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Shot Planning

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

A sporting clays shooter with a good plan for executing a target pair can outscore squad mates with a similar skill level by 10% or more. If faithfully employed, Don’s pre-shot planning process is guaranteed to bring you higher scores on the clays course.

(Appeared in the January issue of Shotgun Life)

Written by Don Currie

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If your goal is simply to get out there, bust some targets and have fun, stop reading and tuck this article away in a safe place until IT happens. If you are like most of us, shortly after we are first exposed to sporting clays we become addicted. We then find that just having fun isn’t enough. We aren’t satisfied with our performance. We want to break more targets than our shooting buddy. We want greater consistency. Perhaps we even want to be competitive. Now is the time to pull this article out and start reading where you left off.


Shot planning leads to greater consistency for three reasons:

1) By observing and landmarking our target lines as well as our breakpoints, hold points and visual pick-up points, we stand a significantly higher probability of killing the target pair.

2) Planning enables us to visualize, mentally simulate and test a target engagement plan before we actually execute it thus planting the process in our subconscious prior to execution. In doing so, we are more likely to execute according to the plan rather than just reacting to the targets.

3) By establishing and committing to the hold point, breakpoint and visual pick-up points, and assuming they are correct, we have only one remaining variable to manage: gun speed, otherwise know as lead.

Before jumping into the nuts and bolts of shot planning it is important to understand a key concept that may seem to be a contradiction of sorts. Target engagement should involve 100% trust in the subconscious; in the ability of the subconscious to guide the gun to the target providing that we focus sufficiently to provide the brain with the necessary target guidance information. When you thoroughly plan the engagement of a pair of targets, your goal should not be to become more conscious of your movement after you call for the targets. Instead, your goal should be to establish a line of movement for the gun such that you can move in a straight line from the hold point to the breakpoint (or kill spot) without occluding or blocking the connection between the shooting eye and the target and reach the breakpoint and precisely the right time. By establishing the hold point and breakpoint, and thus the line of movement, you can simply and totally focus on the target once the target is launched having relegated the rest of the task of gun placement to the subconscious. Once we consciously establish our breakpoint, hold point and visual pick-up point as well as the moment in time in which we initiate movement, we have essentially established lead and gun speed. If we miss, we only have one adjust one variable to break the target the second time around: gun speed (which translates to lead).

A pre-shot planning process is at the heart of consistency and one of the keys to higher scores. If practiced and faithfully employed, pre-shot planning will become as natural as loading shells into your gun. Two instructors early in my shooting career helped me establish a great foundation for shot planning: Bill McGuire and Richie Frisella. First came Richie who, in my shooting infancy, schooled me in the practice of shot planning. He taught me to observe each target of a pair throughout its flight…first picking out a breakpoint, or “sweet spot,” then selecting hold points for each. Years later, Bill McGuire really elevated my level of sophistication and got me to think about planning as more of a mapping exercise. In the years since this early lessons, I have refined the process of target planning that is so critical to consistent execution on the sporting clays course.

As you observe both targets of a pair emerge from the traps and move across their flight path, it is critical to map the target line and understand exactly what each target is doing (trajectory, percentage of face/belly, speed and transition, if any).

When you step up to a station, survey your target area. Look at the terrain, the vegetation, the trees, the slope of the ground and the locations of the traps. When viewing the targets, follow each target through its entire flight path with your outstretched non-firing hand. Pick out at least two or three landmarks through which the target flies, visualizing and establishing an imaginary line across the background terrain or sky. Correctly identifying your target line is a critical piece of information as you plan the movement of your gun.

While observing the flight of the first target, identify your break-point or kill spot. Ideally, this should be the point along the target line where you can visually see the most detail on the target (ridges, dome, etc), are most comfortable breaking the target and, ideally, where the target is moving at a constant speed and direction (not in transition). The area where you feel most comfortable breaking the target may be different from that of your squad mates.

Strictly speaking, there is no right or wrong place to break a target. Depending on your experience and proficiency, you may feel more comfortable taking a target as it is rising or falling, instead of at its apex for example. Your experience, confidence and visual acuity will determine your ability to break a target at different locations along its flight path. So, your break point is the place where you feel comfortable breaking the target. Wherever you decide to place your breakpoint, your focus on the target just prior to and through the break point should be very intense and at its sharpest.

Your hold point is perhaps the most critical element of your move because it is the point from which your move starts. Andy Stanley, a well-known Christian writer, developed and published The Principle of the Path. Basically the principle says that your path, not your intention, determines your destination. While Stanley was applying this as a life principle, it is no less true as it applies to the path from your hold point and movement along the target line through your breakpoint.

Your hold point should always be a visual landmark that you identify against the background terrain or sky. The hold point is positioned along the flight path of the target between the pick-up point and the break point, and is where you orient the muzzle of your gun just prior to calling for the target. Exactly where you place your hold point in relationship to your break-point will largely depend on the character of the target you are engaging.

As an example, with a left to right crosser, your hold point would normally measure about two-thirds of the distance back from your break point to your pick-up point along the target line. For quartering targets, your hold point would normally be about 1/3 of the way back from the break-point. And for trap-like shots or straight incomers, your hold point should be pretty close or slightly below the break-point.

Next, you need to identify the visual pick-up point – the area where you will position your eyes to pick-up the target clearly as it emerges from the trap arm. The type of target presentation you are engaging (crosser, quartering, trap / incoming), will largely determine your visual pick-up point for a given target; where you will position your eyes to best acquire the target as it is launched from the trap. Your visual focus on the target at the pick-up point should be very loose and diffused, thus maximizing your peripheral vision and ability to pick up the target. The selection of your visual pick-up point will actually effect your gun speed. If too close to the trap, the target will speed past your gun barrel, you will race to catch up with it and generate more gun speed than the target warrants. If the visual pick-up point is too close to the break-point, you will not have sufficient swing room to gain speed and synchronize with the target prior to the breakpoint which can cause you to “creep” your gun back toward the trap as you anticipate your initial move.

In order to breed consistency into execution and achieve higher scores, you must consistently determine and use hold points. The great majority of my students who are newer shooters have three tendencies when it comes to hold points: 1) they gradually drift their hold points back toward the trap unconsciously with each subsequent pair at a station, 2) they establish their hold point too far out, usually resulting in either a sudden upward move to the target line or a movement back toward the trap after the target is launched, or 3) they establish their hold point too far back, resulting in the target beating them, and a quick “catch-up” move along the target line causing them to miss in front. Any one of these three of these mistakes can cause a miss. If after your first pair, you feel as if the target got ahead of you or that you had to move back to the target after the target launched, then adjust your hold point accordingly…but then, keep it there. A change in hold point mid-station should always be conscious rather than accidental.

What about the second target of a pair? There are too many possible target scenarios to cover them all here, but at a minimum you should know where your eyes and gun need to go immediately after discharging the gun on the first target in order to successfully pick up and engage the second target. I call this the second pick-up point and second hold-point.

After engaging the first target of a pair, and providing time allows, you should allow your focus to soften momentarily to pick-up the second bird and then re-focus on target #2 to break it. The interval between your concentrated focus on the first and second target will be dictated by the timing of the pair.

One final tip on planning: The best way to make sure that your plan is sound and that your hold points and pick-up points are correctly placed is to test your assumptions by visualizing or rehearsing the shot plan.

Use the non-firing arm and forefinger to perform dry runs prior to stepping into the box. Simulate moving your gun to your hold point and your eyes to the pick-up point. Watch the target launch. Pick up the target with your eyes and move your finger along and slightly under the target line through your first breakpoint. Move your eyes to the pick-up point of your second target and move your finger and arm along the target line through the second break point. If the timing works, go with it. If not, adjust your hold points and possibly your timing on the pair and test again. If it is your turn to shoot first in the squad you may not have a lot of planning time. In such cases, make the most of your first look at the pair. Remember, NSCA rules dictate that the first shooter will not be limited to viewing only one show pair…so ask to see the show pair a second time if you are the first shooter.

This may sound like a lot of work, but remember this: It is the hard work outside the box that allows you to excel once you step into the shooting station. The most significant impact of pre-shot planning is that it provides you with a more accurate understanding of what the target is doing and injects your subconscious with the shot plan.

Now there are only four things left to do: take a deep breath, clear your mind, orient the barrel of your gun on the hold point and yell “PULL.” While you may not break them all, a well rehearsed and faithfully executed shot planning process will improve your consistency and scores. Of that, you can be sure.

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Currie-BIOPhoto-180x224, contact him HERE or connect with him on Facebook

© 2010 – Don Currie – All rights reserved.

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