Thursday, April 2, 2009

How to Shoot Your Best Round of Sporting Clays -- Even in 40-mph Winds

This article originally appeared in the free e-letter distributed by Shotgun Life. To subscribe, please visit

By Irwin Greenstein

The week between Christmas and New Years is prime time for a sporting-clays marathon in the Baltimore area. There are at least six great places to shoot within an hour’s drive or so, and a ready group of friends that make it easy to pull together a pick-up squad with a few emails.

One morning, about seven of us drove down to beautiful Pintail Point in Queenstown, Maryland, in the shotgun playground of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Sporting clays, waterfowl and deer are in abundance and many shooters who are born on the Eastern Shore never move away.

That morning, I had packed my Caesar Guerini Magnus 20/28-gauge combo with 32-inch barrels. I shoot 20 gauge for sporting clays and 28 gauge for skeet. It’s a marvelous shotgun. It’s well-balanced and easy to befriend -- the kind of shotgun that can boost your confidence.

When it comes to chokes, I follow the rule of thumb that suggests Improved Cylinders for sporting clays. It’s a good constriction for just about any presentation, especially for a shooter like me who doesn’t change chokes from station to station.

For ammo, I prefer the Remington Heavy Sport Load (Dick’s) or the Winchester Texas Heavy Dove & Quail Load (Bass Pro). Both are 1-ounce 20 gauge packed with No. 8 shot. And as you’ll see later, both are also capable of breaking very long targets.

The temperature that morning hovered in the 40s. The wind was calm and the sky was so brilliant that when you smashed a high target it seemed like a spray of fireworks -- the effect you get when night-shooting under the lights.

Our trapper was a champion sporting clays shooter and he knew us well. There were no bad pulls, bad advice or bad attitude.

In short, aside from the bulk of my jacket, there were no excuses that glorious morning at Pintail Point.

I started missing the easy targets early in the round. At first I couldn’t figure it out. And the unspoken rule in our group that no advice is given unless asked for.

The thing is, I knew what I was doing wrong; I just couldn’t get myself to fix the problem.

I kept shooting over the targets because rather than cock my right knee and lean on the ball of my left foot, for some darn reason I kept leaning back. I started complaining that the stock was too long with my jacket on, that 20-gauge was too small for some of the targets, and on and on and on…

By time we hit the last station, I was seething -- ready to trade in the gun for a 12 gauge and a custom-fit stock. The scores were tallied up and I came in dead last with 53 out of 100.

The guy with the highest score at 86 was Rick Cundiff. Rick has shot hundreds of thousands of rounds of sporting clays, in addition to thousands of rounds in wing shooting. His gun of choice that day was a Caesar Guerini Summit 12 gauge -- the best that the company has to offer.

Just a note about Rick. Whenever we shoot sporting clays, I notice that he uses Cylinder and Skeet chokes -- maybe occasionally going to a tighter constriction for a station or two. I simply figured that Rick was such a good shot he could do whatever the heck he wanted -- and wrote it off to that.

After Pintail Point, we stopped at Annie’s Steak and Seafood House on the Kent Narrows -- our usual place to grab a spectacular burger, fried oyster sandwich or the meat-loaf blue-plate special. We talked about shooting and other things, but as lunch wound down I suggested that we shoot sporting clays again the next day at a different place: Central Penn Sporting Clays in Wellsville, Penn. (call me a masochist). Central Penn was about the same distance as Pintail Point, but due north.

Everyone thought it was a great idea. After the rush of enthusiasm, most of us realized we had dentist appointments, dates, work -- you name it. That is except for Rick and me. It was set then, Rick would meet at my house the next morning and we would make a bee dive to Central Penn.

As usual, Rick arrived promptly on time. Driving up there, I lamented my horrible scores at Pintail Point. Rick said “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.”

During the drive up to Central Penn, Rick suggested I swap out my Improved Cylinder Chokes for Cylinder and Skeet. I figured, Cylinder and Skeet with a 20 gauge? Fat chance. But I did it anyway -- otherwise Rick would make me drop and give him 50 push ups. predicted 40 mph winds that morning with gusts up to 60 mpg. We drove through a snow squall but otherwise it seemed like a calm day -- until we stepped out of Rick’s SUV.

Almost on cue, a razor-sharp wind kicked up the leaves and shook the trees. Inside the club house, Maryanne sat bundled up. A squad of shooters had just returned, and man were they glad to beat the wind. Determined, Rick and I were ready for 100 targets. It was going to be sporting clays boot camp, with Rick as the drill sergeant.

Central Penn makes no pretense. It’s a local club with new machines, cheap prices ($25 for 100 targets for non-members, $20 for members) and the very nice Stoneberger family runs the place. Given the time of year, and the weather forecast, there weren’t many shooters -- giving us plenty of leeway for help from Rick.

Invariably, when I shoot at Central Penn I think about the Charlie Daniel’s song, "Devil Went Down to Georgia." Instead of the devil daring Johnny the fiddle player, he went down to Wellsville and taunted the guy who sets traps at Central Penn. And just as in the Charlie Daniel’s song “The devil bowed his head because he knew that he'd been beat” but this time it was in Wellsville.

"Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again.”

Rick decided we should go down to the last stations, which are set in the woods. Most of the course is shot in open flat land or over corn stalks, and the woods would give us a fighting chance against the wind.

He pulled a couple of left-to-right low sweepers and watched as I missed them. Then he made a brilliant suggestion. Rather than hold the shotgun down at around my rib cage in a low, ready mount, I should place the stock on my shoulder. This would accomplish two things:

I wouldn’t have to deal with the bulk of my jacket during the mount.
I wouldn’t constantly rush my mount because the stock would be closer to my cheekbone.

By holding the gun closer to my face (but not pressing the stock against my shoulder), he believed that it would smooth out and slow down my mount and give me more time to focus strictly on the target.

Sure enough, he was right.

My mount was consistent, deliberate and confident. And combined with the wider chokes I just started crushing targets. Loopers, sweepers, dropping incomers -- it didn’t matter. If it flied, it died.

At Central Penn, there is a teal in the middle of a corn field that’s set about 80 yards away from the cage. The trap machine is in a grove of trees. It throws the bird some 20 yards over the tree tops, peaks and then drops like a comet. Now imagine shooting that target in 40 mph winds.

My inclination is to shoot teals just when they stall. I tried that approach on this target and missed it.

The second time, though, I decided to hold my gun lower and swing up through the target, giving it about a 20-yard lead. Starting my mount on my shoulder, I executed a smooth and deliberate upswing. Now remember, I have a 20-gauge shotgun and my bottom barrel (the first barrel) is choked Cylinder. I called for the bird and then pulled the trigger according to plan. Rick and I watched that tiny spec soar above the tree tops, when suddenly the thing smashes. We look at each other in amazement.

Was it a lucky shot? Neither of us thought so.

We didn’t keep score that day in Wellsville, but I’m willing to bet the Devil it was the best round of sporting clays I ever shot.

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