Jon Kruger - Sporting Clays Legend
Jon Kruger Looks At How The Game Has Changed
Although you may not have seen him on the podium at major shoots in the past few years, Jon Kruger remains one of the legends of sporting clays.
Kruger was the first shooter inducted into the National Sporting Clays Association Hall of Fame in 1998.
He was on the All-American team 23 times and won seven team gold medals shooting for Team USA. Kruger won national championships in seven different shotgun disciplines including sporting clays, skeet, helice, live pigeons, Compaq, FITASC and 5-Stand. He shot on the Professional Sporting Clays Association circuit for two years and won the U.S. Open eight times.
He was badly injured in a serious shooting accident in June of 1989 when he lost most of his right hand. He persevered by utilizing a Velcro glove he could attach to the gun, then pull the trigger with his little finger. In August of that year, he started competition again at the Minnesota State Shoot and won it! From October 1989 and onward, in a span of 13 months, he won 40 straight tournaments.
Kruger slowed down his competitive shooting pace several years ago and stopped shooting competitively in 2015. He has stayed involved in the sport in recent years by setting targets at major events. In 2021, he was the target setter for three major events: one of the NSCA Regional events, the Ohio State Sporting Clays Championships and the Kruger Classic, a shoot he hosts at Great Guns Sporting in Nunn, Colorado.
Today, Kruger enjoys spending time at his home and woodworking shop in Franktown, Colorado. He is an accomplished woodcarver, making beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces for collectors all over the world and trophies that are awarded at some of the major events including the NSCA 2021 U.S. Open.
Shotgun Sports magazine caught up with Kruger at the Ohio State Sporting Clays Championships and talked with him about the changes he has seen in the sport.
SS: You began shooting sporting clays in 1987 when there were not many clubs around. When did you begin setting targets?
When I started, there were maybe 20 places in the whole country to shoot sporting clays. I began setting targets in 1987. Actually, I probably did most of the course designs, not only so much setting targets at shoots but actually designing courses, that first six, seven, eight years and it was just nonstop.
Everybody wanted to put in a sporting clays course. It was cheaper back then to do it because it was all hand machines. You didn’t have the expense you have now with automated machines and everything.
There’s been a lot of technology advances over the years. You know with wireless systems you don’t have to drag cords all over the place. It’s getting better and better and better for anybody who sets targets anywhere to do it in a timely manner. In the beginning, I would spend days and days and days doing it.
SS: Obviously, the technology has changed the way you can set targets. Do you think it has affected the difficulty level of the sport?
The difficulty level is only based on the person setting the targets. That’s it. It doesn’t have anything to do with where you are or what club you are at.
It just has gotten to be “see if you can make Wendell Cherry or Anthony Matarese or Cory Kruse see if they can hit this target.”
But you have a game that has to accommodate all the way from subjunior to junior, lady, veteran, super vet, senior super vet, legacy, Master, AA, B, C, D and E shooters. There is just such a spectrum of abilities there.
It’s not like going to the U.S. Open tennis tournament or the Masters’ golf tournament. That’s the top 150 people in the world competing in those sports. This game has to accommodate everybody. So if you are only interested in the top guys being challenged, then the target difficulty gets way too extreme for the masses.
That ½ of ½ percent of people who shoot the game just have that natural ability to shoot the sport. They are top people for a reason. The people who are shooting this game have just gotten so good at it. Yes, you can throw just a lot of cranked-up long targets, but they know how to shoot them and they will still break 94 or 95. But, you have to think about whether or not it is enjoyable for the rest of the people to hit targets.
The same guy wins it. It doesn’t matter if you make it very difficult or you make it user-friendly. It doesn’t matter. He is still going to win it the majority of the time.
What has always amazed me is you go to one of those shoots where it is just incredibly difficult, and I will walk up to the guy who owns the place and say, “It’s great that people get to shoot these kinds of targets day in and day out.” But he says, “I can’t do that. I won’t have any business if I do that.” Just think about what you said, buddy. Think about what you just said.
SS: Do you think it discourages people from coming to your big shoot because they think, “I’m not shooting there. They set that whole thing up for Anthony Matarese, and I can’t hit any of those targets.”
Yes, you can’t take people out of their comfort zone too far. When they are at the club practicing during the week, they are having a good time socially because it is a social atmosphere. I think it is important to keep that social atmosphere even if you have a named tournament like a Regional or the U.S. Open.
I don’t care what it is, to me every event should be one with scores of 97 or 98 minimum. Because then, it leaves the rest of the crowd feeling pretty good about their ability to shoot targets they are seeing day in and day out at their club. \When you get away from that, then you may not get those people back.
They associate how much they spend with how much pleasure they got out of that money they spent. If they are not enjoying it, they will not spend money to be miserable.
SS: What is an example?
I think the perfect example is here (at the Ohio State Shoot) on that small gauge and super sporting course. Lois Neely (who was handling registration) just the other night said, “People come and shoot the .410 or one of the other gauges and then come in and sign up for another one. Then they shoot it and then come back and sign up for another one.”
Why don’t they sign up for all of them at once? Well, there is a reason. They’ll go shoot it once, and they’ll see it’s fun. If it is fun and they are having a good time, then they will come in and sign up again and again and again to shoot the other gauges.
SS: As a target setter, how do you gauge when to add a level of difficulty to sort out the better shooters?
I don’t believe in the philosophy that there has to be a separation. There’s really no station out there that somebody would go “Oh wow! There’s a separator.” There really isn’t anything.
I think it is creating a balance of variety vs. difficulty. To me, difficulty — and this is my personal opinion — difficulty is speed. Throwing targets fast is it.
Sixty-five percent of the people who shoot this game are 55 and older. The older you get, the harder it is to see. Your eyes just don’t work like they did when you were 25 or 30. They don’t. Fast, edgy targets are very difficult for older people to see. So, I would rather put more emphasis on being able to satisfy that spectrum of the shooting world.
I could care less if any top shooter comes to any of my shoots. I don’t care. They are not going to be back. A lot of times, most tournaments like this one, I would venture to say 70% of the people are pretty local. If you are doing it to make a living as a gun club, you are only getting paid by how many targets you can throw. The more targets you can throw, the better your life is going to be, the better the club is going to be in order to build it up and make it nicer.
I just think more emphasis needs to be put on that. This game was invented for the hunter. It was designed so the hunter could practice different birds and rabbits on the ground. You get some places that throw a 70-yard crosser. Well, no ethical hunter would shoot at anything like that. It’s not that it can’t be broken. That one-half of one percent, yes they can break that target. Probably not all the time, but way more than the other 99.99% can.
SS: How does that affect how clubs set targets and how people practice?
If the change up in speeds, angles and everything is within what people feel is a reasonable distance they feel comfortable with, then the challenge is to be consistent.
I’m more impressed with people who can be consistent than people who can break those fast, edgy targets because they can see them, and they have that amount of practice so they are able to do that.
But, like I said before — you can’t practice those types of targets because the gun club is not going to set it up unless they have multiple courses and they can set up one tough course.
What’s interesting is when they do that, they only have to fill up the machines once or twice a month because you only have two or three guys who actually do enjoy shooting it or think shooting it will make them a better shooter in a big tournament. Actually it doesn’t .
You don’t lose a tournament missing the hard targets. You lose it because you lost a couple you shouldn’t have missed. Learning how to shoot the targets you shouldn’t miss, will get you further in the game than anything else will. That’s why George Digweed is so good. He doesn’t miss a target he shouldn’t miss, and he’s pretty darn good at the hard ones. That’s a pretty hard combination to beat.
SS: What do you see as being the biggest changes in the sport over the past few years?
The biggest change I’ve seen is just the difficulty of the targets. It got to a point with me, and it’s a lot of the reason I quit, you’ve got a 50/50 chance you are going to get a good target presentation.
To me, I don’t want a 50/50 chance. This game has been around too long.
It should all be kind of at the same level. Take the PSCA, as an example. Yes, that was a whole different game. You knew what level the targets were going to be at, and that is what it was designed for.
This game is not at that level. It’s got to take care of everybody. When they started getting ridiculous with targets, it’s not that I couldn’t shoot them, I just didn’t like listening to all the people complain. You could go to all those shoots, and if it was miserable, nobody hung around.
Like last night, I thought it was incredible how people hung around here. Again, it became a social event instead of a very difficult tournament.
When people aren’t happy with themselves, they are not going to hang around. They will go back to the hotel room and complain and sulk and then come back tomorrow and do it all over again.
SS: It seems like target setters are competing to come out with quirky or unusual targets. You know, using a trampoline or mini trampoline, throwing a rabbit target as a chandelle or battue or targets that flutter down off of a tower. Do you like to do that as well?
A little bit. For a target setter, it’s kind of like somebody who just starts shooting. They want to try out everything with their gun. And it’s incredible what process a lot of people go through before they finally figure out that it’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian.
It’s fun to come up with different things. I do get carried away sometimes trying to throw a target. For the most part though, I like to throw targets for people that are always going to be reasonable and within a distance, but I do try to get it to do something people don’t normally see. It gives a little bit of excitement to it, too.
SS: What would you say to new shooters just starting out in the game?
It’s a passion for people, and there’s a difference between someone who is doing it socially and someone who wants to do it at a competitive level.
To me, the best advice is to practice the targets you shouldn’t miss so you will not miss them. That makes the more difficult stations easier to deal with if you do drop a bird or two. But when you drop those birds you shouldn’t drop, then those others are not going to be as good as you want to be.
Most people when they go to practice just want to practice hard targets. Well, that is okay to a certain extent, but you need to focus on and have a program that you practice all those “easy” targets you are most likely to see. They’re really not easy. They are hard when you miss them. So take the difficulty out of those by practicing them way more than you practice difficult targets.
SS: Do you see the sport growing? Where do you think things are going?
I think it has a lot to do with how corporate America views it. Not everybody wants to go out and do a golf outing or a bike ride. They are finding this sport is very entertaining, not only for people who have shot but also for people who have not shot before. It’s good entertainment for employees and for customers.
There are many, many very nice clubs that don’t throw registered shoots. They don’t have the ability to, because their time slot is filled up with employee and customer outings for companies.
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Keeping the sport of sporting clays social and fun will help to keep it growing. Thanks to Jon Kruger for keeping the fun in sporting clays for shooters of all ages and levels of ability. SS
Maggie Kelch is an avid outdoorswoman who enjoys fishing, camping, hunting and shooting. With a degree in Journalism from Ohio State University, she spent more than 40 years in communications. She has written for numerous local, state and national publications.