These days we are hearing a lot about hard targets. Some of these shoots are on the edge of being ridiculous with their targets; targets that are almost impossible to break without some luck. Many are thrown at mega distances just to make them hard. The course designers who are setting these targets believe distance and a heavy spring is the way to go. They don’t have the target-setting knowledge to do anything else and that is sad. I mentioned shooting distance is not that hard, and here is proof I am right. In the last three classes I taught, I had a total of 27 students. Out of these, 23 hit targets at 100 yards or further. In fact, my last class at Stony Creek in Pennsylvania, all of my students, including me, hit a target at this ridiculous distance. This was the first time an entire class made the “100-Yard Club.” None of these shooters were a top gun, but some could very well be one day. One thing all of the shooters had in common was an open mind and a desire to improve.

I believe, while our major courses should include some long-distance birds and fast targets, they also need targets that require good target-reading skills and different ways to tackle these presentations that can fool the best shooters. After all, anyone can set a long, fast presentation that will beat the very best shooters, but it takes a highly experienced setter to design presentations that look fairly easy but in reality are extremely hard.

As a shooter, I like the challenge of shooting distance. There is not much to know here but learning to apply a huge lead. When shooting a mega lead, the brain will not even consider the sight picture of a lead like this. In the beginning it has no reference point to go by, simply because the shooter has never shot a target at this extreme distance. The shooter must force leads like this to even get close to the target. I teach my students when shooting long birds for the first time to simply put so much lead on the target they think they will miss in front. If they still miss, I then suggest they double the lead. This is a hard thing to do even for a very experienced shooter simply because they already have a mindset on what a big lead is, but I would bet the farm (if I had one) they will still be behind. 

When a shooter breaks a target with this kind of lead, their reactions are always the same. They turn around and look at me or the other students with amazed expressions on their faces showing utter disbelief. I always ask my students when this happens “What is the matter? You looked surprised you hit it.” They nearly always say I never would have believed it took that much lead. After they break a few of these big boy targets with bigger boy leads, it becomes a lot easier to put those leads on a distant target flying at Mach 1. Yes, distance is fun if you can break a few, but for most shooters this kind of target should not be on every station. There is a lot more to shooting sporting clays than just distance. This is just one aspect of the game. It is kind of like golf, a player must have a good long, middle and short game. The same applies in sporting. I have seen the best golfer in the world miss a 2’ putt and, like in our game, the easy ones will beat you.


Now, let’s talk a little about deception. This is where real target setting comes into the game. There are many setters in the sport who are masters of this. They can take a presentation and make it look so easy a great shooter fails to give it any respect when, in fact, this may in reality be a very difficult presentation. There are multiple ways to create deception with the most common one being using the target line. Making the line hard to read will fool a lot of people, but making the line look as if the target is doing one thing while it is really doing something else is one of my favorite ways of fooling shooters.

Many years ago while I was NSCA Chief Instructor, I created the Team USA Super School. This was a fundraiser for our two teams. The sporting clays team stayed mostly in the U.S. and the international team traveled across the pond to compete with some of the best shooters in the world. Because this was an instructor-school promotion, I advertised I would use the best NSCA instructors to teach this school. We had eight experienced coaches and many were top shooters in those days but very few were target setters. Since I was the only one who set a lot of targets, I designed three new courses for this class. I wanted to really help the 25 people who had paid $2,500 to come to this school, but I also wanted to increase the knowledge of our coaches in a way most of them would not realize what I was doing.

On one of the 36 stations I set, I made a presentation that was almost impossible to read. I had a NSCA Level I instructor who was also a national champion offer his services. This man really wanted to help, but since I advertised only Level III coaches, I couldn’t let him teach. I told him I already had my coaches but I thought all of the students and coaches would love to watch him shoot and explain what he was doing. Well, I started him on the mentioned station. It was a target that looked like a straightforward 30-yard crosser, and it was about four feet off the ground with a lot of spring. He missed the first target, and he looked bewildered as why he missed. I let him shoot all he wanted (25 shots) and he never hit a target. One of our coaches who is one of the most famous coaches in the country decided he could hit it. He did do better with 3x25.

Hitting The Targets

Finally, the national champion asked me to shoot this target. I told him I could break it because I knew what it was doing; everybody laughed at me because they knew I couldn’t outshoot this top gun. Well, I shot and broke 10 out of 10. Nobody was laughing then. All the students and coaches had a puzzled look on their faces. Have you guessed what I did?  If not, here is the story. I set this particular target to look level but it was actually dropping three feet in its flight. The ground had a subtle slope down and in the direction of the target’s flight. It really did look like it was flat. No one believed it was going down. I took them out to the breakpoint and picked up a line with a level on it and then held the line until the bubble was showing level. Then I had one of the coaches measure the amount of drop this target had at breakpoint. The drop created a very deceptive presentation. Everyone learned something that day.

The example I just described is just one kind of deception. It used a hard-to-read target line to create an optical illusion. What about making a Rabbit deceptive? How could we do this? I once set a course for Scott Robertson’s “World All-Around Shotgun Championships.” The cost to enter this tournament was $5,000 per person and the purse was big. We had many of the top shooters on the planet attending. I set a Rabbit that came downhill from about 70 yards away. The Rabbit was not fast but was picking up speed on the way down. The shooters thought this was a trap I had set for them, because the target was increasing in speed instead of slowing down like most Rabbits do.

George Digweed, The King

They were right about the trap but this was not it. The Rabbit was quartering in, and once it got to the most probable breakpoint, it was about 25 yards away. I had put a limit about five yards past the breakpoint. I figured the first shooter would take it at that point, and he did, but missed. In fact, he missed all four Rabbits. He walked off scratching his head. The next shooter was the King himself, George Digweed. I thought I might get George for one target, but he missed the first two and then broke the last two. He walked off smiling and shaking his finger at me. No one else on the squad hit a Rabbit. Again what did I do? I forced them into shooting the most obvious breakpoint but I had a trap there. The ground dropped about 6” just as the target entered the chosen breakpoint. All of the misses were over the top of the target. George figured it out and shot the Rabbit a little faster where it stayed level. He didn’t fall for the target being faster than it looked either, because it was picking up speed as it went downhill. One of my biggest thrills was when George came up to me after the shoot and told me this was one of the best courses he had ever shot and the Rabbit was great. What a gentleman! My head swelled so much, I couldn’t even walk through the door of my room that night!

Now, I hope shooters and target setters see using just speed and distance are not the only way to make complex presentations, and these variables used to excess borders on ridiculous. A target setter’s job is to test the ability of the shooters. It is not to test their luck. Deception is a far better tool to use. Incidentally, at the All-Around World Shoot, only two of the 24 target presentations I set had distance and they were both 50-yard targets. This is not much distance today but the other 22 presentations were 35 yards or less.

Target setters, work on your deception skills. Shooters, work on your target-reading skills. You will both be better for it.

Mike McAlpine is the owner of Clay Target Academy and Claybird Specialties ( His three-day Target Reading & Presentation Seminar (TRAPS) teaches shooters of all levels how to read targets and their lines, as well as how to break any presentation. Mike was NSCA Chief Instructor for seven years and is a member of the Texas Sporting Clays Hall of Fame. He is recognized nationally as a premier target setter and course designer and has set targets and taught in three countries and 40 states. Claybird Specialties builds equipment for clubs and ranges. You can reach Mike at (325) 656-6319 or visit (see ad on page 10).