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Feats of Clay

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What do some Main Line golfers do when winter comes? They round up the wife and kids, shoulder their rifles and take aim.

Drive by the golf courses of Aronimink, Philadelphia Country Club or Gulph Mills during the winter months, and you’re likely to hear a fusillade of shotgun fire. Not to worry. The curious clatter in question is merely the sound of members putting down their clubs for the season and setting their sights on a thin, bright orange disc roughly the size of the lid to a pickle jar.

“Shooting is a good fit for our club,” says Dick Garvin, co-chairman of the Aronimink Trap Shooting Club in Newtown Square. “When the weather is no longer good for golf, we start to shoot—and we shoot whether it’s raining or snowing, too.”

The season runs from about October or November until sometime in April. The dates are informal because the formal structure of the organizations—at least those that are part of private golf clubs—tends to be informal as well. Garvin estimates there are about 120 Aronimink members who shoot, but only 25 or 30 show up regularly at the weekly intra-club competitions. Still, since the activity takes place in the off-season, the clubs provide a measure of cohesiveness that spans the calendar year.

“Shooting and golf are similar in that both require good hand-eye coordination,” says Norman Barr, a golf and shooting member at Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne. “The two sports fit the country club environment; both require the kind of open space a country club provides; and the two different seasons help keep members together throughout the year.”

HOW TO EXPLAIN THE popularity of clay target shooting at country clubs? For one, there’s the prospect of continued camaraderie all year long. Then there’s the family component: Many adult shooters got their start following their fathers to the trap and skeet ranges as children. Dick Garvin is a third-generation shooter at Aronimink who began attending trap shoots with his father and brother in 1964.

In a reversal of tradition, Brian Sproat, Aronimink Trap Shooting Club’s other co-chair, ultimately brought his own father to the range, following the younger Sproat’s beginnings as a shooter at age 14. Today, Sproat put the roles back in their proper chronological order when he began taking his son, Nelson, to the range when he turned 13.

The younger Sproat said his interest in shooting was kindled while accompanying his father to the trap range. He also has some experience on the killing fields of paintball competition. He took up golf last summer and can already size up the two sports.

“I like [shooting] better than golf,” Nelson says, while waiting his turn with the rifle at the annual Hospitality Bowl Invitational Shoot, an event that’s been hosted by Aronimink for the last five years. “I’m better at it—and it’s more thrilling than golf.”

The family attraction of shooting is not just limited to fathers and sons. Many husbands and wives shoot together. (There’s something about the sight of a woman holding a shotgun that makes us all strive to be better mates.)

In fact, women and shooting have a long tradition—especially in our area—dating back to the formation of the Women’s Trap Shooting League of Philadelphia in 1929. Aronimink’s Toni Cavanagh has been a shooter since the mid-1970s. She got into the sport the way many women have. “My husband was an avid duck hunter, and we had two sons,” she says. “I didn’t want to be left out of their lives, so shooting became something we could all do together as a family.”

Cavanagh estimates there are about three-dozen women who are members of the women’s league. They participate in a seasonal competition that involves at least a dozen or more formal shoots hosted by member clubs. “We compete as teams of five,” Cavanagh says, adding that participants include Huntington Valley, Philadelphia and Torresdale-Frankford country clubs, along with the Valley Forge Gun Club.

Eugenia Siedlarz also became drawn to the sport of shooting as a result of her husband’s interest in hunting.

“I went to my first shoot with him about four years ago and liked it,” says Siedlarz, who is president of the Valley Forge Gun Club, a female organization that allows male members to shoot one Sunday a month. “I’ve always been interested in sports and was a college jock. Shooting looked like another fun recreational sport to try.”

Cavanagh is disappointed to see so many women shying away from shooting. “Women seem to be timid about approaching the sport unless their husbands are already participating. Junior girls seems more attracted to tennis and riding,” she says. “More women should try it, because there’s no resistance to their participation from the men.”

Indeed, Cavanagh has found none of the male prejudice against women still found in sports such as golf and tennis. “At my club, the men actually encourage women whose husbands don’t shoot to come out and compete,” she says.

Cavanagh also points out that shooting is the one sport in which men and women can compete as equals. “It’s not like golf or tennis, where strength is a factor,” she notes. “Shooting is a mental game and demands a high level of hand-eye coordination.”

Siedlarz’s competitive urges come out when she comments on the balance of skill between men and women. “You could make a case that women are even better skilled when it comes to hand-eye coordination,” she says.

And being properly fitted with the right shotgun is key to becoming a more accurate shooter. “It’s hard to improve without a proper fit,” says Siedlarz.

ACCORDING TO A HISTORY assembled by the Amateur Trapshooting Association, the earliest record of shooting games dates back to 1793, a time when live birds were used as targets. Today the inanimate clay discs are still referred to as “birds” or “pigeons.” (In fact, even clay is a historic misnomer, since today’s targets are made of either a compound of pitch or biodegradable materials.)

Live birds—either pigeons or sparrows—were attached to long cords tied to the traps they were kept in, hence the genesis of the term “trapshooting.” The call of “pull!” heard on many trap ranges today harkens back to that earlier time when shooters would signal the trapper to yank on the cord to release the bird from its trap.

In 1902, the practice of using live targets ended amidst a continuing storm of controversy surrounding the cruelty of such a practice. From then on, only inanimate targets were used in tournament competition.

Before the evolution of the modern target, inanimate objects such as glass balls (now a treasured collector’s item among shooting enthusiasts) were used. But the modern pitch target turned out to be more practical than glass, and it’s remained essentially unchanged since the late 1800s.

A British import, trapshooting got its official start here in 1915 with the formation of the American Amateur Trapshooting Association. John Philip Sousa served as its first president. Locally, state-affiliated shooting clubs date back to 1939 (see sidebar on page 139). Philadelphia Country Club traces its trapshooting club back to 1927, while Aronimink displays shooting trophies going back to the 1930s.

In the shooting world, trap joins skeet and relative newcomer sporting clays (perhaps the fastest growing segment of the shooting arts today). To hear the various aficionados of each discipline tell it, the contrasts between the three are as plain as day.

“The difference between trap and skeet is more the difference between driving and chipping in golf,” says Philadelphia Country Club’s Adolph Paier, only reluctantly comparing the two. “Shooters tend to be partial to either skeet or trap, and not both.”

Paier contends that the flight of the target in skeet is more oriented to field-bird hunting, where the target is moving across your shooting horizon at a fairly fixed distance. In trap, the target moves at an angle and farther away from the shooter, mimicking duck hunting.

Both a skeet and trap champion, Paier says some people find the latter easier. “There is less gun movement with trap shooting, so learning how to handle the gun is easier,” he notes. “In skeet, there is significant movement or sweep of the gun toward the target. On the other hand, the range of guns used in skeet is smaller and lighter, [so] skeet may be a better place for younger shooters to learn.”

However, it’s the third discipline, sporting clays, that mimics hunting the most. One hikes—generally through a wooded area—to where a series of shooting stands are positioned to provide a wide variety of shots in terms of trajectory, velocity and distance.

Just as a wide variety of waterfowl and game birds fly overhead or are flushed from their nesting areas, in sporting clays targets are launched to mimic those flight patterns. Single, double and even triple targets may be launched to simulate real hunting.

“Sporting clays is the closest you can come to live game hunting,” says Ward Corkran, a Sundays-only male member of the Valley Forge Gun Club. “I love to hunt, but as you get older, hunting can become more difficult physically. Sporting clays is a great activity to fall back on and still enjoy the camaraderie and challenge of real hunting.”

Many believe the growth of this segment of the sport has as much to do with a lesser emphasis on precision (compared to shooting trap or skeet) as it does any similarity to actual hunting.

“In trap and skeet, you may have to be near perfect to be competitive,” Paier explains. “In sporting clays, you’re not expected to hit all the targets, so the competition tends to be less fierce—and there’s more time for camaraderie.”

At Gulph Mills, members participate in yet another variation on the shooting theme: Altemus Trap, where shooters align themselves along a v-line with the trap located at the vortex of the “v.” It combines the precision of standard trap with the randomness of sporting clays.

“You shoot five targets from each position along the ‘v,’” explains Gulph Mills member Joe Rollins. “The five targets are released in sets of singles and pairs. After the first station, however, the singles and pairs are launched randomly, meaning you don’t know when you’ll be shooting at one target or two in that set.”

A big plus about shooting clubs is the emphasis placed on gun safety. Aronimink has annual clinics on gun-handling and trap-range safety. And out on the course, all beginning shooters are chaperoned by experienced members. State-affiliated trapshooting organizations such as the Delaware Sports & Field Association conduct monthly safety seminars as well.

So whether it’s the camaraderie, the competition, the precision required or the sheer joy in blowing something away without harming a living thing, the shooting arts are alive and thriving on the Main Line.

Just use your ears.

 

Why Not Give it a Shot?
Want to get involved with shooting but don’t belong to a country club? Then consider Brookhaven’s Delaware County Field & Stream Association. Founded in 1939, the 4,000-member club is a state affiliate of the Amateur Trapshooting Association and has four trap fields, three skeet fields, a five-stand field for sporting clays and a table-trap center for beginners.

The group’s formation has a bit of irony attached to it, given its focus on guns. The founders met in a funeral parlor and elected their first slate of officers while seated on coffin boxes. The club’s emphasis on firearm safety has precluded the need to meet at or near funeral parlors since then, however. DCFS conducts the state-required hunter-safety course, and monthly safety seminars are held at each of the club’s ranges.

DCFS has 400 women members. And to encourage female participation, it sponsors an annual Ladies Day, where non-members can learn gun safety and receive shooting instruction. DCFS family dues are $150 annually. 713 Chester Creek Road, Brookhaven, (610) 872-9728, dcfs.org.