The predictions about the future of shooting and hunting are grim. Until recently, our efforts to recruit the next generation have been underwhelming. Recognizing that without young shooters there will soon be no one to sell guns to, the industry has begun to seriously address youth recruitment, with Families Afield legislation, and special youth hunts and seasons.
One of the brightest spots has been the Scholastic Clay Target Program, an initiative of the National Shooting Sport Foundation begun in 2000. SCTP organizes kids from grades 5th to 12th into teams to compete at trap, skeet, sporting clays and international trap and skeet. American style trapshooting is by far the most popular SCTP discipline, so in August, in search of good news, I attended the Grand American Handicap curious to see the SCTP championships first hand.
On August 6, 2007, at The World Shooting and Recreation Complex at Sparta, Illinios the temperature was 100 degrees and the humidity was high enough to swim in. The hot, sticky air couldn’t begin to muffle the popcorn crackle of 12 gauges up and down a trapline that stretched, literally, for miles. Everywhere you looked in those first two days of the Grand, there was a kid with a gun. I hasten to add, it was a kid with a gun in the very best way: competing as part of a team, learning the mental discipline and skill it takes to calmly crush targets and block out the pressure of competition on trapshooting’s biggest stage.
In all, over 1600 kids grades competed in the two day, 200 target event. Throughout the time I was at the Grand, I never saw any unsafe gun handling at all. Muzzles were up, actions were open, and the guns were harmless—until the shooters stepped up to the 16-yard line. Then, if you were a clay target, you were in big trouble; these kids can shoot. In fact, the team that won the five-shooter varsity event, the Arnold, Missouri Junior Trapshooters, broke an impressive 971×1000 to win first place by a single bird. Over 300 shooters broke 190 or better, and one shooter—Matt Bartholow of Rapid City, S.D.—ran 200 straight, despite heat, humidity and winds I’d have estimated at 25 mph.
What made the SCTP finals so encouraging wasn’t necessarily the skill of the shooters, but the familiarity of the scene. Except that the competitors swung guns, not bats, and shot targets, not baskets, the SCTP finals looked like any other youth sporting event. Parents, siblings and relatives sat in the same folding chairs, and drove the same mini-vans and SUVs you’ll see at any weekend soccer tournament.
Therein lies the genius of SCTP: the NSSF has found a way to make shotgun shooting into a youth sport, and if there’s one thing parents of my generation understand and embrace, it’s youth sports. We are obsessed with watching our kids compete. We’ll travel long distances to watch, we’ll chauffeur kids to practice, and we’ll uncomplainingly spend money so our children can excel. In fact, parents and shooters surveyed after the 2006 SCTP finals reported spending about $1000 per child per year, with the average competitor shooting 2,739 targets per year.
At the demo field, where attendees at the Grand can try manufacturer’s guns, I talked to Steve Zewicky, coach of the Siegel H.S. team from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. As Zewicky’s son Mark ground targets with a new Browning, Steve told me his son’s team had been practicing at least once a week since January. Mark, 16, had been shooting for three years, said Zewicky. To me, Mark looked like offensive line material, and I asked if he played other sports. “No, he concentrates on his shooting,” said Zewicky. About then Mark finished his round. “How many did you break?” Steve asked. “25,” replied Mark casually. It seems there might be a new Browning in Mark’s future and more trips to the SCTP championships.
When the program started in 2000, only a few hundred shooters participated. Now, there are over 10,000 young shooters in trap, skeet, sporting clays, and international trap and skeet. One quarter of the shooters represent their schools, and about 1 in 10 schools offers shooting as a full-fledged varsity sport. In these days when a kid can be sent home for bringing a toy gun to school as part of a Halloween costume, SCTP is getting guns into the schools, in the right way, and that’s a huge step in the right direction for the future of the shooting sports.