By: Earl Mclean

I grew up when Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Maverick, and many other western shows were not re-runs. I really enjoyed these programs, not so much for the violence, but because the good guys always won. I was also always intrigued by how well the characters could shoot and was enthralled particularly by their trick shooting.

My dad always said, “You can’t believe everything you see on television.” But nonetheless, it started me wanting to learn not just how to shoot, but how to shoot well.

When I was about 9 or 10, I got my first BB gun for Christmas. Daddy took me out, explained the dangers of putting someone’s eye out, and the rules about using my gun safely. For a long time, I was strictly supervised. Daddy taught me to sight in my gun and how to hit still targets. Later we moved to hitting targets thrown in the air – mostly tin cans. These were about the only targets we were allowed to shoot at, other than a cardboard box.

BBs sometimes came packaged in a round cardboard tube, and these also made good targets. I soon found I could take the top off, toss it on the ground, shoot it – making it spin – and before it stopped, send it rolling again. I imagined I was performing a stunt like one of my heroes from the western programs would do.

These skills progressed to me shooting Daddy’s .22 rifle, but only when supervised and with his permission. He would only let me shoot 5-10 shots at any one time, because a box of .22 shorts cost between 20 and 25 cents. Wasting bullets was unacceptable.

Later, when I could pay for my own shotgun shells, he let me shoot Papa’s shotgun, a single-shot 12 gauge, very light with no recoil pad. This thing had massive recoil, but the passion of shooting had already set in. I learned to shoot it well, bringing home rabbits, squirrels, and several different game birds, which, “If you shoot’em, you eat’em.”

After growing up, leaving home, getting married, and having two children, I found out why wasting ammo was unacceptable. Shooting was expensive. A box of 12 gauge #8s was $2.00. Making an hourly wage of $4.00 (before taxes, insurance, etc.) put me in a more conservative state of mind. It was during this period of my life that I learned of reloading. At that time, it would save you 50 percent per box. It didn’t save me any money though – just got me to shoot more.

A co-worker who turned into a good friend introduced me to “skeet,” but not the skeet you know. It was a small mechanical trap he bought at the local K-Mart. A box of skeet then came in boxes of 135 for $1.79. We wasted a lot of ammo.

Discovering Sporting Clays
In 1989, I saw a notice in the paper advertising “Deep River Sporting Clays.” What is this? I called, got directions, and drove down to check it out. Wow! My passion got a boost! This was the most fun a man could have with his clothes on!

In 1990, I shot my first tournament. I started doing very well, although at that time we had very few people qualified as instructors and coaches. People started asking my advice. I really didn’t want to tell them too much, though, because the sport was still new to me.

The owner of Deep River directed me to an instructor’s certification class in 1996, and I have been teaching and coaching since. I shot tournaments up to the point I started Heads Up Shooting System and started investing my tournament money into getting my business off the ground.

I think what really drew me into Sporting Clays was the competition. After years of teaching, it’s been the look on the faces of my students and sharing the joy of someone breaking that first target that has been really magical. When you finish a lesson, watching that person bubbling over with excitement – it’s addictive!

A Family Tradition
My passion for shooting is only getting stronger, and I’ve been able to share this rewarding sport with my family.

My son, Thad, at about the age of 12, had a BB gun my father bought him, but he didn’t really seem very interested in it. I would take him with me to the back 40 to launch targets for me, but for a while he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. I think some stories his friends told about getting kicked by the gun intimidated him. Finally, however, I convinced him it wouldn’t hurt, and he gave it a try.

I set him up on some easy targets, and he started breaking them immediately. I missed one, and Thad wanted to try it. I gave him the gun, launched him a target, and he centered it. He’s 40 now, and I still haven’t heard the end of it. He loves to hunt and shoot and will occasionally challenge me. Now Thad’s own son is beating him at sporting clays and called me recently to say he wanted to start shooting tournaments!

I now have two grandsons I have introduced to sporting clays and a granddaughter who’s showing interest. My oldest, now 22, shot on his high school trap team and did very well. The younger has joined the local Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCPT), and at age 14, is also quite competitive.

SCPT is a segment of the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation. Drake Landing, my home club, helps with sponsorship. The kids can actually earn scholarships in this program. My granddaughter, too, at age 12, occasionally shoots a few clays. The passion lives on!

The best way to cultivate an interest in the shooting sports is simply to bring young people along. Let them take part in the activity, even if it’s just pushing the button to release targets. When they start seeing the excitement and friendly competition between you and your brother, friends, and so forth, they’re going to want to get in the middle of it. Then the seeds are planted, and the roots will take hold.

Earl Mclean is a coach and target setter at Drake Landing and is the owner of Heads Up Shooting System LLC, writing from Fuquay Varina, North Carolina.

Photo Credit: Earl Mclean