Barrels of Fun
As target shooting becomes more popular, our expert takes a lesson on hunting the elusive clay pigeon.
By Phil Bourjaily/Houston

(FORTUNE Small Business) – I'm breaking clay targets with my over/under shotgun, but instructor Gil Ash doesn't like the way I'm shooting them. Ash says my follow-through is excessive and unnecessary, a bad habit I've taught myself through years of hunting. Sooner or later, too much follow-through will make me miss. "Philly Bob,"—Ash has Texanized my name—"just stick the muzzle in front of the target and kill it." He pantomimes a soft, short jab with an invisible gun, then hands me a shell that I load into the chamber of my 12-gauge.

Closing the gun, I call "pull," and Ash presses a remote transmitter button. The automated trap slings a target into the air 25 yards in front of me. I make the shot, the recoil nudging my shoulder as a swarm of tiny lead pellets blasts the spinning orange disk to pieces. I've hit it exactly as Gil wanted me to, with an efficient, economical stroke of the gun. Ash turns to my fellow students Oscar and George. "That," he says, "was a thing of beauty. I don't mean him—he's ugly—but that move to the target was perfect."

We are here, six students in all, suffering both the heat of Houston and Ash's friendly abuse in hopes of becoming better shooters. Gil, 55, works with three of us on left-to-right crossing targets. A hundred yards away Vicki, 52, Gil's wife and teaching partner, instructs Gray, Ann, and Bob in the fine points of hitting a rabbit target, which rolls and bounces along the ground.

Business, as they can't resist saying in the shooting industry, is booming. The Ashes have been teaching at maximum capacity for the past few years (1,500 to 2,000 students a year, of all ability levels), and in 2005 they'll publish their first book, If It Ain't Broke, Fix It. They recently launched a radio call-in show, and they have three videos out, with seven more in the works. A generation ago shooting schools were virtually unknown in this country. Dad taught us to handle a gun, and no one wanted to admit he needed a pro's help to shoot straight. When the game of sporting clays came to the U.S. from Britain in the early 1980s, it brought with it a new attitude. Often described as "golf with a shotgun," a sporting-clays course makes use of a gun club's terrain to set up a variety of challenging shooting stations, not unlike the holes of a golf course. Perhaps the similarity to golf, in which lessons are a long-accepted cure for a slice, helped change shooters' minds about receiving instruction. The rapid growth of sporting clays—which now boasts four million shooters, up from fewer than three million in 1990—has encouraged thousands of target shooters and hunters alike to sharpen their skills with lessons.

Gil and Vicki Ash are among just 45 U.S. instructors to whom the National Sporting Clays Association has awarded its highest certification, Level III, yet they fell into teaching by chance. From 1978 to 1996 they operated a commercial photography business, hunted together, and shot skeet competitively. In the early '80s one of the first sporting-clays courses in the country opened up ten minutes from their home in Fulshear, Texas. The Ashes quickly became hooked and started traveling the fledgling sporting-clays circuit, winning wherever they went. As other shooters asked for their secrets, the couple gained a reputation for their ability to teach. The Ashes found themselves in such demand that in 1996 they sold their photography business and opened a new one: the OSP School (which stands for Optimum Shotgun Performance).

The Ashes offer private and group clinics at their home grounds in Houston and at shooting clubs around the country. Fees begin at $225, with targets and ammo included, for the half-day clinic I attended. A full day costs $425. Individual lessons are $150 an hour, with ammo and targets extra. (Many shooting clubs will rent loaner guns to beginners.) "We get people with all levels of experience," says Vicki. "I had a man come to me and say, 'I'm going hunting for the first time, and I'm scared to death I'll shoot somebody.' Others tell me they go on the same outing with their buddies every year, and they're tired of being the worst shot in the bunch."

The Ashes' teaching grounds at the American Shooting Center in Houston sit at the end of a long row of skeet fields looking out over an expanse of floodplain and marsh where white egrets flap by through the haze. The dozen or so automated trap machines throw clay targets at a bewildering assortment of angles. Every shot you'll see on the sporting-clays course or while hunting can be replicated here.

Each lesson begins with a short safety briefing, and proper gun handling is strictly enforced—one reason that target shooting is among the safest of outdoor sports. Gil tells us our guns must be kept open to show they're unloaded when not being fired, and we will not load a shell until we're told to. We're to point our gun's muzzles skyward or downrange at all times. We don earplugs or muffs to protect our hearing from the muzzle blast and slip on shot-proof glasses to shield our eyes from the unlikely stray pellet or target shard. Taking our guns from the rack, we follow Ash, who totes a five-gallon bucket of shells in one hand and the remote in the other.

Although members of our class shoot at different ability levels, Ash quickly finds plenty for each of us to work on. George is committing the cardinal sin of overaiming at the target—looking back and forth between the barrel and the clay to line up the shot. In shotgun shooting the first rule is, Keep your eye on the bird. Oscar has some flaws in his gun mount (the act of raising the gun to his cheek and shoulder, and the foundation of all good shotgunning). I've got the follow-through flaw to fix, as well as a tendency to "ride" some targets, swinging the gun with them for an instant too long before shooting. By trying too hard to make sure I'll break them, Gil tells me, I'm increasing the potential for mistakes—and increasing the odds I might miss.

As we take turns shooting, Ash asks us what we've done right or wrong and what we saw the moment the gun went off. We begin to diagnose our own misses and learn from watching the other students. There's no competition among the three of us, just the occasional "Nice shot!" when somebody really powders one. With Ash standing at our elbow, feeding us ammunition and advice, we find ourselves breaking difficult targets with astonishing ease. At one point Gil leads Oscar farther and farther back until he's standing almost in the parking lot at the edge of the field, smashing 55-yard crossing targets effortlessly, the shotgun equivalent of making five or six baskets in a row from far beyond the three-point arc. Oscar wears a kind of dazed grin as if he can't believe he's really doing it.

When our group retreats under the awning for a water break, I wander over to the other side of the field to watch Vicki's class. Gray is up, missing targets as Vicki tries to slow him to move in sync with the bird instead of slashing at it quickly. "It's not a race," she says. "It's a waltz. Dance with the target." Gray continues to miss as Vicki patiently feeds him shells. Finally she says, "Just kiss its lips with the barrel." Pow. Smash. The next target breaks, and the one after that. "Sometimes you just have to find the right terminology," Vicki beams.

Even after four hours of shooting, we're eager to continue, but Gil knows our mental computers are fried. We're getting sloppy, making the same mistakes over and over. All of us have learned almost too much to assimilate. We say our goodbyes. Don and Gray will be back for another session tomorrow. George will come again next year, as he does before the opening of every dove season.

The students who become the best shots aren't always the best athletes, Ash says: What sets them apart is the ability to tolerate failure and learn from it. He relates the story of one of his students, a surgeon. "I ran into him one day in the airport. He spoke to me with tears in his eyes and said, 'Gil, thank you for making me a better person. The OR nurses used to hate me. I screamed and yelled and threw sponges whenever anyone did anything wrong. You've taught me that failure is part of the learning process. Now I'm nicer to people.' " So if you're sometimes frustrated by the setbacks of running a business, here's an idea—go take it out on some defenseless clay targets.