Over the past years when I was giving shooting lessons to a number of people, I was often asked one question.

How do you keep from getting nervous when shooting the last round of 25 targets going for 100 straight? My answer was always the same ... I didn’t, because that was the easy round. They would look puzzled and wonder how that could possibly be.

Before going on, I should explain how competition skeet works. Most skeet shoots are a 400-target event over a two- or three-day period. Competitors shoot 100 targets in each of the four gauges, 410, 28, 20 and 12. Each set of 100 targets is shot in rounds of 25 each. So, if you’re perfect through 75 targets with one round to go, that last 25 gets interesting to most shooters.

But here is why I always thought it was the easiest: The first round is the most difficult. It is early in the morning and you have only been up for a couple of hours. You have the nervous “heebie jeebies” a little bit just starting the event.

The thing you keep saying to yourself is, “just break this one target one time.” That is all the game is about. Breaking one target one time until you have 100. Focus! I mean really focus on that single bird they throw out. Do what ever it takes to get through that first 25 targets. Don’t worry about how hard you hit them. A chip looks like a “smoked target” on the ref’s score sheet.

The second round is almost as bad as the first, but you are starting to get smooth and things feel better. Again, you just keep thinking, “Just break this one target one time and I am out of here.”

Third round ... don’t get cocky. You are really starting to click and are center-punching the targets now. It is real easy to get overconfident at this stage of the event.

Finally, it is the fourth and last round. All the way around up to this point you have been lying to yourself, saying just one time and I am finished. But now when you say it, it’s really true! Your focus becomes even more and you just crunch the last 25 for your 100 straight.

I would often take a student aside and ask what is your hardest target normally when shooting? After they tell me, I then say “If I placed a $100 bill on the ground next to that station and said, “It is yours if you walk up there and break that target one time, do you think you would really, really focus on that single shot?” They always say of course.

That is the kind of concentration and focus you need for shooting every one of the 100 targets. You cannot be thinking about your hardest station when you are shooting eight shots before you get there. You cannot be thinking about the clouds in the sky and the birds flying by, or your friend shooting on the next field, wondering how he is doing. You only think about that single shot you are about to make and what you have to see to break it. One target, one time. Over and over again.

And don’t forget to ask for God’s help. I did, and I’d like to think it helped. “God, just let me break this one target, one time.”

My old pal Steve Merlo gave me the finest compliment I think I have ever received when writing one of his columns years ago. “Will Barnes be remembered as one of the greatest pump-gun shooters in history? For sure. Will he be considered as possibly the greatest pump .410 shooter ever? His record says yes.”

Steve was basing these words on my record of using a Winchester Model 42 pump-action .410 bore for competition shooting. I shot nine 100 straights with the gun, seven more than anyone else in history. Plus 35 additional scores of 99x100. I can only tell you that during all of those events I was using that thought process: One target, one time. Over and over again.

But it is time to tell you about a secret weapon I had during all those years that I think helped me achieve those scores. The year after I broke my first 100 with the .410 in Rochester, N.Y., and won the world championship, I got to wondering exactly how many pellets there were in a factory .410 shell used during competition.

I knew it was 2-1/2 inches long and contained 1/2 ounce of #9 shot. I broke one open and poured all the pellets out on a plate and counted them ... 191. Then another ... 187. Then another ... 193. I did a few more and discovered that a few of the shells had up to 203 pellets. The low number was 182. The average was about 190.

I started thinking an extra 10 or 12 pellets in my shot pattern might make the difference between missing a target or maybe chipping off a quarter-size piece for a hit instead.

Before the next shooting season, I ordered my usual few cases of .410 ammo. I opened every box and took one of the shells with 200 pellets. Over several days, using a powder scale, I balanced every other shell against that one. If they were equal or close, I put them in a pile. All the lighter shells I put in a separate pile. I re-boxed the ones with the most pellets and used them for competition shooting all year. The others I shot in practice.

Did it make a difference in my scores? I don’t know, but it was a real confidence-builder for me, and every time I would just chip a target using that gun, I would smile.

One last note about shooting great scores. There was nothing more gratifying than being able to shoot with four other great gunners as a five-man team.

It was really important to have good rhythm and squad speed to achieve winning scores. I was lucky enough to be a member of “The Californians,” one of the best squads in skeet history. Over the years we shot world records in each of the gauges, and had a 500x500 in the 12 gauge once. Real exciting, especially when the last man on the squad, shooting the last target for a 500, had a gun malfunction. We stood around for ten minutes waiting for it to be repaired. Then we all held our breath as he stepped up to the final target.

Boom! Puff! Talk about nervous.

Zach Ewing can be reached at 661-395-7324. Follow him on Twitter at @zewing.

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