The bird came in high over the trees, leveled off and then dropped right in front of me. Easy shot, I figured, but instead of shattering into a cloud of orange and black dust at the report of my shotgun, the clay pigeon continued its path before smacking against the trunk of an oak tree 20 feet to my left. My 12-year-old son Kyle laughed as I stood in stunned silence, my shotgun still mounted to my shoulder. Kyle stepped up to the concrete pad, yelled “pull” and promptly busted the bird.
Welcome to sporting clays, dubbed “golf with guns.” The game, a variation of skeet that simulates realistic hunting conditions, originated in England in the 1930s, but has become a fixture in the U.S. that draws shooters of all ages and capabilities.
Skeet and trap, two popular shotgun games, are fun, but the birds fly a predictable path, the shots are pretty much the same and after a dozen or so 25-shot rounds. It becomes, well, pretty boring. This where sporting clays takes a unique turn. Each course is different and the variations can be as wild as the imagination of the course designer as targets fly in and out from all angles. Shooters move from station to station—much like golfers walk a golf course—taking shots at quail rising, rabbits running, ducks decoying and doves soaring high overhead. Virtually every course uses a hard clay disk rolled across the ground to simulate a running rabbit. The “rabbit” hops over bumps just like the real thing, offering a challenging shot to the most skilled gunner.
Some courses are relatively open with clay pigeons flying through nothing more than air. Others, however, have a more challenging layout, almost as if the course designer wanted to provoke as much frustration out of the participants as he could. Birds squirt between trees, disappear over hills and zip through brush much the same way a wild quail might. In fact, the machines used to pitch the clay discs can actually make the targets curve in flight. Some travel 60 miles an hour, even faster, while others seem to stall right as you pull the trigger.
The beauty of clays, as many regulars call it, is that it belongs to anyone with a shotgun who loves a challenge. You don’t need a fancy over-and-under to compete. A clays shooter in Ohio won the state championship eight times with a 12-gauge Remington 870 pump shotgun, a working man’s gun if there ever was one. Experts, however, own high-dollar guns and examine each course much the same way a golfer studies the fairway and putting green before he swings his clubs.
Sporting clays is also an equal-opportunity pursuit. My two boys, eight and 10, are addicted to the game and women are a regular sight at sporting clays ranges everywhere. Don’t, however, expect to start dusting birds on every station your first go at sporting clays, even if you’re a skilled skeet or trap shooter. A good wing-shooter can expect to break half the birds on a 100-shot course. Beginning shotgunners might break only a quarter of the shots, even less, depending on how challenging the course is. The best sporting clays enthusiasts shoot all the time and routinely break 75. Competitions are held at ranges all over the country and the sport even has a magazine dedicated to it.
A round of sporting clays is a little more expensive than a standard 25-shot round of skeet. Depending on the club, a 100-shot round of clays can run between $18 and $35. That may seem like a lot of money for a healthy dose of humility, even embarrassment, but there isn’t a more fun way to find out your kid can break clay pigeons you can’t.
To find a sporting clays range near you, or for more information, visit www.mynsca.com, or call the National Sporting Clays Association headquarters in San Antonio at (210) 688-3371.