How to buy your first clay gun

Everybody has to start somewhere, Vic Harker highlights everything to consider as a beginner

After what may be some time following your first introduction to clay target shooting, which may have been at your local club or some informal clays with your friends, the moment comes when you decide you want to buy your first gun.

This is not a decision that should be taken likely – the people who make our laws and those who enforce them do not, so neither should you. Unlike a fishing rod or a tennis racquet, shotguns can kill, not just the odd woodpigeon or a pheasant, but people. That you may just want to break some clay targets makes no difference, firearms of every kind, and most certainly the shotgun, are potentially lethal weapons.

For that reason, the law requires that you apply for a licence to possess one. To do so you must be able to convince the licensing authorities, which in this case is your local police force, that you are a fit and proper person to possess a gun. This is not a daunting task, but you have to complete an application at your local police station.

This will be followed up by a visit from a firearms officer to ensure you have installed the required amount of security as described in your original application. Assuming your application meets the required criteria, a shotgun licence will, in due course, be issued to you. This may take longer than you expect and depends upon your constabulary’s workload, which can vary between forces. The day, however, will dawn when you are able to purchase your first gun and this should be given careful consideration.

Firearms and shotgun license applications are not as daunting as they might seem

By now you will already be aware that there are different types of shotgun. The most popular kind for clay shooting is the over-and-under. Developed in the first decades of the 20th century, for at least the past 70 years it’s been the natural choice of the competitive shooter.

Any kind of shotgun can break a clay, but for the vast majority of shooters, the over-and-under works best. The reasons for this are easy to grasp: the superposed barrels combined with a narrow sighting rib provide a better view of the relatively small clay target. Inherently heavier than the side-by-side, it also absorbs recoil more comfortably, and so the shooter will not tire when shooting a lot of cartridges over a relatively short period. The differences between these two types of gun may be marginal, but competitive clay shooting at any level is won by the narrowest of margins, and so for that reason the over-and-under is the sensible choice.

Most good gun shops will have a variety of sizes and styles

There is also the option of the repeating shotgun, developed most successfully in the United States from the early decades of the last century in the form of an auto loader or pump action. These guns had a huge following among American shooters for many decades and only recently has the over-and-under has begun to rival their appeal. It must be said, however, that in terms of balance, at least by European standards, the repeater lacks the fine handling of a good double-barrelled gun, and while some might contest this, at the highest levels of international competition it is rarely seen, even in the hands of American team members.

The semi-automatic shotgun, particularly those that utilise the gasses expended from the fired cartridge to facilitate its mechanical function, generates lower felt recoil than a fixed-breech, double-barrelled gun, and there is no doubt that they can represent an effective clay gun. That it cannot be so readily seen to be unloaded is its only drawback, though in the hands of the experienced shot this should not present a problem.

Competition guns are designed to not tire you out while shooting high volumes in short periods

Nevertheless, the over-and-under remains the overwhelming choice for clay shooting, but the beginner must choose carefully as there are still other important choices to be made. Most beginners learn to shoot Sporting clays first, in part because this form of shooting is the most readily available in the UK, and, in my view, it’s far the best form of shooting for starters.

All the basics of gun handling are learned, whereas Skeet and Trap shooting are rather more specialised. The beginner may wish to move onto these disciplines, but he or she will have gained the fundamentals of gun safety and a versatile technique that will provide a foundation for any form of shooting they attempt in the future.

A Sporter gun is the obvious choice for the beginner. There are a bewildering number of shotguns in the market labelled as Sporters, but the beginner would be wise to choose a gun from a manufacturer whose products have a record of success in competitive shooting.

Getting a gun that fits well is of paramount importance

This does not mean this route has to be expensive, I recommend a good second-hand example of a first-grade gun from a respected maker, as at this point fancy engraving and pretty wood are not important. A barrel length of 28-30in is best, longer may be too cumbersome for the beginner and shorter barrels may handle too quickly.

Screw-in chokes are recommended as they provide, if used properly, optimum pattern effectiveness and the best chance of breaking the target at any given range. The beginner should, however, not become a choke junkie by switching chokes every time a target is missed. Some time should be spent at the pattern plate, ideally with a knowledgeable observer, where it can readily be seen what each choke constriction provides in terms of pattern distribution.

Try out different chokes on the pattern plate to make sure your set-up suits you

More important than even chokes or barrel length is good gun fit. A gross misfit should be avoided at all costs, as this will inevitably result in the beginner’s confidence being destroyed from the outset. For that reason, some informed help is crucial and this is best found at a shooting school. A few pounds spent in this direction can save the far greater amount that can be expended on uninformed experimentation.

The acquiring of your first gun should be an enjoyable experience and this cannot be achieved by mere expenditure. Some informed advice and careful analysis of your needs from an expert can result in an experience that can go onto a lifetime of enjoyable and rewarding sport.


This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Clay Shooting magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online store

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Posted in Advice and tips, Coaching, Features

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