Handling Tough Shots You might still miss, but not as often

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There are some super-tough shots in the wing-shooting world. The shooting game of sporting clays is well-known for presenting exceptionally difficult targets, and clays are fun to shoot. However, a significant percentage of these fun-but-fake shots are never encountered in the field. What we wing-shooters need to concentrate on are the shots at real live birds that are tough–very tough–for even the most experienced among us. Here’s some advice on how to hit those toughies more frequently, plus a few pointers on how we can use clay-target venues to practice the techniques.

1. Very Fast Birds

A dove riding a tailwind is an exceptionally tough target. These guys are very fast to begin with. Throw in a tailwind of 10, 15 or 20 miles per hour and you’re talking about a whole lot of missing. Unless, that is, you shoot like my friend Cam Mele. He is one of the best shots I know, especially on doves. Just prior to a recent trip I took to Cordoba, Argentina, to hunt high-velocity doves, I interviewed Cam on his game-shooting techniques. It was during that visit that Cam told me he shot all his targets via the swing-through method–that is, purposely starting behind the bird, then swinging through it before pulling the trigger.

Once I was in Argentina, I was presented with dove after dove flying in a south-to-north direction, riding a 10- to 15-mph tailwind. I’m normally a sustained-lead type of shooter on doves. When possible, I start the muzzle ahead of the bird, then maintain a lead until it feels right before hitting the trigger. On fast doves I often accelerate the muzzle right at the end of my swing, using what has become known as the pull-away method. After my first few misses on those Argentine rockets, however, Cam’s swing-through suggestion came to mind.

I started purposely inserting the muzzle behind those tailwind-riding doves. Then I would accelerate the barrel through. For the next several days of the hunt I shot some of my best percentages ever. I attribute that success to the swing-through lead.

Here’s how to do it: Intense focus on the bird is absolutely essential. I still have good eyes, corrected to 20/15, so on reasonably close doves I try to concentrate my focus on the bird’s eye. If the birds are too far away for that, I simply concentrate my focus on the beak of the bird I have targeted.

If you’re a natural sustained-lead shooter like I am, you’ll also have to concentrate on bringing the muzzle in behind the bird–how much behind isn’t all that important, but don’t make it just an inch or two. Several feet will probably be better. Start behind, accelerate to catch up, and then focus on the bird’s eye or beak (or bill, if it’s a waterfowl).

As the muzzle gets to the bird, hit the trigger. You’ll be amazed at your increased degree of success. Why does this technique work so well on extremely fast birds? Mainly because you’re increasing the muzzle speed all through the swing. Your swing ends up being faster than the bird, which, of course, is the factor that takes care of the lead. As distances increase you might have to see some separation between the muzzle and the bird, but only significant distances will call for such separation. There’s no chance of slowing or stopping the swing. You’re simply moving too fast.

Most gunners using a sustained lead for game flying quickly have to track the bird much longer than they do when using the swing-through technique. Consequently, the bird’s distance from the shooter increases, requiring more lead, and the shooter can begin to run out of barrel swing space–a sure formula for slowing or stopping the swing even to the point of stumbling off balance.


Practice the swing-through technique either on a skeet field or a sporting clays course. Start with a low 6 (for skeet) or right-to-left quartering shot on a sporting course. Purposely set up your muzzle position so you know you’re going to be behind when the target appears. Keep your gun low so you will be more inclined to bring the muzzle up behind the clay as it passes in front of you.

Call for the bird. If you’re still in front at the start, try again with the muzzle a hair farther back. Now concentrate on the forward edge of the target. Without looking at the muzzle (you’ll see it in your peripheral vision), hit the trigger as the muzzle gets to the bird. You won’t need any perceptive lead. The gun moving faster than the bird takes care of that. Once you have the feel of this shot, and you can do so safely and with the club’s permission, move back 5 yards (behind station 6 in the case of skeet) and try the same shot. Then move back 5 more yards, then 5 more. Repeat from slightly different angles with a low 5-type target, a high 2, a high 3, then finally the middle stations (of skeet) for full-crossing-shot practice. After a few visits to the skeet range, you should be ready for just about anything a dove field or teal pond can dish out.

2. Escaping Upland Birds

Ruffed grouse are famous for disappearing in a hurry, usually behind a tree or some type of tall vegetation. But ruffs aren’t the only birds that can quickly appear and just as quickly get out of range. You’ve got to think and react without hesitation to bag such escape artists. But how can you increase your chances of success with this type of shot?

The sustained lead won’t work on the shot we’re talking about here. Unlike the target situation on a skeet or sporting clays field, a real grouse or quail (or many other upland targets) is going to be ahead of your muzzle when it erupts. Assuming the bird is going to disappear quickly, there’s no time to get ahead and sustain. This is where the swing-through technique again becomes the better alternative. With enough practice, you should be able to make the shot sooner. The object is to teach your mind and your muscles to react in tandem–hopefully before the grouse, quail or whatever it is gets behind vegetation and vanishes.


Use the same practice technique for quick getaways as is recommended for very fast birds. Start at low 6 on a skeet field, or a quick quartering shot on a sporting course.

Intense concentration on the bird is critical. If there’s any difference in this practice session (compared to the one to sharpen your shooting skills for fast-flying doves or waterfowl), it’s that you should work at firing as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about the longer practice shots. Just work on the relatively close ones. That’s what you’ll encounter in the real world, where targets appear and disappear rapidly.

3. Overhead Incomers

The tough part about this shot is that the gun’s muzzle covers the bird as you swing with it. If the bird does not jink, flit and flutter or change its flight path, no problem. Just swing through and you’ll still be able to kill it. But real ducks, geese and especially doves don’t react like clay targets in this situation. The closer a real incomer is to you, the better the chance it’s going to see you move. When that happens, the bird typically will start bobbing and weaving to get away.

If it’s a particularly long-range shot, chances are significantly reduced that the feathered target will begin its evasive action. But if you think aerial gyrations are going to occur, try to anticipate which way the bird will go and turn 90 degrees in that direction (assuming you were facing the incomer straight-on). Now you can see the bird throughout the swing. Use your normal method to draw on the bird. Sustained lead will work well, but so will pull-away and swing-through. If the bird starts bobbing and weaving, hopefully you’ll see it and be able to make adjustments in your swing to compensate.

SHOOTING EXERCISE Seek out a sporting clays course with incoming targets to practice this shot. As the bird appears, turn 90 degrees to your right or left and use your preferred lead method.

4. Long Shots Long shots are perhaps the toughest for most shotgunners, whether they’re shooting at real birds or clays. Cam Mele takes the super-long ones via the swing-through method, but I think he’s an exception. Most of us will probably shoot the super-long shots via sustained-lead or pull-away.


These days it’s easy to practice long shots on most sporting clays courses, since many of them have 50- to 70-yard presentations. They’re intimidating because we step onto these stations and we miss and miss. But the key is simply to stay on the pad and keep shooting.

Intense focus is critical here. Keep in mind: When you miss once, do something very different on the next shot. You might be surprised at the result.

Using the sustained lead, it’s hard for our brains to imagine that so much separation between the bird and the muzzle is required. That’s why repetitive practice is worthwhile, but it has to be successful to really help you. You might want to shoot five or six shots at these long-range birds and take a rest. Then take five or six more and so on. You might shoot hundreds of rounds at long birds in several sessions, but it will help you in your quest to master what produces effectively on these extremely tough targets.