The shooting of clay targets, as carried out under the rules of the U.S. Sporting Clays Association, is no more difficult for the beginner than playing golf—at night, while standing on one leg. This became apparent to me at a sporting clays competition held last fall at the Mashomack Fish and Game Preserve in Pine Plains, N.Y., 80 miles north of Manhattan.
On a chilly, sunny morning made to order for photographing people wearing tweeds, a group of people wearing tweeds gathered at Mashomack for the first Glenlivet Sporting Clays Challenge. The Challenge owes its existence to the USSCA, which likes the sport, and to the British-American Chamber of Commerce, which likes helping the U.S. raise its trade deficit. Five-gun teams from the likes of the House of Lords, Range Rover, the Mashomack Club and the USSCA went in armed pursuit of 500 targets, 100 per shooter.
"A perfect score in today's competition is 100 [per shooter]," proclaimed the event program.
"There have been, I think, less than a dozen perfect scores in the history of the sport," said Bob Davis, a gregarious Texas oilman who serves as president and board chairman of the USSCA.
To a casual gunner who enjoys an occasional round of skeet but has never killed a bird in the pursuit of sport, this news sounded ominous. For good reason, as it turned out. Firing in fourth position for the Range Rover team, I learned that a man carrying a loaded shotgun can suffer more humiliation than you would ever believe.
Sporting clays shooting originated in Great Britain shortly after the turn of the century. From the outset the sport has tried to simulate situations encountered by bird hunters. Shooters sharpen their aim by firing at clay targets hurled by mechanical or manual traps devilishly concealed in natural surroundings. The clay targets fly or skitter suddenly into view, in imitation of the movements of such fauna as doves, rabbits, pheasants, ducks or geese, and the shooters fire at them. Occasionally, some are hit.
On most sporting clays courses, a team of shooters will walk through 10 different stands. The targets are issued in pairs, five pairs to the stand. Once a shooter shouts "Pull," the person in charge of the targets has from one to three seconds to release the targets. This gives the shooter time to worry about what's coming, which is part of the training: The goal is to learn to point and shoot virtually by instinct.
The targets are released in one of several ways: typically as two singles, which requires a second shouted "Pull"; as a report pair, in which the second target is released at the sound of the first shot; as a following pair, meaning that the second target follows the first after a brief interval; or as two simultaneous targets.
The day's first two targets established the tone. Standing in the designated enclosure, I got set to shoot what the program called "Wigeon—From behind—Pair." With the butt of my Browning tucked in my armpit—one of the ready positions required by the rules—I called for the target.
"Louder, sir," said the stand's scorer. "The target puller can't hear you." I turned up the volume and called "Pull!" again.