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Once called “hunter’s clays,” the game of sporting clays began as off-season field practice. It is still great field practice, even as it has grown and changed. In a round of sporting clays, you’ll see plenty of targets that simulate shots in the field and quite a few that fly in ways no bird ever could. The learning curve is steep, but you’ll enjoy the climb even though you may never get to the top.

Unlike trap and skeet, where perfect scores in competition are commonplace, 100-straights in sporting clays are rare, and it’s fun to play a game where it’s okay to miss a little bit. When I first started shooting sporting clays, I was glad any time I broke over half the targets, and I often didn’t. It was still fun because I was learning and getting better every time.

No two courses are alike, and clubs change them frequently to keep shooters from getting in a groove. Every time you shoot the game, the challenge is fresh. You can find different clubs and courses through the National Sporting Clays Association. Here’s a guide to this 100-shot clay target game.

A full round of sporting clays includes 100 shots at various stations. Julianna Olah/Adobe Stock

The Basics of Sporting Clays

A round of sporting clays usually consists of 100 targets, all shot as pairs, at 10 or more stations. At most, you will shoot five pairs at a station. Shooters are put in groups no greater than five, so it’s possible you’ll wind up shooting with people you don’t know. If you aren’t friends at the beginning of the round, you often are by the end of it.

At each station, you step into the shooting cage (it may be a cage, or it may be nothing more than a hula hoop on the ground) and shoot all your pairs. The first shooter in the cage can ask for a “show pair” so everyone can see the targets. The shooting order rotates because there can be an advantage to seeing how someone else shoots a station, and no one wants to be the guinea pig that goes first. Typically, you’ll keep score and pull targets for one another.

You are allowed to shoot with a pre-mounted gun. Some shooters still shoot from a low-gun position, either for hunting practice or because they feel it helps them pick up and synch with the targets better.

Targets are thrown either as “report pairs” or “true pairs.” In a report pair, the second bird is thrown at the report of your first shot. In a true pair, both are thrown at once. With a true pair, you can choose which bird you want to shoot first. It is fair to shoot both shells at one bird, although you can never load more than two shells at a time. “Following pairs,” two targets thrown from the same machine one after the other, aren’t often seen anymore.

In the event of a machine-broken bird on a true pair, you shoot the pair over. If the second target of a report pair is broken, you shoot the pair over, but your hit or miss on the first target counts.

Five-Stand Sporting Clays

You’ll often see a variation of sporting clays called Five-Stand, which is a cross between trap and sporting clays. There are five stands arranged in a line facing six to eight traps. A target menu in the stand tells you which targets and pairs you’ll shoot. Usually, you get a single target (at which you can shoot twice if need be), a report pair, and then a true pair. The shooters get in the stands and shoot in turn until everyone has shot their five targets, and then you rotate to the next stand. A round is 25 targets. The game packs the targets and a variety of sporting clays into a smaller space and a much shorter time.  Because you can shoot twice at the first target, you’ll want at least 30 shells for a round.


The regular rules of gun safety hold true: point the muzzle in a safe direction, finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot, guns carried with actions open, and so on. In sporting clays, you do not load your gun until you’re standing in the cage, and you never load more than two shells. If something goes wrong with your gun, stay in the cage until you get it fixed.  Your gun should be empty, and your action should be open when you step into and out of the cage. It is considered safe to leave your safety off throughout the round, as your gun is never loaded until you’re about to shoot.

How to Break Targets

It’s best to go with an experienced shooter your first few times out. Better yet, take a lesson, either from a club’s pro, if they have one, or find an NSCA-certified instructor. Either can save you a lot of time and frustration at the beginning. It’s much smarter to spend money on lessons than on that new gun you think will solve all your problems. But, we’ll assume you’re going into this cold. Here’s what to do:

Before the Shot

Let’s say you’re the first shooter. You’re in the cage, gun not yet loaded. You call for the show pair. Watch the targets all the way to the ground. Come up with a plan. Decide where you will shoot each bird and, if it’s a true pair, in what order.  

Usually, when you watch a show pair, you’ll see a place in the target’s flight where it looks big, fat, and shootable. That should be your break point. Once you have a break point, think about where the gun has to go after you shoot the first target in order to shoot the second. In a way, you’re like a pool player, hitting one shot to set up the next. Set your feet in the cage so you have room to shoot the first target and swing to the second.

Having determined where you want to shoot the first target, pick a hold point—where you will start the muzzle. A hold point should be far enough from the break point to let you swing with the target, but not so close to the trap that you will have to chase the bird from behind. The hold point should also be below the target’s line of flight.

After the hold point, choose your look point or pickup point, which might be the trap or where you first see the target clearly. With your break point, hold point, and pickup point established, take a breath, think a positive thought (“head on the stock, eye on the target”), and say “pull.”

As long as your plan is working, stick with it. Don’t get in a rush. Find a rhythm and keep with it while you’re in the cage. If you keep missing, though, try something different. More focus on the target is often the answer, as can being more aggressive. Doing the same thing over and over if it doesn’t work is the worst idea.

Shooting Techniques

Most new shooters can hit the going-away and quartering away targets on a sporting clays course, as well as the slow incomers. Targets that require lead fluster a lot of newcomers, though. Most people want to swing through those targets from behind, which is a hard method when leads are long, and they want to aim down the gun barrel.

To shoot sporting clays successfully, you have to get your eyes off the gun, resist the temptation to aim, and get comfortable with a hard focus on the target and the blur of the barrel in your peripheral vision. When you set up your gun hold point and your visual target pickup point, do it in such a way that the target never passes the gun barrel. Staying in front of the target makes it seem to fly slower because you’re not chasing it.

Maintained Lead and Pull-Away

There are two shooting methods used by many sporting shooters for longer leads. One is pull-away, where you take the muzzle to the front edge of the target, then move away from it until the lead feels right and you shoot. The other method is maintained lead, in which you establish a gap—the lead—between the muzzle and the target right away, then match the target’s speed with your swing and shoot.

In both methods, your leads don’t have to be precise. Your pattern is 20-30 inches wide, so you’ve got a margin for error. Checking the bead to see if the lead is right is a very common way to miss. The more you shoot, the better your sense of when a lead looks right.

Always start your muzzle below the target’s line of flight so you don’t block out your view of the bird. That usually results in a miss. As long as you can see the target, your eyes will know where to send your hands. And make sure to slow down. Most people move too fast when they start shooting sporting clays. Concentrate on matching the target’s speed or moving just one or two miles an hour faster than the clay if you’re pulling away or even swinging through. Keep your head on the gun and your eye on the target until after it breaks, then look for the second bird of the pair.

Sporting Clays Specialty Targets

The shooting techniques I’ve just discussed apply to any target on a clays course, including some of the specialty targets and presentations unique to sporting clays. Understanding how to shoot these difficult targets makes them less scary and the game more fun. Here’s what you need to know.

Long Crossers and Towers

Long crossing targets and long high crossers thrown from towers give a lot of new shooters—and some experienced shooters—difficulty. Maintained lead is a good method for these targets. Hold the gun out far enough that you’re not chasing the bird. Watch it come to the gun, and when the gap looks about right, start moving the muzzle and matching the target’s speed. Your focus stays on the target, and you let the gun drift out ahead. Being on the target’s line of flight is just as important as giving it enough lead. Shoot when it feels good. When the targets are way out there, there’s just enough of a lag for you to wonder, “Did I miss that?” before it breaks into pieces.


Yes, they hop on the ground like real rabbits, but they take more unpredictable hops, too. A rabbit is a special, very sturdy target made to withstand bouncing on edge as it leaves the special machine that throws it. Because they are tough, you have to hit them solidly with several pellets to break them.

A couple of things to remember about rabbits: every time they hit the ground, they slow down, and they are always going more slowly than they appear to be. Start your gun very low so as not to block your view of the bouncing bunny. Look at the front end of the target and shoot just in front. It’s better to be too low than over the top of this target, too.

Springing Teal

Springing teal targets are to real teal what rabbit targets are to real rabbits. Yes, real teal rise, especially when you start shooting at them, but not like this. Springing teal targets go straight up as if rocket-assisted, hang for an instant, and fall. The best way to shoot a teal is to start your gun about two-thirds the way up the teal’s path and slightly to the right (for right-handed shooters). As it peaks, move your gun to 6 o’clock on the clay and shoot. Sometimes, the teal targets will be moving slightly to one side or the other. If it’s moving right, think of it as a clock face and shoot at 7 o’clock. If it’s moving left, try 5 o’clock.

If you want to try shooting the teal on the way up, again start the gun two-thirds of the way up clay’s path and slightly to the right, move with the target, cover it with the gun, and think about missing over the top. A teal falling straight down is just a crossing target turned 90 degrees. You shoot it the same: start the gun below the target, maintain a gap between muzzle and clay, match its speed—which will be fast—and shoot when it feels right.


A chandelle makes a long, looping arc. It’s almost always thrown as a crosser. The trick to chandelles is to move the gun as if it were a crosser rather than trying to follow the curved flight of the clay. It’s usually best to shoot right after they peak. Again, the clock-face analogy applies. Look at 7 o’clock for right-to-left targets and 5 o’clock for left-to-right targets, and give it a gap both ahead and below.


The battue target is the same circumference as a standard clay target, but much thinner. When a shooter calls for the target, it is thrown on its edge, making it difficult to see, but it inevitably flips (making it more visible), arcs, and then falls. They are easy to miss when they are edge-on. So be patient, and when they flip over, you’ll have a short window to shoot it while it’s facing you and before it falls. Be decisive, treat it like a crosser, and shoot it.

Midis and Minis

Most sporting clay targets are 108 mm in diameter. Midis, which are 90mm, and Minis, which are just 60mm, add to the optical illusions you sometimes find on the course. You don’t always know when they are being thrown, and it’s easy to assume they are standard targets that are farther away than they really are.

Remember when I told you to watch show targets all the way to the ground? When you do that, you can see how far away the birds actually are because you can estimate the distance to the spot where they land, and that can help you determine that the target setter is trying to fool you with a mini or midi. The real challenge of smaller targets is seeing them and focusing on them as tightly as you would a standard bird.

High Overhead Targets

You’ll get high overhead targets thrown both at you and going away. The incomers aren’t bad. This is a good target to start from behind and swing through. Your muzzle will blot it out, and then you shoot. Sometimes, you have to blot, swing a little more, and then shoot if the target is very high.

Many courses will take advantage of a hill behind you to throw a high overhead that comes from behind and passes over you. They can take what feels like forever to pass over you after you call “pull.” When you see a show target at a station like that one, start counting “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi” when you hear the machine so you know when to expect the target. Most of these are dropping by the time they get to you, so you need to see a gap below the target, and if you take even an instant to aim or check the bead, you’ll shoot over the top.

An All-Around Game

The specialty targets and the variety of ways to throw standard birds mean you will never get tired of sporting clays, even after you learn how to shoot all the targets on the course. Whether your goal is to become a better field shot, to immerse yourself in competition, to have an excuse to travel to shoot different courses, or just to have the most fun you can with a shotgun, sporting clays can offer all that and more.