The Secret To Being Consistent by Mike McAlpine

One of the keys to being a consistent shooter is paying strict attention to the fundamentals. Here, Dan Carlisle, renowned champion shooter and coach, helps a student learn to maintain his fundamentals on a high, incoming target.

Photo by Johnny Cantu

ob, how did you do on the green course today?”

“Well, Rick, I shot fairly well, but I didn’t score well.”

How many times have you heard or had a conversation like this? As a coach, I hear it all the time. To me, this comment makes perfect sense. The shooter broke the presentations fine, but he just wasn’t consistent. We all have had days when we were breaking targets but just couldn’t put up a good score.

I always ask my students what they perceive as their biggest problem, and without a doubt, consistency is the top answer. Being consistent is the difference between a good shot and a champion. I know people I truly believe I can shoot just as well as, but they nearly always beat me. I have asked myself why this is, and I’ve decided it is because they are more consistent than I am. I also asked myself what I need to do to be more consistent. I have found there are several answers to my question.

First, I think I am making small mistakes in my basics, things like my setup and performing the fundamentals. Most consistency problems come from not doing the same things over and over. It becomes easier to duplicate a routine if you always do it the same way every time you shoot. I don’t care what your routine is, you must duplicate it each and every time.

Many of my students tell me they don’t have a routine, they just get in the stand and call for the target. “Well, that’s the problem,” I tell them, but they still don’t understand because they are not sure what I am talking about when it comes to a routine. Let’s break down the basic fundamentals and develop a shooting routine from them. To do this, we need to totally understand not only what to do but why it is important. You can make your own routine up, but I have found the one I’ve outlined here to be the best for most of my students.

Fundamentals Of Breaking A Target

I have listed the steps in the order they should be applied. This will become your shooting routine. No matter what the presentation is, this routine will work. This is the “what” in developing a routine:

By doing these things in order, you will be developing a good, solid routine. I have found, after gun fit and eye dominance, most mistakes that cause a miss are in these seven steps. By breaking down the problem into these seven steps, you make finding a solution much easier. Let’s look at each of the steps in a little more detail so you can figure out the “why.”

The Fundamentals of Consistency

Setup shown using Maintained (Sustained) Lead. When using other lead acquisition techniques, the Hold Point (relative to the Target Line) and Insertion Point will change.

Step 1: Break Point

The Break Point is the first step in making any shot. The other parts of the shooting routine cannot be put into effect without finding the proper break point. You must find the point in the target’s flight path that will let you not only break that first target but also leave you set up for the second target in a pair.

If you have ever played a game of pool (billiards), you will understand what I am talking about. In pool, the player is always thinking about the next shot and where he/she needs to leave the cue ball to make the best move. In sporting clays, the muzzle is the cue ball, and leaving it in the correct place for the second shot will make the pair much easier to shoot. The break point is almost always in the focal window.

Always be faithful to and trust your break point. Only after shooting the first pair will you be able to tell if your break point was correct. If you find you were able to make a good, smooth move and broke both targets with little effort, don’t change. On the other hand, if you find your rhythm was bad and making the second shot was not smooth, then by all means change your break point.

Step 2: Foot Position/Stance

After picking your break point, you need to find the proper Foot Position. Proper placement of the feet will enable the shooter to move freely to the target.

You should always face the break point of the hardest target of the pair. By this, I mean if a right–handed person has a pair where one target goes to the right and the other goes to the left, he/she should face the target going to the right simply because a right–handed person will have a harder time moving to a left–to–right target. The muscles in the body tighten up and slow the muzzle swing for a right–handed person who is moving to the right. This is why a left–to–right target will take more perceived lead than the same target moving right–to–left. For a left–handed shooter, everything is just the opposite. For shooters of all ability levels, foot position is very important.

Step 3: Beginning of Focal Window

The Focal Window is simply the area in which the target starts to become in clear focus — where you can see the target clearly. The beginning of the focal window is the point on the target’s flight line where you want to look for the target. This is an area that will give you the most amount of time to let your eyes lock onto the target plus give your brain the information it needs to let you make a good move.

Step 4: Hold Point

When we refer to “hold point,” we are talking about where the shooter wants to start the muzzle of the gun. Hold Point is generally different for each shooting method, and a hold point for one shooter may not necessarily be the same hold point for another shooter.

Many times the hold point changes from one shooter to another due to a difference in muzzle speed, even though both shooters are using the same shooting method. If you find you have to chase the target, your hold point is most likely too far back. If you have to wait too long for the target to make your move, you are probably out too far.

Step 5: Target Line

This is the path the target flies along. Line is very important when it comes to being able to see the target. If the gun is started above the line, the receiver or muzzle may block the shooter’s view of the target.

In most instances, it is better to start the muzzle below the line of the target. To prove this, go outside and find a telephone pole. Start your trigger finger about 20 feet above the pole and, as fast as you can, move down and stop at the top. I bet you will find you will pass the top of the pole and have to move back up. Now, start 20 feet down the pole and, as fast as you can, move to the top. I think you will find it is a lot easier to come from the bottom.

Step 6: Insertion Point

The Insertion Point is the place the barrel goes to start the swing. For example, if a shooter is using the swing–through method, the insertion point will be behind the target so the barrel can accelerate and swing through the target. If the shooter is using pull–away, the insertion point is on the leading edge of the target, then the muzzle matches the speed of the target for a split second and pulls away to the proper lead. A sustained or maintained–lead shooter will insert the muzzle in front of the target at the proper lead. As you can see, method does, in fact, determine insertion point.

Step 7: Hard Focus

In addition to the six basic steps listed above, you must also use Hard Focus on the target. Applying hard focus on the target will keep you from looking at the barrel, which can cause the gun to stop. The barrel should only be seen with a soft or fuzzy focus. Hard focus is one of the most important visual tools a shooter can use when shooting clay targets.

Starting The Routine

I am going to add another step to your routine that will help you start your swing with less effort. It should also make your routine more consistent and help make your move flow.

First, mount the gun at the Break Point and proper Target Line, then swing back to the Hold Point. This will wind your body in the opposite direction of the swing. When you start your swing, your body will simply unwind and make the swing start smoother and faster, with little effort. All great shooters do this.

Building a good routine will help you be consistent, but there are other things that play into the equation. The mental side of the game is also very important. The mental game means many things to each person, so I am just going to list some of the things I think will cause you to be inconsistent and keep you from breaking a good score.

Worry is always a problem. By this, I mean worrying about missing or keeping a run going will cause an occasional miss. Worrying about your score before the shoot is over is bad, too. The score will take care of itself. Worrying about what choke to use is also unnecessary. When you are in the stand, forget about choke; it is too late to change if you have fired even one round. Worrying about a squadmate or another competitor’s score will keep you from focusing on the task at hand. Anything that puts a doubt in your mind will break your concentration and cause misses.

One thing I see a lot during tournaments is a shooter commenting about how he never hits a certain presentation. This is the kiss of death. If you don’t think you can hit a presentation, you will probably figure out a way to miss it. The old saying “The power of positive thinking is a very powerful thing” is true, but the power of negative thinking is a thousand times more powerful than positive thinking. I think this is true for some people because they are afraid of succeeding and are making an excuse just in case they fail.

The best way to learn a routine is to do it every time you shoot. Practice it continuously. Make it a part of you and your shooting and let it become a subconscious thing.

To enhance your mental game, simply clear your mind of all distractions when you step in the stand. If talking or ATVs and golf carts passing bother you, wear ear plugs or muffs. Concentrate only on the task at hand.

Becoming consistent is not all that hard, but you have to work on it, just as you would a difficult presentation or new shooting method. Now, go out there and start putting up those high scores you are capable of!

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 targetsetter 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