Angle, Distance and Barrel Speed

Have you ever thought about angle, distance and speed and how they affect lead? Do they play an important part in a shooter's success and score? I saw a post on the internet a while back that asked these same questions. I was really surprised at some of the replies. Many were good, some even great, but some were confusing. The poster of one of these replies asked another question that made me think long and hard about this subject.

Johnny Cantu, the editor of this magazine always asks me to write “how-to articles”. He told me readers really like this type of article and communicate their thoughts through phone calls, emails and text. Well Johnny, here goes. I will break down each of the points in a way that you, the reader, can make your own decision as to how each of these things affects your success or failure with all kinds of presentations.

I believe most people will say distance probably affects the lead the most. This sounds logical in that the farther a target is, the more time it takes for the shot string to reach the breakpoint, thus increasing the distance one must be in front of the target. For the new shooter, this would seem to be the right answer, but in reality this would be right and wrong. While distance on the average crossing presentation will cause more lead, speed actually affects the true lead more. Speed also has a major effect on line, but that’s another article.

Angle doesn’t affect the lead as much on a target, even though the target has a lot of speed or distance. This is because the shot string is traveling many times faster and going the same direction as the target. I understand both are slowing down, but the spring has much less power than the shotshell itself.

Sporting Clays Targets
At the Nationals several years ago, I set a report pair of teal that really confused even the best shooters. The bird I threw first was a very high, straight-up teal with a very fast spring. This bird was about 40 yards from the stand. It took a mega lead for a teal. The trees above the stand made the shooter take this target while it was under power. You could not shoot it at the apex because of this. If I had moved the stand forward, most shooters would have taken this target farther at the top of its flight. The lead would have decreased because the target would have slowed down. For most shooters who see lead in feet, I would guess the perceived lead was about eight feet.

The second bird was farther out, maybe 50 yards and was not straight up. It was also a lot lower than the first bird. This was because of a weaker spring. Since the first bird (even though it was closer) took the big lead, the sight picture involuntarily carried over somewhat to the second bird. When the shooter shot the second bird and missed, he normally missed over the top of the target. Speed, not distance or angle, was the demon on this shot. This is another trap I am always talking about. While I personally had no problem with this deceptive pair (I knew exactly what the targets were doing), being able to read these two targets was the key to a good score.

Trap Targets
A shooter can learn a lot about angle by shooting a lot of trap targets. By changing both station and yardage, the shooter will see the hardest angle will take the most lead. Saying that, for most shooters there is no lead on the trap range from any yardage (16 to 27) that will be much farther than about two feet.

Let’s go to the skeet range now. These targets always fly the same trajectory, and the speed never changes. Just by moving from station to station the shooter will change the angle of the target. Stations 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 will always take the smallest amount of lead, and some targets won’t take any. Station 4 takes the longest lead on the skeet range. This again is a perceived lead due to the speed or lack of speed of the muzzle. Both trap and skeet have standard maximum distance and target speed, so the appropriate lead for each station can be learned with practice. Just remember, the flatter the angle, the smaller the lead. Most people who have trouble with quartering shots usually put too much lead on the target.

Let’s talk about distance now. How many of you have shot a 60-yard crossing target that has a little rise built into it? If this target has a weak spring, the lead is fairly short simply because the target is slowing down faster because of gravity. (This target is in reality an angle because of the upward trajectory). Crank the spring up and watch that lead increase. Throw a true crosser at 30 yards with the breakpoint right in front of you, increase the spring tension significantly to throw a faster target, and you will find you have to increase the lead quite a bit. I would bet for most shooters the hold point will have to come out, too. Why is this? Depending on the method for achieving lead that you use, most shooters will find it harder to get in front of the target and will have to increase the speed of the muzzle in relation to the target. The real lead is probably about the same, but the perceived lead isn’t. Also, remember muzzle speed will always affect perceived lead, and the method a shooter uses for achieving lead will always change the speed and hold point of the muzzle.

There are several things a shooter can do to help with these fast presentations. I have already mentioned starting your hold point farther out. I would also suggest possibly changing your method to Sustained Lead or Collapsing Lead. These two methods will require the shooter to move the hold point out, so the target never passes the muzzle. This will also let the shooter slow down their muzzle speed and make a better controlled move to the target. These methods also make the target look slower and easier to find and lock on to.

In closing, I would suggest all four of these things Angle, Distance and Speed (Muzzle or Target) affect the lead we put on a target. When you add speed to a far-crossing target, especially on those very distant ones, you can see some mega leads, but there MUST be enough target speed for the target to keep the line steady. Angle, on the other hand, does affect lead but in a smaller way than speed does. There are many tricks to the target-setting trade a setter can use on his shooters to create optical illusions. Changing the angle, speed and distance are just a few. The really great target setters are masters at doing this. Again, target reading is so important in being able to figure these targets out.

One final thought. When thinking of lead, the shooter should first through good practice develop a mental library of lead or site pictures. These will be learned through shooting a lot of different presentations and hard work. When shooting a target, the application of any or no lead must be done with the subconscious mind. Trying to put an exact lead on a target is a sure way to fail. The mind is the best computer ever created. It can calculate these leads in a microsecond.

Remember this old saying: “Shooting a shotgun falls in the same category of horseshoes and hand grenades. You just have to be close to make a solid hit.”

May the new shooting season bring you good health and higher scores. SS

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 (see ad on page 30).

Share this post