Forty-one years ago, when skeet shooting was only 13 years old, an ancient chemical company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours of Delaware, put out a booklet explaining and praising the bumptious new sport. In its brochure DuPont went so far as to predict that with improvements in guns and ammo and technique, thousands of shooters would some day master the art of busting whizzing doubles and even the particular horrors of station eight. To punch home the fact that skeet was a good game for almost everybody, the company prefaced its text with a photograph of the Pickens Sisters of radio fame strolling along the walk of a skeet field.
In the picture the three Pickens songsters are wearing outfits that look as if they had been cut to fit someone like Kate Smith and are clumsily toting shotguns, making one doubt they had ever used any weapon deadlier than a parasol. Although the gun carried by one of the sisters is obviously a single-shot, their broad smiles suggest that all three had just dusted off 50 consecutive doubles from station four.
Since DuPont had plenty of powder to burn, its early claims for skeet are understandable, indeed laudable, and what the company fancied back in 1933 has become fact.
At a skeet competition like the World Championship held in San Antonio last week, almost everybody from the perambulator to the grave gets to whang away at clay birds, in quest of a greater or lesser grail. A skeet tournament is a multifaceted war involving complicated alliances and minor conflicts sufficient to befuddle a Metternich. There are team competitions for husband and wife, for parent and child, for members of the immediate family, as well as ordinary two-man and five-man events. While working together on such team efforts, everybody—grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and parish priest—is trying to beat everybody else out of individual honors and sub-honors in four gauges of gun as well as the overall four-gauge title.
Because of the tensions that can build and the moments that are often crucial, skeet has been likened to baseball and golf, but in spirit it is a friendlier game. In all the World Series that he worked, was Augie Donatelli, the august baseball umpire, ever allowed to take a turn at the plate? Never. In the annual world skeet meet, by contrast, there is even a competition for the referees (as one snide skeeter has explained, to find out if they are really as blind as they sometimes seem). At the Masters in Augusta, when icy Ben Hogan was teeing up for the last hole of the last round, two down, did his playing partner ever bellow in his ear, "O.K., Ben baby, let 'er go. Stroke it, man"?
Of course not. But in skeet it is customary to lend encouragement to one's rival in a voice that can be heard through a solid lead earplug. Skeet shooters are sometimes tense and often disappointed, but they are rarely without voice or heart. Noise is their bag. Chatter is the order of the day.
To appreciate the proficiency of today's skeeters and how they have lived up to the forecast made by DuPont back in the dark ages, one need only examine some of the carnage wrought by the 641 men, women and children at the National Gun Club in San Antonio. Twenty years ago a competitor who got 98 of 100 clay birds with a .410, the little gun that spatters out only half an ounce of shot, could be fairly sure of the title, or at least a place in a shoot-off. At San Antonio 36 shooters did 98 or better, Kenny Barnes of Bakersfield, Calif. finally winning after a perfect score and a shoot-off against Richard (Red) Hill, a former .410 champion from Detroit.
In the larger gauges perfect scores have been commonplace for 20 years, but of late there have been so many in the 28- and 20-gauge that the actual 100-bird competition has become, in effect, a qualification string.
To keep the show from dragging on and on, the National Skeet Shooting Association decreed last year that after four orthodox rounds of 25 birds in a shoot-off, the surviving guns would shoot only doubles in subsequent rounds. Nonetheless, in the 28-gauge event it took Dennis Thomas, a Phoenix flooring contractor, six rounds to shake off 25 rivals. In the 20-gauge event 19-year-old Terry Nichols of Shelton, Conn. needed seven extra rounds to win in a shoot-off field of 48. In the 12-gauge, since there are 250 birds in the regular competition, there would naturally be fewer perfect scores; still, at San Antonio there was a shoot-off field of 22 and Tito Killian, a local 18-year-old, spent six rounds getting rid of the other 21.
As might be expected in a sport where tension needs release, there is some lamenting among oldtimers about the steady march of able women and teenagers to the forefront. At San Antonio, Ralph Dameron, an ordinarily easy sort of shooter from Tennessee, lamented, "I tell you the women and the kids are fouling up this game for everybody. They have keen eyes and quick reflexes and no worries, no business problems."