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Setting Up Your Shotgun For Sporting Clays

Sporting clays is a refreshing change from the predictability of skeet and the limited variability that the game of trap offers (44 degrees side to side, 5 set positions, 8-12 foot throw height, 16 yd line, etc). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy shooting Skeet and Trap, it’s just nice having something totally different to challenge my shooting ability – as if my abilities weren’t challenged enough.  Because sporting clays are so variable, there is more to consider at each station than just your site,  set, lead and break point.

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Things to Consider in your Shot

Target Type

There are three main target types in sporting clays: pigeon, teal, rabbit.  The pigeon target is your standard skeet or trap clay pigeon shot that is thrown at various angle to the shooter and tends to maintain it’s thrown presentation throught its flight.  The rabbit is a flat disc that is rolled across the ground at a fair rate of speed which often hops over bumps giving the shooter a synthetic cottontail to aim at.  The springing teal is shot nearly straight up in the air and at the apex tends to fall off to one side or the other giving the shooter many different leads, presentations and distances to consider when taking the shot.  The battue is the same diameter as a standard clay pigeon, but is much thinner – this makes it less stable and prone to going “face-on” near and dropping like a rock at the end of its flight.

Target Angle and Presentation

Just like trap and skeet there are variations in the angles at which the targets will be thrown.  In skeet, you know what angle you will get at each station, in trap you will get something within a range of angles, in sporting clays – just about anything is possible.  The target may come from behind and fly over your shoulder, it might fly towards you, away from you or cross.  it might rise, have a parabolic flight or be dropping from a tower.  Every station is different.

Sporting clays pigeon presenations

The chart to the left shows the basic presentations from the easiest to break (face-on) to the toughest to shatter (edge-on).  Some ask why dome-on is considered harder to break than th back-lip.  It comes down to the construction of the pigeon.  Hitting it dome-on lets the clay use the strength of the almighty arch built into it to fend off a stray BB.

A Rabbit going across will give you an entire 4.3″ flat face to shoot at as it runs across the ground.  Any number of angles can change how much of that disc you see and may change how you want to deal with the target.  Standard pigeons may be thrown tilted or flat, but will typically maintain that presentation throughout the flight.  The battue is unstable giving you presentations that change over the flight of the pigeon.  It may start out edge on which will give you a razor-thin target to hit, but then roll onto it’s side to present you with more than 3″ of slower clay to hit near the end of its glide.  The springing teal changes from edge-on to dome-on or back-lip as it apexes.

Target Distance

Lastly, you won’t always be breaking clays at roughly 15-25 yds (skeet) or 25-35 yds (trap).  Those games lend themselves to fairly fixed choke and shot selections.  Skeet tends to get shot with #9 through skeet chokes.  Trap is typically shot with an improved cylinder or modified choke.

Target type, angle, distance, presentation – all feed into a decision you don’t have to make from position to position in the other clay sports – choke and shot.

Sporting Clays Shotgun Choke Distances

Red – Pattern too small | Yellow – small but usable | Green – Optimal Pattern *with my test config – results may vary

Break-Point Choice

The distance at which you will break the clay is a critical decision factor.  As the clay is “thrown” you will typically have several different points at which you can break the target.  You don’t have to break the clay as soon as you think you can.  Sometimes, the optimal break-point is one that develops long after the clay is thrown, immediately upon being able to set your lead or somewhere in-between.  If the target is going away from me, instead of changing to  a cylinder choke and catching the pigeon as soon as I can point at it, I might leave the skeet choke and give myself an extra half second for the clay to hit that 18-22yd space where I know the skeet choke is optimal because I will have my gun at a fantastic hold point for the second target in the pair.

If the target is coming at me, I can make a decision on my break-point based on the choke I have set, or I can decide that it’s better to change out the choke to give me a better break-point  in setting-up for the follow-on member of the double.

Setting Up Your Gun

First-things first

If you are just starting out at sporting clays, don’t get too muddled with flipping chokes in-and-out.  These configurations aren’t going to help your score if you are still trying to work out how to see, lead and shoot the target.  Stick an improved cylinder in your first barrel and a modified choke in the other.  If you have an auto-loader or pump, go improved cylinder if most of your targets are under 35 yards.

As far as shot, start with #8 while just learning the targets and their presentations.  Depending on the course, when your hitting mid-30’s or more out of 50 – then start figuring out if your maybe losing a bird or two to too tight or loose choke or not enough BBs.  Using a score as a measure in sporting clays is much more relative than in the more consistent trap and skeet games.  If the coarse is set with a lot of 35+ yard fast crossers, springing teals or this rabbits at 35+ yards .. your score will be lower – but so will everyone else’s.  In the end, you may just have to get a feel for how you’re doing on the targets you feel you should have hit.

READ:   Reloading Station Setup

If you’re starting to feel that some misses are due to pattern tightness or density, the rest of this article might yield you a few more birds in the round.  And one or two might just be the difference between winning the round or not.

Choke Selection

In the traditional games, selections vary by person, but not from station to station.  If you start with your gun choked skeet-skeet at station 1, you’ll be on station 8 with skeet chokes in both barrels at the end of your round.  In sporting clays, it is thinkable to have more than one shell type and certainly an extra choke or two.  That works great when all of your shots are in such a tight range where one choke will always produce the perfect pattern at the right distance.

For sporting clays, many shooters will just stick Improved Cylinder and Modified chokes into their guns (or improved cylinder for the auto’s/pumps) for sporting clays.  I certainly did for my first few rounds.  If you are just using the game to knock the rust off before a hunting trip, that makes perfect sense as long as that’s the setup you’ll use in the field.  Instead, if you are playing the game, you might want to set your gun up for the targets.

Let me start with the fact that not all courses are the same.  That’s one of the most attractive features of sporting clays.  I use my typical setup going into an unknown course or one that might have changed since I last shot it.  Other courses may have a bias to closer or further targets and require some thought as to how to setup for them.

My typical setup starts skeet or improved cylinder choke in the lower (first firing) barrel and modified in the upper.  If the pairs are report pairs, I make sure to hit the closer or larger presented (full face vs. edge on) target first with the more open choke and use the tighter choke on the smaller and further targets.

I carry a skeet choke on to the coarse with me but I only change when a situation arises that needs one.  The IC+Mod combo leaves me comfortable with my shot pattern size and density from 20yds to 40 yds and I can usually plan my shots to deal with the chokes I have screwed in.  For those other situations, I tend to evaluate this way:

– Is the best break-point 15-25 yds away and the target is either dome or edge on? – Go to the skeet choke

– I imagine if I ever end up where the break point is 45+ yds away a full choke might be considered, but I haven’t been in a situation where a modified choke plus heavier shot couldn’t break the bird.  I have been in many where my skill caused a lost bird .. but never the lack of a full choke.

Shot Selection

Here’s another place where you might setup differently if you are readying yourself for wing shooting than if you are playing the game for the game itself.  If you’re planning to limit out on morning dove or white-wing, use 7.5’s or 8’s at the velocity (1150, 1200, 1250, or 1300) like you would in the field.  Shoot with whatever you plan to hunt with (up to 7.5 as that’s as large a shot as most clay fields allow).  If you are playing the game, things get interesting.

The sporting clay course I run the most has a fair variation in shot angles, types, presentations and distances.  For a standard 50 shot round, I carry 15 –  #9s, 35 – #8s,  and  4 –  #7.5s (yes, I know that’s 52 – but you never know when those crafty course managers might sneak in another long, dome-on presentation to deal with.

If I were hitting a new course that I had never seen, I might carry 10-#9’s, 40-#8’s, and 4-#7.5s.  That would give me plenty of flexibility without carrying 70+ shells around.

My shot selection is based on three of the considerations – target type, target presentation and distance.  First, if I plan to break the target within 25 yards, that barrel gets a #9 shell.  If the planned break-point is 25-35 yds, #8 gets loaded.  If the target is over 35 yards and is either edge on, dome on or a rabbit – 7.5 goes in the gun to make sure it breaks.

The Strategy That Works For You

Many start out by selecting their choke(s) and using only shot size to vary their guns functional pattern.  Others will shoot #8s on every presentation and switch chokes.  I do my best to avoid flipping chokes out all the time, but there are situations where the right choke + the right shot shell will mean the difference between a lost or dead clay.


These setups are what works in my gun with me behind it.  I spent the time at a patterning board with many shot sizes, shot manufacturers, and chokes to figure out what my gun likes at what distance.  If you are considering getting a little more serious about your sporting clays rounds, blow an afternoon at a patterning board and adjust this information for your configuration.

About Rich

Rich Mitchell is the President and CEO of Anomalous Media and Editor-in-chief of Conservative Daily News. Rich is also a competitor in Skeet, sporting clays, 3-gun, Steel Challenge and USPSA.


  1. I have a Browning BPS Upland Special 22″ barrel….not ideal for longer distances. I’m not sure how far our clay thrower get ’em out there but it’s much easier to shatter the clay at a short distance before the clay get far out there. I have a Imp Cyl in right now, perhaps a Modified will be better for the longer distances?

    • You didn’t mention the gauge of your BPS, the size shot you’re using or the distance you’re trying to reach out to. The 22″ barrel won’t really affect spread as much as the choke and gauge will. If you are trying to reach out any distance beyond about 25yds, #8 is the smallest shot I would use, #9 will peter out much past that.

      One key is to pattern your gun and chokes. A patterning board will help you see how full or sparse your pattern is at different distances so you can choose the proper choke.

      Modified, Light Modified and Full chokes will certainly keep a tighter pattern longer distances than improved cylinder, but it may not be the only reason for not breaking them at longer distances.

      A longer barrel will give you a longer sight plane as the front sight (bead) and read sight (your eyes) will be further apart. I don’t think the shorter barrel is an issue for your pattern.

      Let me know what distance you are trying to break the birds at and I’ll give you some shot/choke combinations to try. Ultimately, the patterning board is your best friend though.

    • can i use buck shots in hunting, trap and skeet?

      • Hunting yes. For trap and skeet, you wouldn’t want to and for safety reasons, most clubs won’t allow you too. There are far fewer pellets to fill the pattern making hits much harder with buckshot.

        The safety concern is because the pellets are so much hevier than #7.5, 8 or 9 typically used in clay games, it travels ALOT further with more energy. That means an unintended target may get hit and damaged or hurt by it.

      • Jon, your left foot assuming you are right handed should be pointing to the spot you plan to pull the trigger.
        Don’t face the launching station. Body, face and eyes on the point you plan to pull the trigger.
        View the launcher the fires off first with your perifiaperifial vision.
        You will see it launch and your gun and body posture will be in the best position to shoot.

  2. Hi Richard, I also have a Browning BPS but mine is a Buck Special. This gun was giving to me so the only thing I know about it I learned from the guy at my local gun shop. It has a 24” barrel with no choke. He told me the gun was unusable for skeet or trap and told me the gun was meant for game hunting using slugs. I just wanted to know what you thought about he said. I am not looking to compete with it I was just hoping to have some fun shooting some clays. But I also don’t want to hurt the gun or myself by firing the wrong ammo. Thanks.

    • This sound like the pre-1983 Browning BPS Buck special. In 1983 they went to Browning’s invector/invector+ systems of removable chokes.

      From what I know of the gun, it has an actual rear site similar to that on rifles. It may hurt the quick visibility needed in clay sports, but if you’re just doing this for fun, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

      The choke is likely cylinder (.000 of constriction) to accommodate slugs. That’s a little more open than skeet chokes, but doesn’t make it impossible to hit things.

      The real issue may be the rifled barrel. While it’s great at keeping a slug going the right direction by spinning it, spinning the wad and shot does not have the same effect. The effect of spinning the shot-cup has been shown to create a donut or ring pattern with an empty space in the middle that gets larger the further you are from the target.

      The rifling will also tear a thin bit of plastic off of each wad that goes down the barrel. It will not be fun to clean all the plastic from the wads out of – and you’ll have to really clean it good before shooting slugs out of it again.

      Basically you could shoot skeet with it, but the results won’t be optimal. If you’re not competing or taking the sport really seriously, the gun should work just fine – just expect to miss more than you should.

      I can’t think of any safety issues with firing 12ga #9 target loads through it. The results just might be sub-optimal and the cleaning effort a drag.

  3. I have a Remington 11-87 and I just started shooting clays but I can’t get my feeting comfortable anybody got any tips to help out

    • Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed at the tower opposite you. On stations 1-2-3 toes point at low house. 5-6-7 point at high house. Knees should be slightly bent. Hope that helps.

  4. Very helpful,
    Thank You

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