As the Beatles once put it, "Happiness is a warm gun, Mama." Of course, John and Paul and George and Ringo were being facetious when they wailed that little ditty a few years back, but in Savannah, Ga. last week a small army of super shotgunners gathered to prove the truth of the slogan. Along the way nearly 4,000 guns grew very warm indeed, more than half a million shots were fired, the sky grew dark with clouds of shattered clay and joy was wildly unbounded.
The cause for all this explosive jollity was the 27th annual World Championships of the National Skeet Shooting Association, a slambang gathering of 927 of the nation's best and most fervent wing shots—with contingents from Japan, Canada and Puerto Rico as well. By the time the smoke cleared (a full day later than the program called for), six major titles and countless minor ones had been determined in the four basic shotgun categories recognized by the NSSA—.410, 28, 20 and 12 gauge.
But a world-class skeet meet is much more than a mere blastoff for money and medals. Like golf, which it resembles in its emphasis on heavy concentration and light sociability, skeet shooting is a lifetime sport, accessible to young and old, male and female alike, provided they can afford it. And skeet is expensive. Of the 200,000 Americans who shoot skeet, almost 20,000 are registered with the NSSA and qualify as "serious shooters." For them the cost of guns, ammo, targets and the logistics of getting to the meets parses out at roughly a dollar per clay bird killed. And a whole mess of birds bit the dust in Georgia last week.
The sport got its start back in 1920, on the grounds of the Glen Rock Kennels in Andover, Mass., when a group of upland bird hunters began looking for a better way to keep their eyes sharp during the off-season. Trapshooting seemed too simple—a couple of clay pigeons whizzing off in easy, straightaway shots—so the gunners laid out a circular course that measured 25 yards in radius, marked off like the face of a clock. A trap at "12 o'clock" was set to fling clays over each of the 12 stations, plus a short station in the center of the circle. "Shooting around the clock," they called it. But when a chicken farmer set up his stand at the edge of the clock course, the gunners had a problem. They solved it by cutting the circle in half and putting another trap at "six o'clock." That reduced the danger area by half but retained the difficulties of wing shooting from the original layout.
As the sport grew in popularity, all that was needed was a name. That want was filled in 1926, when a certain Gertrude Hurlbutt of Dayton, Mont, won a $100 prize in the sport's baptismal contest by suggesting "skeet"—an old Scandinavian form of "shoot." From that point, the sport went off with a bang. Except for the war years, world championships have been held annually since 1935 in places as disparate as Reno, St. Janvier, Quebec, Rush, N.Y. and San Antonio.
The Savannah meet was the fourth to be held at that venerable Southern seaport in the past nine years. To many, the weather—scalding and sticky, punctuated from time to time by torrential rains and lightning—seemed more conducive to sipping juleps and swinging in hammocks than trudging around the Forest City Gun Club's 26 skeet fields. One evening the organizers of the meet served up a traditional Georgia "shrimp boil," and while the 1,400 pounds of crustacea were bubbling, one gunner opined: "It might take a little longer, but they could have saved themselves the boiling water just by letting the shrimp stand out in the air for a while." But despite the heat, the shooting was superb.
In fact, it was so superb that nearly every major event went into overtime with dozens of shooters tied with perfect scores. The cannonade of competition blammed steadily away from dawn to unconsciousness, interrupted only by the rains. The silences during those breaks seemed eerie, underscored as they were with the occasional whistling of bobwhite quail from the surrounding piney woods. An aura of intense introspection dominated the scene. Skeet demands the utmost in concentration, since in this era of faultless guns and super-reliable ammo the levels of excellence are incredibly high, and a single miss—or lost bird, as the euphemism has it—can spell defeat. "If you miss by six inches," the saying goes, "it's usually the six inches between your ears."
Shooters respond to this pressure with fascinating psychological ploys. Some stand around catatonically between shots, staring at the great invisible clay bird out beyond the horizon. Others sing to themselves (a favorite on most fields last week was Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head) or else chatter away at their teammates like so many holler-guy shortstops. "Be tough now," they yelp. "Be ready when you call. Give us a purty little swing now, that's it, you smoked him, now do the same for his little brother. Wood to wood there, wood to wood. All raaaaht!" To smoke a bird is to hit it smack on with a full pattern of No. 9 chilled shot, thus causing the black and yellow clay to explode like a small flak burst. The second bird of a double is usually referred to as the first bird's little brother, a rather bloodthirsty allusion to the sport's roots in live game shooting. The slogan wood to wood is pure wing-shooting humor or something: straight shooting requires that the comb of the shotgun's stock be firmly planted against the gunner's cheekbone. (Actually, the abrasions from the recoil of wood on skin during a long shoot can be very painful; many gunners smear their shooting-side cheek with talcum powder, a cosmetic technique that makes them look like half-painted Indians ready for the warpath.)
Though skeet shooters are generally more gentlemanly than their trapshooting cousins, who compete for bigger purses and thus feel they cannot afford to be friendly to the competition, there is still a lot of psyching involved in the sport. Gunners who have shot perfect scores often show up at the field where their main competitor is shooting and just stand around giving him the evil eye. These types are known as hawkers, perhaps because of their baleful stare. The internal psych is also important. "I used to have a very mild-mannered call," says Joyce Luce, a 27-year-old housewife from Hebron, Conn. who won the women's 20-gauge title at Savannah last week. "When I mumbled 'pull' for the bird to be released from the trap, the referee would snarl at me to speak louder. Now I have a loud call, and in a way it concentrates me, makes me tougher." Though Joyce's call is hardly a war whoop, many of them are. The simple word "pull" in many throats becomes a growl, a grunt, a savage bellow.
Before she came down to Savannah, Joyce was already psyching herself for the meet. "I'd never seen the course," she recalls, "but I would dream about it, and in my dreams it was built on a swamp—the Okefenokee, I guess. There were snakes all over the place, and even an alligator. In my dream I would break three straight—75 birds—and then jump on my bike and pedal back home to Connecticut between rounds to tell my father. On the way back I'd fall in the swamp, with all those snakes, and miss the final round." In reality, Joyce had the finest week of her 14-year skeet shooting career, capturing her first world title and breaking 300 straight birds before she faltered. Then, in the women's 12-gauge final, she lost two birds in one round and was out of it.