Seventeen years later, USA High School Clay Target League boasts 16,000 members
By Kristen Miller
As summer drew to an end, members of Wayzata High School’s Clay Target League teamed up with Plymouth police officers to test their skills Aug. 29 at the Plymouth Gun Club.
The match was part of the second annual Kids ‘n Kops Fun Shoot, hosted by the local gun club as a way to show appreciation to the law enforcement community. The event also provides an opportunity for young people to interact with officers and show “they are just like anybody else when they don’t have on their uniforms,” said Jim Sable, president of the gun club.
As a 30-year member of the gun club, Sable also happens to be the executive director of the USA High School Clay Target League, a national organization for which he laid the bricks in 2001 by organizing the first team.
Starting with a team of six at Orono High School in 2001, clay target league has since spread to 400 schools across the state, as well as 15 other states, among which 16,000 high school students participating in last season.
Sable will be the first to say, the concept wasn’t an easy one to present to school officials, but one in which would help secure the future of gun clubs for years to come.
Founded in 1957, the Plymouth Gun Club “is one of the better kept secrets in Plymouth,” Sable said.
Situated on 20 acres of land on 5400 Holly Ln. N. and bordered by woods on three sides, the club currently boasts 150 members, as well as 35 junior members.
Although Sable is now confident the younger members will help sustain the club for years to come, that wasn’t the case 17 years ago, before the introduction of high school trap and skeet.
In 2000, Sable was retired after selling his advertising agency and began spending more time at the gun club.
One day, he happened to be there when a truck arrived delivering targets. The driver, needing help unloading, requested the assistance of Sable and the other members there, referring to them as “young guys.”
That phrase got Sable thinking about the average age of gun club members and decided to analyze the market by organizing a survey with the Department of Natural Resources.
From the survey, he found 10 percent of the clubs in the state had already gone out of business and another 10 percent were just barely hanging on, Sable said. “Their shooters were aging out,” he said.
“It looked like the die had already been cast,” Sable said. “Unless somebody did something, the shooting sports would be in danger of going out of business, and if that happened, a lot of our traditions and history would be lost,” he said.
Sable explained how the country was settled by sharp-shooters.
“If they didn’t shoot something, they wouldn’t eat,” he said.
By the 1830s, trapshooting had become a sport, and Americans led the way in developing artificial targets for the trap competition. Before that, live pigeons were used as targets.
At first, glass balls containing feathers were produced, and then clay targets were developed and became the standard for the sport.
Looking for away to sustain the club’s future, Sable knew he needed to bring the sport to the schools. Not only could it save shooting sports, but it would also get young people involved in them.
“One would help the other,” he said.
Not knowing exactly where or how to start, Sable soon found his answer in his church bulletin, calling for members with a special interest or hobby to mentor a student from Orono Schools.
“I took that as a sign of divine province,” Sable said, and answered the call that Monday, saying he was interested in teaching a group of students the sport of trap shooting.
What he found was a middle school girl, who had just expressed interest in learning how to shoot, but not hunt to kill.
At that point, Orono had a team, but not one it could compete against.
Sable contacted the Wayzata High School principal, Craig Paul, who so happened to be a former Iowa farm boy who lived for October when he could go back and hunt pheasants.
Although the principal didn’t need convincing, the school board would be a harder sell with the “fixed notion that guns are dangerous,” said Sable, recalling back to his first school board meeting where it was hard to convince them otherwise.
“Don’t ever use the words ‘kids,’ ‘guns,’ and ‘schools’ all in the same sentence, because the first question you’re going to get is, ‘Are you crazy?’” Sable said. “That, in 2001, was unbelievable … They couldn’t believe their ears.”
That also happened to be a tough time for schools, Sable said, noting districts across the state were cutting programs, not adding them, due to budget constraints.
Trap and skeet, however, were activities that wouldn’t require any additional school funding. The participants would pay for the equipment and ammunition, and the gun club would provide the venue, Sable explained.
After a second team was formed, Sable would continue to have mixed reactions as he brought the idea to school districts across the state. However, the sport gained credibility with support from the MN State High School League, and in 2012, the board voted to create a presenting partnership, making it a sanctioned event for high schools across the state.
The sport also gained popularity among students as it spread through social media. Border schools, like Stillwater and Moorhead, were soon getting requests from students, in Wisconsin and North Dakota, respectively, to join their team, growing the program to where it is now in 15 states.
While initial reactions of students participating in a sport with guns may have been negative, 17 years later, Sable is proud to report there hasn’t not been an incident since the program began. He compared this to the number of concussions suffered by high school athletes in contact sports.
“In the 16 years, we have not had one single accident,” Sable said, which also holds true nationally. Student participants are required to have firearm safety certification before joining the program.
“You don’t need to be big, strong, fast or agile,” he said, making it attractive to students not in traditional athletics. “You just need good hand-eye coordination and good concentration.”
It is also a gender-neutral sport, in which boys and girls compete together, as well as students with special needs.
As part clay disc league, participants aim and shoot at clay discs, 4.5 inches in diameter. For trap, the discs are dispensed from a machine at 42 miles per hour and up to 50 yards in five directions. In skeet, the discs are shot in two directions, cross wise. Participants are placed at five different stations and angles with a microphone set at each. A single disc is released when signaled by the shouting “pull.” After the shot, they rotate to the next station.
The league uses true-team scoring, in which only the top 80 percent of the scores are counted, therefore, students who may not perform as well as their teammates don’t have to feel like they let their team down, Sable explained.
Unlike other state high school league conferences that are set up geographically, clay target league is set up by team size through virtual leagues. For example, two schools with teams of the same size can compete against each other despite being on opposite ends of the state, and without ever being in the same shooting range.
A testament to the program’s popularity and growth, 11,300 high school students from 400 Minnesota schools competed in the USA High School Clay Target League last year in Alexandria, and a nation championship is being planned for 2018.
Before Sable introduced the sport into high schools, he saw was an entire generation that hadn’t taken up shooting.
“Now, it’s the other way around,” Sable said. “Kids are bringing their parents into the sports.”
As a result of a growing high school league, many gun clubs have reopened and others have expanded, he said.
“The future of the club is much brighter,” Sable said.
Through the Kids ‘n Kops Fun Shoot, police officers like Dave Groth and Curtis Smith can also attest to skill level required in the sport as they teamed with the local high school clay target league.
“It’s very challenging,” said Groth, who is also a hunter. “It takes a lot of skill and discipline,”he said of clay league. Smith, who is used to shooting only stationary targets, was also impressed with how quick the students were aiming and shooting the moving targets.
Plymouth Police Chief Mike Goldstein expressed his gratitude to the Plymouth Gun Club for coordinating annual event.
“The Gun Club and the associated youth trap shooting teams are teaching responsible gun ownership through this rapidly growing competitive sport,” Goldstein said. “It was a ton of fun to compete and interact with these talented students and we look forward to next year’s event.”