Question: “I understand there should be some muzzle awareness while concentrating on the bird. Unfortunately, in my quest to focus harder on the dimples and ridges of the clay, I find that on a great many shots I have no muzzle awareness at all. Is there a practice routine that would help me reach that holy grail focus/awareness of 95/5?”
Answer: Different instructors have different philosophies on focus and muzzle awareness, and only you can decide which is more compatible with your shooting style. Here is my philosophy on the subject:
I don’t agree, and have never advocated, that shooters apply 95% of their visual focus to the target and 5% to the muzzle. I have never met any shooter who could consciously allocate a specific percentage of bifurcated focus to two objects at different distances. It’s a physical impossibility.
The prevailing argument among muzzle awareness advocates is that you must have muzzle awareness to break the target. I would call this a blinding flash of the obvious. Of course you have to have muzzle awareness to break a target. You have to have “racket awareness” to return a tennis serve, “bat awareness” to hit a baseball, “bristle awareness” to sweep the floor, and “fork awareness” to move a pork chop into your mouth while looking at your spouse. With these examples, as in shotgunning, we “feel” the orientation of the object and need no visual verification.
Some would have you believe that shotgunning is completely unique in terms of eye-hand coordination. They would have you believe that, if you are missing a conscious visual awareness of the muzzle to the tune of 95%/5% or 90%/10% when you shoot, then you are somehow missing the final piece of mojo that you need to break 100 straight. Well, you can fall asleep tonight counting clays with a clear conscience and a joyful heart knowing that you do indeed have muzzle awareness 100% of the time. Guaranteed.
In my view, the question is not whether we have muzzle awareness or should have muzzle awareness to kill a target. By a physiological phenomenon called proprioception, we are all aware of the location of our hands, arms, legs, feet, and other extremities because they are connected to our own bodies. This awareness extends to the tools we use to perform certain tasks, including your shotgun.
So, the question is not whether we have muzzle awareness but whether the muzzle location relative to the barrel should be visually and consciously measured and verified to kill a target. The answer to that question is no. You do not need to visually verify or measure the gap between the target and the barrel to break it. Your peripheral vision and subconscious do that for you, just as in all of the aforementioned sports activities in which an athlete intercepts a moving object. Focus must be on the object intercepted, not on the object you are intercepting it with and not split between the two.
In every other sports activity in which athletes must intercept a moving object, the single most important factor that separated elite athletes versus not-so-elite athletes was the athletes’ level of focus on the moving object prior to and through the point of interception. (See Joan Vickars, Quiet Eye in Action). In order to consciously manage the barrel-target relationship in shotgunning, the shooter must soften focus on the target and engage the peripheral vision. This has the effect of reducing the quality of target guidance information flowing to the brain. If you feed the brain the information it needs to break the target, the gun (or lead hand) will go to the right place.
The great majority of top tier shooters will tell you that when they are breaking targets in competition, they do not see lead. On some shots, in some situations, they will see lead, but this is incidental rather than intentional. There is a relatively small percentage of top shooters (my wild guess is 15%) that do indeed see the gap, or barrel-target relationship, on most shots. Again, this is a rare group. The vast majority of shooters at all levels learn best by fixing on the target visually, pointing with the lead hand, and trusting their brains to kill the targets. These same shooters improve over time with practice and experience, not by consciously managing the gap, but by expanding their “database” with the subconscious imprint of broken targets.
Most brand new shooters have the subconscious database to break most targets inside of 30 yards, providing they are focusing on the target through the break point and simultaneously pointing the shotgun at the target with the lead hand. Most new shooters will have difficulty successfully engaging targets outside of 35 yards without some shooting experience or assistance from an instructor. As a shooter gains experience breaking targets, that shooter develops and expands his or her subconscious database and is able to break a wider variety of targets.
I am not saying that it is impossible to break targets by measuring and having a conscious visual awareness of the barrel-target relationship. It is not uncommon in skeet where target trajectories and velocities are constant and there are essentially only 16 different leads. But the infinite number of possible target presentations involved with sporting clays makes it virtually impossible to memorize or calculate measured leads, despite arguments to the contrary. Even in skeet, however, I have heard two NSSA world champions state that they do not see lead in competition.
Relaxing your focus on the target to apply some percentage of visual energy to the barrel through the break point is an unreliable proposition at best. I agree that, even if a shooter exerts 100% of his visual energy on the rings of a target, that shooter may still experience some incidental conscious awareness of the barrel-target relationship. That’s OK. Keep focusing on the focal point on the target through the break point and break lots of targets! As you grow in the sport and develop your ability to plan break points, hold points, and look points, you will break more targets and your database will expand. As it does, you will break a wider variety of targets at greater distances.