The Perfect Course

icture this conversation. Three sporting clays shooters are sitting around a table at their local gun club discussing the targets from last weekend’s tournament. The first man says, “I believe that was the worst course I have ever shot. I know it was the worst score I have ever shot. I just couldn’t seem to hit anything. Every time I got on a roll, the wheels would come off. I will tell you this: I have shot my last course John Jones sets!”

The second man replies, “I thought the targets were great. In fact, I shot one of the best scores of my career. It just seemed all I had to do was pull the trigger and the targets would break. Man, what a day! I will remember those targets forever.”

The third man comments, “I didn’t shoot my worst or best score, but I really enjoyed the targets. For 70–year–old eyes, I thought the targets were very easy to see. Also, I think the targetsetter did a great job of giving us a safe course with a lot of variety. I will shoot his targets anytime.”

This is a typical conversation after a tournament. Like the first and second man, many people seem to judge target quality by the score they shot. If they shoot well, it was a great course; if they shot poorly, it was a terrible course. On the other hand, people like the third shooter judge target quality by things such as safety, vision, creativity and balance. Many of the latter have helped set a course before and understand how difficult it is to set a good course. Shooters like these are what I call “purists.” They are there for the experiences of different targets. They want to shoot a high score but understand that, as in everyday life, everyone has good and bad days. These people do, however, demand certain things from the targetsetter and, as long as he does those things, they are happy.

I have been shooting clay targets for almost 40 years. I have shot all of the disciplines and truly love every one of them. I have been setting targets almost since I started shooting. Trap and skeet were the only games back when I started, and shooters were just as critical about targets as sporting clays shooters are today. Their complaints normally dealt with target height, speed and, in some cases, angle. Sporting clays shooters have their complaints, also, but since there are no set rules when it comes to setting a sporting clays course, their complaints can vary a great deal.

A Perfect Course

There are some things generally beyond the targetsetter’s control, things like wind, wind shifts, rain, light conditions, terrain, background and even range owners and target juries. If we know there is going to be a wind or the day is going to be overcast, we are able to help the problems somewhat. It is the weather surprises that give targetsetters trouble.

What makes a perfect course? Is it high scores? For some people, it might be, but to a professional targetsetter, it is the things under his control, things he can truly do something about. As a course designer, I have some rules I follow. Here is what I believe every targetsetter and course designer should do.


Photo by Johnny Cantu

Targetsetters have much to consider if they hope to throw good presentations. Target color, horizons, sunlight and shot drop are merely a few of the factors they take into consideration.

First and foremost, they should consider safety. As in any shooting, safety should always be our number–one priority. Targetsetters must be aware of “shot drop” and “muzzle hold.” I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t like target pieces flying into the station when I shoot. In fact, I don’t like target pieces hitting anywhere around me when I am on the course. Getting hit by a piece of clay shrapnel can cause more injuries than any other thing at a gun club. The setter must make sure all trappers and spectators are behind the muzzle hold point, too. And good setters always make sure the shooters have a good, safe place to stand.

Good vision is also an absolute. Targetsetters must make sure the sun is never an obstacle. Setting presentations directly into the sun is unforgivable, in my opinion. Good designers will not set unrealistically short windows, and every setter should make sure the target color used is appropriate to the terrain and background. A good rule of thumb when picking target color is to use the color that will create maximum contrast in relation to the background.

If the target is always below the horizon, I recommend a solid color, such as orange, green or white. The background will dictate the color that needs to be used. If the target is always above the horizon, I recommend all black. A black target on a blue sky has contrast; an orange target doesn’t. With an all–black target, the shooter will be able to silhouette the target against the sky. If the target starts below the horizon and remains there for several yards and then flies above the horizon, I believe the target should be an orange dome. This combination will be somewhat visible both below and above the horizon.

I never throw an all–orange midi, mini or battue above the horizon. I believe these types of targets should always be black, as just the small amount of visual area these targets offer makes them hard to see. Add to them the wrong color, and they will become almost invisible.

Presentation is important, but without safety and vision it means nothing. You can set the best presentations in the world, but if shooters can’t see them or the station is dangerous, the shooters will get nothing out of it. Having to remove or drop a station from a tournament because of safety is inexcusable. With a little thought and pre–planning, this should never happen.


Variety and creativity are very important when setting a course. People like sporting clays because there is always change. They go to different ranges for different targets and a different challenge. Trap and skeet are great games, but targets are pretty much the same from New York to El Paso. With that in mind, keep your presentations reasonable. Don’t throw over–the–top or ridiculous presentations. You want to test the shooters’ ability, not their luck.

Setting a sporting course

Photo by Johnny Cantu

Variety and creativity are important when setting a sporting clays course. People like sporting clays, in part, because they have the chance to see and try something different on each course.

Presentation balance is a must for setting a good course. Courses should never be too heavy on true or report pairs. A good course designer will never throw the same or similar presentation on the same course.

Targetsetters should make the degree of difficulty fair for all levels of shooters. We are not all master–class shooters, nor are we all beginners. A good mix will go a long way toward making everyone happy, although there will always be people who are not going to like this or that. Targetsetting is sometimes very frustrating. In fact, I sometimes wonder why I continue setting tournaments.

I have been raked over the coals a few times over the years. Most of the time it was because a shooter had a bad day and didn’t shoot as well as he would have liked. But there have been times when I made a mistake and deserved the lashing I got. I personally shoot all my targets before I am finished with the course. I do this for two reasons. First, it is the best way to figure out your menus. Second, I normally find a mistake before the shoot starts and am able to fix it before it becomes a problem.

The Shooter Factor

The reason I have continued setting targets is it can be very rewarding. There is nothing better than a shooter telling me he or she really enjoyed my course. I want shooters to have fun on my courses, but to do so they have to understand how to break a certain presentation.

At one of the World All–Around Shotgun Championships (a tournament created by Scott Robertson that includes all the clay–target disciplines and has an entry fee of $5,000 and some of the best shooters in the world competing), George Digweed, arguably the top shooter in the world, came up and told me my course was one of the best he had ever shot. What made this so special to me was George had posted a low score for him (an 87) but still took the time to let me know he enjoyed the targets. What a true gentleman and great shooter he is.

A targetsetter’s job is to give the shooter a safe and visible course, a course that is fair for all shooters and has a balance of presentations. It is the shooter’s job to break the targets. They can do that by shooting as much as they can, watching other good shooters, getting a coach and watching instructional DVDs. They also need to get experience on as many courses and varied target presentations as they can.

If targetsetters follow the rules and suggestions I’ve made, they will find, for the most part, people will like their courses. I have never seen the perfect course, but I will continue to try to create it. I hope all targetsetters will do the same. Enjoy your shooting!

Mike McAlpine is the owner of Clay Target Academy. 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, has been a clay–target shooter for 40 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. You can reach Mike at (325) 656–6319 or visit his website.