Unlike most other shooting sports, shotguns are fast-paced and full of action. Whether it’s trap, skeet, sporting clays or upland bird, you’ll be using a lot of shells, targets will be numerous and your success will be high. This is how to start shooting.
To start, a basic, pump-operated shotgun is going to give you a reliable, affordable, fun option; cycling the action on a pump gun is just an iconic experience. The Weatherby PA-08 is a great gun starting at just $399. For adult men, a 12ga is the most versatile gauge, but smaller women and children may prefer the lighter kick of a 20ga. Or, just rent whatever your local range has available.
You also need eye and ear protection. $5 safety glasses will get the job done your first couple of shoots, but just like with binoculars and scopes, quality optics make a huge difference. I wear a pair of Randolph Engineering’s Falcon shooting glasses. Since I’ve made the switch from cheapos, I now enjoy clearer vision and a wider field of view. Yellow lenses are a good all-round option, working to increase contrast, but purple may work better if you’re shooting clays in bright environments. Ideally, you’ll have glasses that give you lens options for different conditions.
In my ears, I’ve worn Howard Leight MaxLite plugs for over a decade. They’re some of the quietest disposable plugs out there, and also the softest. So they’re both effective and comfortable, as well as affordable. Big ear defenders may cut a little more sound, but can get in the way of a mounted stock. These work just as well on a motorcycle as they do on a loud airplane with babies crying or on the gun range.
You’ll also need something to hold your shells. A basic shell pouch is a good, versatile, affordable option that will work with whatever you’re wearing. Bonus points if it makes room for both fresh and spent shells; you’ll need to collect those as you use them. A shooting vest performs the same job, while maybe also adding some blaze orange for field use, or even a game pocket. Pick a lightweight mesh one, you’ll be able to wear that over any clothes in any weather.
You’ll also need a gun cleaning kit, be sure to thoroughly clean and oil your gun after any shoot; gun powder is corrosive.
Trap: The most basic and easiest one to start with has you stand behind a house that lobs clays up and away from you. Clays are thrown at 45mph. No matter your gun’s capacity, you shoot trap using a single shell for each throw.
Skeet: Two houses on either side of you throw clays across your front. You move between shooting stations which see clays thrown either individually or in tandem, from both houses in opposite directions. Skeet is much harder than trap as the clays are closer to you and moving side-to-side. American skeet throws the clays at 45mph; International at 90mph! You’ll use two shells for this one.
Sporting Clays: Like golf, but with a gun, you walk between different stations, each throwing the clays in a different manner. They come towards you, away from you, across, upwards, downwards and some even roll across the ground. It’s hard, but rewarding and is both a fun group activity and great preparation for hunting.
Upland Bird: Turkeys, pheasant, quail, dove, partridge and similar land-based birds. Each is its own, unique challenge, but together this group represents the iconic ideal of shotgun hunting; this is where you get to wear the tweed and the wellies as you stroll through the countryside.
Waterfowl: Duck, geese and similar and generally conducted from a blind or boat.
Single-Shot: break-action like an over/under or a side-by-side, these fire only a single shot, but are accurate, cheap and reliable.
Pump: Basic, reliable, affordable and able to hold multiple shells, pump guns are all anyone ever needs, but aren’t as fancy or convenient as the other options. You could keep that $399 12ga Weatherby for life and use it for everything you read about here without a problem. For hunting, and in some states, you’ll be restricted to a total capacity of three shells.
Semi-Auto: Like pumps, these store multiple shells in a tubular magazine, ejecting and feeding them using gas or inertia from the preceding shot. A little more money, but also a little faster to fire. A great option if you may need to follow up shots quickly, while keeping the gun mounted.
Over/Under: A style of double-barrel gun with a break action that’s popular for both target shooting and hunting. The advantage of a double-barrel is that you can choke each differently, optimizing each for a specific range; typically the first barrel to fire will be choked for closer shots, then the second will be choked for a slightly longer distance, giving you the ability to make a follow up shot if necessary. A selector enables you to chose which barrel fires first, for a little more variability. Most fancy shotguns are now over/unders.
Side-by-Side: Also a double-barrel gun with a break action. These are now out of fashion and you’ll tend to see side-by-sides on older guns. These are classic gentleman’s guns and objects of much elegance, which also means they tend to be simple designs with fixed chokes. Some dedicated fans claim side-by-sides are a better option for hunting than over/unders because you can use the unique sight picture created by the two barrels to accurately repeat leading distances on fast-moving birds or targets. On any double barrel gun, the two aren’t totally parallel, converging their shot on a point about 40 yards out from the muzzle. The shot overlaps through this distance, so there isn’t really a difference in aim no matter which you use. My girlfriend’s dad gifted us a couple of ridiculously nice side-by-sides, so this is what we shoot.
Chokes constrict the end of the barrel and control the degree to which shot spreads out as it fires. Most shotguns now have screw-in chokes, allowing you to alter the shot pattern to suit your needs. This is much preferable to fixed chokes, typical of older guns, which lock you into certain patterns and ranges.
Image via Hunter-Ed.com, a great resource.
In order from widest pattern (closest range) to tightest pattern (furthest range), chokes range from: Cylinder (< 20 yards), Skeet (22.5 yards), Improved Cylinder (25 yards), Light Modified (30 yards), Modified (32.5 yards), Improved Modified (35 yards), Light Full (37.5 yards), Full (40 yards), Extra Full (> 40 yards).
Those ranges are general and are also heavily dependent on what type of shell, size of shot and amount of powder you’re shooting. But choosing the correct choke for the job is vital to shooting success.
You can read more about shotgun shells, sizes and whatnot in our accompanying article, What’s Inside A Shotgun Shell And Why.
Determine which is your dominant eye and hold the shotgun on that side of your body. Bring it up to you shoulder and rest your check against its stock. You should be bringing the stock up to your cheek, not lowering your head to to it.
Stand with your front foot pointing at your target and 60 to 70 percent of your weight over your front leg and lean into the gun. As you follow a target, twist at your waist.
You hold the shotgun at rest when you’re not shooting, then raise it to your shoulder, point it and fire when a target presents itself. Being able to mount the gun from rest in a quick, repeatable way that keeps its barrel in line with the target is the key to good shooting.
Photo: Torrey Wiley
Your eye should be aligned so that you’re looking straight down the ramp, with the barrel parallel with your line of sight and the sight pin just hovering above the barrel. Some guns have a second pin, further back along the barrel towards you, that assists with alignment. That sight pin will put you dead-on with a stationary target. But, shotgun targets move, of course.
The old saying goes, “You aim a rifle, you point a shotgun.” Hitting stuff with one is much more a case of predicting where your target will be when the shot reaches them, then pointing the gun there. And doing that is simply a matter of experience. Plan on spending plenty of time at the range until you’ve figured this out.
Because the clay or bird is moving, the shotgun needs to be moving too. Swing it in the same arc that your target is traveling and keep it moving beyond the trigger pull; that’s a good follow through. And continuing to track the target is also what enables a follow up shot, if that’s necessary.
On a rifle, you slowly squeeze the trigger so that movement doesn’t upset your aim. On a shotgun, just pull the trigger rapidly.
Photo: Matt Biegacki
I fired a shotgun for the first time when I was probably 12 or 13 years old (great sport for kids), then occasionally throughout the years. It wasn’t until we got those guns early this year that I started shooting in earnest. Shooting doves last November, on a borrowed Silver Pigeon, I knocked down seven and fired 100 shells. Yesterday, for season opener, I limited out at 15 birds in less than three boxes of shells. I’m by no means what anyone would describe as a good shot, but I’m able to enjoy the sport with reasonable proficiency and success. Invest in some decent equipment (as detailed above) and spend a few days at the range and you will be too. This is a fun, intuitive sport that’s enjoyed by all ages, in all parts of the country. That it also puts healthy, natural food on the table is just an added bonus.
Top Photo: Municipal Archives of Trondheim
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