Some of the best money you can spend in shotgun shooting is on shooting lessons. Ideally, you should start before the shooting season, not after. If you spend several months trying to figure out mistakes on your own and grooving the wrong muscle memory, it will take twice as long to reboot and get back on track.
With Covid lockdowns being eased and more people getting vaccinated, clay shooting and hunting clubs in many states are once more open for business. Now is the time to “sharpen your ax” by taking individual or group lessons after months of lockdown.
Group Lessons & Shooting Schools
Individual lessons might be the way to go at first, but there are many benefits to sharing group lessons. A small group allows one-on-one coaching that can be spaced between shooting sessions—thereby avoiding fatigue that can result in a fall-off of concentration and thus performance. A full day’s instruction should be well spaced with short breaks. In addition, observing classmates receiving instruction gives you the opportunity to listen and learn.
If you can travel and have time to attend a shooting school for group lessons, you may choose one of the wingshooting schools offered around the country. The Orvis Company needs little introduction, and it has hosted schools for more than 25 years. These schools teach the E.J. Churchill method—often referred to as the “instinctive” style of shooting—to novice through veteran shooters. This is the preferred style of shooting for upland bird hunting.
I have worked at the two-day Orvis schools, and they always have been extremely popular. At Orvis Sandanona, in Millbrook, New York, we have made full use of the clays courses imitating walk-up shooting as well as the high-pheasant and dove towers. Orvis now has several endorsed venues around the country that offer instruction and shooting schools. The company also recently opened new shooting grounds at Hill Country, in Pennsylvania, and Pursell Farms, in Alabama.
Bryan Bilinski of Fieldsport, in Traverse City, Michigan, is an experienced wingshooting coach who needs little introduction. Along with instruction, he has been doing custom gunfittings since starting work with Orvis in Houston in 1980. In fact, Bilinski is credited with designing and operating the first sporting clays course in the US.
In the early days Bilinski was joined in his shooting schools by well-known writer and instructor Michael McIntosh. Today he teaches with my fellow Englishman Dale Tate, an NSCA (National Sporting Clays Association) shooting instructor. Tate is also a member of The Guild of Master Craftsmen in gunmaking and a professional gunfitter.
The growing demand for sporting clays instruction has been answered by the NSCA, which developed a building-block coaching program from beginner to tournament-class competitor. In the same manner there has been a demand for experienced and qualified coaches for upland bird shooters.
There are several renowned clay-shooting coaches who have established schools at their home shooting clubs or who travel nationwide. Gil, Vicki and Brian Ash’s OSP Shooting School (Optimum Shooting Performance) offers both clay and wingshooting lessons at the family’s home club in Texas and at select clubs around the country. I love the description that in the two-day clinic one day is spent forgetting bad habits and the second day is spent learning good habits.
This article would not be complete without including John Woolley and his Woolley Shooting Clinics. Woolley has perfected the simplification of the shotgun-shooting process. He takes the action of a gun that fits and points where you look together with emphasis on total focus on the target to teach his Move-Mount-Shoot technique. This method works just as well in the field as it does on the clays course and is used by a growing number of upland hunters. Woolley’s home club is the Saltwaters Shooting Club, in St. Augustine, Florida, and is well worth a visit.
For those wanting to work on their driven-shooting skills, there is my annual British Driven Game Shooting Academy, held each spring at Dorchester Shooting Preserve, in Midway, Georgia. The two-day course is totally focused on British driven game shooting etiquette, clothing, shotgun choice and instruction, including loading paired guns in the “two-gun tango” and stuffing a single gun. Power Point presentations give an idea what to expect on one’s first driven shoot in the UK.
Classroom sessions cover driven shooting for different gamebirds: grouse, partridge and pheasants. Starting with small-group instruction, we work on the different shooting methods—pheasants and partridge on the first day and grouse from traditional butts on the second. The weekend wraps up with a simulated driven pheasant shoot.
Anthony Matarese Jr. more than deserves a place on this list, as well, as he is recognized as one of the top shooters in US sporting clays history. Among his many competition accomplishments, he was the first American to win the World English Sporting Championship, a feat that could be compared to Tiger Woods winning the Masters. His A.I.M. Shooting School uses a hybrid of methods that work well for both clay and wingshooting.
With practice and lessons, a clay shooter will reach a level he or she seemingly can’t surpass—similar to the glass ceiling in any sport. At that point the shooter needs to find a coach to help improve his or her skill set to punch up in competition or just improve scores in recreational clays.
As in any sport, it is important to find the right coach for you—someone who is a good communicator and experienced in the shooting sports in which you want to improve. The essential skill of being a good communicator is to “keep it simple, stupid.” It’s important that the coach asks the right questions; evaluates each shot for fault, cause and correction; analyzes the cause(s) of each miss; and works to fix the worst fault first.
It also is important that the coach asks what the student hopes to learn from the session. It’s all too easy to go straight to the clays course and work on long passing shots and at the end of an hour be told that the student wanted to work on walked-up birds.
There are now many excellent, experienced coaches in the US, and most are able to work with everything from novice to advanced shooters in all disciplines. This is a distinct advantage to the individual student. The ultimate goal of all coaches should be that their clients effectively become their own coaches and are able to recognize the faults that are causing misses. This can happen only when shooters are taught how to analyze “fault-cause-correction.”
I would suggest that one or two days spent with an instructor in a quality school would be a wonderful investment of time and money and would go a long way toward improving one’s shooting on the clays course or in the field.