Live-pigeon shooting was started by Englishmen of the leisured class back in the late Victorian era. In those days blue-rock pigeons were a scourge in the home counties, and farmers, in order to save their crops, trapped the birds in nets and then killed them. Some fast-thinking sportsman, whose name is not recorded, saw a solution to the farmers' problem and a chance for some early shooting for himself and his friends before the legal shooting season opened in mid-August. The sportsmen hit on the idea of hiding one pigeon under each of five silk hats that were disposed symmetrically in an open field. At the shooter's command one of his companions would jerk a string attached to one of the hats, allowing the pigeon to escape. Since double-barreled shotguns were used for shooting in England, it was natural for each competitor to get two shots at his bird. Their contemporaries nicknamed these sporting squires "The Top Hats," and the sport caught on. Eventually, in a much more sophisticated form, it became popular on the Continent, too. The hats were replaced by boxes, the shooting field was encircled by a fence, and a set of rules was devised. Fundamentally, these were the same rules used at the 30th world-championship match that was held in February at the Club de Tiro de Pich�n de Mexico in Mexico City.
This was the first time a world championship match was staged in the Western Hemisphere, and the home hemisphere was well represented, with the U.S. sending the largest contingent (168) and Mexico running next with 107. In all, there were 348 entries who came from 13 countries.
It was a three-day affair with $25,000 at stake, the winner getting $3,000. In pigeon shooting there is no nonsense about amateur standing: everybody is cheerfully in it for the money as well as the fame. Also in it for the money—and excitement—are the spectators, who are an ardent lot of bettors, not because of the amounts they bet, which are modest enough for the most part, but in the vociferous way they go about it. The shouting of the bettors is to the pigeon shoot as the calliope is to the circus parade. The tune is a simple one of odds being called for a gunner to kill his bird. A bettor holding one hand palm up might call, "Four," meaning he will give 4 to 1 the gunner will kill. Another bettor who likes the odds and wants the action will shove a bill into the hand, and the bet is struck.
Bettors who do not know a shooter's ability from personal experience may get a line from the price his backers paid for him in the Calcutta pool. But the bidding in Calcutta pools is most often influenced by emotion and alcohol. This was proved to a fare-thee-well in Mexico: the Italian, Giovanni Bodini, went for the top price of $650, Francis Eisenlauer ( U.S.) for $500, Homer Clark ( U.S.) for $450. Far beneath this top layer of talent lurked the ultimate winner, Le�n Bozzi of Argentina, who was bought for $40.
Under the international rules each competitor in a world championship remains in the match until he has missed four birds, unless the entry is 250 or more guns, in which case only three misses are allowed. So this year the three-misses-and-out rule was in effect.
To start his round each gunner inserts a plastic token—which he purchases for each bird he shoots—in an electronic box located inside the ring. The token activates the electronic circuit, and the machine selects the trap from which the pigeon will fly. The gunner then walks down a narrow concrete path to his mark. In this match the mark was 27 meters from the center trap. When the shooter says, "Pull," the sound of his voice trips the release, and his bird is out of the box and away. He has two shots to kill the bird, and the bird must fall inside the 31�-inch-high fence that encloses the range. In the last few years it has been the rule rather than the exception for the winner of the world championship to finish with no misses. Homer Clark was the first man to finish with a perfect score. He did it in 1949, when the contestants shot 20 birds and then had a sudden-death miss-and-out to break a tie. Today the contestants shoot 25 birds, then a series of 10 birds if tied. If two or more men are still tied, a miss-and-out series is shot from the 28-meter mark.
Ramon Estalella of Spain drew No. 1 slot this year, and he killed the first bird of the tournament. At day's end 310 contestants remained after the fourth bird.
After three days of shooting only seven men had withstood the pressure of the competition and the yelling of the bettors to kill 25 straight birds: Italy's Bodini; four Americans, John Broughton, Rudy Etchen, George Ross and Johnny Downes; Alejandro Ramirez, a Mexican; and Argentina's Bozzi.
Ross and Downes were out at the end of the 10-bird shootoff and then there were five. It was hot and airless, and the birds were not flying very fast when the sudden-death shootoff began. The pressure surrounding the five men was a tangible thing. Even the bettors were carrying on their serious business in mutters rather than shouts. As the tired gunners bore down, their manner of shooting became more stylized and characteristic.
Bodini, a slight 5 feet 4, walked slowly to the 28-meter line, taking off the dark glasses that he wore except when shooting. He was expressionless. He opened his gun, loaded it, adjusted his hat and wiped his hands on the skirt of his jacket. Mounting his gun, he pressed the butt twice against his shoulder to set it firmly. After the command, "Pull," the crash of the opening box hardly seemed to have sounded when the double crack of the shots was heard. The bird was a crumpled handful of feathers, not 10 feet away from the opened box. Bodini turned back to his seat inside the shooters' enclosure and slumped, stooping even when he sat down. No emotion of any kind was visible on his face.