Guns make for poor conversation. Generally speaking, there are two entrenched ideological camps—aficionados and abolitionists—and any attempt to hold a middle ground is likely to enflame both sides. You, by now, probably know how you feel about guns, and this is, by no means, an attempt to change that. What it is, however, is a safety lesson for everyone, a primer on shotguns, and a neutral civilian’s guide to shooting clay pigeons.
First, before we consider putting our hands on a gun —before the thought, “Tomorrow would be a beautiful day to break a few clays!” has formed in our cerebral cortices— it’s imperative to discuss safety. Guns are not toys. My first gun was a shotgun, and before my dad gave it to me, he put a watermelon on a stump, blew it to pieces, and told me, “Don’t let that be anything you love.”
His advice to me is now my advice to you. Target shooting and hunting are fun, but that fun comes with a heavy responsibility. At all times you are holding a device capable of, and designed for, killing. Forget that for even an instant, and a gun can destroy the lives on both its ends. For the love of god, you guys, don’t fuck around with guns.
There are a number of sets of “Gun Safety Rules,” but the common four rules are simple enough to remember and comprehensive enough to keep you safe. They are:
1. Handle all guns as though they are loaded. Most people who put holes in their floors, feet, or worse probably did so with a gun they considered unloaded. Unless you’ve got a cleaning rod through the chamber, that gun has the potential to kill and should be treated accordingly.
2. Never point a gun at something you are not willing to destroy. This follows from No. 1. You’d never point a loaded gun at something you weren’t comfortable seeing truly eradicated, and every gun is loaded. This includes when the safety is on. Safeties can fail.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. The first two rules cover intent; the third protects you from accident. With your finger on the trigger, any bump has the potential to cause your gun to fire. Again, safeties can fail.
4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it. The ballistics of rifle and handgun rounds make them much more prone to over-penetration and post a greater threat at a greater distance, but this is still very true for shotguns. Never fire if you don’t know what’s downrange, if you can’t see what’s behind your target, or if you’re even remotely unsure of your shot.
Beyond that, there are a few things to keep in mind with storage and handling. Always carry a gun unloaded with the action open. Only load when you’re facing the range and ready to fire. Store your guns in a safe place. Always make sure your gun is in good working order before using; if not, ask someone who can help. Finally, if you’re considering mixing alcohol and guns, put both away for a period of no fewer than three years.
[Deep exhale.] Okay, did you read all of that? Good. Read it again. Don’t touch a gun until you can recite it from memory. Now we can talk about breaking clays.
Shotguns like somewhere in the pantheon of stereotypically masculine things: you know, sports cars, vintage motorcycles, strong horses, other Hemingway paraphernalia. Just look at this Beretta commercial.
But as beautiful (and, holy shit expensive) as some shotguns are, at their most basic level, all shotguns work the same way. A shotgun shell is a plastic tube with a metal top that holds a small explosive primer, a larger amount of propellant, a cardboard or felt wad that acts like a plunger, and then a bunch of tiny pieces of metal shot. A pull of the gun’s trigger causes a striker to hit the shotgun shell’s primer, which ignites the propellant, forcing the shot and wadding down and out the barrel. At the end of the barrel is an adjustable or replaceable choke, that helps determine how wide or condensed the shot spreads.
With that in mind, the two defining features of shotgun are action and gauge. A shotgun’s action is the mechanism by which the ammunition is loaded and unloaded. Fortunately, these are mostly visually descriptive: Break, pump, lever, and semi-automatic are the most common. A shotgun’s gauge is (roughly) the barrel diameter, and is slightly less intuitive. The number represents the denominator of the fraction of a pound of lead that will roll down the barrel in ball form, so smaller numbers mean bigger barrels. Twelve-gauge shotguns are by far the most common, but 20, 10, 16 and 28 are common enough.
For your purposes, I’d recommend either a pump or over-under. They’re the most common choices for a reason, and other styles each have at least one drawback. I have a Browning BPS pump. Good price, ambidextrous, and reliable as all hell. A Mossberg 500 is a common affordable choice, and your mileage may vary with used over-unders.
Assuming you’re going to a proper range, your equipment needs will be fairly minimal. Eye and ear protection are musts, and can vary from work safety goggles and airplane earplugs to reactive noise-cancelling earmuffs and “target-enhancing eyewear.” As always, start small and buy what you need later.
If you’ve got a large, open piece of land on which to shoot (with not less than 300 yards of safe space downrange), you might want to buy your own trap. Clay traps come in all shapes and sizes, from Y-shaped hand-throwers that are present in the barns of every agricultural property in America to complex, professional-grade machines that cost more and run better than used Audis. Many people, and I’m one of them, enjoy a foot-triggered trap like the Trius One-Step that gives long, consistent throws for a very reasonable price.
Clay shooting falls into three specific disciplines: trap, skeet, and sporting clays. The business of sporting clays, which we will not be covering, is often described as “Golf With a Shotgun” because you walk a long course featuring stations with variable setups that mimic hunting. Because it involves walking with your gun and making snap shooting decisions, you should probably hold off on that until you’re a little more familiar.
Skeet and trap are more alike: Skeet has two clay pigeon throwers (traps) mounted at the ends of a semi-circle, and a number of stations around the circumference. You travel from station to station, changing the angle of the throws in relation to your shooting, and try to break as many as possible.
Trap shooting has a single trap—usually located downrange—designed to throw clays away from the shooter. Trap also encompasses the popular and informal type of clay shooting wherein several men take turns shooting and operating a thrower from behind and away from the shooter.
If you’re shooting at a range, make sure to approach the range officer to get the rundown. The basics are usually as follows: When it’s your turn, you’ll approach the stand, face downrange, load your gun, turn off the safety, and yell, “Pull.” At this point, a small clay disk will come flying across from your peripheral vision, and you’ll attempt to destroy it using nothing but your wits and a channeled explosion.
You want to fire a shotgun with the butt tucked tight in your shoulder and your cheek right on the stock. Your lead foot should point downrange, and your back foot should be at an acute angle. You know who has decent form? Obama. Look at that cheek weld and how his back foot is behind his back shoulder, leaning him into the recoil.
Like everything, breaking clays is simple, but anything approaching competence requires time and practice. The first step is being able to put your gun on target. You want to bring the gun up so you can see down the sights (if you’re too low, try to shrug up rather than bending your neck too much) and shoot with both eyes open. This is the first step to ever hitting anything. Next, as fast as shot travels, if you’re pointing your gun at the clay when you shoot, it’s going to be gone by the time the shot gets there. This means you should “lead” your target, or, essentially, try to pick a spot in midair where your clay and shot will meet, and shoot at that. This is the difficulty of skeet shooting. If you’re missing, double your lead. Keep your barrel moving and keep your eye on the clay. If you’re still missing, double your lead again.
When it happens, hitting a clay is a remarkable feeling that often leads to a “just one more round” streak that can often have you pushing sunset. Whenever you’re done, go home, clean your gun, put it away and crack a beer, in that order. Congratulations: A working knowledge of gun safety is a great thing to have, and a bit of marksmanship is always a fun thing to have in your back pocket.
Samuel Wadhams grew up hard in Vermont and now grows soft in New York. He is not an expert on anything. Occasionally, he tweets here.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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