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Next week, for the 78th consecutive year, the biggest, loudest show in sport gets under way at Vandalia, Ohio. Coming from every state in the union and from a dozen foreign countries, more than 20,000 men, women, teen-agers and toddlers will descend upon that hamlet (pop. 10,796) 10 miles north of Dayton to stage the Grand American Trapshooting Tournament, surely the largest peaceful armed invasion ever to take place anywhere.
Some will arrive by bus, train or even private airplane, but most will have driven to Vandalia. Every kind of vehicle—from pickup truck to family sedan to limousine to motorhome—can be found parked behind the shooting fields. Surprisingly, few people will have come solely as spectators. The two-century-old sport of trapshooting was created for the joy of participation, not as a means to fill idle time, and matching the diversity of the vehicles in the parking areas are the shotguns that everyone, it seems, is toting. They range from $200 stock model automatics to elaborately engraved, gold-inlaid, custom-fitted doubles with price tags that begin at several thousand dollars.
For nine days, beginning each morning before 9 a.m. and continuing some evenings until well after dark, the contestants will fire more than three million shells at clay targets released from 72 traps located along a firing line that stretches for a mile and a quarter. The scores and averages of the 22,500 entries in 19 events will be recorded, computed and made part of the Amateur Trapshooting Association official record. Some 130,000 boxes of shells in 75 different trap loads will be sold, along with several truckloads of sporting clothes, shell bags, reloading machines, caps, T shirts, shooting glasses, souvenirs and emblems. More than 50,000 meals will be served in the commissary; three times that number will be consumed around campfires, barbecue grills, from the tailgates of station wagons and from bulging picnic baskets. Some $65,000 worth of sterling silver trophies will be distributed, along with a Brinks-load of cash prizes. Another $3,500 worth of prizes will be awarded to card-and bingo-playing women and children, who can also take bus excursions to nearby museums, attend luncheons and watch fashion shows.
But for every woman at the shows there will be at least two on the firing line. It is not uncommon at Vandalia to see a grandmother shooting alongside a truck driver or a young woman in a maternity smock beside a business tycoon. And there are events and trophies for just about every possible combination of shooters: husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, sister and sister, veteran men, veteran women, juniors and sub-juniors (under 15).
The first Grand American was held in 1900 on Long Island, and since then so many people have made it an annual part of their lives that the number of jacket patches outstanding for attending 25 Grands is expected to exceed 300 this year. For some shooters this will be the 30th, 35th, 40th and even 50th Grand American; one father-son team compiled a record of more than a century of combined attendance.
While the most popular event is the Grand American Handicap—a wide open one-day affair that drew 3,925 shooters last year—the most prestigious title to be won at Vandalia is the International Clay Pigeon Championship of America, an event which attracts only the best shooters. This year it should also attract a large gallery of spectators, as 54-year-old Elgin Gates of Needles, Calif. tries to capture the title for an unprecedented third time. He will be competing against the hottest shots the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have been able to produce in a year-long training effort to win back a crown the military had come to consider exclusively its own.
Unique among Vandalia's multitude of events, the International is the only contest at the Grand American that is shot under international rules, the form of trapshooting shot in major world and Olympic contests. International trap differs from conventional "American" trap in a number of ways, not the least of which is the speed of the target. In conventional trap the clay bird travels away from the shooter at approximately 60 feet per second. In international shooting it moves twice as fast, and is thrown from a trap that not only swings from side to side, launching the birds through the angles of a 44-degree arc, but also oscillates up and down, so that there is wide variance in the horizontal plane on which the targets are presented to the shooter.
In conventional trap most targets are broken within 30 to 35 yards of the firing line. This means the shooter has barely a second after calling for the target to mentally compute the angle of flight and the effect of the wind before firing. But a shooter firing at an international target has less than half that time to make an even more complex computation, a fact that favors the young and swift of reflex. A competitor does, however, have two shots instead of one with which to break the bird, and many international shooters habitually fire both barrels as insurance.
At 12� to 15� a shell, such insurance can be costly, which is one reason the sport of international trap has been dominated in this country by young men shooting under the auspices of the military services. It is estimated that Sergeant Don Haldeman, who last summer brought the U.S. its first Olympic gold medal in trapshooting since 1920, burned about 300,000 rounds of ammunition training for that victory. Only someone with a very rich uncle could have afforded Haldeman's $36,000 tab for ammo, not to mention target costs and the time, travel and living expenses while firing all those shells.
It was actually the Army's elite shooting unit at Fort Benning, Ga. that turned Elgin Gates on to international competition. Members of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, as it is called, are recruited in much the same way colleges and universities sign athletes. The ancillary benefits these military deadeyes receive in return for their performances are, if anything, superior to what they would find in civilian life. Gates' two older sons, both of whom started trapshooting in 1966 along with their father, were spotted at a Winchester public trap range in Needles by an Army scout and invited to join the unit. Elgin Jr., then 18, did so in 1968. His brother Randy, then 17, joined the following year and is still in the service. Both were stationed at Fort Benning.