Final Shot - Getting Started

For someone interested in starting out in clay target shooting, there are a lot of wrong and a few correct paths to follow. Over my early years, I strolled down both kinds, and perhaps some advice based upon that experience will be helpful.

I started shooting trap with a field gun, a Remington 870 Wingmaster with a 28" vent rib barrel with a fixed Modified choke. As shotguns go, there certainly are worse ones to use, but I quickly discovered that because most non-trap shotguns shoot very flat for trap’s always rising targets, I had to block the targets from my view with the muzzle when I shot at them. That led to two problems: I was unable to see last-second movement by the target when the air wasn’t calm, and I had to consciously think about pulling the trigger instead of allowing my brain to subconsciously make that call. Of course, I was too uneducated about the sport at that time to know any better, so I just chalked all those misses, and there were lots of them, up to operator error (which most certainly did play a part).

There is a very old and equally true axiom about using the right tool for the job, and it very much applies to shotguns. Unless you are one of those rare and enviable folks who are “natural shooters,” a group of which I was not a member, who can shoot any gun at any target, you will benefit from a shotgun designed for clay target shooting from the get-go. But since there are numerous clay target sports, can one gun serve all of them? I think so.

Skeet and sporting clays, two sports with which I have only a smattering of experience, feature targets that fly fairly flat (skeet) and in all kinds of directions and flight angles (sporting clays) while as already mentioned, trap targets rise at varying angles. As a rule, guns intended for skeet and sporting clays feature lower stock combs, enabling them to shoot pretty flat, while trap guns are built in such a way as to allow the guns to shoot above the point of aim. A shooter of the other two sports might disagree with this suggestion, but I believe it is easier to learn to keep your skeet and sporting clays targets just above a trap gun’s muzzle than to have to cover trap targets with a flatter-shooting gun as I did early on. Once I adjusted to keeping my targets perched upon the front bead instead of behind it, I found I wanted that sight picture all the time. As a result, even my field gun, a Remington 1100, wears a stock with a high comb that is used on Remington pump and autoloading shotguns marketed for turkey hunting using an optic mounted on the barrel or receiver.

A lot of shooters comment negatively about perhaps seeing some rib between the beads (if their gun has a center bead), but that really is a non-issue. You’re supposed to be looking at the target, not the gun, and not looking at the target is the fastest avenue to missing them. Your brain uses the front bead and the target and so should you. If your gun does not have an adjustable rib, the chances of you seeing some rib between the beads once your comb is set high enough for you to break targets are good. And, that might happen even with an adjustable rib.

One piece of advice I was given during “the early days” was to get a trap gun and I did. Being a Remington fan even back then, I bought one of the first Remington 3200 Competition Trap over/unders. It was a very nice gun but although its message was lost on me, it was telling me the importance of the gun fitting the shooter by how it beat my jaw senseless while I missed the same number of targets. I cannot stress enough the FIRST thing you want to do with a new gun (okay, after you shoot it) is get it fitted to you. But, you ask, what is that?

As I’ve stated many times in past columns, your eye is a shotgun’s rear sight. As with a rifle with open sights, your eye has to be moved to where the shotgun becomes “sighted in” or where it shoots where you are looking. Please do not listen to the guys on your gun club’s porch who will have you place your gun’s butt in the crook of your elbow and tell you the gun fits you when the wrist (or pistol grip) of the stock falls into your hand, and you can move your head around so the beads line up with the magic figure-eight sight picture.

First of all, the length of the stock (which is referred to in shotgun parlance as length of pull) that fits you may or may not be longer or shorter than that old “test” indicates. And I’ll go so far as to state your preferred length of pull will not be the same with all guns due to different manufacturers’ stock designs. That is something not always constant even between the various models made by the same manufacturer. Probably the best place to start is a length that leaves you with about an inch between your control hand thumb (the one on the wrist of the stock) and your nose when the gun is mounted. Experimenting with different lengths is most easily accomplished by changing recoil pad thicknesses. Having the pad ground to fit your stock isn’t necessary until you find the right thickness and may be money wasted if the stock has to be cut shorter.

Moving your head around to get the beads aligned is a waste of time. As soon as your focus shifts from the beads to the target, your head will promptly move back to where it is comfortable. Your gun has to shoot where you are looking under that circumstance.

Getting the gun shooting where you are looking almost always requires an adjustable comb. I’m sorry, but no self-respecting target shotgun would be caught dead without one. That’s like a rifle with a sight that cannot be adjusted, and I’ll bet you’ve never bought a firearm with iron sights that never needed adjusting before it would hit right where you wanted it to.

In summary, your first moves should be getting your gun fit to you for comfort and shooting where you are looking. If you skip either one, you are not going to receive as much enjoyment from shooting as you could. And, if it isn’t fun, you won’t do it for long. That means any money you spend on shooting will be wasted. If you’ve bought into what I’m saying so far, the next step is to decide what kind of gun to buy.

Since you have no idea yet of how good you will be at the clay target sport of your choice, I will advise you to go as cheaply as possible the first time around. I normally don’t suggest continuous “trading up” for that costs you a lot more than buying the “right” gun the first time. However, with new shooters, a “first gun” can be an inexpensive one. That gun should be a popular one because that means you will have a lot of used ones to consider and be able to sell it when you’re ready for a “better” one. One of the guns that best fits that descriptive is the Browning BT-99. A quick check of just one website,, yielded 24 BT-99s for sale, five of which could be purchased for less than a grand and 15 under $1,500. The biggest thing to insist upon is a gun with as few alterations as possible for the more ways it was made to fit its former owner could make it require even more work in order to fit you. Also, on single-barrel trap guns, 34" barrels are much more popular than shorter ones.

You could even look at a new gun in the same price range, but be forewarned you WILL lose more money on that gun if/when you sell it. Used guns are just like used cars — in order to sell one, it has to be priced far enough below a new one to make it attractive to a prospective purchaser. That’s why you lose so much in depreciation on new cars. New guns are no different. But having said that, there are some Turkish-made trap guns that pack a lot of bang for the buck. They don’t cost more than a good used gun of a more popular and accepted brand, and some come with an adjustable comb and rib. Just beware if you sell it, doing so won’t be as easy, and it will cost you money. But then, you won’t have invested that much into it, no one could have fiddled with it and you will have the protection of a warranty.

Any gun is useless without ammunition, so that should be your next purchase. If reloading is not in your future, buy the least expensive target ammo you can find. I emphasize “target” because cheap hunting ammo has softer shot than most target-grade fodder, and harder shot usually patterns better. Stay away from the hot stuff — 3-dram equivalent shells will definitely rock your shoulder and excessive recoil will cause all kinds of unwanted habits like flinching, often referred to as “the yips.” A nice 2¾-dram load of number 8 lead shot will serve you very well. And, if one of those gun club porch guys tells you hotter loads get the shot to the target much quicker, refer him to our website,, “Downloads” under the “Resources” tab and then “Shotgun Statistics.” There he will see that a 1,200-f.p.s. load of number 8 lead shot gets to 40 yards in .141 seconds — that’s one-hundred forty-one thousandths of a second — and that same payload at 1,145 f.p.s. takes just .005 seconds longer to get there. Can you or anyone else detect a five thousandths of second difference? But here’s what everyone can detect — FELT RECOIL. It will be noticeably higher with that extra and unneeded 55 f.p.s. of shot speed.

Now if reloading is something you think you’ll want to get into down the road, buy good quality target shells. I’ve shot and reloaded most of them and think the best are Remington’s STS and Nitro 27 shells for two main reasons. First, the hulls seemingly never wear out. I used to put a hash mark on the box tops with each loading and hated to discard them even after ten loadings. Next, they have an integral base wad, that cone-shaped piece at the bottom of the hull’s interior with the primer’s flash hole in the center. Integral means the base wad is a part of the plastic hull and cannot separate from it. Many hulls are two-piece in design and have separate base wads, usually made from some sort of paper. People will tell you separating base wads are poppycock, but I have seen it with my own eyes. If that base wad migrates upward, most reloading presses will force it back down. However, with each migration, movement becomes easier and one can eventually wind up in your barrel’s forcing cone. When that happens, your next shot will be a real attention-getter. Parts of your gun will fly everywhere, including into your face and the bodies of others around you. Buy good shells from the get-go and have one less thing about which to worry.

If you haven’t already, buy a good set of shooting glasses with changeable lenses. Clip-ons add another layer of glass or plastic in front of your eyes, and multiple layers can lead to distortion. Changeable lenses are really nice when the target colors, backgrounds and lighting differ. I could go into what colors work often best under varying conditions but that’s a whole nother subject.

That should be enough to get you started in a good direction. As always, should you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me via the email address below. And, although I covered it in an article years ago, if “getting started in reloading” receives enough requests, I will do it again.

Ed’s Mail
David Wark read what I wrote about recoil reduction and asked where I bought the Beretta Recoil Reduction System I mentioned. As David pointed out, that item is no longer listed on Beretta’s website, so I assume it is no longer available. It was an accessory for their autoloading shotguns, and I kind of always wondered why autoloaders would be the type of action for which they would make a recoil reduction system, as those guns usually shoot softer than other types. Perhaps Editor-in-Chief Johnny Cantu, a former Beretta employee, can shed some light on the subject.

At any rate, the unit fits into the gun’s stock, is cylindric in shape and contains a piston and a spring. When the gun fires, recoil propels the piston back and the spring sends it forward again, in the process mitigating some of the felt recoil. The popular Dead Mule line of reducers functions the same way. I bought mine (two in fact) at Beretta’s Accokeek, Maryland, facility during a plant tour in 2008. I had installed one in the 687 trap combo I recently sold and never used the second one (see photo).

Randy Farney pointed out I made a boo-boo when I typed the web address of the Palmyra Sportsmen’s Association. It should be (instead of “sportsmens”).

Until next month, please send your comments, questions and suggestions for column topics to me at They are welcomed and appreciated. SS

Ed Clapper started shooting trap in 1974 but quit six months later due to limited ability and a sore jaw after every shoot. He tried again in 1989, but this time had friends who helped him overcome the obstacles. He liked the sport and became a student of it, attending several shooting clinics, some more than once. In 1989, he was automatically low man on the squad; in 1994, he broke his first 100-straight and won his first registered shooting trophy at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Fish & Game Association. His first 200-straight came in June, 2000, at Elysburg during the Pennsylvania State Shoot, where he came in third in a seven-man shoot off for the state championship, finishing as Class AA winner. He earned his 27-yard pin that July. Ed wrote for Trap & Field for many years and began writing for Shotgun Sports in 2002.

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