"Golf With a Shotgun": The Rise of Sporting Clays

Credit: Photographs Courtesy Palmetto Bluff

The Beretta Silver Pigeon 20-gauge kicks against my shoulder, the shotgun blast filling the wooded glen as I miss yet another sporting clay. "Maybe don't look at the whole target," drawls Andrew Dunn, my guide at the Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club, a 13-station sporting clays course near Bluffton, South Carolina. "Try aiming for a specific point along its front edge and then pull the trigger." Aim for a single speck on the coaster-sized clay as it arcs 30 yards away from me like a bird in flight? I nod and mutter "Pull." Dunn releases the target and I follow it with my eyes, my upper body and shotgun barrel pivoting until the clay reaches the pinnacle of its arc. I pull the trigger. The target explodes like a ceramic firework, dusting the soil with traffic-cone orange shards. "See?" Dunn says, matching my grin. "Nothing to it."

Sporting clays courses are on the rise in the U.S., and are increasingly coming with first-class amenities. Sometimes dubbed "golf with a shotgun," sporting clays is a form of clay pigeon shooting. As opposed to trap or skeet, where shooters hit targets slung from a single repeatable presentation, a sporting clays course is comprised of a series of shooting sites with different angles from which the clays are released. Paired with a guide who releases the clays at each station, shooters amble from stand to stand, blasting at a constantly changing presentation of targets — all meant to re-create actual hunting in the field. Depending on where and how each station is configured, sporting clays might fly over tall trees directly toward you, arc over a pond from left to right, or bounce and skitter across the ground. A single round usually consists of 100 shots. At each station, shooters get several attempts to hit two clays released simultaneously or one right after the other — meaning you often have to hit one target in the air and then immediately turn to blast another on the ground before both disappear into the woods. For those whose egos don't bruise easily, scorecards and little wooden pencils are provided.

Whereas backyard skeet shooting conjures images of bug zappers and Old Milwaukee, modern sporting clays courses are bastions of Barbour jackets and 15-year-old single malt. This is a gentleman's sport. “There’s been a boom in the last 10 years,” says Brett Moyes, director of the National Sporting Clays Association, who oversees 650 affiliated courses, 28,000 members, and 8 percent growth a year in the U.S. “So to keep up, clubs now offer everything you want.” Case in point is the newly opened Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club. Working in partnership with the five-star Montage Palmetto Bluff — a stunning resort nestled in the heart of a 20,000-acre nature preserve just south of Charleston — the club offers guided shoots on its 40 acres of Spanish moss–draped coastal woodlands. Run from a pristine air-conditioned safari tent — imagine Ralph Lauren on the savanna — the club offers beautifully engraved Beretta shotguns, biodegradable clays, and solar-powered stations. Two retrievers, Pete and Lucy, greet you at the tent flap. Designed to naturally buffer sound and seamlessly blend with the wild surroundings, the course feels like an Audubon preserve punctuated by the occasional shotgun report.

The real highlight of sporting clays is the personal attention. Never touched a gun in your life? No problem. “In the last two weeks, I’ve had 15 people who never shot before,” Dunn says. I grew up hunting in rural Texas and consider myself a decent shooter, but Dunn quickly, and politely, shows me otherwise. At the first station — an easy presentation of two arcing clays — I shoot a decent five out of eight. But I struggle on the next challenge: clays flying directly toward me high overhead. Shooting an abysmal two out of eight, I ask Dunn for pointers. He gives me a new strategy: shoot with both eyes open. As opposed to squinting down the barrel with just one eye — largely focusing on the tip of the gun while tracking the clay — using both eyes helps you focus on the bird. "We call it the New Testament of shooting," Dunn says. "Your granddad probably taught you to shoot with just one eye. But using both eyes allows you to really look at what you're seeing and trust it. Think of it like tennis — always keep your eyes on the ball." I immediately blast the next couple clays. Confidence up. Game on.

Palmetto Bluff’s mile-long loop of a course takes about an hour and a half to complete, but it feels like 30 minutes. We move from creeks to fields, pausing to talk game birds under a monument-sized oak. At one point, we pass another group, a father and teenage daughter. Otherwise, we just see a stunning array of birds, from osprey to herons to a flock of wild turkey skittering down a white-sand road.

Afterwards, my shoulder sore, my adrenaline jacked, Dunn drops me back at the Montage Palmetto Bluff hotel. As with golf, I’ve already forgotten all the missed shots in favor of that one moment I hit two birds with one shot, the clays disintegrating like all the tiny worries that clutter a day. But there’s a difference between the two sports, a rush that lingers from sporting clays that you just don’t get from swinging a seven iron. Dunn nods, understanding the feeling. “Hell, it’s shorter than golf and more exciting,” he says, staring out the truck window. “You can’t watch golf balls explode.”

Where to Shoot Sporting Clays

Palmetto Bluff: Prices start at $155 for 50 rounds (includes guide, gun, shells, and introductory lesson); rooms start at $340. Palmettobluff.com

Sandanona: A pristine 30-station Orvis course in the beautiful Hudson River Valley. From $80. orvis.com/sandanona

Seattle Skeet and Trap Club: A 13-station sporting clays course in Ravensdale, Washington, operating since 1914. $35 for a round ($0.31/target). sstclub.com

Ranch at Rock Creek:  This Philipsburg, Montana, luxury five-star retreat includes a spa and 11-stand course. From $800 per night. theranchatrockcreek.com

National Sporting Clays Association in San Antonio: The association headquarters offers three distinct courses winding throughout the Texas Hill Country. $50. nsc.nssa-nsca.org