Patterns in the Cloud

by Terry Wieland

For more than a century, the ability to see a shot pattern in the air has been an arcane skill possessed by only the most practiced of shotgun instructors.  Let me say, right off the bat, I can’t do it, and I don’t know anyone in America who can.  Surely there are some; I just don’t know them.

On the other hand, I know a lot of guys who claim they can, and if you don’t believe me, go to a trap or skeet field, enlist the aid of the local “expert” and in a heartbeat you’ll be hearing things like “You shot over,” or “That one was behind.”  I even knew one guy, a truck driver, hired to manage (or, in his case, mismanage) a shooting range.  He was not much of a shooter himself, yet insisted he could see the pattern in the air.  He’d heard it could be done, so he latched onto it and even offered his services as an instructor.  You can imagine what that was worth.

One genuine instructor who genuinely can see patterns is Steve Denny, retired director of the Holland & Holland shooting ground outside London.  To see the pattern, he told me, you need particular conditions — “bright overcast” being ideal — and you need to be looking over the shooter’s shoulder and along the barrel at the time of the shot.  What you see is what Steve calls a “disturbance” in the air.

The average guy, watching to see where your shot goes, bases his assessment on where the wad flies, which is about as valuable as a mangled frisbee.  Some wads, leaving the barrel, open up and fly off wildly; even those that retain their shape are as aerodynamic as a dead gopher.  To see for yourself, find a patterning plate, fire a few rounds, and look where the indentation is from the wad — which may fly so erratically it doesn’t hit the plate at all.  That should tell you something.

Before and after: Competition shooter Alison Caselman breaking a clay from a high tower. The observer is not in a position to see the shot pattern, only to watch Alison’s form which is, essentially, flawless — as the results clearly show.

Various attempts have been made to come up with a method of seeing exactly where a shot pattern goes when you miss a bird.  The two most recent are the ShotKam, a small video camera that attaches to your barrel and sends the video to your phone, and Garmin’s XERO S1 unit that combines a camera with a radar.  Designed specifically for trapshooting, the Garmin sits on a tripod at the shooter’s feet, picks up the clay when it leaves the house, tracks the shot pattern, and displays the result on its screen when you hit — or miss — the clay in flight.

Two friends of mine have acquired ShotKams, and use them routinely.  It’s impossible to compare the two systems directly, and would not be fair to either.  They’re intended to do the same thing, which is show you where your shot went and thereby make you a better shot, but they approach it from different directions.

Price, obviously, is a factor, and generally speaking the Garmin is twice the price of the ShotKam ($1,000 vs. $500).  The ShotKam can be used anywhere you shoot a shotgun, whereas the Garmin is designed primarily for trap (although it does have other applications).

The ShotKam will work with almost any gun, but you need separate adapters for different gauges and barrel configurations.  An instructor, wanting capability for any gauge, any configuration, would be looking at another $300 or so for adapters.  The Garmin, being an independent unit, will work with any gun.

On the surface, it would seem that anyone with a grand to spare can now get the benefit of seeing their pattern in flight and learning from it without searching out a knowledgeable instructor.  But here’s the thing:  They may tell you where your pattern went, but they do not tell you either what you’re doing wrong, or how to correct it.  Only a good instructor can do that.

My friend Rehan Nana at Garmin says the most benefit they’ve seen with people using their unit is an instructor thoroughly mastering its operation, then combining the information provided with his own observation of the shooter’s form.

I recently acquired a Garmin to try out, and may get a ShotKam as well.  I’ll report back in more detail as I learn to use them.  Meanwhile, I’ve asked Steve Denny to take a look at the instructional videos available on the net and tell me what he thinks.  When I hear something, you’ll be the first to know.


Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, has written “in shotgunning, there is no free lunch” more times than he can count, and this may be another one of those times. After a little exposure to the Garmin, though, he can see how using it could be as addictive as trapshooting itself. It is nothing if not fascinating.