A Bogardus Glass Ball from the Karl Hampel Collection
Note: This article first appeared in Hooks & Bullets Magazine March/April 2017 issue.
The day I first met Kevin Speer, the heart and soul behind Hooks & Bullets, we talked about many different subjects, one of them being my on-going efforts to write something that is readable without too much pain and discomfort to the reader. Another was that Kevin thought it would be nice to have some articles on clay shooting, since many readers showed interest in the subject, but were not familiar with the different forms of the shotgun sports.
But before we go any further I must make it very clear that my shotgunning parallel my writing: I am an enthusiast at both, but not really good, or just good, at either. And although I have published three books and written twenty or so magazine articles, I never shot a single registered shotgun target in my life, so…thread these lines with care!
Nowadays we have an apparently ever-increasing variety of shotgun sports, also called “Clay Pigeon Shooting”, but the most common forms are Trap and Skeet. The basic difference is that in Trap the “birds,” as we call the four-inch diameter clay saucers lunched by a machine also called a trap, flies away from the shooter in a somewhat random pattern, while in Skeet the “birds” fly across the Skeet field in trajectories that are supposed to be fixed, unless wind plays tricks on the “bird,” or the shooter.
The other way of telling the difference between Trap and Skeet is by the behavior of their respective shooters: if everybody is hanging together, talking and laughing out loud you are in the middle of Skeet shooters; and if everyone is serious, concentrated, looking solely at their guns, and not saying a word besides “PULL”, the universal command to release a bird, now you find yourself among Trap shooters.
Since I shoot both Trap and Skeet, along with Sporting Clays, Five Stand, Skrap, and in more distant fields Bunker Trap (also called International or Olympic Trap) and Helix or ZZ-Birds, you could say that I must suffer from multiple personality disorder. C’est la vie!
But it amazes me is that with all the variety of clay shooting modalities that we have available in our modern times, many of us either forget or choose to ignore how the sport of shooting flying began.
Shotgunning as we know it today began in the later part of the XVIII century when the first practical shotguns came to light. By practical shotgun I mean a smooth bore long gun that was light enough that it could be handled relatively easily, ergonomically enough that a person could swing it while pointing at a moving target (for all practical purposes, a bird), and with a fast enough lock time (that is the time elapsed between pressing the trigger and the main powder charge being ignited and eventually the shot charge leaving the barrel) that would make it possible to hit a moving or flying target (again, a bird).
Bird hunting as a formal social activity originated in France, but was adopted by and perfected in England or the United Kingdom, and it is more than fair to say that shotguns first achieved perfection in that land, and a master gunsmith by the name of Joseph Manton is regarded as the creator of the first “Best Gun” and the forefather of the world-famous London Gun Trade.
The problem was, and continues to be, if you ever try shooting flying, is that once practical shotguns were available and hunting seasons were over, gentlemen of means, or of no means, still wanted to use them and demonstrate their newly acquired skills to the world, so friends began shooting at each others hats, thrown in the air for safety and to better imitate a bird (there is no historic evidence of that), but I imagine that they soon got tired of shooting at their hats, probably because it was boring and could become sort of expensive, since the beaver pelts to make those top hats had to be imported from America.
So they put their hats to use in a slightly different way. After digging a shallow hole on the ground, and place a live pigeon in it, they covered the hole and the pigeon with those hats. A long string was attached to the hat and the shooter (not a hunter anymore, but a shooter) would call “PULL” for whoever was manning the string to free the pigeon, and then shoot at it. In order to make the sport more challenging pigeons could be released from different positions, generally five.
Apparently those shooter had plenty of old hats (at least that is my assumption as they may have shot them before the pigeons became the accept flying target, again, no historic evidence), and they probably used those old hats, since one of the first famous Trap Clubs in England was called OLD HATS.
As the game evolved the old hats were replaced by wooden boxes that had a trap mechanism to release the birds and compel them into taking to the wing, therefore the name of the sport.
Eventually Trap reached the United States of America and the once abundant passenger pigeon became the target of choice, but once they became scarce (that was before they became extinct), and even in the XIX century animal rights activists began to make noise, the typical and unparalleled American ingenuity put itself to work to find suitable replacements for live pigeons.
First a Captain Adam Henry Bogardus invented the “Bogardus” glass ball in 1866. The glass ball was launched by a spring loaded trap with an arm that looked almost like a big spoon, but they made less than perfect replacement for pigeons: they were hard to see, hits were difficult to spot, so people started to fill them up with feathers, and many times shot would just slide around the smooth glass surface without breaking the targets. To correct that, the glass balls were made with textured surfaces, but the design proved to be a dead end.
Some years later, in 1880, the Cincinnati, Ohio, trap shooter George Ligowsky created the discoid clay pigeon, and we continue to shoot it today, launched from manual throwers or highly sophisticated automatic traps that hold hundreds of birds in their magazines.
From the humble beginnings (or maybe not so humble, as the first live pigeon shooter apparently were either of noble blood or had enough money to spend time with them), the multitude of “Clay Pigeon” sports evolved, but every single time I pull the trigger I envision my shot charge connecting with the feathers of a fast flying live pigeon against the blue sky.