When I was 13, my parents sent me to tennis camp. We drilled on serves, volleys, and ground strokes twice a day. Not surprisingly, after a month of intensive lessons, I could rifle topspin forehands, blast frightening serves, and crush overhead smashes.
A few years before, my father had thrown a clay target or two for me, and through some accident I broke them. “You’re a natural shot,” he told me, leaving me to begin a long, painful self-education of trial and (mostly) error with a shotgun.
The notion persists that ability with a shotgun is a natural gift. Nonsense. Learning to swing a shotgun is no different from learning to swing a tennis racquet or golf club. The Brits have known this for years; finally, thanks to Sporting Clays and its golf-with-a-shotgun image, our own attitudes about shooting instruction have begun to change.
A coach looking over your shoulder can tell you exactly why you missed and how to hit the next one. While everyone benefits from instruction, inexperienced shooters often make the most dramatic strides. One of my classmates at the now-defunct Remington School went from breaking scores in the teens (out of 100) at Sporting Clays before the school to posting 40s and 50s after the two-and-a-half-day course. “I don’t see a target now that I think can’t be broken,” he told me. “The school really built up my confidence.”
Dead Clays to Dead Birds
Does learning to break clays translate into dead birds? Of course it does. With a few rare exceptions, people who tell you, “I can’t hit those clay birds, but I do fine on the real thing,” have extremely selective memories. Shotgun muzzles neither know nor care whether targets wear feathers or orange paint.
The pages of Black’s Wing & Clay (732-224-8700) list 80-some shotgun shooting schools across the country. Some schools have their own grounds adjacent to quaint inns or elegant resorts (or Motel 6), others travel from club to club; some instructors will come to your own club if you can get four or five friends to sign up for lessons.
You’ll see many instructors list their National Sporting Clays Association certification level (I, II, or III). NSCA certification means they’ve been to NSCA instructor clinics and are all teaching from the same basic, sound curriculum. That said, certification doesn’t guarantee that they’re good teachers. Most are, a few are not, and some who don’t bother with NSCA certification are very good indeed. Choosing an instructor is no different from picking an outfitter for a hunt; ask for references and call them.
What most schools have in common is a student-to-instructor ratio of 3, 4, or 5 to 1. Students in a small group have a chance to rest, stay fresh, and learn by watching the other shooters. (Fieldsport in Traverse City, at 231-933-0767, actually rotates students through four different instructors, including shotgun writer Michael McIntosh.) Expect to fire about 250 rounds in a full day’s lesson, much of it on a skeet field or a Sporting Clays or Five-Stand layout. Unless you’ve brought a featherlight game gun, cumulative recoil normally isn’t a problem, since the shooting is spread out over the course of a whole day. Still, it doesn’t hurt (literally) to shoot a gas auto.
The most important thing to bring is an open mind. If, like most of us, you are self-taught, you may find an instructor will take you all the way back to square one, to the basics of footwork, body position, and gun mount. Don’t be intimidated. Good instructors keep the tone light because they know relaxed, confident shooters hit targets.
So far as I know, no one runs a month-long shotgunning equivalent of my tennis camp. That’s okay; you can improve significantly over the course of a two- or two-and-a-half-day school. Even a half-day lesson can yield real benefits. Steve Schultz, who runs the Safari Club Internaational Wingshooting School (716-473-4111), prefers a two-day school: “With experienced shooters, the first day we have to delete the old files from your mental computer; the second day we input new data.” Sporting Clays champ Scott Robertson (214-914-8496) prefers half-day sessions: “There’s only so much you can absorb before you’re overwhelmed,” he says. “I like to teach for half a day, then let my students shoot on their own, then maybe we’ll have another half day later on.”
Tuition runs from roughly $175 plus targets and ammo for half a day to the price of an “entry-level” o/u-$1,500 or so-for a two-and-a-half-day school with ammo and targets included. Look at it in those terms, and shooting school is a bargain. After all, a new gun doesn’t solve your problems; it makes you the same old shooter with a better gun. Wouldn’t you rather be a better shooter with the same old gun instead?