clays and magician's hat

When you’re shooting sporting clays, you’re like the batter, while the person who sets up the trap is the pitcher. Just like real pitchers, every trap setter uses different tricks. Some try to beat you with speed and distance, but the really good ones use deception. Mike McAlpine ( of San Angelo, Texas, has been striking out shooters since 1986 and is one of the best. He’s also a shooting instructor who teaches a three-day class on target presentations and how shooters can read them. Here are some of his best secrets that he shared with me.

Illusive Targets

McAlpine follows a code in that he never makes shooters miss with short shooting windows, ridiculously long ranges, or targets that are obscured from sight. Many of those shots aren’t the type you’d take in the field anyway. He has plenty of other ways to make you miss instead—many of them incorporating the same optical illusions that frequently cause shooters to miss game.

For example, McAlpine may use an imperceptible dip in the ground to cause you to shoot over a rolling rabbit target. Often, he sets machines to throw fast, close targets that trick you into shooting too quickly. He uses midis (90mm targets), whose small size makes them look faster and farther away than they really are—which frequently causes shooters to miss in front of them. Or he may set a curling target that’s quartering toward you upon first sight but going straight away after it reappears from behind a tree. He’ll loosen the spring tension on the throwing arm of a machine pointed upward so that the target looks as if it’s climbing when it’s actually falling.

Still, McAlpine never forgets that the target setter’s job is to make the game challenging but also fun, so that the shooter always wants to come back for more. “If I set a 50-yard crosser, I’ll set a quartering bird first that leaves the shooter’s gun in the right starting position to break that second, long bird,” he says. “That way an average shooter can walk off the stand really happy because he broke a tough bird.”

Watch the Show

Reading targets is critical to success at any level. McAlpine tells a story: “At the nationals in San Antonio a few years ago, I put a trap at the top of a gentle slope and set the target to fly parallel to the ground. That made it look like a crosser when it was actually falling 3 feet. I was there with a national champion and a top instructor. The champion missed the target 25 times in a row. The instructor broke three out of 25. They asked me to shoot it. I broke 10 out of 10, but of course, I knew what the target was doing.”

You get one “show” target to see at each station before the shooting starts. Make the most of it. Remember that crafty setters are using the terrain to fool you, so you need something that isn’t attached to the ground to use as a point of reference. McAlpine knows one shooter who brings a racquetball racquet to the course and looks through the strings at the target. This tells the shooter exactly what the bird is doing. But you can accomplish the same thing with your hand. Instead of tracking the show target, as many shooters do, hold your front hand out flat and use it as a horizon line to see if the target is rising, falling, or curling.

It’s also important to watch the show targets all the way to the ground to get a good idea of distance and drift. Often, when a target hits the ground, you’ll realize it’s much closer than you thought it was, and it needs less lead. Learning to lead targets at the sporting clays range will make you a better field shot. You’ll be more attuned to a bird’s line of flight, and you’ll be a better judge of distance, too.

Plan Ahead

Once you have carefully observed the bird—from the second it comes into view until it goes out or hits the ground—you need to make a plan and stick to it. First, think about what method you will use to shoot the target (swing through, pull away, maintained lead), and then go through the following six steps:

1. Choose a break point. This should typically be the spot where you can see the target the best. In most cases, it should also be at a point when the bird is under power—either spring power or gravity—but not at the transition between the two.

2. Get Set. Position your feet facing toward the spot where you will break the harder target of a pair.

3. Watch for it. Mentally define the focal window—the segment of the target’s flight where it comes into sharp focus—and look toward its beginning portion where you’ll first see the bird clearly.

4. Hold low. Get your gun at the ready, but be sure to keep the muzzle below the line of flight so you don’t block your view of the target with the gun. This one is critical. McAlpine says it’s better to be 5 feet too low to start than 5 inches too high.

5. Start here. Pick the point where you will insert the muzzle as you make your move. If you’re a swing-through shooter, this will be behind the target; if you shoot maintained lead, it will be in front. If pull-away, it will be the target’s leading edge.

6. Stay Focused. Keep a hard visual focus on the target. This is the most important of all. Focusing on the target solves many ills on the clays course and in the field.

McAlpine says 97 to 98 percent of all misses occur because people skip one of these steps. The other 2 or 3 per-cent? Those are the times he fools you.

Photograph by Cliff Gardiner and John Keller