Sporting clays is quite possibly the ultimate shotgun sport, but also a discipline that a complete beginner can participate in and enjoy as much as the seasoned veteran. Although you can never master sporting clays, it is the pursuit and variation that come from one target to the next or one course to the next that keeps shotgunners hungry for more rounds that is never quite satiated.
Sporting clays is akin to golfing with a shotgun. Each stand offers a different challenge just as each hole in golf does. No two courses will be exactly the same, which makes sampling or shooting different sporting clays courses a new challenge and a new adventure. The variety of stands will include targets (clays) flying toward the shooter or away. Rabbits (a heavier grade of round clay target) may run or bounce along the ground. The clays may cross or move away from each other. The setup is only limited by the imagination of course designer and terrain itself. This is the biggest draw to sporting clays and the reason it is the closest thing to actual field shooting.
Sporting clays does not have a standard distances or as you find in trap or skeet. Instead, the course simulates fast moving ducks, highflying geese, flushing pheasant, scurrying rabbits and more. To simulate different game and accommodate for different challenges caused by distance, sporting clays utilizes six different sized clay targets, but do fooled into thinking a bigger target will be easier or a smaller target any harder. Much of it is a mind trick that plays with the psyche of the shooter. However, the majority of targets will be the standard sized used for trap and skeet.
Sporting clays courses are largely dictated by the terrain and are set up as roving courses consisting of 10 to 15 shooting stations or stands. You are free to use any shotgun that is safe and capable of shooting two shots, so semiautos, pumps, and over/unders are all fair game. However, sporting clays is a sporting style of shooting. Showing up with a shotgun designed for self-defense with only a pistol grip and no stock would be heavily frowned upon if not completely considered unsafe for the course. 12 and 20 gauge shotguns are most commonly employed on the sporting clays course. The 12 gauge offers a larger payload and increases your odds of hitting the target. Those selecting the 20 gauge will have less recoil and a lighter firearm that will swing easier when multiple targets are in the air.
Many shooters prefer an over/under shotgun so each barrel can be outfitted with a different choke. This allows the shooter to use the most advantageous shot pattern for their first versus second shot. New shooters are well advised to consider a semiauto. You will not overthink which barrel to use and the recoil will be significantly lessened making your experience much more enjoyable.
Safety is a major concern in any shooting sport and failing to follow a few basic rules is the quickest way to draw unwanted attention. Visually demonstrate your shotgun is unloaded, by breaking open the action of an over/under or opening the breech of your semiauto or pump. Always be conscious of where your muzzle is pointed. While in the air or at the ground are both generally considered acceptable please remember: what goes up must come back down.
Not all shotgun ammunition is the same. Shot in the 7 ½ to 9 range is most commonly used. Shot larger than 7 ½ will travel farther and may present a safety hazard to other shooters. Always check with gun club or management prior to heading out to the range for shotshell recommendations and restrictions.
Once on the range, never load your shotgun until you are on station and it is your turn to shoot. It only takes a fraction of a second to chamber a shell or close the action; it is better to be safe than fast. If you have a malfunction or failure to fire, keep the muzzle pointed down range. Depending on your comfort and skill level, verbally declare the malfunction to the other shooters and range personnel. Then, either unload and check the barrel or ask a shooter with experience with mechanical failures or a range officer for assistance. Either way, never move off station until the failure is fixed or competent assistance takes control of the firearm.
Shooting a Round of Clays
To start, you will proceed to the first station and progress through the various stations in order. Always stay on the prescribed walking paths from station to station. Prior to the first shooter, the puller or referee will show your squad the targets. This allows you to strategize the best sequence to successfully hit both targets. Members of the squad will often discuss the strategy. This can be based on the setup, right- or left-handed shooters, or which choke or chokes they are using.
When it is your turn to shoot, step up to the station. Once set, load two shells. Set your feet or body, point your shotgun toward the firing area and yell, “Pull!” The referee will determine if you hit any part of the bird and score your shots as hits or misses. When done, open the breech, ensure you have removed all spent hulls, point your muzzle in a safe direction (sky or ground) and exit the station for the next shooter.
Sporting clay shooters tend to be some of the most friendly and generous in the shotgunning sports. Typically, you’ll find them eager to share their knowledge, tips and tricks with shooters of all skill levels. Quite often, they will show more enthusiasm when a new shooter hits a target then when they do so ask questions. The range personnel and referees are also great sources of information. They see the course multiple times a day and are eager to share a tip or guide a new shooter.
Join a local club. Not only can you have regular access to the club’s facilities, but also joining a Sporting Clays club is the best way to meet fellow shooters who can enhance your enjoyment of the sport, encourage your participation, and help you learn.
Join NSCA. As an NSCA member, you’ll be able to shoot registered targets, have a subscription to Sporting Clays magazine, access members-only information and records at this website, and enjoy many more benefits.
Shoot registered targets. Competition and record keeping are great encouragement as you work to improve your scores and ranking. And here’s a bonus: You’ll learn a great deal from shooting with and watching other good shooters who are competing. Don’t worry about being good enough to shoot with more experienced shooters; everyone competes within their own class, so you’re only competing against others at the same level.
Take lessons. Taking shooting lessons from an NSCA Certified Instructor can take years off your learning curve, and at later stages, a coach can help you tweak your performance. Certified Instructors are highly trained and experienced teachers who specialize in instructing students at different levels, from first-timer to master.
Keep shooting! There’s nothing like shooting a round of Sporting Clays to make you want to shoot more, learn more, meet more fellow Sporting Clays shooters, and become more involved. Experience really is the best teacher.
Do you shoot Sporting Clays? Share your tips or strategies in the comment section.
Growing up in Pennsylvanias game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Daves writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersens Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersens Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!
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