Day 1: Sporting Clays Lessons on a Vintage Boss
As September approaches, in our secret heart every shotgun disciple anticipates their annual pilgrimage to a beloved place. For some of us it’s the autumnal woods of Maine for woodcock, a goose hunt on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sporting clays at The National Shooting Complex in San Antonio or maybe throwing clays from that rusty hand-loader at a family barbeque. Personally, that special journey takes me to Griffin & Howe’s gorgeous Hudson Farm in Andover, New Jersey.
So in September 2015 we visited Hudson Farm for 48 hours to see friends, sharpen our sporting clays skills and shoot magnificent shotguns. On the first day, Griffin & Howe’s lead instructor Kevin Sterk handed me a lovely old Boss side by side for lessons and we rode the knobby-tired golf cart up through the wooded path to the station that Griffin & Howe clients use to rehearse high birds usually before flying overseas for a driven hunt.
Like a glass of splendid cabernet, the high incomers demanded to be savored. The clay birds originated from a trap machine in the hilltop forest of Hudson Farm. Keven Sterk, Griffin & Howe’s lead instructor and NSCA Level III maestro, pushed the controller button and we waited, eyes resolute on the cut of pearlescent blue sky between the trees.
The timing required for these simulated high driven birds was akin to swishing the wine pour in your mouth, fathoming the complexity and essences as the target developed its line of approach, ever vigilant to its advancing grace, patiently raising the patinaed Boss 12-gauge side by side to synchronize cheek, shoulder and eyes directly overhead fleeting in a singular break point deceptive and wily.
Irwin Greenstein under instruction from Kevin Sterk.
These targets aren’t the low, quartering rockets, spring-loaded rabbits or carnival chandelles that demand hard-wired, instinctive techniques. Instead, we’re practicing on a tweedy gentlemen’s target suggesting pheasants that frantically take wing from a cliff after driven to the brink by beaters. You can see the birds coming sure enough. Plenty of time, right? After all, the shooters do relax for mid-morning elevenses of sloe gin or warm broth in an aristocratic tradition of abundance and self-confidence. But now in the sporting clays stand, the fluorescent target high and clear, the shot is never as easy as it appears. What’s so hard about mastering the timing and smashing the thing directly overhead? It’s flying at the speed of a zeppelin. “Go ahead, hit me,” the target dares.
And naturally I miss.
“I want you to slow your gun down,” Mr. Sterk advises. “Your gun speed needs to mirror the target speed. When the gun slows down, the target slows down. The eye immediately goes to the faster object, so if your gun moves faster than the target it goes to the gun. If you slow the gun down it goes to the target.”
His advice is well-known. A precept of effective shotgunning is match gun speed to the target. But Mr. Sterk integrates eye focus as well. “Convert the visual picture into a controlled move. The hands will do an amazing job as long as the eyes keep feeding the wheel.”
With his baritone intonation and deep well of patience he’s the kind of guy who can refashion ruinous old shooting habits into new skills.
“We’re either changing or creating a shooting behavior to a conditioned response instead of a reaction to the target,” said Mr. Sterk.
And somewhere along the way, I have lost some of that conditioning and reverted to response shooting, as demonstrated to my instructor.
There’s one thing for sure, though, I can’t blame the gun.
The lovely old Boss, borrowed from the Griffin & Howe gun room, dated from 1965. The 14⅝ inch length of pull afforded ideal reach to the single trigger. Even at 7 pounds, 4 ounces the 12 gauge moved with a supple lightness both assured and easy. The .015 and .030 choke constrictions were delivering precision anti-aircraft payloads.
“If you don’t understand how to use your visual acuity on the bird you’ll always struggle,” Mr. Sterk reminds me. “It’s visual management through the break point. If you see the targets a little better that makes a difference. Obtain that focus and the target will break. That will all take care of itself.”
And of course he’s right: it inevitably comes back to the basics, which even seasoned shooters can run astray.
He observes that I’m muscling the gun during the mount and move along the target line. “Relax the eyes into a soft gaze, so the eyes can immediately lock onto the target and when it enters their visual picture and then go to hard focus. Don’t crash into the gun. Slow it down. Mechanically, the gun goes to the target, matches the speed and moves in front of the target. Controlled moves.”
Kevin Sterk makes adjustments to Irwin Greenstein’s shotgun mount.
Mr. Sterk elaborates by describing the difference between outcome thought patterns and processing thought patterns. “As soon as you start outcome thought patterns you’re thinking about your score, not what you’re doing at the moment. By contrast, process emphasizes you’re thinking about the target and you won’t be distracted.”
I concur, I’m thinking about outcome. Now I’m recommitted. He’s pulling the high targets again and they start breaking directly overhead – just as the veteran Boss intended. A serious romance is developing between the Boss and me.
Credit Mr. Sterk’s instructional approach, which doesn’t mandate a rigid system of shooting as we often experience especially with trophy-laden instructors. He personalizes the fundamentals of shotgunning with your own innate abilities to visualize and point.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the words I use it’s the picture I put in your head − teaching them to convert the visual picture into a controlled move,” he explained. “I shoot in front of my clients to create a visual picture. A lot of instructors don’t shoot in front of their clients because they’re concerned about a lapse in confidence in the relationship. But personally I believe there’s value in demonstrating the move because a lot of people learn visually.”
Absolute focus on the high, incoming target.
His style is an adaptation from the traditional Churchill-inspired instinctive method of wingshooting that has been the educational foundation of the Griffin & Howe Shooting School since its inception in the 1930s. Yet the instructions reflect a contemporary recognition of sporting clays’ growing popularity, as well as the skeet, trap and 5-stand on Hudson Farm when it comes to the shotgun sports. (There’s also a rifle marksmanship school led by former Navy SEAL, Eli Stuhlmacher.)
“Everyone tries to reinvent the wheel in this business of shotgun instruction, but this is 100 years old,” he said. “I would not try to reinvent the wheel but we use elements from Churchill, Stanbury, West London Shooting School.”
Still, as the CEO of Griffin & Howe, Guy Bignell explains, the shooting school cherishes its traditions.
“Part of the education is that when anyone is embarking on traveling abroad, English driven shooting, partridge shooting in Spain, we have curriculum for that. Not just shooting but social aspect. So they have knowledge and confidence so they won’t feel intimidated. Learning about drawing pegs, how to interact with their loaders. That’s the advantage of having America’s oldest shooting school for us and our clientele. It’s part of our full-service philosophy. It’s where everything starts when you’re in the fine sporting firearms business.”
The Farm consists of 4,000 acres of beautifully landscaped farmland in Andover, New Jersey with several ponds and lakes that is undergoing a 21st century update. Griffin & Howe is now consolidating retail operations from Greenwich, Connecticut and Bernardsville, New Jersey showrooms to Hudson Farm.
Expect a tour de force facility that showcases firearms products and services. By centralizing operations, Griffin & Howe will integrate the entire experience of instruction, firearms and apparel into a one-stop extravaganza. Griffin & Howe has already broken ground on the project and upon completion Hudson Farm will offer:
- A 6,000 square foot state-of-the-art gunsmithing, rifle manufacturing, gun fitting and showroom. Overall, it will expand upon Hudson Farm’s new 13,000 square foot corporate offices with a climate-controlled firearm storage facility.
- An automated 20-station sporting clays course that can simulate the flight of any game bird in a completely natural setting. There’s also 100-foot tower plus voice-activated trap field.
- Undercover rain-or-shine shotgun instruction area.
- Long-range precision rifle range.
- ProShop retail store.
“If you want to be a proficient social shooter, or a serious competitive shooter, we are taking it to the next level,” said Mr. Bignell. “The Griffin & Howe shooting school is the foundation of your participation in the shooting sports at whatever level that you wish to participate.”
As I would discover on my second day at the shooting school, the experience presents an incredible opportunity to evaluate fine shotguns sold by Griffin & Howe. Waiting in the wings for me were a 12-gauge Fabbri, an Anderson Wheeler SLE 20 gauge and a Purdey 12 gauge.
More to come from Hudson Farm…
Irwin Greenstein is the publisher of Shotgun Life. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.