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If you’ve read some of my previous articles on skeet, you know my passion for the original game as shot from its inception in the 1930s until 1952. Shot with a low gun, and targets released with a random delay of up to three seconds, the original game of skeet was designed by Eastern upland hunters to simulate field hunting conditions. So when Sporting Clays came on the scene in our area in the late 1980s, its appeal to upland hunters was unmistakable. It took upland game hunting simulation to a new level.

In addition to offering a much broader variety of target presentations, the game was typically played in habitat familiar to the upland hunter. In my first encounter with the game, I decided to trap for a squad comprised of registered skeet shooters, and proceeded to release their targets exactly as the rules prescribed. Rule IV-B which addressed Call for the Target stated clearly : targets will be launched immediately, or with a delay of up to 3 seconds. I assumed that since the game was designed to simulate upland hunting, the three-second rule was a carry-over from the original game of skeet. It made sense to me that Rule IV-B was intended as a way to simulate bird hunting conditions hunters encountered in the wild. Quail, grouse and pheasants don’t flush for the hunter on the command “pull”, frequently exploding from their hide when the hunter least expects it.

I did find the wording a bit ambiguous, seemingly open to more than one interpretation, and soon thereafter discovered that area gun clubs were interpreting the rule thusly: targets WILL be launched IMMEDIATELY, but that an occasional INADVERTENT delay of up to three seconds was acceptable. I learned to live with the local instant pull interpretation, but wondered if that interpretation was heavily influenced by the registered skeet shooters, who had long ago become accustomed to the instant pull.

In an attempt to clarify the original rule, I contacted the National Sporting Clays Association. Glynne Moseley was kind enough to respond, and actually sent me the wording of Rule IV-B as it evolved from 1990. It seems that I was not the only clay target shooter who found the original wording ambiguous. Glynne said that the rule was changed in 2002 from WILL be launched to MAY be launched. In 2002 the new rule read: targets may be launched immediately, or with a delay of up to 3 seconds. In my mind, it was an attempt to appease the instant pull registered skeet shooters. The trapper now was given a choice of launching targets instantly for the registered skeet shooters, or with a delay of up to three seconds for bird hunters who wanted the game to simulate the random appearance of game birds they encountered in the field.

But the rule clarification obviously did not make a lot of shooters happy, because in 2005, according to Glynne, the rule was changed again to read: targets MUST be launched immediately, or with a delay of up to 3 seconds. For me, at least, the rule just became ambiguous again.

I wanted to see how the most recent revision was being interpreted by everyday sporting clays participants, so I went on-line and entered a “3-second rule” search in a shotgun forum. I wasn’t surprised to find that there were plenty of posts to choose from, and it would appear confusion over the interpretation of the rule continues in 2015. The general consensus was that the rule was intended to allow for the inherent delays in trap release when using manual traps from a remote position. But many wondered whether a trapper could use the rule to favor one shooter over another. The trappers’ friends would get instant pulls while others in the squad would get random delays, without recourse to a “no bird”. One participant in the forum suggested that since nearly all Sporting Clays courses are now automated and, since the trapper (any person releasing the target) is now located in close proximity to the shooter, there is no longer a need for the three-second rule.

I contacted Glynne again and asked her if she could clarify the intent of the original 1990 rule, and how it was being applied by clubs today. She didn’t respond to the second part of my question, but did communicate her personal thoughts on the original intent of the rule. Her interpretation was remarkably similar to the interpretation I found on the web forum.

“In the early days of Sporting Clays, the traps were all manual traps, so I’m sure they were giving the trapper time to load and pull the target if they needed a little extra time. As traps became more automated, I’m sure that is where they (the rules) became more specific and more immediate on the pull. I like the old way myself, I learned to shoot Sporting Clays in the early 1980s and still think it should be played the same as it was back then. It was a lot more fun.”

I don’t want to put words in Glynne’s mouth, but it seemed clear to me that there is some sentiment at the National Sporting Clays Association to revive, or at least preserve, some aspect of the original game as it was intended. She didn’t support my notion that the original intent of Rule IV-B was to incorporate pre-1952 delayed pull skeet rules into this game designed by and for hunters, but she also didn’t rule it out.

At this point in my investigation of the intent of the 3-second rule, I concluded that I may never know how the original rule makers envisioned the rule’s application. But regardless of whether you think Rule IV-B was intended to delay targets to simulate field conditions, or whether it merely was a way of accepting target delays on the Sporting Clays course as a fact of life (when the traps and trapper were using manual equipment some distance from the shooters), I would argue that the results were a distinction without a difference. Regardless of the intent of the rule, the original game before automation contained an important variable — random delayed release — simulating conditions in the field and adding a variable which the upland hunter had to take into account.

The Original Low Gun Sporting Clays Game
But there is a second component of the original Sporting Clays Game, Circa 1990, which made the game more enjoyable for upland hunters. Glynne Moseley was kind enough to send me the Sporting Clays Low Gun Rules as they have evolved over the years.

In 1990, on page 14, rule IV-A read: LOW GUN — Gun stock must be visible below the shooter's armpit.

From 1993-6, wording was added clarifying the stock position, stating that it did not have to be tucked UNDER the armpit.

But in 1997, the rule was altered to permit pre-mounted guns, identical to the current skeet rules.

Before I had a chance to digest the significance of this, I got a call from Bryan Bilinski. Bryan is the proprietor of Fieldsport LTD in Traverse City, Michigan, and I knew that, as an Orvis employee, he was involved in the development of the sport in the early 1980s. My first question was:

“Bryan, who wrote the original sporting clays rules, and specifically, how was the three second rule to be applied?”

Bryan’s response was enlightening. “Ron, I wrote those rules on my kitchen table when I was running the Orvis shooting school in Texas. I created the first sporting clays course in America from my Orvis instructional course. We added automatic skeet machines, and made it into a course which simulated bird hunting conditions. The original course didn’t have stands at each station; only flags designating where the shooter would position himself for the next series of targets. All of the standard targets were set at moderate ranges and speeds to represent typical upland bird hunting. I knew we had a winner when I saw our first hunters exit the course with smiles on their faces. Some had target guns, and some had small bore upland bird guns, but all were having FUN! The three-second rule was intended, as you suggest, to replicate the random, delayed flushes we see in the field when hunting over our bird dogs. I made it a point to instruct each squad on the random delayed pulls they would encounter as they made their way through the course. No one complained!”

My next question to Bryan was: “What is the history of the term Hunter’s Clays as it was used in the early days? Glynne Moseley tells me that before a national sporting clays association was formed, she recalls that the game was being referred to as Hunter’s Clays.”

Bryan laughed, and filled me in on that point. “Ron, Bob Brister always wanted to call it Hunter’s Clays, but I thought the name Sporting Clays would give the game more general acceptance. I won out, but in retrospect, I wish now that we had called it Hunter’s Clays. It might have had a better chance of preserving the original flavor of the sport.”

I asked Bryan to comment on the game as it is shot today.

“Ron, I just returned from a wingshooting clinic Fieldsport put on in Kentucky, and one of the last things I told my students is that they will be shocked when they get back home and shoot a local course. They will see target presentations which bear no resemblance to the wingshooting targets they shot here in our school. I told them that when they encounter a station which presents them with challenges they are not prepared for, pass up that station and take extra targets at stations which replicate bird hunting scenarios.”

Bryan confessed that he was disheartened when NSCA dropped the low-gun rule, abandoning the last vestiges of the game he designed for upland and waterfowl hunters.

Hunter's Clays
Prior to Bryan’s call, I had reviewed in my mind a simple set of suggested guidelines which area clubs could use to set a clays course acceptable to hunters. I briefly went through my four-point guide to get Bryan’s thoughts. We agreed that there should be no attempt to re-direct the current competitive direction Sporting Clays has taken. Thousands are enjoying the challenges that the best minds in the business have created. But there should be presentations favorable to shotgunners like the hunter from Minnesota who responded to an internet forum question about the old Hunter’s Clays game:

“Since sporting clays has evolved into such a competitive realm where presentations are so unlike anything one would see in the woods or field that I, for one, have become disenchanted with it. Hunter’s Clays, on the other hand, sounds like a true representation of hunting and I would definitely like to shoot a course or two. It sounds more like the origins of sporting clays where targets truly represented actual hunting scenarios instead of all but impossible distances and angles. While I have enjoyed SC over the years, the fact that one typically needs to change choke tubes between stands just to be competitive or to make it enjoyable has turned me off. No longer does it represent a day in the fall woods.”

Bryan liked my suggested guidelines for clubs to use in resurrecting his original vision. Guidelines which are simple and brief, allowing area clubs to tailor a course responsive to the needs of local sportsmen. Many clubs may already be setting stations which upland and waterfowl hunters find useful in preparing for the fall hunting season, and a few may already be setting Hunter’s Clays courses. We’d love to hear from you!

Hunter's Clays Suggested Guidelines
• Target presentations should be representative of wild bird encounters found by hunters in the marshes, meadows and woodlands of America.

• Targets should be within range of open choke, small bore guns. 30 yards maximum range suggested.

• Shooters MUST call for the target assuming a low gun position similar to the 1990 NSCA rule.

• Targets will be released with a random delay of zero to three seconds.

Thanks, Bryan, for re-introducing us to this wonderful game designed for sportsmen. SS

Ron Jones is a retired pharmacist of 49 years who confesses his first love after family and God are shotguns and hunting. His first shotgun experience was his grandfather's 1911 Ithaca Flues 20, and that experience nearly caused him to look for more pleasurable avocations. He admits to missing all 50 targets his father threw with their Remington hand trap, and the experience resulted in a headache which wouldn't quit.   But his love for guns, particularly vintage scatterguns, has remained with him in the ensuing 60 years. Our heritage is important. Preserving and embracing the values and traditions which our forefathers have handed down will enrich the experiences of those who follow. In some small measure, Ron hopes to contribute to that body of knowledge the younger generation embraces.