Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Back in the day – my day -there wasn’t much talk about Sporting Clays.  What we had and still have are two types of trap shooting  – trap and skeet – and each is both a sport in its own right and a way of honing game bird hunting skills.  What the two have in common is the use of shotguns and spring traps which hurl ceramic discs known as clay pigeons into the air with  more or less unpredictable timing and in more or less unpredictable directions, usually from a “house”.

I have absolutely no idea why the launchers are called traps or why launching stations are called houses, but I know how they work and I know what the challenge is.

Straight up trap shooting requires the shooter to destroy a pigeon launched from a house in front of them and shots are taken from different positions and distances behind the house.  The shooter calls for the launch but the release may or may not be immediate and the trap in the house is not static – it’s always swivelling from side-to-side and when released, the pigeon is headed away from the shooter in an unknowable direction each time.

Skeet shooting, on the other hand takes two traps and two houses, one high and one low, and the pigeons are launched not straight away from the shooter but from each side so that each crosses in front of the shooter and heads either toward or away from the shooter depending on where the shooter is standing relative to the house.  And as you might expect, the low house launches the pigeon in a low trajectory and the high house in a higher trajectory.

I always sucked at straight up trap shooting, but did fairly well at skeet.  So I’m gonna tell you about that.

All you need to have for recreational skeet shooting is good hand-eye coordination, a shotgun (preferably a 12 gauge), a box of skeet load shells, and a  range that looks like this:

At stations 1 and 2 and again at stations 6 and 7 you get four shots, one high, one low, and then high and low simultaneously, with the first pigeon launched from the house nearest to you.  At stations 3 through 5, you get two shots, one low and one high.  Stations 1 through 7 will take twenty-two of a box of twenty-five shells.

But, a perfect score is twenty-five, which makes station 8 a real bitch and not just because the pigeons, whether high or low, are essentially coming right at you.

At that station, one of two things will happen.  If you’ve already missed a shot, then you get one high and one low and you’re done at twenty-four shots with a score of twenty-three.  But, if you haven’t missed, you get a twenty-fifth shot, which will be a pigeon from the low house.

Thing is, you must hit the pigeon before it passes you, which will be hard if you’re intimidated, but is actually quite easy – Since you know the angle and speed are fixed, you call for the launch and pull the trigger at the same time.

Now.  It’s story time.

I used to shoot skeet at Andrews AFB and pretty consistently at a score of twenty-four and an occasional twenty-five, which I thought was good until I met two other fans of the sport.

At Andrews, the traps are activated by a device with three buttons on a switch connected to both houses, one for low, one for high, and one for two at the same time.  And it’s not unusual for staff or other shooters to be asked to handle the launches for another patron and I did that twice.

The first time was for a guy who wasn’t interested in standard skeet shooting.  He wanted to get ready for quail season and asked me to handle the launches as he wandered around inside the range instead of taking one station at a time and he left it to me to decide what got launched when.  High, low, or both, with or without pause and with or without alternating high and low.  He wanted unpredictability, which I gave him in spades.

The dude kept his head down, carried his shotgun casually and essentially had his back to one house or the other the whole time and wasn’t using sight clues.  Instead, he reacted to the sound of a trap going off and, believe it or not, went through two boxes of shells without a miss.

That was impressive to say the least, but the second guy put me entirely off my game.

Shotguns come in several gauges – 10, 12, 16, 20, and 28 – and are normally double-barreled or semi-automatic.  There’s also the .410, which is not only not a gauge but the absolutely least powerful of any scatter-gun, not to mention being bolt-action single shot.  Almost a toy, in fact, and usually a young shooter’s first – Good for rabbits and squirrels but not much of anything else.

But this guy, an Air Force Lieutenant, shows up with a .410 wanting a normal station-by-station round, but single throws at station 1, 2, 6, and 7 instead of the normal simultaneity because he’s using bolt-action.

The only other people around that day were staff and they’re lookin’ at this guy like, you know, WTF, because they’d never seen anyone so under-prepared.  And I had wrapped up and was headed home when he asked me to run the houses for him.

At the end of his round our jaws were on the floor because none of us had ever seen or imagined anything so incredible.

Nothing he did fit the rules or normal practices of skeet shooting.  He’d call for a house with his gun pointed at the ground instead of ready at the shoulder or holding it by the forward grip at his side or he’d call for a house and fire from his hip or hold that .410 out in front of himself like it was a handgun.

But what he did at station 8 defies belief.

With his back to the low house, he called for his twenty-fifth pigeon and with the .410 in both hands above his head and upside down, he powdered it.

It turns out that he was the reigning NATO champion…