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EVER WONDER what guides really think of the average hunter’s shooting? One told me last year why he sold his operation in Canada. “Guides can’t carry a gun up there. I got tired of putting birds in front my hunters and watching them miss,” he said. “Now when I go to Canada, I get to shoot.”
This spring, a snow goose guide friend of mine said, “We tell clients we’ll only shoot to back them up on cripples. The truth is, if we didn’t shoot, a lot of days we’d come home without any birds at all.”
It’s a frustrating mystery to me that so many hunters never touch a shotgun in the off-season. I understand that shooting is expensive. But so are guided hunts—and hunting in general. If you’re spending money already, why not spend some more to hit what you shoot at? Compounding this mystery to me is the fact that shooting clay targets is objectively fun. Why would anyone choose not to shoot clays?
Make this the year you find your way to the range. And to be clear, the range doesn’t have to be a gun club. You can learn plenty from a portable trap set up in a field. Here are three points to keep in mind during this summer’s practice.
Guns and Gear
You can use your hunting gun to shoot clays. I have seen a high schooler shoot 100 straight at trap with an 870 Express. If you get further into target games, you’ll want a target gun, but that’s not this summer’s concern. While your hunting gun is OK, your hunting loads aren’t allowed at gun clubs for safety reasons. Some people fret over having to practice with target loads that are much slower than their hunting shells. The truth is, switching velocity messes you up only if you let it.
No matter how fast or slow a load I put in the gun, Bryce ground the target because his focus was back on shooting.
Back when I coached high school trap, I watched our best shooter struggle in practice one day. He explained that he’d switched to different shells and was trying to get used to the change in speed.
“Shut up,” I said helpfully, then gathered a bunch of ammo ranging from 980 fps Winchester Feathers to 1300 fps Super Sports. I told him to open his gun and close his eyes so he couldn’t see what I was dropping into the chamber. No matter how fast or slow a load I put in the gun, Bryce ground the target because his focus was back on shooting, not on trying to figure out how many more inches to lead a target.
Yes, there are differences in lead with shells of different velocities, but they are so minor at the ranges most of us want to (and are able to) shoot our birds that they don’t matter. Even in the extreme case of a true 90-degree, 40-yard crosser, the difference in lead from slower to faster shells is only about 8 inches, less than a third of the width of a pattern at that range. Forget about velocity and concentrate on the target. As a bonus, slow loads won’t kick as hard as high-velocity shells, so recoil won’t beat you into flinching.
Speed Up by Slowing Down
Hunters want to move fast. We know there’s a narrow window when we need to take the shot. Yet the best way to meet that moment is by moving deliberately, both with your mount and your swing.
If you don’t believe me, ask Anthony Matarese, Jr., a world sporting clays champion, gifted instructor, and hardcore waterfowler who has been known to reschedule lessons on blustery days so he can go hunting. “When I work with hunters, I spend most of the lesson time getting them to slow down,” he says.
Slowing down starts with the gun mount. Most of us who taught ourselves to shoot throw the gun to our shoulder, squish our face onto the comb, check the bead, find the target, and swing after it. It’s a rushed mount that leaves us scrambling to catch the bird. It’s also a five-step process you can streamline into one smooth, efficient move with practice. The muzzle goes to the target as you raise the gun to your face. As soon as the butt meets your shoulder, you know the gun will shoot where you’re looking.
Just as important as a controlled gun mount is controlling gun speed. If you move the gun very fast, there is only a split second as the barrel whips past the bird when it’s in the right place to deliver the shot.
Slow down, and you lengthen the dwell time when the bird and barrel are in the right place. Your timing doesn’t have to be quite so perfect. You’ll hit more consistently. Oddly, when you slow the gun down, the targets seem to slow down, too.
It’s easier to practice slowing down in the heat of summer than it is in the heat of excitement during the fall. Concentrate on moving the gun with the target, either matching its speed if you’re shooting maintained lead or moving just barely fast enough to catch and pass it if you’re swinging through.
Confidence is the most important takeaway from preseason shooting. How you gain that confidence varies from person to person.
For instance, my pheasant- and dove-hunting partner wheels a bird gun and a dove gun around the sporting clays course in a cart, deciding which one to shoot based on whether the targets at each station are more dove field or CRP field shots. He shoots from a low gun, field-type ready position, butt down, muzzle up, calling for the target with the safety on. He builds confidence by practicing in a way that approximates hunting as closely as possible.
And, while I respect his thinking, clays aren’t birds. I bring a near-9-pound target gun with 32-inch barrels. It is one of the last guns I’d ever take hunting, but it’s almost too easy to hit targets with. I start low gun most of the time, and I make sure my muzzle starts below the line of the target. And, I will shoot a target with a premounted gun if I have to. The more targets I see break in the summer, the more confident I am going into the season.
The confidence you build through practice lets you trust your eyes and hands and shoot without the second thoughts that make you look at the gun, causing it to slow or stop. When you can lock your eyes on the target to the exclusion of everything else and let them steer your hands, you’ll know you spent enough time practicing over the summer. You might also find you have a new hobby that’s almost as much fun as hunting.
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