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Mike, 12 years old and the shortest of nine campers, is less than five feet tall. He also carries the biggest gun. To load his dad's old 870 Remington, he rests the butt on his left thigh, reaches to grasp the gun's forearm, and chambers a 12-gauge shell with his right hand. With one motion he slides the action home and hoists 32 inches of barreled gun to his shoulder. He jiggles the gun into position and calls "pull."
The clay target flies up and away, reaches its highest apogee and begins a descending arch. Serious trap shooters break the clay as their target is on the rise, but Mike hasn't yet fired. The scorekeeper is about to call "lost" as the target nears the ground 45 yards distant. Mike fires the old full-choked pump.
"Dead bird," reports the scorekeeper.
Observers at the Hope Rod & Gun Club shake their heads in disbelief. One comments: "Mike didn't do anything right, yet he broke the bird as it became a nearly impossible target." Mike repeats this performance 18 times out of 25 attempts, and he has never shot skeet or trap before attending the club's Youth Shotgun Camp.
At 14, Ian is 6 foot 2 inches, the tallest and strongest boy in camp. He's shooting a brand new 12-gauge Browning BPS pump shotgun. He shoulders the gun easily, but is forced to cant his head off-center to sight down the gun. Nonetheless, Ian surprises himself by frequently breaking his targets. Staff evaluating his performance believe his misses are caused by a poor gun mount – if his firearm were lengthened with a butt plate, Ian could keep his head straight and eyes parallel to the ground – and by treating the shotgun like a rifle, he keeps the gun immobile instead of swinging through a moving target. The staff work on this common fault with all the kids during camp.
Hope Rod & Gun Club is one of a dozen small community gun clubs surrounding Madison. Such shooting ranges grew on untillable farmland following WW II as places where guys could go to shoot trap and tell adventure stories. Many of Hope's members also belong to the local American Legion Post, which sponsors hunter education classes and encouraged members to organize a Youth Shotgun Camp.
Club members recognized that the days when a boy could pick up a shotgun and go plunk a few rusty cans for practice down at the local garbage dump or gravel pit are gone. The dumps became regional landfills, the open gravel pits sprouted locked gates, and housing subdivisions grew on back forties putting the squeeze on shooting ranges. Today's young people need guidance and opportunities to develop sound shooting skills and judgment.
The club developed its own week-long Youth Shotgun Camp. Nine local boys aged 13-15 enrolled: They know each other from school, sports, band and other teenage doings.
A Wisconsin Hunter Education certification was a prerequisite for enrollment. Campers provided their own shotguns, 500 rounds of ammunition, eye and ear protection, lunch, drinks and $30 for targets. The gun club donated its facilities and staff volunteers.
Coming into camp
To acquaint parents and campers alike with the shooting range, registration was held the Sunday before camp began. Parents brought their children to the range with their cased guns, ammunition and safety gear, signed permission slips and liability waivers.
At 9 a.m. Monday morning, the staff distributed name tags, made introductions, proposed camp schedules and delivered a no-nonsense lecture on gun safety and range protocols. The kids listened politely, although it was clear they wanted no lecturing.
As the boys made ready to shoot, it became apparent that the safety protocols taught in the DNR Hunter Education classes had been learned well. Each boy checked to assure his gun was unloaded, the action was open, and kept the gun muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Their decorum was serious and focused. All the boys passed the safety test with honors.
Next, staff tested the campers' shooting abilities. The group moved to skeet station 7 and placed their unloaded guns on a moveable rack. Station 7, a low house, throws a fixed target going straight away about waist height.
The boys were coached individually. "Plant your lead foot in the direction of where you want to break the target," they were advised. "Hold the gun just below the flight path of the bird."
"Keep your head on the gunstock, wood to wood!"
"Get ahead of the bird."
"Keep the gun moving."
These instructions were repeated with each shooter, until each boy broke at least two low-house targets.
The rotation was repeated with a skeet station 7 high-house target that was "incoming" toward the shooter. Again, each shooter was coached until at least two targets were broken sequentially.
Although the program ran on time, kids waiting their turn had little patience and wandered back to the clubhouse. The idea of learning from others' mistakes had no appeal for them.
"I heard it already," complained one of the more listless boys.
Todd Bender's 45-minute video, A Consistent Approach to Skeet, a "must study" for aspiring skeet shooters, held the kids' interest for about five minutes before horseplay began.
By the second day, the staff felt the kids had lost interest. A grandpa instructor worried: "We wonder if the 50-year generation gap between staff and students is a barrier that's too great to create a positive shooting attitude and a lasting learning experience." But parents' reports that the campers "babbled about their hits and misses at home each evening" partially dispelled the staff's concerns.
Be the bird
All sports train athletes in mental preparation and pre-visualization techniques. The start point for many recreational shotgun shooters is stepping into the shooting box. They continue their routine while loading the gun, visualizing the target's flight path and determining where to break the bird. Once prepared, all that remains is to call "pull" and carry out the mental plan. High scores depend on taking a consistent approach to the target.
Shooting discipline, however, was lost on these boys. It frustrated staff that students showing the poorest physical form and mental preparation appeared to break the most targets. For example, Adam liked to hold his grandfather's 20-gauge pump at port arms, and searched randomly for the bird. As he called to release the target, he was "stargazing" away from the known target path. His gun pointed away from the target path, too. Coaching couldn't convince Adam that following the bird as it leaves the trap house with the gun aligned to intercept the target can break more birds. Yet Adam's keen eye-hand coordination and youthful reflexes enabled him to locate the target, reposition his shotgun, and break the bird fairly often, just not consistently.
"Unbelievable breaks," the instructors commented with envy.
The volunteer staff, all retired and 60+, were spellbound by the youths' natural abilities long lost to the adults with age. It's no wonder that the shooting techniques the "old guys" perfected to compensate for the aging process were pretty much ignored by the kids. Of course the boys didn't realize what it takes to break 25 straight targets, nor did they realize that skeet and trap shooters aim to break 100 straight targets and for really serious competitors, the quest is 400 straight breaks.
"The boys just like to hear the gun go bang, nothing more, nothing less," sighed a grandpa instructor. "It's amazing birds get broken."
The campers seemed to resent shooting practice rounds. They wanted to compete for scores and keep a running tally of their performance. They needed to know their position within their peer group moment-by-moment to affirm their abilities and their position within their society.
This attitude was a bit tough for the staff who were used to a different learning style in their formative years of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In those days, it was enough to master a skill, take a test and then try and perform capably and consistently time after time.
By the third day of camp, the boys prevailed on staff to shoot regulation skeet and trap, and they insisted on keeping score. But the kids didn't realize the game was about to become more challenging. To increase their chances of breaking targets, the trap oscillator had been locked to throw the same targets straight away every time. Fast, angling targets that skeet stations can throw were considered too difficult for new shotgun shooters. The teen-aged boys, staff discovered, wanted to do "adult stuff." By mid-week, our five-day youth camp had evolved from teaching kids to shoot into a competitive learning environment for young adults.
The trap oscillator was activated to throw varied targets that adults would engage during registered competition. The skeet machines released a complete round of competition targets, including doubles and station 8 crossing targets, like the boys wanted.
Scores were recorded, as the boys demanded.
Our transitional adults quickly learned the difference between a gun going "bang" and a "dead bird." The scorekeeper reported miss after miss as the kids attempted to nail the targets.
Suddenly, our shooting tips were taken more seriously. Staff filled requests for advice. "We no longer just help," one volunteer whispered. "Now we're coaching."
By day five, Hope's Youth Shotgun Camp had become a homogeneous shooting team. Parents shared the excitement by stopping by to see the final shoot. The boys competed for "top gun" awards. Prizes – shooting bags donated by a target supplier – waited for the high scorers in skeet and trap. Every shooter broke more than half of the targets. The top gun, Ryan, broke 18 targets in both trap and skeet. All the other scores were clustered close by.
In just five days of training, the boys moved from breaking only one out of 10 easy targets to breaking five out of 10 more difficult trap and skeet shots. As for staff, the four of us were darn pleased with our protégés' rapid improvement. We hope the kids are on their way to a lifetime of enjoying safe recreational shooting.
We noticed that girls came to watch their brothers shoot, so we asked them if they'd consider attending camp themselves. Several said they'd come, but they didn't want to cope with the testosterone-laden attitudes of their brothers. We think a separate session for girls might well attract them to join.
If the Hope Rod & Gun Club can muster enough volunteers, we'll aim for similar camps for new shooters next year. We'll also try and interest enough help to run a weekly summer youth trap and skeet league for our "graduates."
The boys insisted: "Next year, we'll have a 'kids vs. grandpas' shoot-off."
"We don't think so," the smiling grandpas replied.
Bill Maund is a retired public television producer, a former Range Master and a nationally ranked pistol shooter from Madison. He's also a grandpa of five from ages five to 13.