Sporting Clays Buyer's Guide
Author: Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Sporting Clays is an imaginative shooting game that will challenge your shotgun skills and keep you tuned up for bird hunting. While this sport was developed to simulate the flight of game birds, the gear is somewhat specialized when compared to the field. A few specialty items will make your day on the course more enjoyable, and perhaps raise your score.
Sporting Clays is one of the fastest growing shooting games out there. It has all of the satisfaction inherent to shattering little orange discs on the trap and skeet range with none of the repetition, and, okay, I’ll say it, boredom. Truly, there is no limit to the way a clay bird can be thrown, and the aerodynamic and visual challenges offered by specialty birds, such as battues, midis, minis, and rabbits (not to mention the various color incarnations from white to black to spring-foliage chartreuse), insure an added appeal to those pushing the boundaries of their skills ... and gear!
In the game of sporting clays, the over-under reigns. That a shooter can have two different choke constrictions, each with a different load running through them, allows for far more "tweaking" when it comes to widely disparate pair presentations. It is a distinct advantage over single-barrel offerings, where only the load may be altered for any given pair. This may seem like a small thing, especially given the price differentiation between some of the most popular and expensive ($10,000 or more) over-unders in the sport and their semi-auto counterparts, but like most things in life, this game has evolved. At its beginnings in the U.S., it was billed as the hunter’s "off-season" game, with targets thrown to represent the pheasant and woodcock and mallards a sportsman would see come autumn. No more. This is a game solely unto itself, call it the "extreme" of shotgun shooting. Any little "tweak" advantage is worthy of a competitor’s attention.
There are several key features to look for in a sporting-clays over-under. That you want a quality piece that will shoot literally thousands of rounds, should go without saying. It’s easier these days to pick them out from the flock; most manufacturers market them specifically towards the intended game, so model names that include the word "sport" are often the first clue. Shooters will want longer barrels to keep the balance of the gun not only more forward, but more continuous between the hands. You don’t want so much to the front that the gun swings like a pendulum, but it should have some "tip forward" factor. Thirty- and 32-inch lengths are the norm, though a large and tall shooter may be able to find 34-inch tubes from one of the high-end makers.
Look for over-bored barrels. Done a variety of ways by different manufacturers, it helps keep shot patterns consistent. Likewise with lengthened forcing cones, which some say lessen recoil, as well. And make sure whatever barrels you choose are ported. There are good companies out there that specialize in after-market porting, but why would you want to send your brand-new gun off for six weeks when it can already come that way?
On the back end of things, an adjustable stock is a huge bonus. Almost everybody needs to have a gun fitted. Sometimes it’s minimal, like a stock length adjustment. For something like that, it’s relatively easy to find a competent stock worker to shave off half an inch and refit the pad. It gets more complicated to add to a stock, and when it comes to adjusting for drop and cast and the task of bending a stock, then you need to find a true artisan. Not only are they few and far between in this country, it is costly and time-consuming. An adjustable stock let’s you fiddle with your gun on your own time, and without permanent alteration to your gun’s wood. Look mostly for cheek-pieces that can be adjusted both vertically and horizontally. Finding a gun with a built-in adjustable butt-pad is harder, but there are good after-market products out there, and many dampen recoil better than the original equipment.
While the over-under is still the dominant choice, semi-autos have a large following. And with good reason. They are easier on the pocketbook and easier on the shoulder, especially with heavy loads. And these days they come with many of the same features the stack-barrels do. Porting is de rigueur now, as are shim adjustment kits, a choice of spacers that can be placed between the front end of the butt stock and the back end of the receiver to adjust for drop and cast. (Finding an auto with an adjustable stock is a little harder than finding an over-under with one, but not impossible.) Actions have been smoothed out and modified with lightweight parts of durable materials such as titanium, and barrels are often over-bored. As a semi-auto’s trigger is nearly never as clean as that on a two-barreler, an adjustable trigger can be a plus, too. (I don’t find it nearly so beneficial on the over-under-most are already crisp and set at a comfortable weight, but if you have to have it, they’re out there.)
As far as the action goes, I’d want a gas-operated. They are easier on the shoulder and tend to be a little more forgiving on cycling when it comes to a bad, "limp-wristed" mount. You definitely want to locate a model that says it will cycle even light 7/8-ounce loads-many don’t. The one thing you probably won’t find on a semi-auto is enough forward balance, even with an extra-long barrel (remember, a 30-inch barrel on a semi-auto’s long receiver is like a 32- or 33-inch set on an over-under). Add one of the magazine-mounted counter-weights to solve this problem.
Stuff That Goes "Bang!"
Ammo is pretty tightly regulated on a sporting clays course. One can only shoot 7 1/2, 8 1/2, 8, or 9 shot, loaded no heavier than 1 1/8-ounce, and loaded no faster than 3-dram equivalent (that’s 1200 fps for an 1 1/8-ounce 12-gauge load). But that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices. I’ve seen "beginner" practice shells of 7/8-ounce do as well on long-distance trap-type presentations as a full 1 1/8-ounce load, and I’ve been on stations where a full load going as fast as possible was the only answer. Increasingly, speed is the trend, whether a light or heavy payload of shot is involved, but especially with lighter loads of 7/8- and 1-ounce. For the "meat of a round" one gets excellent breaks without the shoulder suffering as much from the full 1 1/8-ounce that used to be the norm. Some are even labeled "reduced recoil" and are well worth a try if you haven’t before.
There’s been another phenomenon in ammunition, and that’s been the trend towards reduced noise loads. A super choice for small ranges surrounded by subdivisions ... yeah, we know, you were there first, and your range may not require it, but it may go a long way towards keeping your facility open. These loads have significantly less concussion and often less recoil and are perfectly suitable for ranges that don’t throw clays in the outer stratosphere.
In The Bag
Besides ammo and gun, there’s a laundry list of accessories the sporting clays enthusiast needs to either take on course or keep in the truck. But even the most basic and obvious aren’t as simple as they seem.
Take ear protection. Sure, you can go with a $.99 squeeze-foam pair-and hope you don’t lose one on course. And naturally you’ll have to buy another pair the next time and the next time. Or you can try something better. Like electronic hearing muffs. Not only do they effectively dampen the concussion and excessive decibels of gun fire, they also improve normal noise levels. You can better hear traps releasing targets (essential with concealed machines and following pairs), orders from station attendants and pullers (a big plus for safety), and most likely the guys discussing the station 30 yards down the path.
I use electronic muffs for most of the season, but during the hot summer months I find them too hot to wear, and they sometimes give me a headache no matter how loosely I adjust the headband. My backup option then becomes the permanent moldable ear plugs. They seal off noise better than the sponge version, and because they’re molded to my ear canal, they fit well and don’t distract me. These now also come with electronics built in from several vendors.
Eye protection is another basic that is anything but basic in the clays game. On challenging courses where targets other than orange are thrown against similarly colored backgrounds, it is absolutely necessary to have glasses with interchangeable colored lenses. Even if your local courses never throw anything but orange, there’s always changing light and weather conditions to take into consideration. An overcast day offers a different target-recognition challenge than bright sun, as does the angle of light in early morning or late-afternoon squadding. At a minimum a shooter needs yellow, orange, and rose sets of lenses (or single inserts for wrap-around styles). To be really prepared, carry a set of lavender, bronze, and grey shades with you, as well. And after investing in protective eyewear, spend a little more for a protective case, preferably a hard one rather than the thin nylon sleeves glasses usually come with; these only help prevent scratching, not breakage. An extra case to store spare lenses makes sense, too. Finally, in addition to changing lenses, make sure your eyewear doesn’t: pinch your head, especially under muffs; won’t fog up; has a bridge that interferes with target viewing; and is preferably scratchproof or at least scratch-resistant.
A vest is as essential as eye and ear protection in clays. You absolutely need one that fits, as a too small vest will bind your arm and upper body movement and a too large one leaves too much material for a gun to hang-up on during mounting. Look for adjustable side tabs for extra customizing.
Two double-pockets in the front should be a requirement on every vest that claims it’s for sporting clays. You need to be able to dump in two entire boxes of 25 plus a couple extras for that quick round after work, and for serious competition, you need to be able to separate a handful of loads for any given station. For reloaders, they are also handy for temporarily storing empty hulls. Even better for shot-jerkers are the vests with a storage pocket built into the vest’s back, much like a field vest’s game pouch. Add in a choke-tube pocket that’ll hold at least five, and you’ve pockets enough.
As far as construction, there are two choices: solid backed and mesh-backed. Pick the latter if you shoot anywhere the temperature’s gonna sizzle. The shooting pad section can be of anything, but I’ve found the quilted material to be inferior to the smooth leather and suede options. These last two offer more purchase for a gun once shouldered and let a gun butt slide easily up over them during the mount. They also tend to be more flexible during shooter movement than quilted material, which can bunch up and hinder a mount. One last option is to consider a vest that has a pocket in the gun-mount area that accommodates a recoil-reducing pad. These can be a super choice for sensitive shooters, but they do affect gun fit, depending on thickness.
I mentioned a choke tube pocket above. That implies you need chokes. You do. The only logical choice for aftermarket chokes is to go with extended tubes, and they should extend at least an inch beyond the barrel/s for fingers-only removal. Steel is the most common, though some new titanium tubes are of excellent build. I like to see the constriction stamped on both the tube end and the body, and also some sort of color-coding in the end notches; better yet, have each tube a different color. For stack barrels, you’ll need two each of skeet, improved, light modified, modified, and improved modified, with a full and a cylinder thrown in (I say just singles of the last tubes because you’ll hardly every use the cylinder or full-at least I don’t). Single-shooters can of course reduce their quantities of the first five constrictions by half. Go with ported chokes if your gun’s barrel is missing holes; it’s an unnecessary expense if your gun is ported. Finally, a contoured hard case for your tubes is well worth protecting these costly items. Drop a tube on a cement walk-way and dent the edge, and you’ve just lost a sizeable amount of cash.
There are dozens of other accessories to keep on hand. I like to keep one of those brass drop-through weights to get rid of the occasional stuck wad from a sloppy reload. I usually shoot a double, so I like the leather toe pad that attaches to the laces of my sneakers and gives me a place to rest my open gun. A little bottle of lens cleaner or a packet of lens wipes is handy for keeping glasses clean, as are a couple silicone cloths and one of the cleaning-kits-on-a rope items for periodic swabbing. I never shoot without thin leather gloves, and during the really hot months I take along one of the neckerchiefs, with the self-contained beads, that you soak in water and wear to keep cool. I also take along a self-packing rain suit, a water bottle, energy bars, and one of the clip-on "golf" towels. All of this small stuff goes in a bag designed for sporting clays use. That luggage has a large internal compartment that holds up to 16 boxes of 12-gauge shells (some actually hold more, though you need to be lifting weights regularly if you’re going to carry that much ammo around), with several, outside zippered compartments for separating smaller items. One I found even has a pouch in the bag’s top, great for keeping glasses from being crushed by ammo boxes. Others sport an expandable pouch for storing spent hulls. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a wide, padded shoulder strap and strong handles.
One final accessory many don’t think about using on course, and should, is an easy-on/off soft-sided gun case. Anyone playing this game even casually has forked over a lot of Ben Franklins, most of them paying for the gun he or she is shooting. A busy course is full of elements that can get in your gun and do damage: There’s the dust from golf carts going by, minute shrapnel from broken clays, and a host of other "dirties" that can get in a gun’s action and bung it up. It’s a simple thing to slip a gun in a slim soft case in between stations and a move that will undoubtedly improve a firearm’s longevity. And given this sport’s addictive qualities, that’s definitely a good thing!
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