Shooting Sports USA | 6 Things You Didn’t Know About Sporting Clays
1. Originally a British game, athletic clays first hit the US coast in 1980.
Prior to the 1980s, the U.S. target sport consisted of clay and skeet, with some hand-launched goals mixed in the backyard. Trap has existed since the late 19th century and developed from a live pigeon game to the clay target sport known today. Skeet is an American invention born in the 1920s to help capercaillie hunters be more efficient at shooting. Both games became hugely popular and were the only organized clay sports to be widely used in the United States until the early 1980s when athletic clays made their way across the Atlantic from England.
There is not a single event that marks the first sporting sound experience in the USA, but the game that is filtered in rivulets across the pond. Proponents like nature writer and shotgun expert Bob Brister, Dick Baldwin and Gerald Quinn of Remington, and Hal du Pont have all advocated this new game. Occasionally it was marketed as “Hunters Clays” and strategically presented to the hunting audience to boost sales of firearms and ammunition.
The beginnings of the sporty tone. Shooting program for America’s first organized sporting event.
History is a bit murky, but the earliest organized sports competition in the United States is believed to have taken place on September 27, 1980 on the shores of Long Island Sound at Remington’s Lordship Grounds in Stratford, Connecticut. A 30-goal two-person team competition was held in conjunction with the National Day of Hunting and Fishing.
About 90 men and women gathered in partner teams at the now closed lordship for 10 birds each, tower birds, riverside skeet and a modified quail walk.
The late “Too Tall” Fred Collins was president of the now defunct sanctions agency Sporting Clays of America (SCA). He once told me, “We really didn’t appreciate it at the time it kicked off,” in reference to the tremendous popularity the game of athletic tones has seen since then. The 1980 Lordship Tournament was a fundamental step in sparking US interest in the game. Other special events followed that introduced the concept to a wider audience.
The reviews of the 1980 introduction were largely positive. In a follow-up survey it was reported: “Sporting Clays offers a high level of pleasure and is very successful in simulating real hunting. The shooters achieved a very high score in improving their hunting skills. Nine out of ten rated the event as excellent or very good. “
Other events – including one in 1981 when British course designer Chris Cradock came to Maryland to introduce the game to a handpicked group of writers outdoors – cemented the interest of the shooting public in the game.
The support of du Pont, Remington, Winchester, and other giants of the shooting industry played an invaluable role in gaining public acceptance of athletic clays.
2. There are six types of clay targets used in athletic clay in the United States
The clay targets most of us are familiar with are the 108mm domed varieties, but there are several other shapes and sizes that are commonly used when playing with athletic clays. The 90 mm “midi” is used to create an optical illusion. Midis, or 90s as they are sometimes called, are often used to create the illusion of distance. If a shooter is not careful, he or she will mistake a 90 for a standard target and apply too much “lead” or forward allowance, resulting in a miss.
Six types of clay targets are used in athletic clay. Clockwise from top left: Standard 108 mm, 90 mm Midi, 70 mm, 60 mm Mini, Rabbit and Battue.
The 60 mm target is the smallest clay pigeon. They come out of the trap in a flash, but bleed off quickly. They have fallen more and more out of favor due to their unpredictable flight pattern. The 60mm target often flies erratically and inconsistently.
The 70mm target was only a few years old but has largely replaced the 60mm target in the target setter’s arsenal. With better aerodynamic consistency, the 70mm target flies true and is becoming more and more common on today’s routes. Similar to the 90mm, the ’70s can appear as standard size targets, causing shooters to give the shot too much forward allowance.
The rabbit target is the same diameter as a standard 108mm target, but is much thicker and has no dome. Thicker to withstand the rigors of being rolled across the ground at high speed, they are harder to break, often prompting shooters to use a hard 7½ shot. Also, rabbits are sometimes thrown in the air – usually in a “chandelle” or a domed presentation.
The battles are paper thin. The battle is the same diameter as a normal clay bird, has a small dome, and is aerodynamically unstable. They’re usually thrown on the ledge, but they slow down and “turn around” and show their full face before quickly falling to the earth. Because of its thinness, the battle is easy to break and a unique target to fly. It’s an important item on any course designer’s menu.
3. Some tone target colors are better suited to certain visual backgrounds.
Clays come in a variety of colors including orange, black, chartreuse, white, and pink. Some are painted on the top and bottom, others only on the top. Black surfaces on clay targets are not painted at all, but are inherently black in color due to the composition of the target. A variant called the orange dome has an orange top with a black outer rim.
Clays come in different colors. Using the right color in front of certain backgrounds is key.
The hallmark of a good goal setter (person who “sets” the course) is to provide a creative mix of goal presentations without “eye tests”. It is viewed as a target faux pas that makes it difficult to take shots visually, stacking the odds in favor of young eyes.
There are general rules that good course setters follow. It is generally accepted that a black target shows itself best against the open sky. Black targets against a foliage background can be difficult to spot and require the use of a light color instead. Also, orange targets against fall colors can be problematic. Different colors are suitable for specific situations, and the hallmark of a good target setter is to ensure that all target presentations are clearly visible to shooters.
4. Clay pigeons contain no clay at all.
George Ligowsky (1857-1891) of Cincinnati, Ohio, is credited with inventing the clay target. His patent dated September 7, 1880 introduced a saucer-shaped target made of clay and fired in a kiln into the world of shooting. Ligowsky’s invention replaced the short-lived glass ball target, which itself was a replacement for live pigeons, which were increasingly falling out of favor as a target in organized competition. Ligowsky’s clay target is said to have “rang like a bell” when hit and was difficult to break.
Today’s targets are mostly made up of ground limestone that is bound together with petroleum pitch and does not contain any actual clay at all. Petroleum Pitch Targets provide a good solution in terms of economy and throwability, and break well when struck by a shotgun explosion with just a few pellets. Pitch-based targets are considered a bit toxic, however, and eco-friendly alternatives have emerged over the years.
A popular line of products from White Flyer is marketed as biodegradable. “Bios”, as they are called, have a high sulfur content, but do not contain petroleum pitch. However, biodegradable target fragments can change the pH of the soil and thereby affect vegetation. For this reason, White Flyer recommends course management that includes raking debris and spreading limestone powder to normalize soil pH in areas with heavy use of sulfur-based biodegradable targets.
Champion brand BioBird targets are marketed as biodegradable and are said to use a “naturally occurring forest product and limestone” (no sulfur) so as not to affect soil pH.
5. The rules for shooting registered sports clays have evolved.
Sanctioned sports clays have seen various rule changes over time. Originally, sport in the United States was a low-weapon sport, which meant that the stock of the weapon had to be held under the shoulder until the bird was visible. This rule eventually expired as enforcement was very difficult to maintain. Today’s competitors can shoot from a fully-mounted position, and these days you’ll see everything from a low-gun mount to fully-mounted shooting styles, which often depends on the shooters’ preferences at a particular target presentation.
The rules of FITASC mandate that shooters must attempt birds from a low-gun mount.
Other practices such as the “poison bird” fell by the wayside. Points would be deducted if a shooter broke a special venomous bird that was a different color from normal targets. Early courses also often included a rowboat suspended from the ground by ropes or chains. Targets thrown at a duck boat station were shot from a seated position inside the teetering boat. This went back to the early days of Hunter Clays and was eventually discontinued to provide a consistent experience. Nowadays all shots, except for wheelchair users, are taken from a standing position.
6. The international sports competition is called FITASC and has its own rules.
The sports clay game that we know in the US is called English sport in other countries. Another popular game that we Americans call FITASC (pronounced FEE task) is being filmed around the world. FITASC is an acronym for the French organization that oversees sport: Fédération Internationale de Tir aux Armes Sportives de Chasse.
The FITASC World Championship is a coveted title for shotguns.
FITASC is considered by many to be the purest form of sports clay. Twelve-gauge grenades are limited to one ounce shot, targets are attempted from a low-weapon position, and there is even a strict dress code. The strict rules can deter shooters from giving the game a chance, but it really isn’t as bad as it sounds. In fact, the FITASC World Championship, which changes from nation to nation, is one of the most coveted shotgun shooting titles. Learn more about FITASC at fitasc.com
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