The Undeath of Trapshooting

Trap lives on, and for good reason.

by Terry Wieland

THERE WAS A TIME, 20 years ago, when you could hop in your car, drive around Arizona, and find all kinds of top-notch trap guns gathering dust in gunshops. Every rack had a few in the corner. There were Ithacas and Parkers, Berettas and Krieghoffs, and even exotic numbers like the Ljutic. The asking prices were sometimes ridiculously low; even so, there were few takers.

The reason was simple: Arizona is where old trap shooters go to die. When they do, their widows cart the guns off to the nearest gunshop and are paid a pittance for them. “No interest anymore, ma’am.” And these formerly cherished firearms are offered at a fraction of their value.

A few writers in the 1990s noted this with sadness, but put it down to the general view that trap was a dying sport, the province of old men and older times. Sporting clays was the new game, and trap ranges around the country were half-deserted on those balmy spring days when a shooter’s heart turns to thoughts of gunpowder.

BUT, TO PARAPHRASE MARK TWAIN, reports of trap’s death were exaggerated. Trap, we’re happy to report, is back. New trap guns are appearing, and those half-deserted trap ranges are thriving.

There are several reasons for this, but the main one can be summed up quite simply: Trap is no longer an old man’s game. In fact, it isn’t a “man’s” game at all. It’s now a young person’s game, in the form of rapidly growing collegiate shooting. The very characteristics of trap that caused many to lose interest through the 1990s makes it the ideal shooting sport for schools and colleges.

“In a bizarre way, it’s a team sport with all the drawbacks and none of the virtues. How you shoot can be affected by the behavior of the other people on the squad. A good trap squad gets into a rhythm, with no delays and no chatter.”

Full disclosure: I’m a non-recovering trap addict from way back. I’m not particularly good at it, and I’ve never shot a registered target in my life, but three things about trap fascinate me: first, its history; second, the highly specialized guns involved; and third, the fact that in informal trap you can have a lot of fun competing, not with others on the line but simply with yourself.

For these reasons, it was sad to watch trap shooting decline from the most aristocratic of shooting sports to become a backwater as sporting clays ranges sprang up all over the country. But an odd thing happened to sporting clays, and in a remarkably short time: Many of the things about trap that caused declining interest are now afflicting sporting clays, and it’s a self-inflicted wound.

People lost interest in trap because it became so regimented it was no longer fun. At the highest levels, shooters were so good that missing a single bird was enough to put you out of even a state-level competition, never mind standing on the line at the Grand.

But it was more than that. In trap shooting, as in no other shotgun sport, the psychological aspects are paramount. It’s a game of concentration, a game in which the shooter is at war with himself. When you’re on the line, you’re not so much competing against the other four shooters on the squad as you are enfolded in a cocoon of concentration, battling your own weaknesses.

In formal trap, there are five positions on the line, and you shoot your birds one at a time, in order; after five birds, you all move over one position, shoot five more, then move again. A round of trap is 25 shots.

In a bizarre way, it’s a team sport with all the drawbacks and none of the virtues. How you shoot can be affected by the behavior of the other people on the squad. A good trap squad gets into a rhythm, with no delays and no chatter. Having a complainer on the line, or someone who mutters every time he misses a bird, upsets the rhythm and concentration. There are enough things to cause you to miss without adding boorish behavior.

Trap also, sad to say, brings out the worst in some people. Some guys become so wrapped up in it they become complete jerks. They complain about anything and everything to the point where they’re not fun to shoot with, and the shooting itself loses its appeal. That, I believe, was a major factor in trap’s decline.

To have fun shooting a round of trap, it’s ideal to have four other shooters about the same level as you, or maybe a little better. They should know the rules and take it seriously enough to allow everyone to concentrate and try to do their best, but they should also realize that their manhood doesn’t hang on one missed bird.

The key is sportsmanship, not gamesmanship, regardless of what’s at stake.