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The Evolution Of Trap Shooting Targets

If you’re an avid hunter or gun enthusiast, chances are you’ve done your fair share at trapshooting. Whether it be at a sporting club or at a friends house with a spring loaded arm “clay pigeon” thrower. If you’ve indulged in this sport at any level, you can become easily hooked, or at least have fun and laugh at yourself.

I’ve been an avid grouse & woodcock hunter since I was a young teenager. As I got older I wanted to improve my shotgunning. At our local Walmart, I purchased a spring loaded clay target machine. It had three angled legs you pushed into the ground, and a spring loaded arm that pulled back and locked. You then place a clay target on the “throwing arm,” with a 20 foot nylon string hooked to a pin that will release the arm on the machine acting like a fulcrum, throwing the clay target in the air. I’ll admit, I couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, but it was fun and addictive. Through the years, I progressed and eventually became a pretty decent shot, especially after understanding how to lead my target. I never entered any competitions, nor was I competitive. As I indulged into this sport, I wanted to learn where it all started.

What I found so intriguing about trap shooting, is how innovative certain individuals were, as far back as the late 18th century. Trapshooting seems to have derived from England, where the forefathers of wing-shooting originated. The first mention of trapshooting appears in a 1793 English publication called the, Sporting Magazine. Residents of the southern and midland counties of England, met near London to engage in the sport called “Old Hats.” The reason it was named old hats, is because a hole was dug about 2 feet in the ground, and a pigeon was placed in the hole with a hat over the hole preventing the bird from escaping. When talking about “hats,” I'm referring to top hats and bowler hats. These were good sized, some as tall as 8 inches. I’m sure luck would have it when a bird exploded from the hole, your hat would be covered with white splash marks. Maybe that's a reason they called it "Old Hats"?

These individuals were among the first to organize groups of pigeon shooters. Through the years this wing shooting shindig was changed to the Red House, at Battersea. This was more easily accessible to the Londoners, who were the prime followers of the sport. Eventually the sport started to evolve into a more practical wing shooting experience. As the sport continued to grow, these shooting enthusiast thought of another ingenious idea for wing-shooting. They constructed a box that was a foot long and 10 inches wide, with a sliding top cover and a long string to slide the cover open. Once the bird was placed in the box, the shooter would give the signal when to pull the cover, and the bird would flush. I'm sure you would occasionally get the dazed bird that would hop out of the box and stand right beside it. The first record of this type of shooting in America, was found in the Sportsman’s Club of Cincinnati, beginning in 1831. Thus being the first mention of trap-shooting in the U.S. As strong evidence that Queen City, Ohio is the where it all began.

As the sport kept evolving, people were beginning to become more innovative. They started to use inanimate objects instead of live birds, due to some people thought it was cruel to use birds as targets. In 1866, Charles Portlock of Boston invented the glass-ball for a target. Originally the glass balls were 2 ¼ inches in diameter, constructed of smooth colorless glass. It wasn’t long before they were replaced by blue or amber glass. Of course there were individuals who wanted to market their own trap shooting target. They even had glass balls filled with feathers, so when hit, it would simulate a bird. One target I found clever was a ball that was made of a chemical that when hit would disperse a fertilizer. I wonder if farmers would purchase those to have fun while fertilizing their fields. I'm sure the glass particles spread throughout the fields would present problems. By 1884, a gentlemen by the name of G.F. Kolbe of Philadelphia invented the “Belcher’s Patent Paper Bird.” The materials used were a stiff paper attached to a wire ball. When I first researched this creative target, it reminded me of a “birdie” used in badminton. Maybe that’s where he got the idea?

This brings us to what my generation of trapshooting is familiar with, the “clay bird.” In 1880, George Ligowsky of Cincinnati designed a target that was comprised of ground clay with a mixture of water and then baked. It was flat and round to scale through the air at speeds of 60mph! Soon the targets were constructed of river silt mixed with tree pitch, to assure more durability, especially when being shipped and boxed. This target seemed to fit well in the trapshooting world and the vast majority of shooters were pleased on how the target simulated a bird.

It still amazes me how the evolution of trapshooting came today. There isn’t a single time I load my trap machine that the “Old Hats,”of 200 years ago doesn't cross my mind.

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