Imagine spending hard-earned money on shotguns, shells, clothing, a pointer or retriever with champion bloodlines, plus the rest of the gear we “need” to pursue wild birds each fall…and then not being able to kill one because you haven’t put the time in practicing. All that financial investment, and you didn’t make time for shooting clays at the range over the summer? A lot of hunters make this mistake—I certainly did—and it stops us from fully enjoying the hunt.
If you’re tired of embarrassing yourself (and getting frustrated) in front of your heckling buddies, it’s time to do something about it. Namely, practice. The first and most important thing you need to understand before starting down the long road to becoming a good shot is that your effectiveness with a shotgun is going to fall off markedly beyond 40 yards. There’s a bevy of reasons for that, the main one being that leading a bird properly at longer distances is damn tough. But also, the effectiveness of most shotshells starts to decline beyond 40 yards.
So, once you understand your effective range, the real work begins. Here’s what you need to do in order to become a crack shot inside 40 yards…and shut those hunting buddies up for good.
1. Take the Bead Off Your Barrel
Any new shotgun you purchase is either going to have a fiber-optic sight or front bead on the end of the barrel, and the first thing you need to do is get a pair of pliers, unscrew it, and remove it. Don’t throw it away—you may want it for turkey season or other pursuits. But in wingshooting, a front bead isn’t necessary, and it actually draws your eye to the end of the shotgun barrel and away from the bird you’re trying to hit. If you remove the front bead, your entire focus is on the target, and nothing else.
2. Pattern Your Shotgun
Most shotgun experts will tell you to pattern your shotgun at 20, 30, and 40 yards on paper to find out if it’s shooting accurately, and I’m not against this practice. It can tell you plenty about where your pellets are striking. But it’s not the first thing I do to increase accuracy on birds inside 40 yards (though it definitely helps for shooting longer distances). Your pattern looks different in the field because there are more factors at play than when shooting off a rest: you’re shooting a moving target, and swinging the barrel instead of holding it steady. If I am shooting a new shotgun, I take it to the skeet range and stand under Station 1 so the clay is thrown directly away from me. You can also do this with a hand thrower or electronic trap, too. This station offers an easy, basic shot, and it will reveal if the gun is shooting where you point it.
If I break clays with consistency, then I typically don’t pattern the gun on paper, because it’s shooting where I aim. Most shotgun’s pattern 50/50 or 60/40 above and below the centerline of a target. So unless you’re missing the clay, you aren’t going to see many revelations by going to the pattern board at shorter distances. Shooting inside 40 yards is more reactive than shooting at longer distances. Birds are close, and you don’t have time to be thinking about where to hold the barrel or how much lead is required to get the most pellets in him.
If you do have trouble hitting that clay going straight away, now’s the time to pattern your gun. You need to see if it’s shooting high, low, or if user error is to blame. And I do believe in patterning your gun on paper for turkey season, so when that rolls around, do it. Turkey heads are a much smaller target than the head and body of a mallard, goose, or pheasant.
3. Pull the Trigger as Soon as You Can
To become more accurate, you have to break clay targets as soon as you are on the “bird.” This means you call for the clay, it’s launched, and as soon as you find the leading edge of orange on the target, you pull the trigger. Sometimes shooters develop a bad habit known as “riding the target.” This means you keep moving the barrel with the clay, even after you should have already pulled the trigger. This happens because clays are traveling a fixed path and you know where they’re going. Unlike birds, which can fly any direction at any given moment. Riding the target can cause you to miss, because 1) the clay is getting farther away from you (in most cases) and 2) the longer you ride a target, the more chances there are for you to stop the swing of your barrel or pull your head off the stock. So acquire the target as fast as you can, and shoot. Don’t wait—you’ll miss.
4. If You’re a Waterfowler, Shoot Skeet
As a duck hunter, shooting American skeet is my preferred method to stay sharp all offseason. Every station mimics a potential shot on a duck, from teal to greenheads. Skeet is also harder than shooting ducks or geese fluttering over the decoys, so even when I miss, I consider it progress. Because most birds are going to be moving slower than the clays coming out of the shooting house. If you haven’t shot skeet before, the first few times are likely going to be a challenge.
For my first trips to the skeet field, I shot with a group of people (it’s almost unavoidable, because you need at least one other person to pull for you). Everyone tried giving me advice as we shot round after round. Because so many different shooters were trying to “help,” this turned out to be mostly unhelpful. The one thing that can be beneficial is to ask someone to watch where the wad flies while you shoot. That gives you an idea of where you’re missing, because where the wad travels is also where your pattern travels. Other than watching the wad, don’t trust everyone’s critiques unless they’re a registered instructor. How you shoot and how others shoot may be worlds apart. Instead, look at the leading edge of the clay, find the space in front of it, and pull the trigger.
When it’s your turn to shoot, mount the gun to your shoulder, but keep your head off the stock. Most experienced skeet shooters will fully mount the gun, but I want you to keep your head up for two reasons. First, it will teach you to bring your face to the stock of your gun. If you start with a full mount, and your cheek is already against the stock, your natural tendency will be to pull away from the stock as you pull the trigger to see if you broke the clay. Second, keeping your head up provides a better field of vision, so you can find the clay quicker and react accordingly.
Once you are breaking upwards of 15 clays, start shooting low gun (skeet throws 25 clays total, including an option, which is a mulligan after your first miss). There are two stages of low gun that you should progress through. The first is holding the gun at the ready just out in front of you, and then bringing it to your shoulder to shoot. Shoot several rounds this way before you go full-on low gun. When you’re shooting low gun, don’t mount the gun and then try to swing the barrel. It’s all one motion. Move the barrel (and your body), bring it to a full mount, and pull the trigger.
It’s helpful to visualize where you will break the clay, and then pull the barrel back 30 percent from that point of impact. This will keep the barrel in front of the clay coming from the house, so you’re not trying to catch up to it. This is called a continuous lead, and it’s a great way to become more accurate because it’s simple.
Another way is to “pull off” the target. In this method, you keep the barrel on the clay and then pull ahead of it when you’re ready to shoot. I’m a pull through or “snap” shooter, which means my barrel is behind the target until the moment I shoot. It works for me inside 40, but also requires a lot more practice, because my timing has to be precise.
5. If You’re an Upland Hunter, Shoot Trap
Nothing mimics the flush of a rooster more than shooting a round of trap. The clays will fly in a few different directions, but always out in front and away from you…just like pheasants, chukar, and quail normally do. As with skeet, start with your head off the stock and then move through the two different stages of low gun described in the previous section.
As the season gets closer, I try to get on a trap range with one other person to pull for me. I’ll stand at the various stations, but I won’t call for the bird by saying “pull.” Let your puller push the button that controls the throwers at random. This may be nerve-wracking, and you may not hit as many clays at first, but it imitates a hunt. You don’t always know when a bird is going to spring from cover, and this drill will get you more comfortable (and ready for those moments). I’ve even seen shooters stand with the barrel of the gun resting on their shoulder—as you do in the field sometimes—and shoot a round of trap that way, bringing the gun off the shoulder, mount it, and shoot. Just make sure your barrel isn’t pointed at anyone behind you, since the gun will be loaded when you do this drill. If you want to see where you are missing, the Garmin Xero S1 is a great tool that tracks all your shots.
Read Next: 12 Ways to Improve Your Wingshooting Skills
Another drill that will make you more accurate is to face off against a buddy in which both of you are trying to shoot the same clay. You will need a group of three—two shooters and a puller. Neither of you will call for the bird, and the puller will just randomly throw it. The goal is to be the first shooter to hit the clay. This isn’t how we do it on a gentleman’s hunt of course, but in this competition, the benefit is that you become quicker and more accurate when it really matters. Plus, it’s a fun way to liven trap up when you get bored of shooting the same presentations over and over.
6. Shoot Live Hunting Scenarios
In addition to shooting at the range, I’ve started using either a hand release operated trap or an electric trap to mimic shooting scenarios I will be in come fall. For waterfowl, my brother and I shoot four different presentations over a small pond for added realism (if you don’t have access to water, you can still do this drill). The first is going away, then a left to right crossing shot, followed by a right to left crosser. We finish with clays headed right at us, like ducks coming into the decoys. To make each other better, we purposely try to make one another miss, throwing clays while the other is reloading, or throwing a double without announcing it.
For upland presentations, I will take a foot-operated trap and simply set it up in a field with short cover. I’ve tried to shoot in tall grass with one, but it limits where you can put the thrower depending on the height of the grass. You can do this with a buddy too, and throw the clays at random, just like with the waterfowl drill I do with my brother. Typically, I just aim the thrower in different directions and heights, but always send the clay away from my shooting position, similar to a real bird flush. I try to shoot in different weather conditions too—mostly high wind or a light rain, if I can get out on those days. If you only shoot in pristine conditions, it won’t help as much. Hunts often include wind, rain, or snow, and increasing the difficulty during practice will make the real deal that much easier.