We Visited the World's Largest, Safest Shooting Sports Event
In the latest installment of Guns.com's Select Fire, we hit the road to visit America's fastest-growing school sport.
The USA Clay Target League this summer has nearly 16,000 high school athletes from across the country participating in state tournaments and championship events. No less than 47 events collectively totaling 62 days of individual and team competition were held in June alone across the nation. The largest of these was the Minnesota Trap Shooting Championship in Alexandria – which for the record is the world’s largest clay target shooting sport event – with over 6,500 student-athletes in 300 high school teams taking the field over the course of nine full days of competition.
We visited Alexandria this year to sit in on a day of events and were impressed with what we saw.
Safety was paramount
The League’s priorities are safety, fun, and marksmanship – in that order – and participants have fired more than 75 million shells since its inception with a spotless safety record. Each student-athlete must pass a safety certification before becoming active in the sport and safety equipment was mandatory. The League – which bills itself as the safest sport in high school – has not logged a reported injury since its founding in 2001.
The League sees its co-ed and adaptive nature are key attractions to schools, not only in Minnesota but also nationwide. Fully Title IX compliant with both male and female athletes competing on the same team, shooting clays is what's known as an "adaptive" sport, i.e., one that easily allows students with physical disabilities to take part.
One thing we never saw in short supply at the event was smiles. From the athletes competing and hanging out with their friends – a recurring theme we heard often – to family members there to support them, there was a palpable feeling in the air of fellowship. Sure, it was a competition, but it didn't feel like it as much as your typical football, hockey, or baseball game because the animosity was not there.
In another shift from what you see in average scholastic athletics, rather than having school faculty assigned to the teams, many of the coaches we met were parents of the youth on the team. Others, whose kids have already been on the team while they were in school, remained to help lend a hand. That's not to say there weren't any teachers/school personnel involved in the teams. One of the teams with some of the highest-scoring athletes had a very successful head coach who was their school's cheer coach!
As can be expected, there were lots and lots of shells on hand, with each team responsible for bringing their own supply. Although the latest Great Ammo Crunch has put a crimp in finding bargains on case and pallet quantities of shotgun shells, we were told over and over how teams have been hustling all year to get enough boxes for the student-athletes to both practice and compete. This included local fundraising and garnering the support of the community and businesses in their area. Some teams went into 2020 with ammo already stacked deep, and, with last year's season scrubbed, were able to fall back on that old stock. Federal Ammunition is also a sponsor of the USA Clay Target League.
With student-athletes providing their own shotgun – except for the case of team guns – there was a wide array of both 12 and 20 gauges on hand at the event. SKB Shotguns is a sponsor of the league, and there were many in attendance. The same was true for Browning and Beretta semi-autos and over/unders.
However, tried and true pump-action staples such as the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 were well represented as many of the youth also use their guns for hunting. One athlete on hand zapped 100 clays in a row last year at nationals with his Model 500, which also clocks in with a slug barrel for deer season.
A stepping stone
The championship was the qualifying team competition for the Minnesota State High School League’s State Tournament, which was held late last month at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Prior Lake, with competitors heading to Nationals from there.
At least 53 colleges and universities sponsor varsity shooting sports teams, many with scholarship opportunities, and international clay pigeon has been an Olympic sport since 1900 – an event that America has historically done well in. Even if these student-athletes don't continue competing past high school, the sport itself is enjoyable and widespread. It's also one that can be safely practiced informally well into the later years of life. Going past that, the kids that are standing at today's clay stands will be tomorrow's community leaders, business owners, lawmakers, and, possibly, the team parents and coaches for the next generation of sports shooters.