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Shooting for Fun

The Exotic World of Sporting Clays Offers Outdoor Settings to Test Your Shooting Skills
Ross Seyfried
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

The clubhouse was appointed with bronzes, oils, oak and leather. Each participant had a scorecard in his pocket. Beyond the door the water, green fields and massive old trees awaited. It could have been St. Andrews or Pebble Beach or Hilton Head. The arrival of a Bell Jet Ranger on the lawn outside, as well as the arrival of a very worn, beat-up van, each carrying players, suggested that the crowd here wasn't going to be the ordinary club crowd. There was a big difference. Instead of a golf cart protruding with bags and clubs and towels accompanying each player, virtually everyone in sight had a gun in the crook of his arm. This wasn't a golf course, but a shooting clays club, and everyone here was readying his weapons for a tournament.

The first squad of four men, including this writer, strolled along a gentle path to a point where a "station judge" waited. The judge invited us to "view" the first pair of targets. A sign at the station declared that we were at the Driven Grouse point. Because this type of game bird is one of the more difficult to shoot, a more appropriate title might have been Demon Chased. As the referee called "pull," a pair of black clay disks appeared at the head of the gully some 40 yards away. The gully's walls were 15 feet deep and just slightly greater in width. The targets flew straight toward our position; their speed was something more than 40 mph. Just 20 feet in front of the firing line, the clays shattered as they simultaneously curved and smacked into the gully walls. Their flight had consumed only one-and-a-half seconds. Our goal was to step into a two-foot-square firing box and break the targets with the shot from a gun...before they broke themselves.

We shuffled scorecards, and I won the dubious privilege of stepping to the line first. I called, "trapper ready?" to alert the person who would release the targets. At his affirmation I dropped a pair of shells into a double-barreled 12-gauge Beretta and closed the breech. The next few seconds were critical. The adrenaline surged, and I waged a miniature battle to control it, knowing full well that the powerful substance could spark speed and coordination. Otherwise, I would fight my own muscles, yank the trigger and hear the inevitable "bird lost!"

With a tight focus on the spot where the birds would appear, I called, "pull!" I saw the left bird first as I lifted the butt to my shoulder and pushed the barrels to an apparent point an inch in front of its course. At the recoil of the firing cartridge, the target shattered. Now, find the right bird! My eyes saw it as it screamed within feet of the wall. My left hand accelerated the barrels toward its line of flight as my finger pressed the trigger for the second shot. The act was pure reflex, there was no time to "aim." The target exploded into black smoke just inches from its own suicide against the gully wall. When the shot "pattern" struck, the pellets' spread was no larger than the target itself. The referee called, "dead pair." I breathed again, knowing the second hit was only luck, having spent too much time on the first shot.

With a total of five pairs to shoot at this station, there were eight clays to go. With each pair, the tension built rather than declined. But the first eight targets were broken, and I shattered the last pair, too. There was immediate relief. The applause from the rest of the squad penetrated my concentration. The first 10 of 100 targets were all X's. These were targets that I could hit; there would be ones that I could not.

Welcome to the world of sporting clays. On this course, really a compendium of sporting clays stations from courses around the world, there were nine other stations, with 10 clays each, for a total score of 100. But with this sport, in contrast to many other sports and especially shooting sports, perfection is more or less out of the question. On the trap and skeet fields, the two other principal shooting games, every course and most targets are the same. Scores of 100 or even 500 straight are expected from top-level shooters. However, the sporting clays world is different. Its very essence is variety. Each range is very different from another, and on the same range, each station will be regularly changed from day to day. A shooter breaking 90 percent of the targets will win many of the major tournaments.

Sporting clays is designed to simulate the kinds of shots encountered in the wild hunting fields. It began in England in the early 1900s as a means of practice by dukes, earls and kings for pheasant and grouse shooting. Sporting clays formally took hold in the United States little more than a decade ago. However, in its short time here it has grown dramatically, attracting people from all walks of life--including becoming a social event for many of the rich and famous. It is a sport where the rackets and clubs are shotguns and the balls are little flying saucers made of pitch and carbon.

In addition to the variety of courses and presentations, there are also different kinds of targets. Three of them are more or less conventionally shaped saucers of varying size. A cupped underside makes them fly much like a Frisbee...unless a course designer chooses to launch them upside down, drastically altering their aerodynamic quality. The full-sized target measures 110 mm, or about four-and-a-quarter-inches in diameter; the middle-sized version is 90 mm, or three-and-a-half inches, and the minisized clay is just 60 mm, or two-and-a-quarter inches in diameter. The rabbits and batues complete the selection. (A batue is a thin, heavy disk with relatively poor aerodynamics that sails for the first portion of flight, turns sideways in a more or less predictable manner and then falls like a greased brick.)

For those who do not understand, or who even recoil at the thought of a gun of any kind, think of it as a sporting clays tennis racket. A firearm, like a golf club, a motor car or the lighter that might ignite the end of your cigar, is an inanimate object. Any of these instruments, in the wrong hands, has the power to do hideous damage. But they do not act alone; their capability is absolutely limited by the will of their users. The shotgun can be an instrument of great pleasure, intrinsic beauty and a grand test of human skill.

The "typical" sporting clays gun is an over/under, double-barreled, 12-gauge--it has two barrels, arranged one on top of the other. The gun holds two cartridges, and a single trigger mechanism fires those cartridges, one after the other, with successive pulls. Good entry-level guns include an American-made Ruger, the Japanese Browning and the Italian Beretta; each offers models that are priced between $1,500 and $3,000. Even though these are entry-level guns, do not assume they are a handicap. Shotgunning is a difficult place to buy skill. Any one of these guns, in the right hands, has world-championship potential.

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