An International competitor gives a guided tour through the complex simplicity of breaking one clay – the only way to break 100’s.
Competitive clay busting is one of the loneliest games in the world. “What?” you say, “with all my buddies around me?” Yes, they’re there to talk to of your hopes, their fulfillment – or, your excuses! They’re even with you when you’re shooting. But are they really? If they’re serious competitive shooters and not just out for fun with the boys, they, like you, should be in such complete isolation that even if one dropped dead on the line, the only thought of those remaining should still be the next target. Such is the degree of oblivious concentration required on the firing line during your “moments of truth”. An extreme example, I admit, but that detachment is what it takes to be a top clay buster. I have often shot through a day with out knowing that a close friend was next to me.
Long ago I discovered that either I enjoyed my shooting through each round – and with mock unconcern, laughed off the sad results – or, I sweated blood on each shot and at the end had just sufficient strength left to smile with deep satisfaction at the scoreboard. The choice is yours. If you shoot “for fun”, don’t bother to read on; top competition is no picnic. But, if you are firmly set on reaching the top, come sweat with me and learn to swallow the bitter pills of humiliation and despair and still come back a winner another day.
It takes burning desire and guts to someday stand on the podium, the Gold weighing heavy on your neck, fighting back a tear of pride and the memory of the un-cried tears of past years’ disappointments. Few of us will stand on that podium, proudly bearing Olympic Gold, but it is the ultimate goal which should have its place in the spirit of every competitive shooter.
Lack of concentration – stemming from incomplete control of self – is the separating factor between the thousands who can hit one… and those who hit 100 – ONE AT A TIME.
What of the long road that leads there? How does one acquire the skill that can take one ever nearer the clay buster’s paradise? Like the lowliest or grandest dwelling, it is built one brick at a time and firmly consolidated as it progresses. In shooting, the bricks are the foundation of basics which must be there to sustain you when the pressure’s on. The roof is the mental cover you give your basic bricks. There are many shooters with leaky roofs and shaky foundations. The few who are sound moved up steadily by sheer determination, a fierce desire to win and an unrelenting application of the basics. These three, in turn; are governed by a disciplined, controlled mind. The rewards in personal satisfaction are worth any and all of the many sacrifices required.
After some 20 years of shooting, 15 in competitive clay busting, I’ve lost track of the times I’ve crept home so utterly depressed and miserable that no one could console me. Many times I decided to give it up, thinking: “Why should any sane individual continue to subject himself to such humiliation and hurt?” But I’ve always come back to this ultimate challenge to the perfectionist. Clay busting is the one occupation where I have found it possible to perhaps achieve and even measure perfection. It is, to me, the ultimate proving of – and most ruthless exposure of – myself to myself. It is this harsh discipline that keeps the ranks of top shooters – especially International ones – ever thin. However, the requisite concentration is within the reach of anyone – who is prepared to invest in both time and plenty of hard work.
No one can deny that it isn’t very difficult to hit one clay at trap/skeet or International Trap/Skeet. Then why not all of them? Lack of concentration – stemming from incomplete control of self – is the separating factor between the thousands who can hit one… and those who hit 100 – ONE AT A TIME. Even within the “perfection” of 100 straight, there is degree: were all powdered, or were some chipped? Were there some you really didn’t deserve, but Lady Luck helped out? The scoreboard can fool everyone – except yourself. Only you know if you achieved complete mastery of yourself and really shot that perfect score. There’s the challenge that has kept me going through my share of prizes, near-misses – and falling flat on my face!
Left: Average beginner’s faults on first mounting. Feet too far apart, positioning body in wrong direction. Right knee bent, left knee excessively bent. Leaning back, stomach protruding, weight on back foot – recoil will unbalance further. Right arm hunched down, making knotted bunch of muscles to receive butt. Left arm out too far, causing rigidity. Head hunched into shoulders at back of stock.
Right: Not the only “right way,” but a good basis: easy and natural. Feet no wider than normal stance, body facing direction of shot. Right leg straight, left knee broken only enough to “straight line” incline body forward into shot (helps recoil absorption and forward flow after target), also places weight on left foot. Right arm up, just below horizontal, opens shoulder into a “cup” to receive butt. Left arm back enough for fluidity, but not so far that swing control is lost. Head forward on comb, but not strained.
Let’s briefly go over some of the basic “bricks”; the rest will be covered later. First check your master eye. You can’t shoot successfully right-handed if your left eye is the master, or if they are so equal that the left occasionally takes over – like on high house skeet targets. With this problem, get corrective lenses, or dim or close the offending eye. Many top shooters shoot just as well with one eye. Only one eye guides the shot and, although preferable, it is not essential to have binocular vision for consistent busting of clays.
A gun must fit so perfectly that it is like an extension of your arm. When you look at a clay, you must have the confidence of knowing your gun is “looking” and therefore shooting at the same place. A gun which does not fit, will cost you targets and can hurt your face or shoulder.
Make sure clothing fits snug to the body and moves with it. Loose material and pointed collars can bunch up, preventing all-important, precise gun mounting. Folds of material can pinch the skin and cause bruising under recoil.
A simple, natural stance is the basis of all successful shooting. Don’t contort your body into unnatural positions – that will only add tension to a sport which already has enough in it! You need a relaxed body and a “keyed-up” mind – but disaster follows if one condition “leaks” into the other.
Top: Gun too low in shoulder, so head dips down to comb. Head should never be brought down, muscular strain causes tendency to lift it – reason for most lost targets; also makes you peer up through eyelashes. Either stock is too short or head is too far forward, as right thumb is off pistol grip. This weakens all-important grip. Fingers hold forearm, should be hand.
Top Right: Detail of what nose did to thumb position. Note head hunched into shoulders. If unable to grip correctly, ease head back. If stock too short, fit recoil pad or spacers.
Top: Lifting right arm allows gun to mount higher – hunched-down arm prevents. Good position is top of stock level with, or just below, top of shoulder. Mount gun with head in natural position. When comb touches cheek, incline head forward, level, not canted, to lock comb into fatty portion under cheekbone. Forearm lies in palm – as a support pivot – does not move the gun.
Top Left: Good firm grip to hold and move gun. Head is forward on comb, but there is space between nose and thumb. Head is inclined forward without any hunching.
You can “groove-in” to precise gun-mounting by practicing at home with a mirror. It doesn’t cost a penny, but the time invested will pay handsome dividends on the range. Since you can see yourself, it’s also the best way to perfect your stance. Just stand naturally and as you mount the gun, incline the body forward from the ankles, so the weight is on the left foot. “Break” the left knee. This gives the body fluidity of movement in the lateral swing and forward flow, instead of rigidity with a locked knee.
Leading a target by “swinging-through” is much simpler than “pointing-out.” By swinging-through, you can shoot every target the same way. Pick it up from behind, latch onto the flight path, catch it up and overtake it, firing at the moment of overtaking. It’s like passing a car on the freeway – you come up from behind and smoothly accelerate to overtake. But, you don’t stop when you have passed the other car, so don’t stop your gun – keeping it moving gives the necessary lead. With pointing-out, you must calculate different distances at varying points in mid-air from 20 to 40 yards away – you’ll need a mental slide rule! Swinging-through, the only variable is the target’s apparent speed – you just smoothly accelerate the gun sufficiently to overtake that apparent speed.
The most important factor in the application of basics is that it must be identical each time. This is part of control and self-discipline. You must almost turn yourself into a robot, a desensitized shooting machine. However, there’s even a catch in that. Some years ago, a few of the military shooters were trained into near-perfect shooting machines. They could usually be relied on to produce good scores, but not necessarily to win. Their robot conditioning could not instill the will and determination to win. Today’s military shooters are a very different breed.
The higher the mental capacity, the harder it can be to condition the concentration. The more intelligent mind contains so many factors of outside life which want to break through the “concentration curtain”. But, the higher mental capacity, if motivated, can also give a greater degree of self-control to apply to concentration – so it probably balances out.
The preparation and approach to each shot determines its success, long before the trigger is pulled. I break the preparation pattern into three stages. Each contains some basics to be checked, including some that are virtually automatic and, for this reason, can be carelessly overlooked. Too many can be confusing; enough not only ensures correct preparation, but gives the mind something positive to do so as to exclude all other thoughts during this short, but vital, period.
My pattern is not the only one, but it incorporates the important basics. It will serve as a guide that you can personalize to your specific requirements. Whatever pattern you evolve, it is essential that you adhere to it rigidly and if distracted in any way – by a mis-mount of the gun or receiving a broken target – go back to the beginning and never try to pick it up halfway through. The concentration pattern will have been interrupted and will often result in a miss. With minor adjustments, the pattern can be applied to standard and International Trap and Skeet. My pattern is based on International Trap. It is the game I know best and also consider the hardest of all claybusting sports. It follows that whatever is applicable to the hardest, will also apply to the easier forms.
Left: For crossing shot, pivot on a level plane. Don’t lean over.
Right: The feet must place body to face shot or mid-point of widest angles. Shadow shows line of shot through arch of back foot.
At your shooting station, place your feet properly. Successful shooting starts with correct positioning of the feet which, in turn, permits the body to move after targets with maximum ease. Set the feet so the body is facing the midpoint between the two maximum angles that can be expected; this way, you have equal movement in either direction. At skeet, face the shot and then bring the body back to the traphouse. When the target emerges, your body will uncoil like a spring from the slight tension put on it and assist your movement along the target’s flight path.
Between shots, some people advocate watching clays for possible wind effect. Erratic wind currents could drop the instant after you call “Pull.” You calculate to fire high because of a head wind. When the wind drops, you fire over it and miss. It can be fatal to precondition the mind to any particular target. Treat every one, when it comes out, on its own merits, follow it and shoot it accordingly. This is one problem created by the monotonous regularity of American trap targets. By reading the trap, you can put your gun at a certain spot and know the target will be there. This is impossible with International Trap, because apart from having 15 angles and heights, 38 all the settings are changed after each 100 targets. The introduction of the interrupter in American trap will improve this situation – a long overdue ruling!
Another reason for watching targets is to check for referees’ mistakes. I don’t buy that one. You’re out there to shoot and you’ve got to be selfish. Your job is to break targets with no other thoughts in your mind. Leave the referee to his job. I’m not saying don’t look at targets, but not for the above reasons. Don’t look at the ground all the time; it will impair vital eye focusing. If you do, then a couple of targets before yours, look up and focus your eyes at, or near, the trap exit.
Remain completely relaxed until the gun before you has fired. To start preparing sooner could be wasting valuable concentration energy while he remounts his gun, brushes a fly off his barrel, has broken (bad) targets or slow pulls. You would be “keyed-up” to no purpose and draining yourself for nothing. Tiredness saps the will power to control and discipline concentration. You only need it for the brief moments of stages two and three, so conserve it and use it sparingly – it is the key to sustained good shooting. During this time, the gun should remain resting on the ground. The whole body is then relaxed; if you are holding the gun, some muscle areas are inevitably under tension.
Left: Gun too far out on shoulder. Head cants to meet comb, stock tilts to meet it, eye looks down side of rib.
Middle: Gun mounted nearer brings rib up under eye. Head and eyes stay level over rib of trap gun’s raised comb
Right: Trap targets always go up. Skeet field have crossing and descending targets too, require lower comb.
Lift the gun, close it and raise it with the muzzle at about eye level, sufficiently out in front so that when mounted the butt will clear the body. Check the right-hand grip as it must hold the gun while the left hand acts more as a pivot. If it has crept forward, it will pull the trigger from the top, instead of the bottom. At the top, more pressure is necessary to release the trigger. If you use your accustomed pull, you may find that nothing happens. The finger should ideally be pulling the trigger from midway between the first joint and the half-way point of the pad of that first joint. Check the left hand: too far out excessive control, no fluidity; too far back – excessive fluidity, insufficient control. Place it so it feels as if the gun’s weight balances evenly between the two hands. I touch a point on the checkering to ensure exactitude; others have finger grooves. Too tight a left hand grip will impair the swing.
Take a deep breath and consciously relax the whole body. Incline forward onto the left foot and break the left knee. Slowly and deliberately mount the gun at eye level, the most natural of all firing positions. As soon as the stock touches the face, lock the fatty portion of the cheek onto it with a straight down movement of the head – never cant head or gun. Never move the head down before this point; the stock should always be brought up to the head. Check the beads for alignment and eye level above the rib. Too loose a cheek-lock, and head and gun will move separately; too hard and the excessive pressure will cause the head to lift when you start after the target. Then, with head, gun and body locked in the natural position, lower it all together to whatever trap exit-point you look at.
Top Left: Check right hand grip before each shot. If hand slides forward, trigger finger moves forward. It then pulls from insensitive part of finger. Also pulls top of trigger, requires more pressure to fire it.
Top Right: Before each shot, slide finger along trigger guard to bottom of trigger. Ideally, pull trigger from midway between first joint and halfway point of pad of that first joint.
Bottom Left: International Skeet Shooting position. Until target appears, butt must touch hip, with tip of butt clearly visible below elbow. Target may appear immediately, or up to 3 seconds later.
Bottom Right: Bayless simulates what author considers ugly, exaggerated lean adopted by many American skeet shooters. Partridge’s simpler, natural stance is favored by International shooters. He wonders what advantages U.S. shooters think they gain by an awkward lean.
Get your eye away from the front sight and expand your vision to look for the target. You aren’t going to shoot it 30 inches away, but nearer 30 yards plus! Your eyes already have to shift focus rapidly from trap exit to shooting distance – don’t make it harder. Focusing on the sights can also make you use a shotgun like a rifle – disaster! Let the sights be in vision, but not the point of focus. This should be the trap exit or however near it you can make out a target from a blur. I used to go for the blur on the reasonable assumption that the blur could be nothing else but an emerging clay; true, but it can cause you to jump at targets.
I do not like the theory which says to put the gun at a certain point and then lift the vision above it. This is an invitation for the head to lift too, for when the target leaves, the eyes will start to follow the target a fraction before you move the gun. Once an eye-rib relationship has been established, it should be maintained. The vital last instruction I give myself is to keep my head down through the tracking swing, the delivery of the shot as I pass through the target and the followthrough.
Raised heads count for more missed targets than all other reasons combined. It is so easy to do and so hard to spot. It can generally be defined only in a negative way. A missed target which looked good and cannot be accounted for in any way, was probably caused by a raised head. A fraction of an inch head-wise will mean a pattern vital feet under the target. Make it a habit to keep the gun mounted after firing and check to see if eye-rib relationship is the same as when you started. Keeping the head down is the most important of all factors. I have made almost every other mistake including flinching and still broken targets, if my head stayed down. Still, I can do everything else right and miss if it came up.
That completes the three stages, but other points to watch include the equally subtle element of timing – a delicate blend of boldness and precision – but neither rashness, nor deliberation. Few experienced shooters fire too fast, but many slow down to “be sure,” especially when nearing the end of a straight run. Never call “Pull” till you’re ready. Once you’ve called, you accept responsibility for that target and there’s no going back. If you weren’t ready, you’ll probably jump the target and miss. If it’s a slow pull, don’t take it. If you kill it, you may be rattled by the near-miss and lose the next one. If you miss it, your anger at yourself and the puller (remember how many times he must concentrate in a day) can cost you more targets.
How you call “Pull’ is important. Each target should be approached with an aggressive attitude, but take care how this comes out in the call. Too violently aggressive a call can cause the gun to bounce and the head to lift from the stock when the target appears. For the ruthless elimination of targets, cold, calculated concentration is more reliable than an explosion of angry, nervous tension; let your call reflect this.
Raised heads count for more missed targets than all other reasons combined. It is so easy to do and so hard to spot.
A mind blank to all other subjects is essential, but only during stages two and three. What about between shots? Goof off, relax completely and conserve concentration energy. Your mind wants to wander and it may when you least want it to unless you establish this relief valve of letting it think what it wants between shots. Along with eye focus, you can gently guide it back from last night’s date to shooting, a target or two before yours. Clamp down total censorship at stage two! Otherwise, I have known myself to miss targets when seemingly completely concentrated on calling “Pull” – then coming to a moment later as the gun went off and wondering where I had tripped-out to! Self-discipline and control mean that the mind obeys you when you want it to.
Straights are broken one at a time – that is what I repeat to myself when I’m going straight. Thinking about a straight is sure to cause a miss. It both breaks the robot concentration pattern and can cause a fatal “slow-to-be-sure” shot. The slightest doubt about hitting the next target is sure to result in a loss. Each one has to be hit in your head before you pull the trigger, and that requires confidence in one’s ability.
Avoid having a bogey bird or “difficult” target. When that exits, mental recognition will cause either a panicked stab or seizure of the muscles – either guarantees a miss. Practicing on such a target can increase the problem as the acceptance of a “difficult” target becomes more firmly embedded in the mind. All targets can be treated and shot the same way – provided you use the simple swinging-through method.
When you miss, take a moment to analyze why, then forget it. It’s gone forever and all that matters is the next target. Don’t fall into the trap of then saying something like, “Don’t lift your head” for the next shot. That is negative. All instructions to the mind must be positive, so what do you do? Nothing – nothing different, that is. A miss simply means you didn’t carry out one of the basics. So just return to your positive-instruction pattern.
Don’t point out your miss to the spectators by a display of temper or dejection. A man who shows his emotions here, is one who cannot control them and will lose more targets beca use of it. What does showing-up your miss achieve? It simply delights the opposition, who will reasonably assume that you are cracking up! If someone were not watching targets, it should not be possible to tell from watching the shooter whether he has hit or missed.
Just as you should not change your approach pattern, so you should not constantly change guns and carve and patch those you have – especially not during a competition. If you hit targets consistently in practice, you are technically capable of hitting them. If you miss in competition, it doesn’t mean your gun or style is wrong. It means you have succumbed to competition nerves. Few shooters like to admit a miss could have been their fault, it is so much easier and ego-salvaging to blame anything else.
Most shooters are searching for a magic no-miss formula. I realized long ago that when l stopped fiddling with the gun and got the nut behind it tightened up, I would be on the road to good shooting, provided I stuck to a gun that fitted and the basics that had been proved to work. Every change, even those that will eventually mean a step forward, generally mean a temporary step back. They interrupt the existing pattern, so the mind has an extra, distinctive thought until the change is absorbed. To sum up, a delightful quote from a great American trap shooter, Russ Elliott: “To hit is history – to miss is mystery”.
Author smokes station 8 skeet target, shot from International gun-down position. Importance of lead is shown by distance of gun ahead of just-broken clay. Blurred muzzle indicates gun is still moving in equally vital follow-through continuation swing.
I have expressed the view, that many American trap shooters suffer from flinching due to the long time lag between calling and firing – almost twice that of International Trap. The mind has time to think about the impending discharge of the gun, doesn’t like the idea of the bang and the recoil and sends a stop message to the finger. Another reason applicable to all forms of shooting, stems from insufficient preparation and concentration. When one is about to pull the trigger, the brain says in effect: “The gun/target relationship is wrong – it’s a waste of time to pull it now”. Having accepted that sensible warning, I can almost always recover from today’s very rare flinches – providing I keep my head down!
Don’t aim at the moon overnight and become dejected when you don’t hit straights of 25 immediately. Set sensible goals and build your foundation on firm bricks. Flash-in-the-pan houses of straw quickly collapse. Aim at averaging 22s, then 23s, and 24s – at that stage, the 25s will take care of themselves. When you’re at that exalted level, don’t be too disgusted with a 23 – remember when you thought it was a pretty good round – that’s progress! Steady progress means having an average of, say, 95 percent with a low of 93 and a high of 96 – rather than the same average sandwiched between an 85 and a 100. If you can build steadily, you’ll get there – don’t be in a hurry; he who gets there this way has a lot more behind him when the pressure’s on than Mr. Flash-in-the-pan does.
In closing – a blunt statement condensed from the excellent U.S. Army manual on marksmanship: the most minimal quantities of alcohol, coffee, tobacco and drugs will seriously affect one’s shooting. No matter what good any of them may appear to do, it will definitely be outweighed by the harmful side effects. Finally, to paraphrase a well-known song: if I ever succeed in persuading myself to follow all this good advice… “Look out, shooting world, you’re gonna hear from me!”
This article was written by Derek Partridge and originally published in 1976 as a chapter in “International Style Clay Target Shooting” book. Republished with permission.