Like many a dyed-in-the-woods bird hunter, I'd never had much use for skeet. The clay pigeons used in skeet, I'd sneer, just aren't the same as the real thing. Unlike a wily, wary game bird, the clay flushes when you tell it to, flies the same straight, smooth trajectory almost every time out of the box and goes to pieces—literally—at the touch of a single shot pellet. A clay never runs circles around your gundog, or takes off in a heart-stopping roar of wings just when there's a tree between your gun muzzle and its escape route, or rips you to tatters by flushing when you're all hung up in a brier tangle. It never runs and hides in a hollow tree or a stone wall, or dives like a wounded duck to the bottom of a pond and holds on with its bill until you've gone. And you can't eat a clay pigeon, not unless you have a taste for its ingredients, limestone bonded with petroleum pitch.
Worse still, to the loner mentality of the bird hunter, skeet always seems like a gun-toting version of country club golf. Adherents of both skeet and golf display a special fondness for fancy clothing and equipment. Many skeetshooters sport WINCHESTER 50 STRAIGHT badges and fancy Bob Allen vests and carry overpriced shotguns—ostentatious, not to mention rather cliquish, suburban, exclusive and expensive. Oh, a round or two of skeet as a warmup for the grouse or waterfowl season is all well and good, but no one would want to make a habit of it. Or so I once believed.
Then last spring, at the invitation of a skeet-addicted friend, I sampled the game, just to see what it was like. Not only did I learn that my earlier opinions were wrong, but also within two rounds I was hooked. Skeet, I learned at the expense of many a squirming blush, is no cinch. Actually, a raw tyro who has never fired a shotgun before can master skeet quicker than a gunner who learned shooting by going after real game and, thus, brings bad habits—mainly a tendency to snap shoot—to the skeet field.
Skeet is a mentally demanding game that—like billiards, archery, darts, tennis or putting in golf—requires not merely superior eye-hand coordination but also an almost Zenlike self-discipline. Better yet, at $2 per 25-shot round and another $2.50 to reload that number of shells, it isn't as pricey as I'd feared.
The cause of my conversion from skeptic to skeet-freak was the game itself. Skeet evolved between 1910 and '15 on the back lot of the Glen Rock Kennels in Andover, Mass. C.E. Davies, the kennel owner; his son, Henry; and their friend William H. Foster had grown bored with the straightaway simplicities of trap shooting and devised a competitive "course of fire" that, using the same gear as trap, offered different angles for each shot. They called the new game "shooting around the clock." The circumference of a circle 25 yards in radius was marked off into 12 equidistant shooting stations, with the clay-hurling trap stationed at 12 o'clock to throw its birds toward six o'clock. As they moved around the circle, the gunners fired a single shot at each of two birds from each station. The leftover shell from the standard box of 25 spoiled the game's symmetry, so the inventors added a station at dead center of the circle and took—or tried to take—the last bird as an incomer, straight overhead. In 1920, when a neighbor opened a chicken farm adjacent to the kennel, Foster decided to cut the circle in half and add another trap at six o'clock. This not only retained the same shooting angles and spared the chickens, but it also added the dimension of "doubles"—two birds thrown simultaneously from either end of the field in a high-low crossing pattern.
With Foster publicizing the game through National Sportsman magazine, of which he was an editor, by 1926 shooting around the clock had caught on among gunners throughout the nation. In February of that year, Foster's magazine and another called Hunting and Fishing announced a competition to name this new sport—the old moniker having been deemed too confusing and cumbersome. The $100 prize went to Gertrude Hurlbutt of Dayton, Mont., who suggested an old Scandinavian word meaning shoot. Thus skeet was born.
Today the game comes in two versions—American and international. In American skeet a shooter can mount his gun to his shoulder before calling for the bird, which is released immediately on the call of pull. In international skeet, the version used in the Olympics and other world championship events, the gun butt is held hip-high, and a delay of as many as three seconds can follow the call. The length of the delay is always determined by the puller. Also, international targets are thinner and harder and are thrown faster and farther—by some 20%—than American clays. In the American version, the birds are launched at some 60 mph—faster than most upland game birds can fly. In both versions of skeet the shooter calls for two singles at each of eight stations—one an outgoer from the "high" house at the six o'clock position, the other an incomer from the "low" house at the opposite end of the field—followed by doubles from Stations 1 and 2, 6 and 7. The 25th and last shot is taken at a station chosen by the shooter. Since the crossing point of the targets is 21 yards from each station, the center station, No. 4, being farther out on the clockface, requires the longest shot. At Station 8, in the center of the field, the gunner gets two incomers, high and low, perhaps the trickiest shots of the round because of their sudden, straight-on appearance. Thus each shot around the clock demands a different angle and a different lead, ranging from dead-on and no lead on Low 7 to a lead of as much as four feet on crossing birds from Stations 3, 4 and 5.
If a wind is blowing, as it usually is where I shoot, a bird can take on a whippy, whimsical life of its own, sometimes scaling upward like an F-4 Phantom jet on full afterburners or, on other occasions, dipping like a Stuka on a bombing run. I've even seen a clay undulate through the varying breeze, roller-coaster fashion. Shooting in the wind is more challenging because it more closely resembles the flight behavior of real birds.
The first time I shot seriously, at the Owlkill Rod & Gun Club in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., it was overcast and gusty. I broke only 12 birds of 25, and the red on my face was not caused by windburn. A voice in the back of my head tried to sneer, "C'mon, it's just a silly snob's game. Who needs it?" Then I looked at the other men shooting on that raw, blustery April afternoon, men in bib overalls, mud-caked overshoes, beat-up baseball caps, some carrying their shells and empties not in fancy leather cartridge pouches but in workworn carpenters' aprons, the sort you tote nails in. Suddenly, another voice asked, "Who's the snob?"
I suppose what clinched my conversion was my membership to the Owlkill club. Eagle Bridge, appropriately, is where Grandma Moses, the famed artist, spent most of her 101 years, and the men and women I shoot with at Owlkill are just as down-to-earth and no-nonsense as the folks Grandma used as subjects in her primitive paintings. No country club dandies these. The Owlkill's 60 members include a hardware store owner, a silo salesman, two or three dairy farmers, a gundog trainer, a veterinarian, a small-town cop, a crack machinist, a computer software expert and four high school teachers. They're rural types, even if their occupations all don't happen to be agrarian. The needling and banter they exchange on the skeet field is endless and earthy.