve your game and clay shooting, whether it's on driven birds behind or springing teal, Mike Yardley is the expert you need.

Wanting to improve your game and clay shooting technique is important to everyone who shoots. More tips on how to improve your game and clay shooting can be found on the The Field’s website.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to understand the bio-mechanical and mental process involved in shooting better. At another level, I am intrigued by the ‘Zen’ of shooting. However, I discovered decades ago that it is not a simple subject.

Thirty years ago, I distilled what I had observed as efficient into a simple, holistic system for shooting clays, which I called ‘positive shooting’. It advocated developing a disciplined mindset and a personal shooting routine – one that would be applied consciously as part of pre-shot preparation or ritual. Three components were required for the perfect shot: sustained visual contact, balance and rhythm.

Practically, it boils down to this simple system, having gathered intelligence on what the bird is and where it is going:

  • Align your feet and body to the anticipated break point
  • Wind back, keeping the muzzles just under the line of flight, to the point of first clear visual contact
  • Direct your eyes to the area where you see the target initially as a blur or streak
  • Imagine a kill in your mind’s eye and call for your bird with confidence

Once the target is in the air, lock fine focus on it and keep the gun moving well. Be smooth, stay focused and follow through well. Use your body, not just your arms, as you swing. You will almost certainly break your bird.

When seeking to improve your game and clay shooting, remember that game shooting is more complex as there are more variables to consider but, after considerable experimentation, I found that variations on what is commonly called ‘swing-through’ (starting behind the bird and moving through it) was generally the most successful method for applying forward allowance.

With regard to stance (and much depends on your build), I preferred to keep the weight on the front foot with a straight but relaxed front leg throughout the shot. Occasionally, when a shot required quick movement to the right, transferring the weight to the right foot à la Mr Churchill was the surest way to shoot it and remain balanced.

The swing-through technique may, however, be further refined into what I now call ‘close-swing through’, starting just behind the bird (most useful for shooting at birds inside 30 yards or so), and ‘graduated swing-through’ for longer birds, where one starts behind the bird roughly as far as one intends to move in front. Graduated swing-through evolved after experimenting with computer simulation. It works especially well on rangy birds and encourages concentration on line as well as lead.

I have also found ‘maintained-lead’ to be useful in some game situations, as well as the ‘pull-away’ technique (‘touch’ the bird momentarily with the barrels and push forward) that may occasionally get you out of trouble if you lose your relationship to the bird and need to re-establish connection.

Get tested for eye dominance if you want to improve your game and clay shooting. Illustration: Colin Elgie

Improve your game and clay shooting: Game

Basic errors

Over and above the specific techniques and styles mentioned, certain basic errors often appear. They cannot all be catalogued but among them are: failing to maintain focus; misreading lead; misreading line; poor timing; premature stopping; rushing (often to a premature stop); ‘riding’ the bird or target; failing to get ‘nose over toes’ — that is, failing to get or keep the weight forward (and also allowing it to go back, creating lack of balance mid-swing); mismounting; failing to get the feet or footwork right; lifting the head; and holding the gun poorly.

I am now going to list some areas where the right knowledge and understanding may accelerate learning or help with fault correction. Some points may qualify as quick fixes but never forget there is no shortcut to practice based on sound fundamental technique. Let us begin with advice common to game and clay shooting, then move to game and clay specifics.

1 Eye dominance

The critical advice is to get it tested. Many middle-aged men and most women struggle with their eye dominance, often not realising they have an issue (and, consequently, perhaps not pointing the gun where they think they are). To determine eye dominance, you can shoot at a pattern plate with both eyes open and without being too deliberate (just focus on the mark and shoot without any prolonged aiming). You can test yourself or you can be tested professionally by a qualified shooting instructor. If you think you have a problem, try squinting an eye as you bring the gun to the bird. If you want more information on how to test yourself or what remedial action to take, you will find it at: positiveshooting.com/EyeDominanceMain.html

2 Better gun fit can yield dramatic results

My simple test for length of pull is to look at the rear arm and the hand holding the grip – my own or someone else’s – and note the angle between lower and upper arm at the elbow. It should be about 90 degrees to create the most efficient lever. My quick test for drop and cast is to mount a proven empty gun, closing both eyes as the mount is completed. You will see immediately if you are high or low relative to the breech and whether you are looking down one side of the rib or straight along it. If the stock is too low, you can make a temporary comb raiser with some card and vinyl electrician’s tape. A little too high is better than a little too low.

3 Recoil

The quickest fix here is to try another cartridge with a lower shot payload. Guns may also recoil too much because they are ‘off the face of the action’ – either loose or because the headspace is otherwise too great. Recoil may also be increased if gun fit is wrong (too short a stock will increase recoil, as will one that is too steeply inclined or has a comb shape that does not relieve the face as the gun accelerates rearwards).

4 Gun mount

Good gun mount is the hallmark of a good shot. Dry practice can help with this. One simple fix I use during instruction is to get people to start with the butt just under the armpit. I don’t advocate doing this in the way Robert Churchill suggested, with low barrels and the gun pulled right back; the technique works just as well with the muzzles higher (which is safer, too). If you want to develop an elegant, more classical mount you can try starting with the top of the stock comb more or less in line with the top of your forearm. The butt under the armpit system, however, is a good place to begin for anyone having issues and will almost certainly result in the stock coming up to your face and shoulder properly. Moreover, the heel of the butt should never land above the shoulder line. Also, make sure bulky clothing isn’t impeding you.

Partridge can be deceptive and may be moving slower than you think. Illustration: Colin Elgie

5 Missing behind

One of the most common errors of all is wing shooting, which is often the result of simply not understanding the need to shoot well in front of most moving targets. If you are having problems, go to a skeet range (always useful as a training area). Stand on the second station and engage the easier, low-house bird – a simple crosser. If you are consistently missing, try shooting a measured lead, let’s say 6in, 12in, 18in and 2ft until you find it. I know that sounds too precise, but try it.

If you are still missing, try shooting at the target (and if that doesn’t work, try squinting an eye). The positive shooting system as described previously may also be helpful – pay particular attention to maintaining hard focus, as noted. Although we have talked about measuring lead here, try to feel lead as well. People who use their rational mind all day may find this quite hard initially. Generally, I split shooters into thinkers and feelers. The thinkers often need to feel a bit more and the feelers may need to use a more thoughtful approach sometimes.

6 Missing in front

Far more frequent than you might think. It may be caused by eye-dominance issues or because the target has been misread. Pheasants are frequently missed in front, especially at closer ranges (the best advice is not to shoot them).

7 Driven birds (real or artificial)

Make an extra effort during the shot – and especially at the end – to lift the gun well (this counteracts the tendency to stop as the gun comes higher). Lifting equates to leading. It is also important when birds go to the flanks to step into their line, as discussed below (still lifting the barrels). It’s almost a balletic movement, worth practising: a mid-height tower with an angling trap is ideal for this.

8 Timing

Good timing, like a good gun-mount, is the hallmark of a first-class shot. When shooting gun-down, you should always shoot to three-beat time – ONE–TWO–THREEEEE – with the tempo changing depending on the speed and range of the shot… but always: ONE–TWO–THREEEEE.

9 Confidence

This affects physical performance profoundly. Shooting with confidence improves gun movement and, critically, encourages good vision, too. No shooting tip, safety apart, is more important than ‘stare each bird to death’. Keep your hard focus locked on and have the confidence that you will kill the bird. My friend Chris Bird of Holland & Holland notes: “If I have problems myself, I always reset by focusing on the bird’s head.”

10 High birds are missed in different ways

Behind, off line (equally common), in front (because lead is over-estimated) and quite frequently underneath. Remember Walsingham: hold high and don’t check. If you are shooting a side-by-side, the barrels should be parallel to the bird’s line when birds go to either side significantly (perpendicular to line with an over-and-under). One should always ‘step into the line’ of the bird, as noted, when possible with front foot and barrels moving together in a coordinated, delicate and elegant movement (imagine a wire connects them).

11 Partridges may be moving slower than you think

Although their wings beat fast, their typical flying speed is about 30mph – 5mph to 10mph slower than the typical pheasant (both are normally slower than a woodpigeon, which flies at something around 50mph in straight and level flight – about the same as a standard clay target). Duck may also look as if they are going slowly but may be going much faster than driven gamebirds (save when they are coming into flight ponds – where less choke may also help).

Grouse are easily missed over the top. Illustration: Colin Elgie

12 Grouse

The old adage is that ‘grouse wear spats’ – they are easily missed over the top. If you are shooting driven, keep returning to centre with your feet to be ready for a shot to either side again. Match the barrels to the bird’s line, too. I don’t like to see the front hand extended too much – though many good shots do this – because it impedes swing.

13 Woodcock are difficult to shoot consistently

Less choke is often a great help; spreader cartridges are also effective for this quarry. The best woodcock shot I know in Ireland always uses them when walking up. Never forget safety.

14 Rabbits – real and clay – may perplex

If you experience difficulty connecting, try squinting an eye as you take the shot. It can result in dramatic and sudden improvement.

Improve your game and clay shooting: Clays

15 Preparation

Many miss clays because they don’t bother to prepare for the shot. Always consider what the target is (for example, standard or midi – midis needs more lead), where it is coming from, whether the line is normal (the trap may be tilted to deceive you) and whether the bird is affected by wind (is there wind behind it? If so, more lead required).

16 Plan

Once you have gathered intelligence on a clay presentation, you can create a plan, a routine potentially, to shoot any target, as in the simple ‘positive shooting’ system, noted previously.

17 Lead

Many people do not have an appreciation of just how much lead some targets may require – nothing to the proverbial ‘five-bar gate’. I have lost count of the people who have replied to me, after I have advised them to extend a lead picture significantly, with: “That much?” “Yes, that much!” But there is huge variation. If you are not connecting with a bird, try starting with no lead and progressively increase the perceived lead in increments of a yard or so.

Swing-through and maintained-lead are usually the favoured methods for rangy birds, meantime. Remember also that distance needs to be learned – some people are very poor at estimating it without training.

18 Springing teal

My simple system is as follows: mount the gun on the anticipated break point; bring the still-mounted gun down the line exactly halfway; call for the bird with a little controlled aggression; lift the mounted gun (rules permitting), pushing up into the bird, shooting without delay. Real teal in poor light are made easier to shoot with less choke; I find the opposite applies with clays.

19 Loopers and battues

These may cause difficulties on clay layouts. If a looper needs a significant allowance underneath, as well as forward, I place an imaginary box around it (a technique that works for some other presentations, too). That box might be 12in, 2ft or a yard square or larger. Battues are thin and cut through the air quickly – my usual ‘rule’ here is 50% more lead, as I apply to midis, too.

20 Trap-type targets may baffle game shots initially

With ‘down the line’, adjust your feet to an imaginary central post 50 yards in front of the trap house. Come back down onto the centre of the trap house or just above (there are other systems). Before calling, soft focus a few yards in front of the trap. Don’t move the gun until you are focused on the bird.

Don’t ride it. Once again, shoot without hesitation, maintaining perfect focus. I call this: ‘Focus: fast’. Clay or game, stare each bird to death.

Mike Yardley is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors