Justin Niederman first picked up a gun when he was 14 years old. It wasn’t surprising. He came from a family that was involved in hunted and shooting sports. It was his grandfather that introduced him to shooting clay targets. Firearms, specifically shotguns, have been one of his lifelong passions ever since.
All through high school, Justin and his fellow students competed in what is now the USA High School Clay Target League.
The league originated in Minnesota in 2001 as part of a school’s community outreach and mentoring program to introduce students to activities that weren’t ordinarily offered in school. A group of six students from a local high school learned about trap and skeet competitions at the Plymouth Gun Club.
Three high school teams – with a total of 30 students – formed the Minnestota State High School Clay Target League in 2008. Word spread quickly and the league grew.
In 2014, the organization conducted its first year-end state tournament. That League Trap Shooting Championship, now with more than 5,000 student competitors and 20,000 in attendance over the six days of competition, has become the largest shooting sport event in the world.
“Our state tournament is huge,” Niederman said. “It’s like a mix between the super bowl and the state fair.”
In 2015, a skeet league was created as well.
The program was so successful that it was destined to spread to other states beyond Minnesota.
“We needed some financial help to expand,” said John Nelson, vice president of the USA High School Clay Target League. “That’s when Tommy Milner, the CEO of Cabela’s, called us to offer help through the Cabela’s Outdoor Fund to expand the program through the USA High School Clay Target League.”
Currently leagues are up and running in 18 states. During the 2015/16 school year, the league was comprised of 15,745 student athletes, 445 teams, 290 shooting ranges and 3,800 coaches/volunteers. Nelson said he expects 20,000 students to participate this spring.
Niederman, now 28, still shoots and hunts whenever he can. And the high school league was such an instrumental part of his early life that he was compelled to make sure other students get the same opportunity for such a positive experience. He now serves on the league’s board of directors.
Looking back, he knows it wasn’t always easy convincing parents or school administrators that shotguns and students were a good combination.
“The hardest part was getting schools involved at the beginning,” Niederman said. “They definitely took some convincing. Now with our proven track record and recognition, it has been easier. We have a wonderful team of people behind the scenes that create a truly world class experience and environment for all.”
Some families needed convincing as well.
“Some families never hunted or owned a gun, so their sons and daughters being on a shooting team was a foreign idea,” Niederman said. “At first they were hesitant and didn’t know what to think. Now we get letters from those parents thanking us, saying that it was the best thing to ever happen to their families and their sons and daughters.”
High school leagues are open to students in grades 6 through 12. Participants must first complete a firearms safety certification course that includes both online material and range instruction. Leagues normally run for six weeks in the spring, with the weekly shoots being conducted at a local gun club under the supervision of trained coaches and volunteers. Fall leagues are offered in some states as well.
There are many reasons for the league’s success. For one, the students really enjoy the sport. They learn responsibility, sportsmanship and what it means to be part of a team. There are many other benefits as well, including:
- Open to all. Some students participate who wouldn’t ordinarily take part in traditional high school sports. According to Nelson, about 36% of participants don’t compete in other school sports.
- Lifelong pursuits. Clay target sports are lifetime sports, compared to other high school sports that end at graduation.
- “Put me in coach.” All shooters compete equally, male and female, regardless of skill level, physical disabilities or other handicaps. There is no sitting the bench hoping the coach will give you some playing time. Everyone shoots the same number of shots.
- Easy on the budget. Teams compete on behalf of their schools, but there is no cost to the schools or taxpayers. It costs competitors about $230 per season, which goes toward the cost of ammo and clay targets.
- Traveling not required. Shooting all takes place at a local gun club. Results are posted to the league’s website and are compared to other schools. There are no away games.
- No conflicts. A team must shoot together, but the schedules are flexible, allowing students to compete in other school sports.
- The safest sport. With more than 30,000 students participating over the years at hundreds of thousands of events where millions of shots have been fired, there has never been an injury to anyone, making this the safest of any high school sport.
- Everyone’s invited. All teams are invited to compete in the state championship tournament.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
The best way to get started is to contact a local gun club and get that firearms safety certification. Then try shooting a round of trap or skeet to see how you like it. The league can help with information on how to form a team.
The biggest expense of participating is the shotgun, but it’s not an expense that you incur every year.
“Shotguns can be affordable too,” said Nelson. “Used ones start at about $200 – about the same price as a decent aluminum baseball bat. If a parent has to purchase hockey gear, not only is the cost high but the athlete grows out of his/her gear in just a couple years and the parents need to purchase multiple times. A shotgun will last a lifetime if taken care of properly.”
Nelson said that gun clubs, parents, conservation groups and others sometimes help with shotgun purchases. Some organizations donate funds to teams to help offset the costs. Getting a shotgun that fits properly is important too.
“Most shotgun manufacturers have entry-level shotguns that fit youth,” Nelson said. “Some youth models offer adjustable features that allow the shotgun to ‘grow’ with the student as their physical attributes change.”
KIM RHODE – THE SHOTGUN SHOOTER HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD
How far can the shotgun shooting sports take you? They can take you all the way around the world and American Kim Rhode is proof.
Rhode began hunting with a shotgun at a very early age and began competing in skeet when she was ten. It didn’t take long for her to reach the top of her sport.
She won her first world championship in women’s double trap shooting at age 13. When she won gold in the 1996 Olympics at age 17, she was the youngest woman to ever win a gold medal in a shooting sport.
She has competed and earned individual medals in a record six straight Summer Olympic Games on an unprecedented five different continents. In all, Rhode has won three gold, one silver and two bronze Olympic medals.
And the native Californian, now 37, doesn’t seem to be slowing down. She won gold in Women’s Skeet at the 2016 ISSF Shotgun World Cup Championships in Rome this past October and she is setting her sights on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Regardless of the level you might reach, Rhode sees great benefits in the shooting sports.
“Shooting is like any sport,” she said. “It teaches values and manners. Kids learn good sportsmanship, how to be a gracious winner and discipline. They learn when you don’t win or when you miss a target, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, refocus and keep going.
“These are life lessons that they will benefit from throughout their lives. Also, shooting is a family sport. You don’t just give your kid a gun and say, ‘go practice.’ The parents are involved and supervising. These are parents who care and actively participate with their kids.”
She knows about family participation. Her father, Richard Rhode, has been her coach throughout her career. Now with a family of her own, she is thankful for all the opportunities shooting has given her.
“Shooting is a multi-billion dollar industry and is a great way to make business contacts not just within the industry. Many businessmen shoot trap and skeet and you never know who is on your squad.
“It offers a great opportunity to travel and potentially see the world. I’ve not only been to Europe but Dubai, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Finland, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and many more. This year the World Championships are in Moscow, Russia and our first World Cup is in New Delhi, India. It’s a great sport!”
Rhode is glad to offer advice for those just starting out in the sport.
“Pick a shotgun with less recoil to begin with,” she suggested. “This not only helps a beginner’s shoulder, but when shooting doubles it helps you to recover for the second shot. Also, get screw in chokes and maybe a sporting model. This makes the gun more versatile so you can shoot skeet, trap and sporting clays. I also recommend investing in some lessons so you don’t develop bad habits that you have to undue later.”
Good practice routines are critical as well.
“Don’t shoot rounds, rather drill each target,” she said. “For example, American skeet, start on station one by shooting two or three high house targets in a row. If you miss, start over until you shoot and break two or three high house targets in a row. Then shoot two or three low house targets, then two or three doubles.
“Move to station two and repeat two or three targets in a row. Move station by station around the skeet field. When you can easily break two or three targets in a row, increase it to five, then eight, etc. This allows you to figure out what you are doing wrong and fix it, before moving to the next target.
“If you’re shooting trap, you can have them set just a left target to practice, then a center target and then a right target so you can use this drill technique. You can do this with trap, skeet or double trap. It will really help you to increase your score quicker and builds muscle memory.”
THE SHOTGUN SPORTS
The National Shooting Sports Federation estimates that between 20 and 40 million people in the U.S. participate in some form of shotgun shooting. The three primary shotgun sports are trap, skeet and sporting clays.
With Trap shooting, disk-shaped clay targets – referred to as birds or pidgeons – are mechanically thrown into the air from a trap house in front of the shooter. The targets move away from the shotgun shooter, angling to the left, right or straight away at random. The shooter has the opportunity to shoot one shot at each of five targets one at a time from five different shooting stations for a total of 25 targets.
In Skeet, some clay targets are launched from a “high house” starting at about ten feet off the ground and crossing from left to right in front of the shooter. Other targets come a “low house” starting about three feet off the ground and moving from right to left in front of the shooter. In skeet, there are eight different shooting positions with both single and double target challenges for a total again of 25.
In Sporting Clays, competitors move through a series of field positions in natural settings designed to simulate hunting situations. Targets can vary in size and can represent a flushing bird or running rabbit with some crossing or angling targets and others bouncing along the ground. A round of Sporting Clays typically offers between 50 and 100 targets, depending on the size of the course.
OTHER YOUTH PROGRAMS
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) offers several programs to get young people involved in the shooting sports, including the Scholastic Clay Target Program, which provides young shooters to compete in sporting clays and First Shots, aimed at all newcomers to shooting.
The NSSF administers its Boy Scouts of America Council Challenge Grant Program to encourage the shooting sports and to teach scouts marksmanship skills, firearms safety and teamwork.
The NSSF also developed the Scholastic Clay Target Program, managed by the Scholastic Sport Shooting Foundation to give students the opportunity to compete at the state and national levels in trap, skeet and sporting clays. The American Trap Association has its AIM program for young trap shooters. National 4-H Shooting Sports is another program that fosters the responsible use of firearms and the principles of hunting.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
USA High School Clay Target League www.usaclaytarget.com
National Shooting Sports Foundation www.nssf.org
Amateur Trapshooting Association www.shootata.com
National Skeet Shooting Association and National Sport Clays Association www.nssa-nsca.org