Lesson from the Third Pair in Sporting Clays

Even on shots that should be gimmies, sporting clays can mess with your mind—and scorecard

man shooting clays
A sporting clays shooter gets ready to call his shot.Phil Bourjaily

Sporting clays has its own mental challenges separating it from trap and skeet. Typically, you have to shoot five identical pairs at each station. The difficult feat is to shoot each pair as if you were seeing it for the first time instead of trying to repeat the same move five times.

Why? Well, because it is my job to educate, sometimes I have to demonstrate the wrong way to shoot. Here’s a textbook example from a charity event over the weekend. It was a station that should have resulted with a 10 on my scorecard: a fat, hanging, incomer followed by a target that quartered up and away at medium-close range. I broke the first two pairs, then missed the quartering away bird, then missed it two more times to score a seven. While not in actual tears by the time it was over, I was disappointed.

Next up was a Master Class shooter, who has seen a ton of targets hit and missed in his career. As I stepped out of the cage and he stepped in, he said, “It’s always that third pair. You start looking at the gap [between the gun and the target] trying to see the same lead you saw on the first two instead of looking at the target and shooting it as if you’ve never seen it before. I could see you slowing down and shooting later. We all struggle with it.”

Indeed, we do. When you trust your instincts, keep your eye on the target, pull in front of it, and shoot, targets break and birds puff. Once you start trying to consciously repeat the shot, you begin thinking—looking at the lead instead of at the target—which causes slowing, stopping, and missing.

It happens in the field, too, even though we rarely shoot the same target five times in a row. We do have days when we’re not shooting well, and often, when we’re not hitting, we start thinking. A bird, let’s say it’s a dove, since it’s that time of year, crosses out front. You swing the gun and, anxious not to miss again, start figuring out how much lead it needs. You examine the gap between bird and barrel, decide it looks good, and pull the trigger. The dove keeps going because the gun slowed down as you looked at the lead and not at the bird’s beak. Your pile of empties grows.

When you’re missing, the temptation is to be even more careful and try to get it right, when the better solution is to be more aggressive. That doesn’t mean swinging the gun faster (it should match the bird’s speed), but it does mean shooting sooner. You put the muzzle in front of the bird, move with it for an instant and shoot. The longer you swing with the bird, the more time there is to think. Thinking is the enemy of good shooting.

One trick that works for me is to give my conscious mind something to occupy it, rather than to try to suppress it or shoot before it can interfere. If your mind is occupied, it can’t butt in and ruin the shot. If, during a crossing shot, I tell myself to see the bird to the left or right of the gun (depending on which way it’s crossing) and I pull the trigger, the amount of lead magically takes care of itself because my subconscious is free from supervision and can figure the lead instantly and perfectly, and the dove falls. Shooting is easy except when we make it hard for ourselves.