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How to read the clay target

It's like everything, practice makes perfect

looper clay

Watch any top Shot in action – like a certain George Digweed – and you’ll see that they can read the clay target in the blink of an eye. They only need to see a clay presented once to know how to smash it.

It’s all down to practice.

  • Stance and ready position will be spot on
  • A top Shot will automatically have decided on the visual pick up point, and know instinctively the ideal kill point.

clay pigeon kill zone

Read the clay target – the basics

Being able to do this is known as being able to ‘read’ the clay.

  • Clay targets and the stream of shot from your gun travel at several feet per second
  • You must arrange a collision and make sure the target hits the stream of shot.
  • Shoot slightly ahead of the target to ensure a hit. If you aim at the clay it will have moved on by the time the shot reaches the initial position.
  • Aim at the target and you’ll miss behind.
  • So pull the trigger when the muzzles are ahead of the bird and the clay will run into the stream of shot, resulting in a broken clay.

read the clay target

Some clay targets are easier to read than others

With skeet shooting,  for example, a clay is much easier to read as the targets always travel on an identical flightpath and at the same speed.

With sporting layouts every stand is generally different. So you need to be able to read a sporting target effectively.

Pointing the gun

Success lies in knowing where to point the gun before pulling the trigger. This is the essence of reading the clay target.

Obviously to hit a target you need to shoot ahead / in front of it because the clay is travelling at several feet per second, as is the shot as it speeds towards the target.

You need to be able to consider and allow for the time delay between these two variables. It helps if you think of it as the clay being broken by travelling into the shot, rather than the shot hitting the clay.

This delay sets shotgun shooters apart from rifle shooters

If we aim directly at the target – as they do – we’ll miss behind, as by the time the shot reaches the initial position the clay will have moved on.

So we need to be ahead of the target – but where, and by how much?

clay shooting - read the target


There are five factors to think about when you’re looking at an airborne target, as shown below.

clay shooting - read the target

Checks to make when reading the clay target

  • Make sure you know what type of target it is you’re shooting; standard, mini etc.
  • Know exactly from where the clay will appear.
  • Watch how the target is presented; face on, belly or edge on.
  • Remember that a clay presented edge on may appear to be further away than it actually is.
  • Try and gauge distance accurately.

Some clayshooters find it helps to focus on the target by trying to read the manufacturer’s name on the clay. You won’t be able to of course, but it might help your focus.

Useful pointers to judge distance

  • Consider the distance from the stand to your kill point.
  • If a target appears from above the tree line it’s probably only about 25 yards above you.
  • In shooting terms this is pretty close so you probably won’t need that much lead, even if it does look miles up in the air.
  • Think about conditions. The stand may be calm but the wind over the treetops could make the clay duck, dive and potentially veer off a straight trajectory.
  • Think about the terrain and the mindset of the course designer. Ask yourself, “am I being conned here?”

clay shooting - read the target

If a clay appears from above the tree line, for instance, it’s probably about 25 yards above you.

Reading different clay targets


First step is to decide the pick up and kill points. As you mount the gun keep the bead of the muzzles on, or just below the flightline. Pull ahead of the target and keep the gun moving as you pull the trigger. Don’t forget that the bird will almost certainly be veering slightly to one side. Allow  for this.

Going away clay targets

  • Don’t assume this type is travelling in a straight line
  • To check, make sure you know exactly where it disappears from view, either by hitting the ground or going behind any vegetation.
  • From this you can work out if it’s straying off to one side or other.
  • Remember, the longer you leave it before you pull the trigger, the more likely the clay will deviate off its line as it runs out of power.

Crow type targets

  • Always watch where the clay falls. This can tell you if the target is drifting to the front, back, left or right.
  • Choose your kill point with this in mind. Be wary of ‘deceptions’ where a false tree or ground line, for instance, can lure you into following the shape of the principal object – rather than the actual flight path of the clay.

What to watch out for

Horizons – sloping ground can trick you.
Backgrounds – clear skies can make targets appear smaller and quicker.
Deceptions – false ground, tree or hedge lines.

Gusts of wind can play havoc with targets, especially non-standard clays. If the clay is into a head wind it will slow considerably faster than usual – and can be blown off its normal flightline in any direction.

Remember, whatever your ability, and assuming your technique is okay, if a bird catches you out and you miss it… you misread it.