Your first thought when you go to watch a Southwest School of Washburn trapshooting practice may be that you’ve been given the wrong directions.
Turning off a paved highway to drive through a cattle-filled pasture doesn’t seem to be a route that leads to the practice site of a program that’s won state and national honors. Neither does going through two livestock gates — the first must be shut behind you so cows won’t get out.
Seeing a small group of teens and almost-teens gathered around a lone trap machine in a fenced-off patch of pasture may still have you wondering about your whereabouts, but when shotguns start to crack, it becomes obvious you’re at the right place. As they pulverize round after round of clay discs, these young shotgunners make it clear they are the latest generation of a Southwest School of Washburn trapshooting program that has won a long list of state and national honors in slightly more than two decades of existence, including 2010 AIM (Academics Integrity Marksmanship) National Champion, 2018 AIM Sub-Junior Class C National Champion, and 2019 Missouri State AIM Sub-Junior Champion. Four Southwest School of Washburn shooters have been invited to Olympic tryouts at the Olympic Development Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
On a broader scale, these shooters are part of a growing group of young Missourians who participate in youth shooting sports. More important than the trophies and plaques the shooters take back to their schools are the firearms safety tips, the outdoor skills, and the increased self-confidence that each shooter takes to heart.
“Our trapshooting program allows kids who may not be interested in mainstream sports, such as basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, cross country, etc., an opportunity to represent our school and be part of a team activity,” said Mike Vining, who’s coached Southwest School of Washburn’s team for 21 years. “It gives those kids a sense of being a part of something while at school.”
Logan-Rogersville High School trap coach Kevin Boyer agrees.
“One of the best parts of coaching these kids is watching them mature into young men and ladies,” said Boyer, whose teams also have a long list of accomplishments, including winning the 2020 AIM National Championship. “Gaining confidence, meeting personal goals — those are things that will carry over into life and everything they do.”
A Growing Activity
Missouri’s competitive youth shooting circuit consists of several governing bodies. Tournaments are affiliated with AIM, 4-H, FFA, the Scholastic Clay Target Program, and the Missouri High School League. Approximately 1,200 middle school and high school students compete in these programs.
“In Missouri, the sport is still growing,” said Tony Shockley, the youth chairman of the Missouri Trapshooters Association. ”We are especially seeing more and more young females coming into the sport. That’s really exciting.”
The popularity of youth sporting clay shooting activities isn’t just a Missouri thing. The USA High School Target League, a national youth shooting organization, has grown from three participants in 2001 to 1,042 teams, which involve more than 32,000 participants. Minnesota’s State High School Clay Target League Championship features more than 8,000 student shooters and is considered to be the world’s largest trapshooting event.
MDC offers support to these programs by providing instructional staff and financial resources to 4-H shooting sports, the Missouri State High School Trap Shoot, and other groups.
“MDC encourages people to be engaged in all sorts of conservation activities,” said MDC Hunter and Angler Marketing Specialist Eric Edwards. “One of the many activities we encourage people to be active in is shooting sports. Instilling an appreciation for these activities early in life increases participation in other outdoor pursuits.”
MDC’s five staffed shooting ranges located across the state are frequently used as practice sites by organized youth shooting teams, but no MDC facility is within range of Vining’s Southwest School of Washburn shooters in southern Barry County. Located near the Missouri-Arkansas state line, the school’s practice site is the 215-acre farm of Southwest School of Washburn alumni DeWayne Burns in nearby Gateway, Ark.
“You couldn’t ask for a better bunch of kids,” said Burns, as he leaned across a barbed wire fence. “They’re all good kids.”
What it Takes
It takes more than good manners to excel on the trap field, though. Trapshooting is one of three major disciplines of competitive clay target shooting — the others being skeet and sporting clays. In trapshooting, clay targets are launched from one “house,” which is generally away from the shooter. (In skeet shooting, targets are launched from two houses in somewhat sideways paths that intersect in front of the shooter, and sporting clays involves a more complex shooting course with many launch points.) The traphouse is located 16 yards in front of the shooter and targets are launched in a 44-degree fan pattern — some are launched straight away from the shooter while others are launched at angles to the left or right. Height of launch can also be varied.
Using a 12-gauge shotgun, shooters have only a second or two to make the correct trigger-pulling decision. Quick shots guarantee tight pellet patterns, but your gun must be on the target for that tight pattern to be effective. Waiting too long to draw a bead on the disc will allow the pellet pattern to scatter too much to hit the target and the clay “bird” will sail to a safe, unbroken landing.
But hitting a fast-moving clay target that may erupt from a variety of angles is the easy part of a trapshooting competition. Doing it over and over again is the hard part. A shooter may pull the trigger on 200 targets over the course of a tournament. Miss more than two and you probably won’t place first. Miss more than five and you probably won’t place at all.
“You have to focus on every shot because every shot counts,” said 16-year-old Southwest School of Washburn team member Ty Howard.
“The hardest part is that you have to be smooth all the way through,” said 10-year-old teammate Hunter Patterson. “And you have to concentrate.”
And shooters can’t let a miss mess with their concentration.
“A lot of being a good shooter is mental,” Boyer said. “It’s being able to let that one miss go and not turn it into two or three misses. At the highly competitive level, you may miss by 2½ feet. That means either your 2 feet are set wrong, or the problem is in the 6 inches between your ears.”
Southwest School of Washburn shooter Olivia Ayer says she’s all too familiar with the mental aspect of trapshooting.
“Sometimes things just get in my head,” said the 16-year-old. “I know what I need to be doing — I just have to do it.”
Level Playing Field
While becoming a better shooter may require mastering one’s mental discipline, one thing not required is an excess of physical attributes.
“The shooting sports are non-discriminatory,” said Allen Treadwell, a 2000 graduate of Southwest School of Washburn and the school’s first — and undoubtedly most famous — competitive shooter. Treadwell has used the shotgun prowess that began in his days as a Barry County youth to win 17 gold medals, nine silvers, and 11 bronzes in international competition for the USA Shooting Team.
“Shooting doesn’t care if you’re male or female, if you’re 6-foot-2 or 5-foot-10,” said the Missouri Sports Hall of Famer. “Shooting doesn’t care about the color of your skin or your gender. It’s the only sport I know where a 13-year-old kid can compete with a 35-year-old on an equal footing.”
Beyond the Competition
Skills learned on the trap field can be as beneficial on hunting trips as they are at tournaments.
“I think one of the biggest things these kids learn is that practice and patience pays off,” Edwards said. “You can’t rush your shot in competition or in the woods. There is pressure in both circumstances, but learning to deal with it on the range will translate into knowing how to deal with it in a tree stand.”
“In competitive shooting, you’re always in a high-pressure situation and you have to learn how to deal with that pressure,” he said. “You have to learn how to deal with distractions and how to make split-second decisions. That helps me today as a hunter because I can stay a lot calmer in pressure situations. When I see that big buck come into range that I’ve been following all year — or several years — on my trail cam, do I still get excited? Sure I do. But I think because of all the things I’ve been through as a competitive shooter, I can stay calm and keep my wits about me and make good decisions as a hunter, too.”
Firearms safety is also takeaway knowledge that is useful for the students long after their competitive shooting days have ended.
“Gun safety is at the top of all shooting fundamentals,” Shockley said. “All the youth shooters are taught what proper gun-handling is and the repetition they go through in their firearm use plays a big part in learning firearms safety.”
“Firearms safety has always been – and will always remain — at the forefront of what we do at practice and what we do during competition,” Vining said.
Treadwell said the competitive shooting sports do more than create better shooters and better hunters. They create better people.
“What these kids learn as a member of a team, what they learn from the discipline they need to have in order to become a good shooter; these are things that are going to make them better adults and better members of society,” he said.
Trap and skeet aren’t the only shotgun sports that adult and youth shooters can enjoy at MDC staffed shooting ranges. Shooters at four MDC staffed shooting ranges can also test their shooting skills at five stand sporting clays, a shotgun activity that has targets launched from a variety of positions.
MDC’s staffed shooting ranges that provide opportunities to shoot five stand are Lake City Range (Jackson County), Andy Dalton Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center (Greene County), August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center (St. Charles County), and Jay Henges Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center (St. Louis County).
Five stand is a shotgun sport shooting activity with five stations — or “stands” — and six to eight strategically placed clay target throwers (called traps). Participants shoot in turn at various combinations of clay birds. Each station has a menu card that lets shooters know the sequence of clay birds they will be shooting (i.e., which trap the clay bird will be coming from). The shooter is presented with five targets at each station — first a single bird, followed by pairs. Pairs can either be “report pairs,” in which the second bird will be launched after the shooter fires at the first, or “true pairs,” which is when both birds are launched at the same time.
After shooting at the five birds on the menu at that station, the shooter proceeds to the next stand, where they find a new menu of five targets.
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