There is a reason why sporting clays is sometimes described as playing golf with a shotgun. Like golfers who switch clubs for various shots, sporting clays competitors often switch chokes from station to station. This applies mostly to shotgunners who take our newest clay target game quite seriously. Casual shooters like myself frequent sporting clays facilities because it’s a great way to keep the eye sharp between hunting seasons. For this reason I seldom switch from one choke to another when changing stations.
When shooting an over-under or side-by-side double, I most often use Skeet or Improved Cylinder in one barrel and Modified in the other. When shooting a pump or autoloader I usually split the difference with Light Modified, same as I usually do when hunting. Some of the stations in the game of skeet are excellent practice for the pass-shooting of doves, and shooting trap is a good way to stay tuned for going-away shots at pheasants on the rise, but only sporting clays throws in many other shots as well.
The names of the shooting stations say it all: Springing Teal, Streaking Chukar, Flushing Quail, Rabbit Attack, Diving Doves, Going Away Ringnecks, Sneaky Snipe, and Runaway Rail. Sporting clays will never replace hunting, but it is the next best thing when hunting is not available. There are other good things about sporting clays as well.
The building of a trap or skeet field usually intrudes on nature, but a really good sporting clays course becomes part of it. Course designers who know their stuff do a great job of utilizing the terrain in its existing, natural state. By leaving them undisturbed and at their natural best, lakes, streams, fields, hills, ravines, and other landmarks are used to their fullest.
All the planning and design efforts pay off by giving the sport a hunting atmosphere that simply cannot be captured by other clay target games. If you’ve seen one skeet or trap field, you have seen them all; however, I have shot sporting clays in many states from coast to coast, and no two courses were alike.
The various target presentations will have a similar look regardless of where you are–a springing teal looks about the same in Georgia as it does in California–but subtle imaginative changes in layout can make a big difference. I’ll never forget rabbits on a course in Pennsylvania that emerged from the end of a hollow log; I had to be on my toes to hit one before it disappeared behind a mound of dirt.
Target Sizes Are Challenging
The regulation-size target thrown in skeet and trap is also used in sporting clays, but it is joined by other targets of various sizes. Especially challenging is the mini, which measures only 60mm in diameter compared to 110mm for the target trap and skeet shooters are accustomed to breaking. The first time you try hitting one you’ll immediately understand why it’s often referred to as “the flying aspirin tablet.” You need plenty of pattern density for that one, and I’ve found No. 9 shot with Modified choke to be just the ticket.
Another target called the battue is the same diameter as the skeet target, but it is much thinner. This thin profile makes
it difficult to hit when it’s launched, but the shooter who has the patience to wait until it turns broadside in flight will find it not that difficult to break. Then there is Elmer Fudd’s nemesis, that “wascally wabbit.”
The rabbit target is 110mm in diameter, but because it is designed to roll and bounce along on its thin edge, it has to be much harder than the other targets and this can make it more difficult to break. The other targets are no match for No. 8 shot, and shot as small as No. 9 is plenty big for some presentations. At reasonable ranges those shot sizes will also break the rabbit target with regularity, but if the distance is much greater than 25 yards No. 7 1/2 shot combined with Modified choke can be a more reliable combination.
I usually shoot handloads in sporting clays, but I get the impression that most who participate in the sport use factory ammunition. Those who decide to get serious about the game won’t go wrong in choosing premium-grade target loads such as Remington STS, Winchester AA, and Federal Gold Medal, all loaded with extremely hard shot for patterns of the best quality. The most popular shot sizes among sporting clays shooters are No. 8 and No. 8 1/2, although some switch to No. 7 1/2 or No. 9 for certain target presentations.
If you shoot sporting clays just for the fun of it or to keep your eye sharp during the off-season, there is nothing wrong with using economy-priced field loads as long as they aren’t loaded with shot larger than No. 7 1/2 (the largest shot allowed in any of the clay target games). Regardless of whether you go with the best target loads money can buy or the least expensive field loads you can find, you do not need heavy loads for shooting sporting clays. Heavy loads can be used, but your shoulder may suffer more than the targets.
Most sporting clays shooters favor 12-gauge guns, but I see more and more casual shooters using the smaller bores because they are so comfortable to shoot. About the only time I shoot a 12-gauge gun is when I need to wring it out for a writing assignment, and then it’s usually with light-recoil loads containing anywhere from 7/8 ounce to 1 1/8 ounces of shot at no more than 1200 fps.
Otherwise, it’s the 20 or 28 gauge for me, and I also use .410-bore guns quite often. When shooting factory ammo in the 20 gauge, I stick with 7/8 ounce of shot, and when shooting a handload I often drop on down to 3/4 ounce of shot. Regardless of whether I am using factory stuff or handloads, I stick with 3/4 ounce of shot in the 28 and use that same shot charge in the .410 by handloading the 3-inch hull.
Sequencing Is Critical
Targets in sporting clays are thrown as singles, as true pairs, and as report pairs. In a true pair both targets emerge from the trap house simultaneously; in a report pair the trap operator first releases one bird and then releases the second bird immediately upon hearing the report of the shooter’s first shot. Both targets of a double presentation can travel in the same direction or in different directions.
The key to breaking both birds of a true pair is to decide on the most efficient sequence for taking them before you call for the birds. You can often decide in what order you will break them by observing their flight paths while someone else is shooting at that station. For example, if one bird is traveling away from the shooting station while the other is headed toward it, common sense would tell you to take the outgoing target first and then swing on the incomer. Sometimes the differences in flight of the two targets are subtler, but even then there will usually be an optimal sequence to use in breaking them.
Choose Your Gun Wisely
Deciding which type of shotgun to choose for the game comes down to what you intend to get out of it. I suppose a single-shot gun could be used, but the high percentage of doubles makes it less than ideal. There was a time when the over-under absolutely dominated the game among serious competitors, mainly because it handles so nicely, functions reliably with a variety of loads, and offers the immediate options of two different choke constrictions.
Nowadays the majority of shooters use the autoloader because of its ability to reduce perceived recoil. Actual recoil of the autoloader is the same as for any other type of shotgun, but its ability to prolong the recoil curve can make it feel more comfortable to shoot, and this becomes quite important in sporting clays where quite a few rounds of ammunition are commonly fired in a day.
I don’t own a gun dedicated to sporting clays, but I do have several that work as well there as they do on a dove shoot, a hunt for bobwhite quail, a climb through the rocky cliffs for chukar, a brush-busting jaunt for ruffed grouse, or a long trek across the prairie in search of pheasant and Hungarian partridge. In the world of wingshooting there is nothing I love more than being in the field with a fine side-by-side double, and for this reason it is the type of gun I generally use at sporting clays.
If I had to pick favorites they would be an L.C. Smith in 16 gauge, a Westley Richards in 20 gauge, an AyA and a Parker in 28 gauge, and an L.C. Smith and an Iver Johnson Skeet-er in .410 bore. The only thing I love more than shooting clay birds with th
ose guns is shooting real birds with them. I do use other types of guns, including a Browning Superposed, a Winchester Model 12 pump gun, and a Remington Model 1100 autoloader–all in 28 gauge.
Regardless of which type of shotgun you own or what size shell it shoots, you owe it to yourself and your gun to make an occasional trip to the range to shoot sporting clays. It’s not the same as hunting, but it’s the best thing going when hunting season isn’t open.