Trapshooting Hones Hunting Skills

A clay pigeon and a hand-held thrower. Photo by David Lien.
A clay pigeon and a hand-held thrower. Photo by David Lien.

As the reverberating gobbles of spring turkey hunting fade into summer and thoughts slowly turn toward fall, many hunters frequent local shooting ranges and gun clubs to prepare for goose and waterfowl seasons, along with upland-game and big-game hunting. One of the more enjoyable ways to spend a sunny summer afternoon honing hunting skills is trapshooting (i.e., shooting clay pigeons).

During my formative years growing up in northern Minnesota, we rarely shot at a range or club but, instead, used nearby sandpits or other shooting locales on the outskirts of town. Nowadays, there aren’t as many convenient places to shoot safely (or legally), and most of us end up practicing our rifle and shotgun skills at public or private ranges and clubs.

One such club is not far from my home in Colorado Springs: the Pikes Peak Gun Club (PPGC), run by the Izaak Walton League of America (Pikes Peak Chapter 34). The chapter’s website includes information on the club’s Sporting Clays and trap ranges, and it features a schedule of upcoming shooting activities and competitions. The club is open to both members and the public for shotgun shooting sports.

The author aims at a clay pigeon at the Pikes Peak Gun Club.
The author aims at a clay pigeon at the Pikes Peak Gun Club.
Melinda Miller shoots at a clay bird as it breaks the horizon. Photo by David Lien.
Melinda Miller shoots at a clay bird as it breaks the horizon. Photo by David Lien.

Trapshooting first developed in England around 1750, and involved shooting live pigeons as they were released from cages called traps. It was introduced to America in the 1830s, when passenger pigeons were frequently used (the birds were extremely abundant at the time). Glass balls replaced live birds in the 1860s and clay “birds” were created in 1880. In 1909, the first automatic trap machine was used.

Today, trapshooters take aim at standardized disks (i.e., clay pigeons) painted fluorescent colors, which are hurled at about 40 mph. Clay pigeons are shaped like miniature, upside-down plates. Made from a mixture of pitch and chalk, clay pigeons are designed to withstand being launched at high speeds but also break easily when hit by very few shotgun pellets. The targets are black when manufactured but get a fluorescent finish so they can be seen against varying backgrounds. For those not familiar with the different categories of clay, there are three main ways to shoot clay pigeons, although variations are practiced in the U.S. and internationally:

Clay targets are launched from a single machine. The targets usually move up and away from the shooter before gliding down to the ground. This is the simplest form of clay shooting and probably the best for working on basic shooting mechanics. A shooter takes multiple shots from each of five stations.

Skeet shooting:
This is a competitive Olympic sport in which clay targets are launched from two machines in crossing patterns, one low and one high. Skeet can be used to prepare for passing shots in hunting but is also widely practiced as a sport unto its own.

Sporting clays:
This takes shooters though a series of stations that provide a variety of target patterns. This course is designed to mimic actual hunting situations and introduce an element of unpredictability.

I grew up participating in informal trapshooting. The simplest version is a hand thrower, which is a hand-held “arm” that holds and releases the clay target when a person swings it. Another type of manual, nonelectrical thrower utilizes a spring-loaded mechanism, which is cocked and subsequently released by hand or foot. However, shooting modern, automated clays is much more challenging and enjoyable.

At the PPGC shoot, I was joined by Melinda Miller. Miller, who passed her Colorado Parks and Wildlife hunter safety education exam last September, has since been on hunts for pheasant and geese (see Colorado Outdoor Online: “More Women Give Hunting A Shot,” and “A (Goose) Hunter’s Dozen,”). However, this was the first time either of us had shot clays at a gun club/range.

We utilized a single trap machine enclosed within a traphouse, downrange from our shooting stations. The house protects the machine from weather and errant shots, and also obscures the machine’s oscillating throwing mechanism. Modern automatic throwing machines can store hundreds of clay targets in a carousel and systematically self-load targets.

To launch a pigeon, an electrical signal from a sound-activated device causes the trap machine to throw its targets after the shooter shouts “pull,” or any other word the shooter uses to call for a target. Each round (25 pigeons, plus two spares) costs $7 per person, and we opted for two rounds each, alternating on the same shooting stations.

After finishing our rounds, we both agreed we’d be back. And after posting a few photos from our shoot on Facebook, including one with Melinda posing with her shotgun, some of the responses included: “That gun is bigger than you” and “Little Annie Oakley” to “Never mess with a gun tot’n chick!” And there are more gun tot’n women around these days.

Melinda Miller poses with her shotgun. Photo by David Lien.
Melinda Miller poses with her shotgun. Photo by David Lien.

According to Gallup poll data, the percentage of American women who own a firearm nearly doubled from 2005-11, rising from 13 percent to 23 percent. The National Shooting Sports Foundation reports that 37 percent of new target shooters are female, though they comprise only 22 percent of the established target-shooting population.

In USA Today article “Group Caters to Rising Number of Well-Armed Women,” Barbara Rumpel, a Winter Park, Fla., resident, says she got hooked on shooting while attending a 2010 Women’s Wilderness Escape firearms camp. “I was never into women’s groups until I started shooting … more women are getting into shooting, because A) they realize they have to be able to protect themselves, and B) because it’s fun,” said Rumpel. “It’s empowering. It really is cool to be able to pick up a skill and do things that you didn’t think you could do—that you find out you can do very well.”

In Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, “Foresight Pays off Before Season,” Paul A. Smith writes, “And as all hunters know well, regardless of experience level, shooting our firearms before each season is essential. It’s the responsible thing to do, because you not only need to be able to handle the gun safely, but you need to know you can hit the target. It’s one of the intersections of hunting safety and hunting ethics. The ethical hunter is proficient at hitting the target and making clean, quick kills. We owe that to the animal.”

Story written by David Lien. Lien is a former Air Force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers . He’s the author of Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”


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