April 14, 2020
By Brad Fitzpatrick
The annual Grand American World Trapshooting Championship is held each summer at the World Shooting & Recreational Complex in Sparta, Illinois. It is the largest shooting event of its kind in the world.
Each year, more than 5,000 of the world’s best trap shooters vie for its top prize, and the event draws contestants from each U.S. state, every Canadian province, and several foreign countries. Through the course of the 16-day event, more than 4 million targets are thrown, and at any given time there might be as many as 600 shooters on the firing line at once. The Amateur Trapshooting Association (ATA) organizes the event and handles reservations for the 1,000 campsites on the World Shooting & Recreational Complex grounds, all of which are booked prior to the event. Clearly, the “Grand” is an accurate name for this competition.
Every serious trap shooter, regardless of skill level, seems to dream of competing at the Grand American. The event has become so prestigious that some shooters enter the competition simply to say that they’ve shot the Grand. To toe the line in Sparta seems to add a level of authenticity to anyone’s shotgunning resume.
If you’re entering the competition with aims to make the finals, however, you’d better be on the top of your game. By the conclusion of the event, the field of 5,000 is whittled down to just a handful of the world’s best shooters. If you miss one out of 100, you’ve likely taken yourself out of the running for the championship.
“Perfect 100 out of 100 scores are not uncommon at this event,” said Lynn Gipson, executive director of the ATA. He added that many of the competitions are 200-target events, and even then, perfect scores are not unheard of.
Here’s a look back at the Grand’s 120-year history and a breakdown of what it takes to compete today.
The Early Years
In 1900, the inaugural four-day Grand American was held at Interstate Park in Queens, New York, just across the East River from Manhattan and Times Square. There were just 20 shooters at the first Grand, and during the next two decades the event moved around the eastern United States. The year 1923 was the first year that the Grand American was held in Vandalia, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, and the city would continue to host the event for more than 80 years.
“We leased the Vandalia property five years at a time,” Gipson said. “In 2000, the city of Dayton told us that it would be our last lease, so we had to find somewhere else to go.”
Moving an event like the Grand American isn’t easy, and the ATA had a difficult time locating a new venue capable of supporting thousands of shotgunners over multiple days. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) provided the answer in the form of a brand new, 1,600-acre facility designed to handle such a shooting event. To accommodate the thousands of shooters, the World Shooting Complex offers 124 trap fields as well as a large on-site campground and events center. In addition to its miles of trap fields, the World Shooting Complex also offers pistol bays, skeet fields and sporting clays courses. It also hosts other competitions throughout the year.
Trap shooting got its start in England in the late 1700s. Originally, shooters formed a line and live pigeons were released from traps, hence the sport’s name. Originally, pigeon shooting was developed as a means for hunters to improve their wingshooting skills, but it wasn’t long before live pigeon shoots became high-stakes events where wealthy landowners won and lost fortunes. By 1900, pigeon shooting was an Olympic event, and that year the winner took home 20,000 Francs, the equivalent of more than $80,000 today.
Eventually, shooting live pigeons for practice fell out of favor and feathered targets were replaced with the standard 108mm clay targets used today. Modern trap still offers a challenge similar to shooting live birds, and the largest trap events continue to pay big money. During the mid-twentieth century, shooters weren’t just attending the Grand American for accolades. Winning the Grand American paid handsomely, with top purses around $50,000. Considering that was roughly ten times the average salary in 1960, it is easy to see why the Grand became so popular and prestigious.
“Modern competitions don’t pay like they used to, but that’s not all bad,” Gipson said. “Most shoots are very friendly and it’s all about camaraderie,” says Gipson. “The Grand is like a big rendezvous. It’s competitive, but no one has blood in their eyes.” There are still plenty of prizes up for grabs and there’s still a purse to be won, but it’s a much more friendly atmosphere.
Modern Trap Competition
Trap is one of the world’s oldest firearm sports, yet it continues to be one of the fastest growing of all shooting events. Whether you’re a spectator or simply want to give trap a try, here’s a breakdown of how the game is played:
A round of American Trap consists of five shooters rotating through five stations that are located 16 yards behind the trap house. Stations are positioned in a semicircle, and each shooter fires five times (for singles competitions) at each station before rotating to the next. Once all five shooters have shot each station, the round is complete. Because of the bunker design it’s impossible for the shooter to know the angle and direction of the target’s flight until the clay bird clears the house, and by then the target is traveling in excess of 40 miles per hour. Each shooter has about a second and a half from the time the bird appears until it’s out of range. During that brief span of time, the shooter must locate, track, and break a flying target that measures 108mm, roughly 4¼ inches in diameter. Break 25 trap targets in a row and you’re an accomplished shooter. Break 98 out of 100 targets at the Grand and you’ll miss the finals. Once you’ve mastered singles trap, you can attempt doubles. As the name implies, two targets are thrown at the same time, requiring the shooter to break both targets in rapid succession.
In addition to 16-yard single and double competition, the Grand American also offers shooters the opportunity to shoot in handicap events. For handicap shoots, women and young shooters begin at the 19-yard line on the trap field while men begin at the 20-yard line. From there, shooters can gain yardage by shooting a score of 96 or above at a registered shoot. Each time a shooter breaks between 96 and 100 targets in a row at any registered ATA trap shoot during the year, they are handicapped a yard.
Eventually, the very best shooters earn the distinction of “shooting from the back fence,” or the 27-yard line.
“Making it to the 27-yard line is a huge deal,” Gipson said, noting that any barrel or gun movement at farther distances exaggerates point of impact more than it does on close shots and high handicap shooters. Therefore, such shooters have the ability to make precise shots over and over again at ranges that are near the effective limit of their shotgun. When a shooter reaches that 27-yard mark they automatically receive a certificate and pin from the ATA as well as the respect and admiration of every serious shotgun enthusiast.
It’s also possible to lose yardage. If over the course of 1,000 registered targets a shooter breaks fewer than 90 percent of their targets from their current handicap distance they are allowed to drop down a yard for their handicap. Shooters aren’t obligated to drop, and many refuse to do so if they feel they can still compete from their top handicap yardage.
The Big Show
Prior to the Grand American, the ATA hosts the U.S. Open trap shoot at the World Shooting Complex in Sparta. The Open offers shooters a chance to test their skills on the big stage prior to the Grand American, but, according to Gipson, it also offers the ATA an opportunity to ensure that everything in Sparta is ready for the main event. When your organization is counting on mechanical throwers to toss more than 4 million clays for the best shooters in the world, you don’t want to make any mistakes. The U.S. Open offers a chance to ensure that everything is working properly.
The Grand also serves as an opportunity for manufacturers to speak directly with their customers. It also allows the top shooters to provide input to shotgun and ammo manufacturers regarding the types of tools that they need to compete and win.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Grand American for the past 17 years or so,” says Ben Frank, product and product service manager at Winchester ammunition. “One thing that never seems to change is the passion and enthusiasm the folks who attend have for the sport. Many folks come from all across the country to compete. For most, it’s usually not their first Grand and it definitely won’t be their last.” Frank also says that his favorite part of the Grand American is getting to meet with shooters in the Winchester booth.
The 121st Grand American is scheduled to begin August 5, 2020, and there are a number of different divisions, classes, and side competitions that take place during the 11 days of competition. More than $1 million dollars’ worth of prizes and awards will be handed out. The largest event will be the 200-target, 16-yard singles event, a contest that draws thousands of shooters each year. It’s likely that a handful of the top shooters will break all 200 birds, and many will post scores from 196 and up. That’s daunting if you’re planning on winning it all, but even if you’re relatively new to the sport don’t fret. With so many different side competitions and other events, there’s something at the Grand for shooters of every skill level. There are special classes for both 20- and 28-gauge guns, and Garmin hosts a Five Stand competition. Also new at the Grand are “short” shell competitions for reduced length ammo such as Federal’s Shorty loads and Aguila’s Minishells.
Prior to the start of the Grand, there is a five-day Academics, Integrity, Marksmanship (AIM) championship for young shooters, and Gipson says that the AIM competition is on-pace to become the biggest single event at the Grand American. Through programs like AIM and the Scholastic Clay Target Championship (SCTP), young shooters have the ability to compete in trap events locally, and these programs have caused an uptick in the number of young shooters taking up the sport. In fact, trap is the fastest-growing shooting competition among school age kids.
“Forty percent of ATA members are 23 years old and younger,” Gipson said. Gipson himself was introduced to the sport at a young age. He began working at his local trap club at the age of 14 before going on to manage a shooting club and, now, to his position as executive director at ATA. He is especially excited to see so many young shooters involved. Trap teams are recruiting thousands of school-age kids each year, and with more scholarship money available and more college and university schools offering competitive shotgun shooting as a varsity sport the increases in youth shotgun participation is likely to continue.
“In particular, the MidwayUSA Foundation has helped fund many of these shooting teams in schools,” Gipson said. Recruiting school children to shooting sports not only ensures the future of events such as the Grand American, but it also provides thousands of kids with a safe and healthy outdoor activity in which to participate. These programs also help to preserve our Second Amendment rights.
“It has been very encouraging to see a surge in young folks competing and winning,” said Frank. “It’s good for the sport and it keeps the more experienced shooters on their toes.”
With so many youth shooters competing in clays events, it’s a safe bet that the Grand American will serve as the main stage for the top competitive shooters for years to come. As these shooters start competing at a younger age, we anticipate that the scores required to earn a top spot at the Grand finale will continue to increase.
It’s never too late to take up trap. With shotgun clubs located in every state and province, there’s a good chance that there’s a range to shoot trap close to your home. Perhaps someday, we’ll see you take a spot on the line at Sparta to compete against the best shotgun shooters in the nation. Even if you don’t make the podium, it’s something to say that you’ve competed in the Grand. That’s a claim that very few of us can make.
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