Golf with a shotgun

Ryder Ray, Robin Wilson-Brown, Kellie Thrower, Mariah Tighe, William Tetterton and Reed Clements enjoy a day on the course at Hermitage Farms.

Photography by Robert Clark

The prospect of a pleasant afternoon spent with friends outside, walking a course where each station presents a uniquely different challenge of hand-eye coordination, makes it no wonder that the sport of shooting sporting clays is often described as “golf with a shotgun.” Joe Cantey, a six-time world champion of sporting clays, would know. 

“I wanted to start a club locally because I love the sport and the people who participate in it. Even though it is still a relatively small sport compared to something like golf, it continues to grow every year,” he says. 

Following his success on the international level, in 1995 Joe started Hermitage Farm Shooting Sports in Camden. “My best shooting memories are those of getting to travel for competitions, and shooting with my son, Jaybie, who happens to be the youngest person to ever win the national championship,” Joe says. “It really was a wonderful feeling, standing on the podium with The Star Spangled Banner playing and our flag being hoisted,” he recalls of his world championship victories.

The sport of shooting “clay pigeons” first developed in England around the turn of the 20th century as a means to practice wing shooting. England’s premier sporting clays competition, the British Open, was first held in 1925, and the sport was introduced in America in 1980. It is a pastime that truly offers an opportunity for everyone — from the ardent competitor to the recreational shooter. A sporting clays course consists of 50 to 100 shots taken at 10 to 15 different stands, typically with two or three different style shots, and generally takes an hour or two to complete. 

Unlike sporting clays, skeet is a shooting game that began in America. In 1920, several hunters in Massachusetts devised means of practicing every shot angle they could encounter in the field, and it quickly evolved into the current game of “skeet” — an old Scandinavian form of the word “shoot.” A skeet range is set up in a semicircle with eight stations. One round consists of 24 shots with the option of one make-up shot if needed. Only two to four clay pigeons are thrown at each station — one from an elevated level, or “high house,” and one from the ground, or “low house.” 

The third discipline of clay pigeon shooting is trapshooting where the targets are launched from a single “house,” generally going away from the shooter. The sport of shooting clay pigeons is currently one of the fastest growing sports in America with more than 3 million participants of all ages who shoot both competitively and recreationally.

At Hermitage Farms, the report of shotguns can be heard from enthusiastic sportsmen Wednesday through Sunday, but Wednesday evenings attract a group of regulars who stick around for a cookout afterward. Phil Watkins, owner of Boykin Gun Works and a retired SLED officer, shoots most Wednesdays and cooks dinner when Joe can’t be there. Although he grew up shooting skeet, he had never shot sporting clays until he was invited to Hermitage Farms about 20 years ago. “I was hooked after my first round,” he says. “Sporting clays is a wonderful form of relaxation and a way to meet new people who enjoy the sport of shooting. Joe really taught me to enjoy FITASC, the European version of sporting clays, which is very close to live bird hunting. Many would argue that it is the ultimate challenge in clay target shooting.” 

The South Carolina Youth Sporting Foundation was first organized in 2008 with the goal of introducing young people to the pleasure of being outdoors, safety with firearms, accuracy and to other youth shooters. After witnessing a youth tournament held at Hermitage Farms in 2014 with his grandson, Reed Clements, William Tetterton decided to form the King Haigler Youth Sporting Clays team in Camden, now in their third season, and currently serves as the head coach. “My grandfather and I had never seen such a well-planned sport for kids,” remembers Reed, a junior at Camden High School. What initially began as Reed with a couple of his friends has expanded into a team of two dozen teenagers, all passionate about sporting clays. 

“We have a very good youth program in South Carolina,” says Joe. “It not only teaches them how to shoot and use firearms safely, but it also teaches them good life lessons. There are a lot of other things that kids that age could be doing with their time that are not constructive. It also shows their parents and friends that guns are not bad things when used properly.”

The South Carolina Youth Sporting Foundation holds five competitive shoots per season, including the state competition, December through April. To compete at state, a shooter must have competed in two of the previous tournaments. Each tournament is split into age groups and gender divisions, and shooters compete in teams of three with one coach over the 100-shot course. 

“Each station is set up with three or four tries of two birds, either a report pair or a true pair,” explains Robin Wilson-Brown, a coach for King Haigler and the team’s secretary/treasurer. “A report pair is two birds pulled for the shooter in following order. The shooter calls ‘pull,’ aims and fires, and the second bird is released immediately after the first shot. A true pair is when two birds are thrown simultaneously when the shooter calls ‘pull.’ The shots are scored as a hit or miss, and the hits are tallied up at the end of the shoot.”

Robin is also involved in a women’s group called “Ladies and Clays” that shoots recreationally in the cooler months. While she cannot even remember her first time shooting a shotgun, it was not until she and her husband, Sims, started coaching that it became such a regular pastime. “For me and Sims, the kids have become our biggest influence with shooting. Each child is different, and you learn so much by watching them and trying to help them figure out what works best. This sport teaches kids to have responsibility and shows that we trust them. Plus, this sport can be enjoyed by most kids, whether or not they are athletic in the traditional sense.”

Elizabeth Lambe and Mariah Tighe, both seniors at A.C. Flora, and Kellie Thrower, a home-schooled eighth grader, comprise the team of three who compete together under Robin’s leadership. Mariah even hopes to shoot at the collegiate level next year if the school she chooses has a team. 

Kellie shares that she was introduced to sporting clays at a shotgun themed wedding, of all places. “That was the day I found my passion,” she beams. “My Grandpa really influenced my love for the sport as well. He is a great coach and is very supportive. I couldn’t have done it without him. It’s always fun to get a group of friends and family together to shoot, especially a group of girls, because we can prove we are just as good of a shot, if not better, than the boys.” Kellie typically scores in the high 70s to low 80s in competitions. 

Elizabeth’s path to competitive shooting was not as smooth, but she stuck with it nonetheless. In 10th grade, she joined the team on an impulse and found herself at a competition only two weeks after first holding a shotgun. “I was in no way prepared to shoot the 100-round course,” she chuckles. “Of the 100 shells I shot that day, only six of them broke clays. Six. After each miss, I had to take a breath, pull the trigger and miss again in front of dozens of people; for almost two-and-a-half hours I held back tears until we completed the course. By then, my shoulder was already black and blue from the recoil, and I could barely lift my arm.” 

Yet, Elizabeth felt the experience taught her a lesson that made the painful experience worthwhile, and she kept shooting, learning confidence through her initial failure. “I realized that it didn’t matter if I meticulously planned out each shot, because when it was actually time to pull the trigger, I only had a split second to decide where to point, and hesitation was my downfall. The time I took to overthink it was the difference in hitting or missing the target. The only way to succeed in this sport is to learn that your instincts are worth trusting. Now, two years later, I am finally able to pull the trigger with confidence and watch orange clays scatter in the sky.”

Mariah agrees that overthinking is an easy pitfall. “You have to get out of your head,” she says. One of her favorite parts about competing is that, because coaches aren’t allowed to give any instruction during a tournament, they coach each other. “It really helps build leadership and teamwork,” she says with a smile. “I love hanging out with my squad and learning from and encouraging each other during the tournaments. Just like any sport, shooting teaches you a variety of good life skills. Practicing with coaches and learning how to improve my shooting is a lot of fun. It feels awesome to learn how to hit a certain shot, and I love that any age or type of person can do it.”

Robin says that the most important skill in any of the clay target sports is safety. Unless her shooters can recite the safety rules back to her, she does not even let them load their own gun. Once safety is covered, she shows them the proper stance, gun mount and target focus. 

Reed says, “My grandfather has always told me when I shoot, aim to miss the target so that I don’t shoot behind it. It is also important to keep my eye on the target and not the end of my barrel.” 

At the end of the day, even the competitions come back to the basics of spending a day outside socializing with friends and family. “I really enjoy that I can meet a bunch of friends on a Saturday morning, get some exercise walking a course, challenge myself and just have a good time outdoors,” says Robin. “And if you go to a fundraiser or tournament, there is usually good food. I also appreciate that it is a very inclusive group activity for people who can’t golf, for example, or people with health concerns and handicaps who can’t, say, go on the rope course with their co-workers.”

In South Carolina, there are numerous opportunities for both youth and adults to pursue the sport as avidly as desired. There are circuit shoots, regional shoots and state championship shoots for FITASC, skeet and trap. “From one-day local shoots to larger events that take up to five days and attract shooters from all over America, there is a large variety of different shoots held throughout the state,” says Joe. In fact, Joe will be hosting the 2016 US Open FITASC Championship at Hermitage Farms this Nov. 3 through Nov. 7.

“It is a family-oriented sport — one of the few where mom, dad and the kids can all compete,” adds Phil. “This past year, there were more than 500 kids from all over the state out here at Hermitage Farms competing in the South Carolina Youth Shooting Foundation State Championship. This sport is growing because of these kids. Young shooters are the lifeblood and future of this sport.”