The Course Setter’s Paradox

Jul 28, 2023 | Shooting Tips | 0 comments

Author:  Mark Roberts, Retired Firearms Safety Instructor / Provincial Range Officer (Ontario)

Most shooters do not see, participate or perhaps appreciate the silent work that goes on behind the scenes at a shooting facility. It’s hard work, seemingly capricious and often maligned over spilled tears after a poor score, yet there is far more thought in the process beyond placing a thrower somewhere in front of the shooting stand.

I suspect the ratio of shooters to sporting clays course setters may be on the order of thousands to one, yet the impact they have on the sport is considerable, so let’s consider what they consider when they build a course.

Don has traditionally set the courses at Silver Willow for 27 years with Josh taking over for the last 6. Their competitive shooting histories have given them access to other course setters and as such have combined that experience to offer new shooters fun targets, accomplished shooters challenging targets and more recently, the ‘no whining, no crying’ course set that is sure to cause both with some extreme offerings that test both shooter and equipment. While no course setter has intentions of humiliating a shooter with near impossible shots, we should appreciate their dedication to stretching our abilities to be better.

Course setters have two main criteria in mind when they position throwers and the type of target to be thrown. Firstly, they are mindful of their intended audience because making targets too hard will alienate many, frustrate a few and only challenge a couple. Secondly, they understand that shooters will shoot more if they can hit targets – which supports a good business model that, in turn, supports all members. Other criteria such as shot fall, interference with other stands and shot capture (lead reclamation) are also things setters keep in mind.

The question, or paradox, for them is just how hard to set targets. While a national or provincial championship may allow for harder targets to be thrown, that does not give license to ignore the bulk of the competitor field by making them so hard, they see no value in paying entrance, travel or ammo costs just to watch a few top shooters break 40% scores while the remainder shoot 20%.

To be sure, the top shooters will always be tops on a hard or soft course, and you want to ensure their commitment to the sport is respected, yet still allowing the median shooters a fighting chance and the lower ones a viable ladder to succeed with some work.

Is there a magical number? Yes, and it seems to hover around an aggregate hit-ability score of around 75% across the entire spectrum of shooters. This sweet spot is what course setters consider when setting, or in the case of our green course, maintaining. If offers the least frustration (most satisfaction), most return to shoot motivation and consequently, the best financial return. A true win/win relationship between a club owner and club member/competitor.

Setting a sporting clays course

In sympathy to the above 75% hit-ability, let’s have a look into what makes targets easier and harder.

1. Speed

A faster target will invariably increase the amount of lead and that will always challenge the brain’s ability to perform precise predictions on shot/target interception.

2. Angle

Severe angles are more complex to calculate a shooting solution due to a ‘secondary lead’ of elevation that needs to jibe with a pure vertical or horizontal target.

3. Distance

A further target will always require more cognitive effort as shot flight time (and even shot trajectory) must be factored in on a smaller visual point.

4. Transition

Our brains are not well developed to do complex calculations on rapidly changing targets, so one that transitions quickly is often a challenge.

5. Incoming/outgoing

The sense of urgency is increased for an outgoing target (further and visually diminishing) while the brain has more time to consider the corollary.

6. True pair timing

While there may be optimal spots for singles within a pair, that may not be possible with cleverly timed true pairs.

7. Terrain.

Our eyes rely on a horizon as a reference, so targets that subtly defy that, can be deceiving.

8. Target design.

Midi’s, minis etc., can offer different flight characteristics compared with standard targets, making them appear further or faster while they generally shed their speed quicker.

9. Target face

The amount of target area showing in flight is directly proportional to how many pellets can contact/break it. Edgier targets are more difficult to visually acquire, track and break.

10. Cognitive/body movement trickery

Intentional messing with how the eye/brain/body usually acquires, tracks, and calculates a shooting solution for a target. eg: Our eyes, like most predators are binocular in nature that provide two slightly dissimilar images on one target that allows the brain to compare/calculate distance, speed, predictive angle etc. If a second target emerges within that ‘firing schema’, the brain can be distracted enough to perform multiple, conflicting calculations that often result in a miss (also the reason prey often swarm in the presence of a predator).

Placing a target at extreme range, yet providing a relatively consistent flight path with a large surface showing and good backdrop may be easier to hit than a closer, slower target that is edge on, presented in a smaller window of obstructions and is rapidly changing direction. Throwing a true pair that has the further target visually interrupted by its closer, slower twin, or a target that drives down on a visually flat horizon is counter comfortable to body movements of lifting vs suppressing.

Combining some or all these criteria can also affect a ‘meta’ criteria within the ‘fun factor’, and that should also be a paramount consideration for both the setter and shooter too.

Shooting a well laid course

Personally, I gain an equal interest in why I miss targets as much as the satisfaction of hitting them. I try to get inside the course setter’s head to understand what they are trying to get at with the presentations. Are they trying to trick me, bore me (an equally honorable trick), challenge me or entertain me? Invariably, I will shoot more at difficult, sublime or fun targets and less at easier ones, but will do a hard stop at targets I simply cannot resolve; which overall, seems to support that 75% paradigm at mass and individual level.

We have the luxury of having two courses at Silver Willow and a further bonus of having multiple throwers at each station on the Blue. Even mundane targets can be enhanced by shooting them early or late in their flight. Shooting an incoming first and the outgoing second is another fun option. Shooting targets on their rise instead of the optimal apex or approaching drop is also challenging.

I also try to offer feedback to Silver Willow’s course setters (Josh and Don), while being considerate of what I find interesting may not be so for others, yet doing so provides a vibrant data set that helps them cater to our overall experience.

I would encourage all members to, at the very least, make a conscious effort to analyze how targets challenge them and why. If a course becomes too predictable there are individual options while we wait for a change. Perhaps use my list above alongside your scorecard to make predictions of what makes you smile or frown the next time you shoot, because the course setter’s job is to tease both ends of that spectrum.