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Sporting Clays in America: Growing and Evolving

By: Earl Mclean

When I sat down to write this article, I thought I would write it from my personal perspective. At the same time, I want to take readers back to the beginning, before I actually got involved in sporting clays. I knew some things about the origination of the sport, but I thought I’d do some research and be as accurate as possible.

There have been a good number of articles written in the past on this subject, but new shooters are constantly joining, and I just wanted to refresh my memory and bring them in to understand the sport more clearly.

‘Golf with a Shotgun’
“Sporting Clays” by name started in England and began to gain popularity there in 1793. I'm not going back that far, so let's start with Bob Brister.

Brister wrote an article about sporting clays in a 1980 issue of Field & Stream magazine. The article caught a lot of attention and led to Chris Cradock coming from over the pond and setting up a course at the Remington Farms. The first shoot was held at Remington's Lordship Gun club in Connecticut. At the beginning, the sport was nicknamed "Golf With a Shotgun.”

The first organization to pick up sporting clays was the United States Sporting Clays Association (USSCA) in 1985. Orvis began sponsoring The United States Sporting Clays Championship about this same time.

I remember seeing an advertisement in the local paper: “Deep River Sporting Clays.” At this time, I had never heard of sporting clays, but I knew I had to check it out. This was in 1987 or ‘88 – can't remember for sure.

The bug bit. I joined the USSCA after a little while, and this is where I started learning the history of the origination of sporting clays. A year or so later, the USSCA started phasing out, and a new organization started by the National Skeet Shooters Association (NSSA) called the National Sporting Clays Association, or " NSCA," came into existence in 1989. I joined the new NSCA.

Don’t Forget the U.S.!
I know the Brits would probably like all the credit for inventing sporting clays, but there is some background from the U.S. also. Hunting upland game, duck hunting, and rabbit hunting has always been popular here. Skeet and trap started in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

When I first started competing, I started learning more history. I went to a tournament in Pine Hurst, which at the time was a skeet and trap range to which a sporting layout had been added.

At one end of the skeet and trap field was a double tower. I asked about this and found (since I had never shot trap or skeet) that people competed and practiced passing and high shots here. They also did what was called a "Quail Walk," where a person would start walking in the ready with the safety on, gun in low position, and the trapper would release one or two clays at his own will without the shooter calling for the bird and not knowing where the target would come from.

When sporting clays first originated, everyone was required to start with a "low" gun, similar to what you would do in the field. Later on, it was left to the discretion of the shooter.

The Hunter’s Game
Sporting clays was considered the hunter’s game. The courses were laid out over natural terrain with 10 to 14 stations. There would be signs at each station telling you what kind of presentation and how many targets you would shoot. For instance, the sign may read "Woodcock," which would be a shot to try to simulate the woodcock’s evasive flight.

There would be another sign with the menu: 1 "single," 2 "report," and 1 "true pair," for example. At the time, all the traps were manual, and a trapper – usually a high school kid trying to make a little money – would work them. Today, electric trap or target launchers are the norm.

Some of the other stations were "Passing Doves," "Flushing Quail," "Settling Ducks," "Woodies," "Bounding Bunny," "Pheasant," "Quail Walk,"(discontinued for safety reasons) "Duck Blind," "Springing Teal," "Fur and Feather" (rabbit target and bird from same station).
These labels have disappeared over time, though some places still have them.

Along this same time is when the specialty targets appeared. The specialty targets include: The "Standard," which is the same as in Skeet and Trap, and are 110 millimeters in diameter; the "Rocket or Midi," 90 millimeters in diameter; the “Mini" – 60 millimeters; the “Battue,” 110 millimeters in diameter, but only about 8 millimeters thick, making it hard to see or hit until it shows its face; “Rabbit" – 110 millimeters, but with a hard edge to withstand the impact from rolling across the ground at high speeds; and the "Chondelles," which can be a "Standard" or a "Rabbit " thrown on edge at an arc .

Continued Evolution
Sporting Clays has evolved a lot since introduced here in the '80s. More versions exist today, including "Five Stand," "Compak Sporting" FITASC," and "Super Sporting.” Another version called "American Field Sporting Clays " is being experimented with now. It is supposedly to have fewer rules and restrictions. Time will tell.

Tournament Shooting
Tournament shooting has evolved a lot, too. In the '80s and early '90s, a state tournament would be shot in one day. It would consist of 100 clay targets over anywhere from 10-14 stations. There would also usually be a side game, such as a "Crazy Quail" or a "Flurry.”

By the late '90s it had grown to a two-day event, shooting 200 targets over the duration. Usually 100 targets the first day and 100 on the second. It would be shot over the same course, but after the first day, the target setters would come in and change up the course as to have different presentations the next day.

Shooter’s Paradise or Nightmare?
As the sport grew, more events were added. A preliminary event on the Friday before and a competition. By the year 2000, Sub Gauge events were added: .410, 28 ga, 20 ga, and FITASC started getting popular. Then, in the mid-2000s, pump events and side-by-side events crept in. Some of the bigger clubs are now hosting all of this and a Sub Gauge FITASC event and Super Sporting event. It has become impossible to shoot all the events, but guaranteed there will be something for everyone there. It has become a shooter's paradise, or nightmare, depending on how you look at it.

New Clubs, Too
There have been two main types of clubs to grow out of this also. One that is more in tune with the recreational shooters and new shooters just starting out. These type clubs usually throw a wide range of targets to give all levels of shooters a chance to break a good number of targets.

The other type of club caters more to the tournament shooters throwing mostly difficult targets for the seasoned shooters. Most clubs try to give a good mixture. Breaking targets is much more fun than missing targets.

Addictive and Unlimited
There is no wonder this sport is growing so fast. The variations are addictive and unlimited. Every target setter is just like the game itself. Over the years experimenting with different type presentations, they each have something different and new. Everywhere you go, there is a different mindset, and it keeps growing. It’s always interesting to see what will evolve next.

It’s always good to visit as many clubs and courses as you can. It’s not only interesting, but will make an awesome shooter out of you. Sporting clays not only has a great history in the short time it has been in the U.S., but I think a great future too.

Earl Mclean is a coach and target setter at Drake Landing and is the owner of Heads Up Shooting System LLC, writing from Fuquay Varina, North Carolina.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.