Helice, a.k.a., ZZ Birds

Shooter on the 25 yard line. The ZZ has been released from the trap with the white flap down—a visual signal that occurs simultaneously with the launch of the bird—and its orange wings are visible against the dark green trees.

by Terry Wieland

Most shooters are aware that trap as we know it today grew out of the ancient sport of shooting pigeons released from various devices—a practice that dates (in print) to 1792 in England. Live-pigeon trap-shooting fathered all kinds of innovations, from gun styles to ammunition to the terminology we still use.

The term “pull,” standard in both trap and Skeet, originally ordered the pulling of a rope that jerked away an old hat, which was concealing a pigeon in a hole in the ground.

Live-pigeon shooting survives in several forms in various parts of the world, and anyone who’s done it will tell you it’s the most difficult thing you can do with a shotgun.

This bird has been launched from the center trap and is flying on edge, which causes it to dart and swoop. To count as dead, the pieces must fall inside the low fence behind the traps.

In America, the Grand was shot with live pigeons until around 1900, when the sheer cost of obtaining the birds dictated a change to “clay pigeons.”

In Europe, box-pigeon—the form in which a pigeon is released at random from one of five traps set out 29 metres in front of the shooter—was gradually outlawed, but even where it was still legal, cost became a serious factor.  Granted, they had trap and Skeet, but any pigeon shooter will tell you, they ain’t the same.  A live bird darts, wheels, climbs, dives, changes direction on a dime, and speeds up as it flies, rather than gradually slowing down.  Or it can suddenly slow down, leaving your pattern hanging uselessly in the air.

A photo from Cyril Adams’s book, Live Pigeon Trap Shooting, of an early single-bird machine.  ZZ birds used in America now have orange wings and a white center cap.  Also, modern multiple-bird machines do not need to be reloaded by hand every time.

As well, chips don’t count.  In competition, the bird must be dropped inside the ring, which is surrounded by a low fence.  At the traps, the ring is approximately 60 yards side to side, and 60 yards deep from the shooter to the back fence.  When a pigeon takes off with the wind behind it, it can be ballistically impossible to drop inside the fence.

For this reason, the shooter is allowed two shots, and traditionally those are hot:  the term “pigeon load” denotes 1¼ oz. of shot at 3¼ dram equivalent.  By comparison, a hot handicap trap load is 1⅛ oz. at 3 dr. eq., and that from a gun weighing near ten pounds, whereas the traditional British pigeon gun weighs in around 7½.  One reason a pigeon gun needs to be lighter is that every so often a pigeon will come straight back toward the shooter—it’s called an “attack bird”—and even King Kong would have difficulty wielding a trap gun.

Just as trap with clays grew out of trap with pigeons, and Skeet was created to more closely replicate the flight of a ruffed grouse than trap could do, and sporting clays was created to do what Skeet had failed to do, so there came along, beginning in the 1950s, the sport of Helice, intended from the beginning to at least approximate what happens when a live pigeon is launched from a trap.

The full story of Helice is told in Cyril Adams’s book, Live Pigeon Trap Shooting.  Essentially, two Italian brothers set out of create a target that was fast and unpredictable.  They arrived at a design resembling twin blades on a helicopter, held together by a plastic cap.  When struck by a  swarm of pellets, the cap flies off and the wings break apart.  Over the years, the machines that set them in motion were perfected to give them sufficient speed.  Since they are launched at different angles, and try to right themselves in the air like a gyroscope, they are hard to hit.

They then put a fence behind them, adding the necessity of a quick kill, and arranged five traps, five metres apart, with random releases.

This illustration shows how ZZ birds can fly—like that, and much more.

The sport caught on quickly in Europe, where many old pigeon clubs were converted to Helice, but even in countries where pigeons were still legal, Helice was added because it was much less expensive.

The first Helice course in America was set up near Houston around 1980, and it has since spread around the country, although not at the break-neck pace of sporting clays five years later.  Where I live, for example, there is no Helice course.  Probably cost is the most limiting factor:  A sporting clays course can be set up almost anywhere, using the most basic of equipment, and moved around and varied at will, whereas a Helice set-up is static and requires a computer-release program to be truly effective.

Last week, I visited the Helice course at Providence Hill shooting club outside Jackson, Mississippi.  It closely resembles pigeon rings I’ve seen in Spain.  Five traps are set 25 yards in front of the shooter’s box, beside which is a stand with a button and a voice release.  When the shooter’s ready, he pushes the button, which arms the mike, and the next sound he utters will release a ZZ bird (as Helice targets are called) from one of the five traps.  The 25 yard position is at the end of a 10 yard walkway, which allows shooting all the way back from 35 yards if a handicap is desired.

Another illustration showing how they can fly apart.  In practice, if unbroken, the three parts are reusable.  Eventually they wear out, of course, but having reusable parts reduces the cost,  and slight damage makes the flight ever more erratic.

Spectators, and shooters waiting their turn, can lounge in comfort in a pavilion behind the walkway.

A shooter walks out, shoots at five birds, and is then replaced by the next shooter, who shoots five, and so on until each has shot at 25 targets.  That’s one round.

Yes, I did take a turn, and no, I did not break 25 targets, or anything like that.  I may have broken 50 percent—I forgot to look at the score card, can you imagine?—but I made a few good shots, earned a smattering or two of applause amid the generally sympathetic silence, and, most important, enjoyed it immensely.

When you can’t wait to try it again, that’s a good sign.

Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland is happy to report he will not need to buy yet another gun to shoot Helice.  That’s something, anyway.