Four top shooting instructors share their secrets
by Ralph P. Stuart
Everyone can benefit from good coaching. Whether they’re involved in a sport, a hobby or just life, quality advice from a knowledgeable expert can be invaluable. This applies to veterans as much as it does beginners. As long as you recognize that you still are capable of learning, you can reap the rewards of another’s perspectives.
Take clay shooters, for example. I don’t know any who break every target every time. That is why so many employ the services of shooting coaches. Often these “hired guns” have gained experience from watching thousands of shooters and firing countless rounds themselves. They are learned in the nuances of shooting technique and can offer insights into breaking the toughest targets. As long as students approach each lesson with an open mind and a willingness to learn, they likely will come away with information that will help them reach their potential on the course or in the field.
In an effort to shed light on the coaching mindset (and perhaps pick up a few tricks in the process), we approached Chris Batha, Bryan Bilinski, Don Currie and Anthony Matarese—four of the country’s top instructors—and asked them to share their thoughts on successful shooting and the task of teaching. Prepare to be schooled.
Meet the Coaches
Chris Batha is acknowledged to be one of the most qualified and experienced shooting instructors and gunfitters in the world, with more than 30 years’ experience in wing- and driven-game shooting as well as all aspects of clay shooting. He has developed a simple shooting technique that works equally well for competitive clay shooters and driven-game shooters: the “Fault-Cause-Correction” technique, which involves learning to recognize the Fault, determine the Cause and apply the Correction. He has passed on his knowledge through DVDs, TV shows, digital platforms, magazine articles and books (the most recent being The Instinctive Shot). Today he travels extensively, instructing on the finest shooting grounds and best sporting estates in Europe, South America and the US.
Bryan Bilinski has been coaching wingshooting and conducting custom gunfittings since going to work for Orvis Houston in 1980. He is credited with designing and operating the first sporting clays course in the US. In 1994 he founded Fieldsport, Ltd., in Traverse City, Michigan, and subsequently co-founded the Fieldsport Wingshooting Schools with famed gunwriter Michael McIntosh. He helped produce a wingshooting instructional DVD and currently operates the Fieldsport Shooting Grounds, where he conducts private shooting lessons and custom gunfittings by appointment.
Don Currie is one of the most sought-after shotgun coaches in North America. He is Chief Instructor of the National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA), Founder of the Academy of Wing & Clay Shooting, a Master Class competitor and a full-time shotgun coach and gunfitter. In addition Currie manages and administers the instructor certification program for the NSCA. He is a fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors and a certified NSCA Level III instructor. He has produced two instructional DVDs and recently wrote a book titled Mastering Sporting Clays.
Anthony Matarese Jr. started shooting competitive sporting clays at age 10 and began studying under Olympic medalist Dan Carlisle. Anthony’s list of accomplishments is long, impressive and still growing. He is recognized as one of the world’s top competitors and in 2014 became the youngest member in history to be inducted into the National Sporting Clays Hall of Fame. Matarese’s record in national and international competition make him the most successful American sporting clays shooter of all time. He has been teaching shotgunning for 20 years, and many of his students have gone on to have great success at the national and international level.
How do you assess where a new student is in his/her shooting and where to begin?
Chris Batha: I use a coaching app to film new students shooting a variety of targets. Then I use slow motion and freeze-frame to gauge their level of competence. This allows me to structure the content of the lesson to focus on the areas that need the most attention.
Bryan Bilinski: In advance of our shooting schools, we send out a comprehensive questionnaire that asks questions that help our instructors determine the skill levels of individuals and the potential challenges or problems we may need to prepare for.
When conducting a private lesson, I try to speak with the student in advance and ask questions that will allow me to better prepare. When a phone interview is not possible, I sit down with the client for 10 to 15 minutes before the lesson and ask about their wingshooting history and, most importantly, what their goals are for the lesson. Then, after a basic safety discussion, I often ask to see the client shoot a few basic target presentations, as this offers proof of their skill level.
Don Currie: With a new student, assessing the starting point at the beginning of the lesson is critical. My assessment is based on a combination of the student’s answers to my standard questions and, if the shooter has experience, my observations of the student as they engage targets. Within 10 to 20 minutes, I have my lesson plan: the one or two most significant opportunities for the student to improve his or her shotgunning.
Anthony Matarese: I ask students a few simple questions about past experience and if they have been shooting with one or two eyes. We then address any eye-dominance issues or talk about the best solution for the individual. I take them to a station and let them shoot six to 10 clays, to get a basis for how they have been approaching things and a general sense of their skill level.
How important is gunfit before you begin and as things progress?
Batha: This is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. You cannot learn to correctly mount a shotgun with a shotgun that does not fit! Vice versa, you cannot mount a correctly fitted shotgun with poor shooting skills. A coach should always have a selection of shotguns and extension pads and comb raisers, to be able to adjust a shotgun to fit the student to maximize the benefits of the lesson.
Bilinski: Gunfit is crucial and critical in my shooting-instruction program. I analyze the relative gunfit of every person before we head to my shooting grounds. In the store I have the tools to change a basic gunfit problem. If need be, I also have a variety of guns for the client to use, if the fit of their gun cannot be easily changed.
Matarese: As you begin, it is important that the gun is comfortable, the length of pull is practical and the gun shoots roughly where your brain thinks it does. A perfect gunfit for a novice-level shooter is not necessary and might not even be practical to achieve. As the shooter advances and so does their shooting form, a good gunfit becomes more and more important.
What is the most common physical mistake (gun mount, stance and so on) that you see shooters make, and what is your advice to fix it?
Batha: Head position. The eye is effectively the rear sight of a shotgun; it needs to be correctly and consistently looking down the rib out to the target. Incorrect fundamentals of stance, posture and head position make it nearly impossible to place the head in the correct position consistently, to achieve this essential eye-target relationship.
Bilinski: All things considered equal, every fundamental that a competent wingshooter must master can cause a miss when done incorrectly or not completely. However, one of the most obvious mistakes is not finishing or completing the gun mount. If you have a well-fitted gun, why expect it to shoot where you are looking if the comb is not firmly anchored under your cheekbone ledge? Learning to properly mount your gun after you call, “Pull,” is not very effective. Practicing a complete, efficient and anchor-point gun mount in the comfort of your living room is critical to success.
Currie: The most common problem I see is insufficient visual intensity, or focus, on the target through the breakpoint. I teach my students to use acute central-vision focus to kill the target. Oftentimes shooters allow their peripheral vision to take over at the end of a shot, just as they are pulling the trigger, in order to see the barrel-target relationship. This is a critical error and usually results in a miss behind. Acute visual follow-through is essential to consistency. Close second-, third- and fourth-most-common errors are mounting to the shoulder (instead of the cheek), leading with the back hand (instead of the lead hand) and rushing the shot.
What is the most common mental mistake that you see shooters make, and what is your advice to fix it?
Batha: Hard target focus: the failure to maintain total visual concentration on the target through the completion of the shot. Watch the first target of a pair break before moving your eyes to focus on the second target. To achieve this, you need to shoot with “quiet” eyes. This requires that the move to the target is smooth, with the gun moving no more than 1 mph faster than the target’s speed. This allows the eyes to maintain focus. If the gun is swung much faster than the target speed, the eyes will be drawn to the barrels and a miss is guaranteed.
Bilinski: The most common mistake is the perception that shooting a shotgun properly is more complex and difficult than it really is. We are more a nation of riflemen than wingshooters and are taught to aim a gun from the moment we line up the iron sights of our first BB gun. It is key to acknowledge that a shotgun is not aimed; it is pointed. Breaking the mindset of aiming is a crucial step in helping a new shooter break the stranglehold of looking too much at the barrel, gun or bead instead of focusing hard and consciously on the target.
Matarese: Shooters need to develop a plan from looking at the “view” targets and rehearse this plan. There then must be a transition to a routine when in the cage. The routine is defined by simple steps to move away from conscious thoughts toward the subconscious. The last step of a simple routine should include an image of what each clay will look like at the moment the shooter pulls the trigger or as the target reaches the break point. This should help the shooter keep his or her eyes on the clay as the trigger is pulled.
What is the most difficult target for most shooters, and what is the best way to approach it?
Batha: “Rabbits” seem to be a consistent thread from beginners to winners. This is because rabbits are rolled along the ground, causing them to bounce and change direction as they travel. Rabbits are also passing a background of grass and foliage that causes a strobe effect, distracting the eyes. If you focus really hard on a rabbit target, you will see a “smiley face” created by the hard ridge on the target as it revolves. This fixes the strobe effect, and you see it at its real speed. You then shoot it like an aerial target by giving it the appropriate lead. Also, most rabbit targets are missed high and behind, so imagine it is a real rabbit running and shoot off its front foot as it stretches out its legs.
Bilinski: Long crossers seem to be some of the most challenging, and they can present additional problems because of the increased margin of error based on gunfit and distance. If a shooter has a poorly fitted gun, the problem with putting the shot in the right place is compounded by the shot cloud not going where the shooter thinks it is. Long crossers are also greatly affected by gravity, speed and wind. A target maintains a relatively good line for only a certain amount of time and distance before it begins to drop and also curl because of the spin of the target. Reading the drop and curl of a long crosser against a bright blue sky is one of the biggest challenges a shooter faces.
Currie: Many shooters say that their most difficult target is the long crossing target. In these cases, however, the cause of misses is most often a lack of visual follow-through. Shooters frequently soften visual focus just prior to shot execution to see the lead, resulting in a miss behind. The key is to maintain sharp visual focus on the target through shot execution. I also find that shooters are more successful using a pull-away technique (“touch and separate”) on longer crossing targets.
Do you teach a specific technique/method of lead and why?
Batha: With beginners, I teach “pull away.” It’s a simple technique to learn. You point out the target with the gun, which establishes its speed and line of flight, then smoothly pull the muzzles away and pull the trigger. With trap, I teach swing-through but work on minimal gun movement, so that someone watching would consider it “spot” shooting. With skeet, I teach sustained or maintained lead, and sporting clays needs all three techniques and an understanding of diminishing lead.
Currie: I teach the “look at the bird” method. The fact is: Each shooter’s eyes and brain work a bit differently. Therefore, the technique used by one shooter on a given target may not be the best technique for all shooters. Whether you prefer sustained lead, pull-away or swing-through, my job is to make you the best shooter you can be, not to impose my way of shooting on you. Those colleagues in the instructor world who I admire most seek to understand how students naturally see and point at targets, and then coach accordingly.
Matarese: I teach a combination of pull-away and maintained lead. The basis of my method is that you will learn how to control and connect with the target. This essentially means that the shooter must learn how to match the target’s speed through a mechanism of inserting the gun to connect the bird together. Then the use of maintained lead or pull-away is used to establish the forward allowance based upon the “time-frame” for which the shot allows. For example, I might suggest on a long, fast crosser inserting the gun ahead of the clay, and then pulling away or “stretching out” the lead to finish the shot.
There is no greater return on investment than time spent perfecting your gun mount.
What is the most important part of the shooting sequence—gun mount, movement to the target or focus—and why?
Batha: The phrase “hand-eye coordination” is wrong; it should be “eye-hand coordination.” The eyes guide the hands. When you call, “Pull,” regardless of the discipline, the eyes have to see the bird first. Their images are overlaid on the optic-nerve stream, and messages are sent to the hands to guide the gun to the moving target. This move is a total-body movement. Think “tank.” The legs, torso and shoulders are the “turret” that turn the gun; the arms and hands lift and point the gun like the “barrel;” and the eyes are the optics that guide the barrel to the target. It takes dedicated practice in the same manner as the martial artist learning kata.
Bilinski: I believe shooting a shotgun well is a symphony of proper body movements. During our wingshooting schools, the instructors concentrate on the student developing and implementing the key ingredients of good form based on: a forward-addressing foot stance that faces the break point of the intended target; a slight forward lean of the upper body, or good shooter’s posture; starting the gun in a perfect, gun-down, ready position; a sweet movement of the gun barrels in harmony with the target; a firm, anchored gun mount under the cheek bone; the important and crucial hard target focus; and finally, after the shot, “staying with the gun” anchored under the cheek bone for a second or two. Considering all of these elements equal, if you don’t finish a well-anchored gun mount all the while focusing hard on the bird, more misses than hits undoubtedly will occur.
Currie: In order to be successful in shotgunning, “focus,” “movement” and “faith” must all come together. One cannot be successful without all three. 1) Focus: acute visual focus on the target through the shot execution (watch the impact!). 2) Movement: proper ready position, front hand leads, head still, move at a comfortable pace. 3) Faith: total confidence that, by applying acute visual focus to the target through the break point, feeling the point and executing the shot, the subconscious will put the shotgun in the right place to intercept the target.
Matarese: Connecting/matching the gun speed and the target speed, as this is the prerequisite for consistently slowing down the target enough for the shooter to focus on the clay, which is the ultimate goal. So connect, then focus. Many shooters and coaches have the “cart before the horse.”
What is the best way to achieve a proper and consistent gun mount?
Batha: To groove a perfect gun mount requires the use of an unloaded gun in a safe environment. Place a mirror at head height and stand 10 feet away facing it. Adopt the correct stance, posture and head position—all of which looks like a boxer throwing a jab. Start with the heel of the gunbutt touching the tendon that joins the bicep to the pectoral, and watch yourself lift the gun parallel to the floor to the cheek without moving your head. Look for any unwanted body or head movement. This is NLP (neuro-linguistic programming)—practice, practice, practice.
Bilinski: Assuming a fairly well-fitted gun, practicing at home is critical. Practice bringing your “very unloaded” gun smoothly from the ready position to the cheekbone ledge. You can swing or move the barrels along any line in your room while deliberately bringing up the gun. With snap caps, you can pull the trigger after you come through an imaginary target on the line. After you pull the trigger, maintain a firm gun mount for at least a two-second count to train and strengthen the muscle group that lifts the gun. Practice this drill at least three times per week in sets of three. Do eight to 10 gun mounts per set. In a few weeks you will be amazed at your improvement.
Currie: Practice. There are no shortcuts. Practicing and perfecting one’s gun mount and movement are perhaps the most time-consuming aspects of mastering the shotgun. However, there is no greater return on investment than time spent perfecting your gun mount. I find a combination of two drills is most effective: 1) using a laser pointer inside your home, practicing your mount on simulated left-to-right and right-to-left crossing targets, and 2) practicing crossing targets on the skeet field (high house and low house) from positions 3, 4 and 5.
What are some exercises and drills outside of shooting that are good preparations for sporting clays?
Batha: Gun-mount drills both in the mirror and using a laser in your shotgun to practice smoothly and mounting along the lines of walls and the ceiling to learn to smoothly move, mount and shoot. Place a stool on each side of you, with an eight-pound medicine ball (the weight of a gun) on one. Standing between them, adopt the correct stance and posture, and then turn, using the big muscles of your body, pick up the medicine ball with both hands, turn slowly and smoothly, and place the ball on the other stool. This will teach the muscle memory that the gun is turned with the body, not the arms.
Bilinski: My best advice is to get in good physical shape and stay in good condition. Consider joining a gym and signing up for workouts with a trainer. Explain your “shooting goals,” and let the trainer design a workout program that will help you become a stronger shooter with greater endurance.
Currie: Drills to improve one’s shooting performance fall into two categories: visual training and physical training. A visual exercise ball, called a Marsden Ball, is a great way to exercise the eyes. Another good visual exercise is focusing on road signs while driving. Focus on the corner of a letter on a road sign as you drive by. It helps train the eye to visually acquire and maintain acute focus. Weight training with a 15- to 20-pound weight bar is a great way to strengthen the muscles of the shoulders and tops of the arms. These muscles often go unused in our daily lives but are important to physical endurance in shotgunning.
Matarese: Practice and perfecting your gun mount is always useful. Having good upper-body endurance will be useful if you decide to put in the range time to perfect your shooting.