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Shooting the Breeze Is Just Part of the Fun

January 13, 1994|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County

Few things in life are as difficult as taking up a new sport, especially one that is a lot harder than it looks, as most sports tend to be.

My reasons for taking up skeet--the shooting game where clay targets are flung from two towers and shot from a variety of positions--were 1) to have fun, 2) to improve my quite minor shooting skills, 3) because some of my friends do it, and 4) to defeat my baseless conviction that no one over 30 should take up a new sport and expect anything but ignominy.

We congregated at the Orange County Shooting and Training Center in Irvine, signed up and headed out to the range.

Four shooters were finishing up a round. It was a cool and hazy January night, and the orange clay discs, or "pigeons," were zipping from the two towers, through the lighted infield, and, if not hit, out into the darkened foothills. The targets that were hit exploded in festive patterns and shapes, shards of orange dissolving into the night. They looked like little UFOs trying to get away, a formidable warning to any small aliens contemplating an Earth invasion.

We waited our turn. My companions were Fritz, Ron, Vern, Rich and Marty. Fritz qualified for the Olympic team some years ago but chose college instead; Ron shoots competitively now; Vern, Rich and Marty I have seen actually knocking down clay birds on a trap range ( off the range, in fact) from 60 yards away, which is some 30 yards farther than the longest distance from which competitive trap is even shot. On a good day, they can run off 200 trap birds without a miss. In short, they are good shooters.

I am not.

At trap, I managed a perfect 25 some months ago, and haven't broken over 22 since, suggesting a certain Buster Douglas quality about my one great round. But skeet was a much tougher game and I had tried it only a handful of times, with consistently disgraceful results. My best score to date had been a 14 (also out of 25), and I'd felt lucky to get that.

Briefly, skeet is a game where the birds come out of two towers--sometimes simultaneously--and the shooters, arched in a semicircle between the towers, try to hit them. The birds fly a predictable trajectory and a consistent speed and are not thrown until you call for them. The shooter uses a shotgun. What could be easier?

The pleasure and sense of accomplishment in making a good shot are the main reasons you shoot skeet in the first place. The third reason is that it's fun to blow things up.

There are all sorts of ingredients in making a good shot--it involves the eyes and hands, the feet and arms, instinct, skill, experience, anticipation, lead and timing. Plus, a basic understanding of geometry.

To knock down a clay bird going 30 m.p.h. is a truly Euclidean experience, a real-life demonstration of all those laws you were taught in high school but couldn't apply to cheerleaders, drinking beer in orange groves, or bodysurfing.

Not that skeet is a strictly intellectual experience. One must not discount the fun of watching a small, elusive, rapid quarry explode into bright orange fragments at your command, or the satisfaction of being able to do it better than your friends.

Like a lot of sportsmen and sportswomen, accomplished shotgunners are generous in their advice to beginners and always want to bet money. The pot was a buck apiece. Halfway through the round, it was obvious I'd lost my dollar for certain, and was achieving a perfectly disastrous round of skeet. My companions, blowing pigeons out of the sky with aplomb, offered help.

"Some people tell you how far the lead is at this or that station," said Ron, "but that don't matter, because the angles are different. Forget lead. Swing through the bird and keep swinging after you shoot. That's the first rule. Watch."

The bird shattered.

"No," said Fritz. "The lead here is 2 1/2 feet. Hold a sustained lead of 2 1/2 feet, and follow through smoothly. Watch."

The target turned to dust.

"No," said Vern. "All the competitive shooters shoot through the bird. You kind of snap the gun through when you pull the trigger. Watch."

Smashed bird.

"No," said Rich. "Fritz is the best shot I ever saw; he uses the sustained lead. Starting the swing before you call for the bird is what you do. Watch."

Target demolished.

"No," said Marty. "You've got to line the gun up over that post out there; that's where the bird will fly over. Hold your barrel up higher. Watch."


"Got it," I said, nodding earnestly. I positioned myself as best I could, concentrating on the lost dollar, not leading, leading, sustained leading, swinging through, swinging early, the post, how hopeless the scorekeeper must think I am, how come God doesn't talk to anybody reliable anymore, how come Nina Vida's book about Little Saigon just got a fat movie option (congratulations, Nina!), but mine--written five years ago--didn't?


The bird sailed, untouched, into the safe black of night.

End of round. Scores: 22, 23, 22, 22, 24, 8.

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