Air Force Lt. Col Dominic Grazioli is shown in June at a range near San Antonio, Texas. (M. Scott Mahaskey / Staff)
After I missed the third of three targets, shotgun shooting expert and coach Geoff Leighton got right in my grill and put his sport into pithy perspective.
"Stop aiming, you're not in the Marine Corps anymore," he said. "This is not about aiming. It's about pointing. So point!"
With that, he mounted his own gun, barked "Pull!" to one of his colleagues, and instantly blasted a fluorescent-orange clay pigeon to smithereens. A cloud of lead shot slammed into the clay target 40 yards up and to our front right, just as Leighton had planned — and pointed.
"Look at your target," he offered with an English brogue as he spit a still-smoking red tube from the shotgun's chamber. "Stop lining up the gun."
After applying than essential truth — and forsaking years of precision marksmanship training — the afternoon got markedly more fun.
"Pull." BLAM. "Pull." BLAM. "Pull." BLAM.
The only thing better that seeing the clay carnage: listening to the distinctive metallic sound of the shotgun cocking.
Call me hooked.
Fast learning, rapid rewards
If you're looking for a new off-duty adventure or challenge, shotgun sports are worth a try.
They're fun, exciting and relatively inexpensive — better still, many military installations have morale, welfare and recreation shooting ranges right on post/base/station.
Don't expect a familiar distance-range-type experience. Forget the running and gunning, too.
Whether it's skeet, trap, sporting clays or another of the many games — and yes, they are unique experiences — shotgunning is not precision marksmanship, nor is it a combat course.
"It's a dynamic, reactive sport," Leighton said. "It's like a lot of ball sports. It's as much mental as it is physical."
It's also a sport in which nearly anyone — even those with physical handicaps — can quickly gain some level of competence. Others will rapidly excel. Rare is the shooter who follows instruction and shoots Maggie's drawers on this range.
The hurdle any novice must quickly get over is the fear of the unknown. The roar of a 12-gauge can have that effect on you.
"You can come in absolutely raw, and we're going to quickly get you comfortable with the gun and hitting targets," said Leighton, a former Vietnam-era Royal Air Force flight lieutenant. In addition to being a defense contractor, he's a competitive shooter and teaches safety and shooting classes at the Bull Run (Va.) Shooting Center in suburban Washington, D.C.
His fellow coach, Dennis Peacock, is retired and a former soldier. He's also a competitive shotgun shooter. But this is anything but an old guy's game.
"You do not have to be a hunter to have fun and excel at this sport," Peacock said. "We get all types, sizes and shapes. It's addictive."
Those who muster the moxy to hit the range are quickly rewarded for their courage.
"Initially, you'll miss a lot of targets, but you'll get past it," Peacock said. "Pretty soon you'll be competing."
Read and react
Call it "shooting clays," not just "skeet shooting." That's lesson No. 1. That's because skeet is skeet, trap is trap and sporting clays are best described as golf with guns.
After an hour of familiarization and instruction, I was soon busting clays on the five-station, single trap house range. The trap machine — covered by the trap house — oscillates left to right within a 35-degree arc, and you never know where in that arc the target will emerge. Waiting for and watching the clay "pigeons" as they come slinging out of the trap house will send your adrenaline soaring and force you to act as much with instinct as technique.
Therein lies the beauty of the sport.
"It's not like simply looking at the rear site and the front site and squeezing the trigger," Peacock said. "You're forced to look at the target, not line up the gun. Marksmanship is not a term we use out here."
The terms they do use, however, are motivating.
"Be aggressive," Peacock urged with a wry, knowing smile. "Be instinctive. And go kill those targets. Kill 'em!"
• Don't mix ammo in your pouch.
• Over/under guns are more accurate — and more expensive.
• Your belly button should face square with the target.
• 70 percent of your weight should rest on your front foot.
• There's not a lot of lateral movement. It's mostly vertical.
• Follow-through is key.
• Lead is everything.
• Choking is not a bad thing in this sport. A choke is the device that sets the pellet spread pattern.
• A semiautomatic gun has less recoil and is ideal for beginners.
• Double-barreled guns are the bomb.
Pick your pleasure
There are variations on the themes, but these are the baseline shotgun games available at most shooting centers. Remember, "skeet" and "trap" are not interchangeable or generic terms. They are distinctly different games.
Squads of up to five people shoot from eight stations arranged in a semicircle between two skeet houses. One is identified as the high house, the other as the low house. The high-house targets start at approximately 10 feet above the ground, with the low house targets about 3 feet up. There is a prescribed 25-shot shooting sequence.
There are three forms of trap shooting: singles, handicap and double-target shooting. Unlike skeet, trap targets are tossed from just one trap. In singles shooting, shooters compete from five different stations. Targets are thrown away from the shooter at varying angles and directions. In handicap competition, more experienced shooters stand further away from the trap house. In double-target trap shooting, two targets are thrown simultaneously.
Wobble takes the standard trap to a new level. The clay pigeons are slung from more extreme angles thanks to vertical and lateral oscillation of the trap machine. In addition, shooters can take two shots per pull.
Difficulty: Medium to high
Sporting clays are described as "golf with guns." At Bull Run Regional Park Shooting Center in Fairfax County, Va., a 50-target sporting clay course has 14 stations located on open field and wooded areas. There are no standardized distances. Participants see a combination of crossers, incomers, outgoers, chucker, teal and other targets of varying sizes — including a 30-foot tower shot. It's about as close to actual field shooting as it gets, gamers say.
Difficulty: Medium to high
Five stand is very similar to sporting clays in that a variety of targets are thrown, but there are just five stations from which to shoot. No two five-stands are alike. At Bull Run, for example, there are nine trap machines with the ability to increase difficulty levels. Other facilities may have six traps. Participants shoot in turn at each of the five stands, and various combinations of targets are thrown from the traps. There is usually a menu card advising the sequence.
Difficulty: Medium to high
National Skeet Shooting and Sporting Clays Associations; Bull Run Regional Park Public Shooting Center; Claytargetsonline.com.