I've been shooting most of my life, and relatively little of it has been centered around 'traditional' hunting rifles. In all honestly, I'm most comfortable with a semi-auto pistol or pump shotgun than anything else. So occasionally I like to go out and practice with my favorite toys. Today was one of those days.
It was a beautiful day in the Valley of the Sun. Wispy clouds rode the sky, the sun shone through periodically, the temperature was a pleasant 75 degrees or so, and spring was in the air. The perfect day for shotgunning! I've found that a round of sporting clays is a great way to relax after a rough week at the office. It just so happens there's a pleasant clays course about 40 minutes' drive away from my home. So I got some of my coworkers together and we ventured forth. Having Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream" pop on the radio as we pulled out just augured well for the day.
Now, I must confess, we didn't look like the stereotypical clays shooters. For one thing, none of us own sporting-type shotguns. Seeing as my coworker Gary doesn't (yet) own a shotgun, I let him use my Remington 870. Now, as I mentioned, I don't have a clays shotgun. My 870 has an 18" barrel with ghost-ring sights, and looks more like it belongs in a SWAT armory than a sporting clays course. I took my VEPR-12, which is basically an AK redesigned to fire 12 gauge shotshells. My other coworker, Jamie, brought along his 870 which is set up very similarly to mine. So all of our guns had 18" barrels with Improved Cylinder chokes, not exactly ideal for shooting the long birds. But that's what we had, so that's what we used.
Neither of my two friends had ever shot clays before. Jamie had used his shotgun in some training classes, but those generally focus on shooting steel human-shaped silhouettes. Gary's only experience with shotguns was a stockless Mossberg
breacher that he used to effect forcible entries in Iraq, and while he didn't
care for the recoil, he was willing to give sporting clays a
So off to the range we went.
After a short video explaining the rules and safety precautions at a clays range, we headed onto to the course. We set up on the first station, and I had Gary trigger a pair for me. My VEPR is a soft-shooting pussycat, so much so that the steel buttplate doesn't even bother me. The factory-standard RPK light machinegun sights, however, are not really all that conducive to shooting clays. If you've ever shot an AK, imagine trying to use those sights on a small, fast-moving target. Still, I managed to bust one of the two, shooting just behind the second bird. Gary went next, and managed to bust both birds. I really think the excitement of hitting them both set the tone for the day, as he was continually complaining about the stock battering his cheek under recoil, but didn't seem to mind because he was doing very well for a beginner. Jamie seemed to have more issues with getting the correct lead on the birds.
We made our way through the stations, smiling and laughing at each others' performances and learning a few things about shotguns as we went. I taught both of them to load an empty shotgun through the ejection port, and to use the push-pull method of recoil reduction to keep them from battering their shoulders. Gary mentioned several times that he instantly realized when he forgot to push-pull. I let him try my VEPR, and he was amazed at the difference in felt recoil between the two guns. I offered to switch guns for the remainder of the course, but he said he wanted to stick with the pump gun since that's what he'd likely be buying for himself. Oh yes, halfway through the course he'd already decided he needed a shotgun, and began plotting how to get his wife to come out so she could get in on the fun as well!
At the final station, the birds came out sideways from opposite directions, at a fairly high rate of speed. Over the course, I'd discovered that I rather liked the RPK sights on this shotgun. I was able to use the protective wings around the front sight as a kind of scale, like the anti-aircraft sights on a WWII machine gun. They actually helped me calculate lead and drop! So on this last station, I broke both birds, Gary broke both birds, and Jamie missed both. Gary decided to shoot a few more at that station, even deciding he wanted to try a true double. He was obviously gaining confidence in his ability, and enjoying himself. He managed to break one of the pair, which was honestly still good shooting. I would have had a deal of trouble making them both if launched simultaneously, and the course description was 'on report' rather than a true double. Jamie tried another pair one at a time, and managed to break one. He remarked that he'd like to spend more time at a single station to get used to how much he needed to lead targets. He's always struck me as a more methodical and scientific person, so that makes a lot of sense. Next time, we'll spend some time at the practice launcher and let him get a better feel for things. And oh yes, he was insistent that we let him know the next time we went to shoot clays!
So, you may be asking, what in the world does a round of sporting clays with 'tactical' shotguns have to do with preparing for a safari? Well, I would say a few points are in order. First, I have heard the bird shooting in Africa can be challenging and exciting, and while I have never actually hunted birds yet, I do love shooting shotguns and I'm a fair hand at clays. So it makes sense to keep up a little practice at the closest analogy to wingshooting.
Secondly, I feel it's important to be an ambassador for the shooting sports, even to other types of those sports. I accomplished this in two ways today. First, I introduced two people to a new sport that they greatly enjoyed, and who expressed desire to continue participating in it. That's the only way our sports will survive, and I also truly enjoy sharing my passions with others who find enjoyment in it. Additionally, there is often friction between the more classical shooting sports and the new, upstart 'tactical' or 'practical' sports. I generally consider myself more of the latter type of shooter, and I've heard 'my' people refer to bird hunters and clays shooters as 'Fudds'. Similarly, I've heard more than one fine shotgun aficionado wonder why anyone would 'need' one of those scary 'assault weapons'. So today, I used this opportunity to try to bridge that gap, by being polite to everyone on the course and offering to let others shoot a pair or two with my VEPR. I had a few folks ask what kind of shotgun it was, and I happily explained it to them. Most of those folks also were happy to take a few shots with it, and while I doubt any of them will give up their fancy over/unders anytime soon, they left with what I hope is a more positive view of those scary semi-autos. Our rights are constantly under attack, so it only makes sense to keep all shooters together as a more unified bloc to resist such efforts. The tactical shooters need the votes and efforts of the traditionalists if we're to keep our sports, and our rights, alive and well.
And finally, I just plain enjoy shooting. It reduces my stress levels significantly, especially when I have good company while doing it. Whether I'm shooting my Beretta and AKMS at an IDPA match, my VEPR or 870 at a sporting clays course, or my Ruger 9.3mm in the field or safari rifle match, I find 'busting caps' to be cathartic and relaxing. It's quite possibly my favorite outdoor activity, and any excuse I can find to go do it, I use. Today was no exception. As I drove home, listening to David Gilmour's mournful guitar on "Hey You" coming through the speakers, I just felt... great. All was right with the world, as far as I was concerned. Call it what you will: endorphins, zen, peace of mind, whatever. Shooting makes me happy.