Clay shooting is loads of fun and a great way to make new friends. So, find yourself a good instructor and make sure that your first go is safe and enjoyable.
Why are more and more people, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity and social background, getting their kicks from shooting little round targets that rocket across the sky or skip along the ground?
Because it’s fun! Most of the time it’s going to put a broad grin on your face and a bouncy spring in your step. You’ll love it. The rest of the time it’s frustrating, disappointing, depressing and downright ruinous.
But that’s what keeps it interesting. Clay target shooting is a sport nobody will ever master, which is why we keep coming back for those adrenaline fuelled moments. It’s challenging, but in a good way!
Before you start shooting, you’ll need to find just two things. A good shooting ground and a great shooting instructor.
Choosing a ground
Plenty of people have learned to shoot in a muddy field with a single trap, but these days it makes sense to find a ground that has modern equipment and facilities.
The quality of British grounds has improved immeasurably and we’re now seeing more, such as Eriswell Lodge in Suffolk, invest heavily in large, comfy facilities that wouldn’t disgrace a posh golf club. Many grounds also have covered, all-weather stands from which to shoot, with good wheelchair access.
More women taking up the sport has triggered a virtuous circle of ladies qualifying as instructors, coaches and referees. Shooting still has a male bias but it’s now much more accessible to all and the better for it.
Some grounds may specialise in one or two disciplines such as Skeet or Trap (see Disciplines Explained below) whereas larger grounds may feature a variety of layouts that incorporate multiple disciplines.
As a novice you’re unlikely to know which discipline you’ll end up liking the best, so starting at a larger ground may make sense. That said, you may find a smaller ground provides a more friendly, intimate space in which to learn.
Good quality instruction will trump facilities, but bear in mind that a Skeet range makes for a great learning environment regardless of whether you want to take up Skeet or not.
In England the CPSA is the national governing body for clay target shooting. Part of its remit is to help manage and develop the sport through a network of affiliated or registered clubs and grounds.
“If a ground is CPSA affiliated or registered then novices can rest assured that they are of a certain standard,” says Mike Williams, Senior Tutor and Assessor, CPSA.
“Affiliated grounds are typically smaller clubs with modest amenities that will self-certify their facilities in line with CPSA guidelines. This includes a recommendation that a CPSA Safety Officer is in attendance during every shoot.
“Registered grounds are a step above and are permitted to hold CPSA registered shoots. They usually boast more facilities and are audited by one of our regional auditors to ensure that they meet CPSA specifications and comply with our requirements.
“A Premier ground is more substantial still and may host registered CPSA regional and minor national competitions. Our Premier Plus grounds offer the highest level of shooting experience in facilities, amenities and customer care. They’ll be hosting major and international competitions.”
It doesn’t necessarily follow that a ground that’s not affiliated or registered with the CPSA is going to be below par in some way but the register does at least provide a useful standard that novices can rely on.
Despite the allure of shiny new kit you shouldn’t need to be armed with anything when you start shooting other than enthusiasm and a sense of humour. Any ground or instructor worth their salt should be able to provide everything, including a range of guns that can be adapted to suit a variety of body sizes.
Getting your shotgun certificate
In order to own a shotgun, you must obtain a valid shotgun certificate.
If you’re new to the sport, then don’t
try to rush into buying a gun but, do apply for your licence in plenty of time because the process can take a while.
The application for a licence is quite straightforward, and simply involves filling out a form available from your local police force.
Essentially, the police just need to be satisfied that you can safely possess a shotgun without danger to public safety and that it can be stored securely. For the vast majority of us this shouldn’t be a concern.
Originally developed to simulate live quarry shooting, clay targets are thrown in all sorts of angles, trajectories, speeds and elevations. The names of the targets are reminiscent of the sport’s origins too – Teal, Driven Pheasant, Duck, Rabbit etc. Sporting is the grandaddy of English Sporting, FITASC, Sportrap, Compak and more. Sporting and its variants are the most popular clay disciplines.
A row of concealed traps in front of a
line of shooters throw targets a distance of about 50 metres at a relatively low height. Each competitor shoots a single target in turn before they move one station to the right until 25 targets have been shot. Trap variants include Down the Line, Automatic Ball Trap, Olympic Trap and Universal Trench.
Originated in the US, although the word is Scandinavian. Targets are thrown from a high house and a low house that sit each side of a semi-circular layout of stands. Competitors move round seven shooting stations which introduces variation to the targets, which are thrown at set trajectories and speeds. Skeet disciplines include English Skeet, Olympic Skeet and American Skeet.
Choosing an instructor
Anyone can set themselves up as a shooting instructor or coach with no formal qualifications. Some coaches, particularly those who have achieved success at high-level competitions, are first rate.
Others, not so much. So, unless you know an instructor’s background or have been given a personal recommendation, our advice is to seek out a qualified professional. Qualifying bodies include BASC, APSI, ISSF and the CPSA.
“Choose a CPSA registered coach and you’ll benefit from a structured learning pathway, including the CPSA method,” says Mike. “If you begin learning with one CPSA professional and then, perhaps because of a job or house move, you have to pick up with another it’s easy to follow the same path.
We offer quality and consistency. This is especially important if a little later you want to specialise in a specific discipline. Your original instructor can seamlessly hand you over to another CPSA qualified coach who specialises in that discipline.
In addition, all CPSA instructors and coaches will benefit from their professional indemnity insurance, which should give any novices that extra peace of mind about their teaching sessions.”
Many women feel more comfortable learning with a female instructor, so don’t be afraid to make that request if it’s important to you.
“I like to get novices out shooting as soon as possible,” says Paul Dancer, CPSA Level 2 Sporting Coach. “It’s more fun for them, and it gives me the opportunity to assess their mentality. So, I treat the first lesson as a relaxed, enjoyable ‘have a go’ session. We check eye dominance and adjust a training gun to make it the best fit possible. Then it’s time to break some clays.”
Paul will choose an easy stand, usually one with a target that’s going away or an incomer. To start with he likes to take care of the ammunition, loading the gun and pressing the trap button so all they have to worry about is hitting the clay.
“I’ll be right on their shoulder, checking that the gun mount is correct and that the stock is correctly into the shoulder pocket so they’ll feel the least amount of recoil. Then, I’ll let them have a go. I’ll explain to them not to look at the bright bead end of the gun, but to always look at the clay.
“Nine times out of ten they’ll hit the first target and feel that wave of elation. Then many of them will miss the second target because they’ll immediately start to overthink the process!
“If they’re doing really well on the simple going away or incoming targets then we may move to something different. This first lesson is all about building confidence in a fun, low-pressure but closely monitored environment.
It’s an opportunity for them to work out whether they’re enjoying the experience, and for me to gauge whether they are relaxed, nervous, apprehensive, over-excited – everybody reacts differently.”
Paul reckons that about 25 targets is plenty for the first lesson and he always allows up to 90 minutes. Then, after sufficient confidence has been built, it’s time to start more formal training.
“Fun is part of lesson two, but more structured. We start taking novices through off-range and on-range instruction using the CPSA method. Off-range topics include gun fit, stance, eye dominance, gun movement, safety and gun handling.
“On-range, we will reinforce elements like safety and stance, but also start to look at their visual pickup point, reaction time and gun hold point. These elements are at the very heart of the CPSA method and students are now really getting to grips with how to shoot.”
How many lessons do you need before you’ve learned how to shoot?
“How long is a piece of string?” says Paul. “Everyone is different, but they should be able to practise on their own before long. When does the learning process stop? Even Olympians have coaches…”
Buying a gun
Owning your own gun will help your progress immeasurably, provided you buy the right one. “The best gun is the one that fits,” says Paul Dancer. “I always offer to accompany my clients when they are buying a new gun, because it helps to have another pair of experienced eyes in the gunroom to judge whether a gun is going to be suitable for the shooter. It is so easy to get carried away by marketing claims, healthy discounts and shiny new features. Having somebody with you who’s not emotionally involved in the purchase can be a godsend.”
Be aware that gun manufacturers produce discipline specific models. For example, Trap guns tend to have very high ribs. So, if you’re not yet sure which discipline is for you, either hold off buying a gun or buy a generic Sporter that can cope with just about anything. Some guns, such as the Blaser F3, are modular which means that with a few basic tools you can transform it from a Sporter to a Trap gun in minutes.
When you first try shooting, the ground will provide everything you need – but eventually you’ll want to start collecting your own equipment in order to be more comfortable and hopefully improve your performance.
Eye protection is essential and you can spend a small fortune on featherweight glasses with specially coated lenses. If you’re on a tight budget remember that your local DIY store probably sells optically correct safety glasses for a few quid.
Hearing protection is another must for any shooter. In-ear digital hearing protection is effective, comfortable and stylish. Again, these solutions are pricey so there’s no shame in wearing traditional-style passive hearing defenders provided they meet the correct standards.
Clays have a habit of fighting back so wear a simple peaked hat or baseball hat to protect your eyes and face from sharp, falling fragments. It’s possibly the cheapest, most effective shooting accessory you’ll buy, and can save you from a bad hair day too.
Modern fabrics tend to be soft and silky. Great for comfort but useless for shouldering a gun stock. A decent Skeet vest will have non-slip shoulder patches plus plenty of pockets for shells, keys, lipstick, crusty old dog snacks, bits of manky tissue paper – you know the kind of thing.