If you're interested in shooting clays with a shotgun, the game of trap is a great introduction. The targets are somewhat predictable, the squading allows individual participants to focus on the target with little distraction, and trap guns can be less expensive than shotguns used for other clays sports.

There is a little-known method for trap shooting that simplifies the entire game for new shooters. This method does not take shortcuts on the fundamentals such as foot placement, target focus and swing. However, it reduces the game of trap to only three types of shots, regardless of target presentation.

For starters, though, let's get some background on trap and touch on the basics for success.

Trapshooting has been around since the late 18th century when live birds were used. A row of cages containing pigeons was placed approximately 16 yards in front of the shooter. When the target was called for, the trapper would remotely release a bird of his choosing. At around the time of the American Civil War, live birds were replaced with glass targets, and later in the 1800s by the clay targets similar to the ones we shoot today.

The layout of a standard trap field.

A trap field consists of five consecutive positions laid out in a row — all facing a trap house that is partially buried in front of the shooters. The positions are identified by concrete slabs on which the shooter stands. The left-most position is number 1, and the numbers continue to the right ending at position 5.

Each of the five positions has several demarcations that go back in 1-yard increments from 16 to 27 yards in a fan-like shape. The further back you go, the wider the span of the fan.

A trap squad is comprised of five shooters, each shooting 25 targets five shots at each position. The shooters call for a single target beginning with position 1. After all five shooters have completed that round, the entire squad moves one position to the right to start another round. Regardless of his/her position in the rotation, the first shooter always begins the subsequent rounds.

The targets fly at approximately 42 mph at a distance of some 50 yards. The targets are thrown at a random angle spectrum of between 34 and 45 yards at a rising height that starts roughly 18 feet from the ground. Inside the trap house is a clays-throwing machine that oscillates so that the shooter never really knows the angle of the target to be thrown.

Trapshooting is typically shot with a 12-gauge shotgun, either break-open or semi-automatic. The break-open shotguns are in over/under or single-barrel configurations. Trap guns tend to have higher barrel ribs designed to visually acquire the game's rising targets.

These Brownings illustrate the two configurations of a trap gun. The top shotgun has a single barrel with a raised rib for standard trap, where one target at a time is thrown. You can also use the over/under shotgun for a variation of trap called doubles where two simultaneous targets are thrown. Trap doubles is not recommended for beginners because it requires demanding hand-eye coordination and a perfect swing.

In terms of body mechanics there are few basics that a trap shooter must master:

  • Foot placement varies on each position, so the recommended placement discussed is for a right-handed shooter. In positions 1 through 3, the lead left foot remains at approximately 1:00, with the right foot at 2:00. At these positions, the shooter faces directly downfield. In positions 4 and 5, the left foot points at 2:00 and the right foot at about 2:15. At these two positions, the shooter is facing approximately 30 degrees from the right side of the trap house, although his eyes remain straight down field.
  • The left knee should be bent slightly so the shooter can rotate on the ball of that foot. You bend the knee enough to stand "nose over toes" as the saying goes.
  • Eye placement is critical here. Do not look at the rib of the gun or the leading edge of the trap house. Instead, softly focus on the clay debris field beyond the trap house, since that's where you'll likely break the targets. The idea here is to let the target come to you, rather than hunt it down. If you follow this pointer, you'll find that you'll only move the gun slightly to break the target. The more you swing, the higher the odds of missing the target. That "break zone" will be approximately 20 yards beyond the trap house.
  • When you mount the shotgun, bring it back to your shoulder and insert the comb under your cheek bone. Don't tilt your head down to the stock because that distorts your view of the targets.
  • Keep you cheek firmly planted on the stock. If you lift your head to see the target, you will certainly miss.
  • As you swing toward the target, think of yourself as a tank turret. That means you rotate evenly from the waist as the gun is against the cheek. You and the gun are a single unit. Some shooters tend to take a shortcut and swing the gun with their arms toward the target in an attempt to catch it. That's a sure bet on a missed target.
  • Once you visually acquire the target, never take your eyes off it. The moment you look to check your gun barrel, the target will get away from you. Never take your eyes off the target!

We started out by talking about a system that only requires three shots to successfully shoot trap. It's easy to learn if you can execute the fundamental body mechanics.

The first shot applies to positions 1 and 2. Regardless of the angle in which the target is thrown, you always visually acquire the target at 9:00. So if the target veers hard right, fight your impulse to shoot the target on its leading, going-away edge. On position 3, focus on the target at 6:00. On positions 4 and 5, visually acquire the target at 3:00 regardless of the angle the target takes.

Too many shooters hold the muzzle of their shotgun at the level of the trap house. Avoid that mistake. Instead, before taking your position on the trap field, watch how the targets are flying. You want to hold the shotgun as close as possible to the average height where you intend to break it. Again, in terms of elevation, you want the target to essentially fly into your shotgun.

In closing, there are few rules of etiquette that must be followed:

  • Pay attention to the entire squad and shoot your turn in a timely fashion.
  • If you shoot a semi-automatic, make sure your ejected hulls don't hit the shooter to your right (you may want to install a shell catcher on the ejection port).
  • Always keep your gun pointed down range.
  • When you move from position 5 to position 1, give the squad leader some visual indication when you are ready to shoot.
  • Remain on your position until the fifth shooter has fired, then move to the next position.
  • Do not load your gun until you are ready to shoot. Generally the best time to load is when the shooter before you mounts his gun. Never move between positions with a loaded shotgun.
  • Remain quiet.
  • Pick up your shells only after the entire squad is finished.
  • You'll find that each squad develops its own rhythm; try to maintain it.

There is a particular Zen to trap that's hard to achieve in other clays shooting sports. It's an amalgamation of the target trajectories, the squad rhythm, the individual shooter alone on the position, how the targets break, that soft focus before calling for the target it won't take long before you feel it as well.

And please make sure to follow all safety procedures. Always wear eye and ear protection, keep your action open when the gun is unloaded, and never point the shotgun at anyone.