What can game shooters learn from the Olympic disciplines of Skeet and Trap? Liam Stokes finds out
As the game season comes to an end and thoughts turn to the long summer months, thousands of game shooters will take to their local clay grounds to keep their eye in and hone their skills. However, vanishingly few will match their skills against the Olympic disciplines of Skeet and Trap. Are we missing out?
At Countryside Alliance HQ we spend quite a lot of time talking about Skeet and Trap, the shotgun shooting disciplines that feature at the Olympics and which join Double Trap to form the Commonwealth Games suite of clay shooting events. Alongside the rifle and pistol shooting events, these disciplines are currently in danger of omission from the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022. This would be a travesty. Birmingham was once the industrial heart of global gunmaking, a city that to this day has a Gun Quarter. If anywhere deserves to host the world's elite shooters, it is Birmingham.
Not only that, the home nations are actually very good at shooting! At last year’s Games on Australia's Gold Coast, 24 medals were won by shooters from England, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland, and Wales, accounting for over 10 percent of all the medals brought back to the UK. Wales, thanks to a fantastic performance in shooting sports, recorded their highest ever position on the medal tables, and the Isle of Man registered on the medals table solely because of shooting success. We think that to deny our home nation's shooters a chance to shine in front of our home crowd would be cruel.
Furthermore, so we have heard, Olympic shooting is brilliant! It is fun and challenging, with a thriving disabled shooting community because it is so accessible. Trouble is, despite many keen game shots, few in the Countryside Alliance campaigns team had ever shot Skeet and no one at all had shot Trap.
I have long suspected this was a common state of affairs. The vast majority of clay shooting in this country, from the informal gatherings at fortnightly shooting clubs to the professional clay grounds, is some form of sporting clays. Which are different to Olympic clays. Which is confusing.
The key difference is this: sporting clays are programmed for variety; Olympic clays are programmed for repeatability. Sporting clays have developed to represent the unpredictable flight of game birds, be they crossing, overhead, going away, rabbit, teal, incoming or any variation thereof. There are a great many competitive variations of sporting clay shooting, but it is not an Olympic sport due in part to this inherent unpredictability. The Olympic disciplines of Skeet and Trap are the same wherever you shoot them, to a degree of precision that can make the layouts hard to replicate without significant cost. That consistency makes comparisons of skill more accurate, which lends itself to the competitive arena, but the inherent cost is part of the reason that Sporting layouts are so much more popular.
The other reason for the greater popularity is most shooters pursue both game and clays, and Sporting clays seem to have far greater application to the improvement of game shooting skills. But is this actually the case?
I first raised this question with Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist and ISSF shooting coach Anita North when we met at the Game Fair last year. We had previously spoken at the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club annual conference about Anita's forays into the world of game shooting, and so I asked her whether she was doing any Sporting clays to get her eye in for those driven days. Anita was unimpressed.
She assured me that the Olympic disciplines were excellent training for the game shot, and challenged me to try them for myself. Never one to duck a challenge, and never one to accept a challenge without roping some other people in to face it with me, I agreed to do exactly that with a couple of Countryside Alliance colleagues.
And so, Tim Bonner, Jack Knott and I, game shooters all, travelled to Nuthampstead Shooting Ground to meet Anita and Commonwealth Games Clay Target Head Coach and champion Skeet shooter Allen Warren. It was a cold, wet, windy morning in North East Hertfordshire, providing us with some excellent ready-made excuses for our impending poor shooting. Even a trip to the gents told me this was a place for high performance; a handy poster extolled the virtues of hydration and visually explained how to tell if you were running a little dry. But would training in the performance-driven Olympic disciplines make us better game shots? And how different is it from your local Sporting clay range?
First up was Skeet, under the tutelage of the Skeet Doctor himself, Allen Warren. In the driving rain and howling winds, it swiftly became apparent that one of our number was significantly better than the rest of us. We all knew Tim's son is an accomplished Skeet shot, and it became clear that Tim had been learning right along with him. Wearing his game-shooting heritage on his sleeve as he shot with his AYA side by side, he hit considerably more than he missed.
This was not true for me. Despite using the most suitable of hardware, a Beretta Silver Pigeon I Sporting, I found it very, very difficult. Jack shot considerably better than me, and better than he expected, with his Beretta 690 I. The first thing you notice is the odd blend of predictability and randomness. You know where the clay is coming from, but you don't know when.
Skeet is shot from seven positions laid out in a semicircle between two towers, with an eighth position directly between the two positions. When standing in the middle position on the semicircle, the 'High house' to your left launches a clay from 10 feet above the ground. The one to your right is the 'Low house', housing a trap three feet from the ground. When you call for a clay, a big red light lets you know a clay is coming, and after a randomised delay of up to three seconds it launches. Or in the case of a pair, they both do, and at serious (in my case, unhittable) velocity.
A three second delay felt like an eternity. Sometime a clay launches the instant you call it, which felt shocking almost to the point of rudeness. You are supposed to shoot the pairs in a specified order, but they come at you so quickly you don't have time to think and I tended to shoot whichever one I saw first. Probably my best shot of the day counted for nought. While standing beneath the High house, I dusted the clay launched from the low tower directly opposite the instant I saw it, only to be told I was supposed to shoot the high clay first, which I hadn't even noticed.
Allen's advice to me centred on consistency in mounting the shotgun, which along with rapid reactions, seemed to be at the heart of Skeet shooting success. It came as no surprise to learn that skeet was developed by grouse shooters in North America, and the relentless emphasis on consistency had clear advantages for the game shooter. Tim said he had certainly noticed an improvement in his game shooting since joining his son on the Skeet ranges.
After a brief hiatus in the club house to dry out and warm up, it was time for Trap shooting with Anita. The first and most welcome revelation: Trap shooting is shot from under a canopy. Outside our little shelter however the storm continued unabated. Clays launched from 15 traps housed in a trench in front of us, and they rose and dipped in the raging winds. Olympic Trap is shot from five stations, with a computer randomly sending one clay either straight ahead or at an angle of up to 45˚ to the left or right. The traps are voice-activated, which takes some getting used to. Try to ask for advice while standing on-station and the traps will start launching clays. All of us game shooters called for our clays with a traditional "PULL!", but Anita and Allen triggered the microphone with an audible sigh. The attention to such details shows the importance of relaxation in Trap shooting. The Skeet was fast and frenetic, but the Trap took on an almost meditative quality while preparing to call for a clay. We all shot with a Beretta 692 with a 32" barrel, which felt like a serious piece of kit to those of us accustomed to light 16-gauge game guns but was ideal for the smooth handling required of a Trap gun.
This was a totally new discipline to all of us, and where I found speed was the x-factor on the Skeet, here it was range and composure. Anita talked about the value of breathing and stance in dropping tension from the body whilst maintaining a solid platform from which to shoot. Lessons that have obvious cross-over for the game shot.
As our time with our gold-standard coaches at Nuthampstead came to a close, we drew our conclusions. Tim was already a decent Skeet shot. Jack showed some serious potential. I was writing the story so could edit my performance later. And there were clearly lessons game shooters could learn from Olympic shooting. The magic is in the repetition. By doing the same action over and over you precisely identify your flaws and you fix them, while the competition keeps it fun and interesting. I would recommend a session on the Skeet and Trap ranges to anyone wanting to improve their game shooting, and maybe add a competitive edge to their clay habit.
This article originally appeared in the Spring issue of My Countryside magazine.
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Photos are Credited to Simon Finlay