Golf with a Shotgun

Like golf, sporting clays offers a walk on an outdoor course. Except that your shots go "Pow!"

Clarke Bailey, big-time management-buy-out specialist, takes a stance like a cop yelling "freeze!" at a dangerous perp. But in place of a police-issued .45, Bailey holds a Beretta Silver Pigeon 12-gauge shotgun.

Instead of "freeze," Bailey shouts "pull!" And rather than being confronted by a gun-wielding felon, Bailey is ambushed by two clay disks that scream over his head at what seems like orbital-escape velocity.

In one fluid movement, Bailey points his gun muzzle skyward, tracks the pair of clays, and pulls the trigger. One second, there are two discs hurtling across the horizon; the next second, there are none. Bailey has pulverized them with a single expert shot.

Welcome to the world of sporting clays. A pastime enjoyed by more than 3 million people each year, sporting clays combines the tweedy charm of a 19th-century British shooting party with the Neanderthal thrill of blasting something out of the sky. Plot out the sites of America's cigar-puffing hot spots, and you'll likely find nearby sporting-clays ranges frequented by newly affluent, hard-driving businesspeople on the rise. Things that go bang and big cigars: Freud would have noticed the correlation.

Invented in the late 1880s by the English gentry, a notoriously gun-happy lot, sporting clays is designed to give upland bird hunters and waterfowlers a chance to sharpen their shooting in a setting that duplicates field conditions.

A typical shoot is not unlike playing a round of golf with a shotgun: You walk a course that alternates between woods and open spaces, stopping to engage in bursts of swift, focused activity. But instead of 18 holes, you encounter anywhere from 8 to 15 "stations," where a trapper fires clays at you, over you, and away from you. After two hours, a typical length of time for an outing, you may well have attempted every shot known to bird hunters.

Unlike skeet- and trap-shooting, where you pretty much know the flight pattern of each and every clay, the flight of a sporting clay is far less predictable: You can never be quite sure how the damn thing will behave. A sporting clay, as it zips to the heavens, might simulate a pheasant that's just been flushed - or a grouse's maddeningly erratic flight. It's this element of surprise that puts the "sport" into sporting clays.

While modern sporting clays includes legions of avid hunters who kill live prey, the sport also claims a growing number of devotees who forgo the hunt, but who enjoy the pure art of making difficult shots: no blood, no feathers, no mess. You've heard of catch-and-release fishing; shooting clays is the closest we will likely come to catch-and-release hunting.

The Power of Pow!

Scientists tell us we like games because they teach us things that are useful in life. Sporting clays enables competitive people to test, in real-time, their ability to concentrate and to make instantaneous decisions - without putting their careers at stake.

"You'll never hit a clay that's moving at 90 mph if you can't tune out everything and really focus," says Bailey, cochairman of Hudson River Capital LLC, a private-equity firm. "Successful businesspeople are very good at focusing, and they usually succeed at sporting clays."

Holly Bannister, a sporting clays aficionada and an attending physician in the pediatric emergency room at New York's Bellevue Hospital Center, seconds Bailey's point, but from her unique perspective: "Shooting clays requires that you concentrate, but it's not stressful. Putting together a kid who's been hit by a truck - that requires a kind of concentration that creates stress. When you're out on a sporting-clays range, you're just going 'bang! bang!' and having fun."

"You mean 'pow! pow!'," counters Bailey. " 'Pow' is the feeling - you're powdering it!"

"That's right - and merely cracking the clay isn't good enough," agrees Bannister, with undoctorly aggression. "You have to blast it into dust!"

First React, Then Think

I spent a morning walking the Orvis Sandanona course in Millbrook, New York with Bailey and Bannister. We were also joined by Mel Orenstein, an entrepreneur who built up his family textile company, sold it, and then went into private investing.

Among the three, the hot shot was Bailey. A city boy who spent his childhood summers on a Montana farm hunting game, big and small, Bailey powdered clays from every direction. Though not in Bailey's league, the other shooters also made difficult shots at targets that mimicked rocketing pheasant, springing teal, flushing quail, high-flying doves, and scampering rabbits.

The trapper often let fly with two clays at once, simulating "true pairs": two birds that take flight simultaneously, a real-world hunting situation that has always flummoxed me. Bailey, Bannister, and Orenstein made shooting true pairs look easy. Let me try that again: When Bailey, Bannister, and Orenstein hit their pairs, they made it look easy. Anything done well looks easy.

Mistakes look hard, or at least as if you're trying too hard. I know whereof I speak. After the shoot, I walked the same course and missed, missed, missed.

It's not as if I haven't shot before. I get out to hunt grouse and ducks each year. Usually I get most of my kills on my early shots. As the day progresses, instinct gives way to over-thinking, and I strike out. Sporting clays is all about instinct - learning to trust your gut instead of your brain. In fact, shotgunning is 90% instinct and 90% practice. True, that adds up to more than 100%. But the point is, you need lots of both.

Next Round: On the Coach

I needed some instinct lessons. I paired up with Geoff Kerr, chief shooting instructor for Orvis Co. and one of just 26 instructors in the United States who have achieved the National Sporting Clays Association's satori-like Level III ranking. Here's how he took me from being unbelievably bad to believably bad in three lessons.

Lesson One: Forget about the gun.

A good shot starts with a workable stance. Put yourself in a position that gives you the best opportunity to make a smooth, fluid shot.

"If you were walking along the shore," Kerr says to me as we approach the first station, "and I asked you to take your left hand and point at a seagull in flight, how would you do it?" I lift my arm and show him.

"There you go - you're pointing at a moving target," he says. "You aren't jabbing at it. You're following it in flight. And you aren't looking at the end of your finger as you try to follow the bird. You're pointing at it instinctively. That's almost all you need to do to hit a clay. The gun is nothing more than an extension of your pointing finger. Your other hand is there just to support the gun and to pull the trigger."

Lesson Two: Know your master eye.

Proper technique calls for keeping both eyes open as you look down the barrel of the gun. "When you pointed at that imaginary seagull, you didn't close one eye," says Kerr. "Neither should you when you are following a clay pigeon."

Trouble is, many of us have a dominant eye that is not the eye looking down the gun barrel. This off-line point of view creates a parallax situation that inhibits accuracy. One easy way to discover which is your master eye is to point at something. Then, while you are still pointing, close one eye. If your finger is still pointing straight at the object, you are looking at it through your master eye. If the object jumps off-line, you are looking at it through your weaker eye.

I'm a right-hander with a dominant left eye. Not good. To correct this, your instructor will probably put a little (removable) plastic dot - called a "magic dot" - in a critical spot on the lens of your shooting glasses.

Lesson Three: Have the courage to miss in front.

"Most beginners miss because they shoot behind the target," says Kerr. "There is no such thing as a sitting duck. The target always moves. You have to move with it."

The pattern of a shotgun blast is your ally. When a shot reaches a moving target that's 20 to 40 yards away from you, the pellets are traveling in a string roughly six feet long and two feet in diameter. That amounts to about 400 pellets, each one capable of scoring a hit.

Like an artist making a brush stroke, the goal is to "paint" the target as you pull the trigger. That way, your string of shot has a better chance of intercepting the target. Even if you shoot a little late, the front pellets might still hit the mark. Or if you pull the trigger early, the last pellets in the string might break the target. If you shoot behind the target, however, those first pellets will miss, and the rest of your gang of 400 will miss even more.

"I know you've spent your life believing that to hit the target, you must aim at the target," says Kerr. "Sporting clays is much more multi-dimensional - you shoot where the target is going. That's how they aim a rocket at the moon. That's how you hit a clay."

A frequent contributor to Fast Company, Peter Kaminsky (pkaminsky@aol.com) is coauthor of John Madden's Ultimate Tailgating (Viking, 1998). Researcher Scott Bowen assisted with this article.

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