Most shooters use shotgun sports such as sporting clays, trap, and skeet as an opportunity to hone their skills for taking birds on the wing. For others, their love of shooting clay targets at a competitive level either rivals their affection for hunting or exceeds it. These shooters hit clay targets with such reliability and precision that an unwitting bystander would view their successes as simple, but they would be sorely mistaken.
Competitive shotgun shooting requires hours of practice, a sizeable financial commitment, and a drive to excel. Those accepting these costs gain character, humility, and community with others who feel drawn to the sport. While some might not throw themselves into shotgun sports until an appropriate level of time and treasure allows, others find their way to it in their youth.
The Mid Carolina Youth Shooting Team is a collection of young men and women from the South Carolina Midlands who excel both on and off the clay courses through shooting sports. Their laudable successes include taking home the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Governor’s Cup every year since its inception, which has brought the team recognition from the General Assembly along with Resolution Bill 5379 in honor of their accomplishments. At a regional and national level, they brought home 16 National Championship titles from 4-H Shooting Sports and Scholastic Clay Target Program events, along with several corporate sponsorships and athletic scholarships from universities.
Youth shooting clubs require leadership, and Mid Carolina finds its primary source of sound management in Head Coach Bernie Till. He launched the team through the Mid Carolina Gun Club in 2009 when his son became interested in shooting as a youth. Coach Till became the youth program director for the club to explore broader opportunities for youth shooting competitions apart from school teams.
Since then he has transformed the Mid Carolina team into a catalyst for positive change in the lives of its youth members. “Though our program involves shooting sports, we use this team and these opportunities to focus on overall youth development,” Bernie says. “That is our principal mission.”
He believes shooting sports offer all the same values-driven lessons of other youth organizations, such as Scouting, while differing in their approach. Coach Till holds team members accountable for their actions in both their shooting discipline and scholastic endeavors. “Our kids do significantly better than their non-shooting peers in the classroom. Skills such as mental focus, prioritization of tasks, and time management pay dividends in the shooting sports and are also applicable to the classroom setting.”
While shooting sports deliver academic achievement and personal fulfillment for those involved, the cost of shells, clays, and entry fees can quickly accumulate. Chris Marr, an assistant coach and parent of team member Braxton Marr says, “Buying a quality firearm that is safe and sturdy enough to run through hundreds of shotgun shells a week will be a large initial investment, but it’s the ammunition that will wind up costing much more in the long run.” The team raises money through fundraisers, nonprofit grants, and gifts from anonymous donors to supplement the costs incurred by team members and their families. Team members and parents also help with preparation, administration, and cleanup for shooting events at the Mid Carolina Gun Club.
Bernie says, “Since we’re a 501(c)3, we don’t charge any dues or fees to our members because that would jeopardize our grant funding and prohibit kids from being able to join our team, which defeats the purpose of our program.” The team invests the money it raises through the Midway USA Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that creates endowment accounts for shooting teams. These accounts grow like a 401(k) through matching donations made by the foundation, and the Mid Carolina team receives 5 percent of the value of their account through a grant from the foundation. “The grants really help get our legs under us at the beginning of each season,” Bernie says.
Youth shooters can join the team around age 10 and compete until age 18. “We encourage getting them involved early as a team member, and when they’ll start shooting is less dependent upon their age and more dependent upon the size and maturity level of the child. They need to be large enough and mature enough to handle a firearm in a safe manner. As coaches, we’re trained in how to recognize when a team member is ready to become a shooter,” Bernie says.
While Coach Till serves as the team’s primary director, several parents and volunteer adults, many of them former team members, serve the team as assistant coaches. They accompany the team to events and educate them on firearms safety and responsibility while on the course and offer mentorship and support off the course. The support of the coaches, parents, and volunteers allows the youth to participate in a safe and supportive organized team environment where they can recognize success individually when it is their time in the box to shoot or coming together as team to instill respect, values, and a sense of belonging.
The Mid Carolina Youth Shooting Team falls under the broader organizational umbrellas of the 4-H Shooting Sports and the Scholastic Clay Target Program. This allows them to participate in state, regional, and national level events hosted by the national 4-H organization, the Scholastic Clay Target Program, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the South Carolina Youth Shooting Foundation. Events among these organizations are held almost year-round and involve travel to venues as far away as small town Nebraska or as close as Georgetown, South Carolina, where the Junior U.S. Open Shooting Tournament takes place.
Rick Hemingway, competitive shooter and owner of Back Woods Quail Club, says, “We would have to travel to places as far away as Sparta, Illinois, to compete for a national championship, and while I was out there, I had a lightbulb moment and said, ‘Why can’t we host an event in South Carolina that would attract youth shooters from across the country?’”
He hosts the U.S. Open for shooters of varying levels and created the Junior U.S. Open exclusively for youth shooters around 11 years ago. Despite the pandemic and rising travel costs, the event remains popular enough to attract youth shooters from near and far, with 446 youth attending this year. “I’m involved with shooting sports in some manner at multiple levels, and hosting an event that focuses on the achievements of youth shooters is one of the most rewarding things I do. They’re the future,” Rick says.
Several Mid Carolina team members leisurely chat beneath an awning at the team’s RV campsite before hitting the course at the Junior U.S. Open. When team members were discussing their interest and involvement with shooting sports, Turner Parcell, the team’s top gun says, “My older brother got involved with shooting during high school, and I watched him compete and saw how the shooting family interacted with one another. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Turner is a senior at Hammond School and he serves as the youth representative on the South Carolina Sporting Clay Association Board. As a master class shooter in the National Sporting Clay Association, he competes throughout the country and is sponsored by several shooting sports companies, including the German gun manufacturer Krieghoff, for his character and shooting abilities. He practices two to three times a week and coaches other youth shooters on sharpening their skills.
Several team members plan to continue shooting at the collegiate level upon graduating from high school or perhaps compete on the U.S. Olympic team. They shoot up to 20 tournaments a year between October and July as a team, and some of them add individual tournaments to their schedules.
At events where both individual and team awards are presented, the coaches will break the shooters into squads of three, based on their abilities, to give them the best chances of winning their division. Turner Purcell, Braxton Marr, and Carter Hinson form one of these squads and have been shooting together for the past four years and have become lifelong friends. They have won multiple state team titles together.
In fact, this past season they saw success as High Overall Senior Varsity Sporting Clay Squad in all three youth tournaments in South Carolina. They also attended National SCTP in July and finished with a third-place team in sporting clays. They were honored to be chosen as part of a team to represent South Carolina at 4H Nationals in Nebraska winning the first overall 4H National Varsity shotgun title for South Carolina.
Braxton and Carter recently graduated from Dreher High School and will soon be leaving the Mid Carolina team as youth shooters. They grew up as neighbors, and Carter introduced Braxton to the team four years ago.
“Carter’s father, Steve, found out about the team and brought him around, and then Carter brought me around. At first, I was a little apprehensive, but I gave it a try and wound up loving it,” Braxton says. They each try to practice at least once a week, and usually two or three times before a tournament, but other obligations sometimes keep them off the clay courses.
“I work a lot after school either with a landscaping company or with my dad. So that keeps me occupied quite a bit, but I’m out there every chance I get,” Carter says. Braxton will begin his studies at Coastal Carolina University in the fall, and Carter will attend a regional technical college, but both plan to continue shooting. “I just achieved my master class a month ago here at the U.S. Open, so shooting will definitely be an interest of mine going forward,” Carter says.
Coastal Carolina does not host a shooting team, but Braxton might consider helping start one there, saying, “It’d be a lot of work, but it’s something to consider. We’ll see.”
Toward the end of the course Turner, Braxton, and Carter stand three abreast inside a wood-framed shooting box with their backs turned to a gathering crowd as they talk strategy among themselves. They ask the trapper to show the birds, and as the clay targets arc across the horizon, their hands follow the trajectory of their intended targets. In succession, they step into the shooter’s box armed with their coveted shotguns and disintegrate the clay targets as if wielding magic wands. “They make it look so easy,” a woman in the audience says, affirming her awareness of the required investment made by those young men to perform at their level.