The concept behind trap shooting is pretty simple, right?
Release the clay target, shoot the clay target.
Well, maybe not in practice. If it were that easy, everyone would presumably do it, and sports don’t become Olympic because they’re easy.
That’s why there are tons of videos online attempting to teach people how to trap-shoot.
But we’re not here to discuss how to trap shoot.
We’re here to discuss what is trap shooting and how it came to be.
If you really think about it, trap shooting is kind of a strange sport.
How did launching a clay target into the air and shooting it even become a thing?
This post will address this and more. You will find that, like other sports, trap shooting has had a long history of reformation and transformation.
For instance, trap shooters didn’t always aim at clay targets, as they used real pigeons in the sport’s early years. Also, this activity emerged from a long tradition of shooting game and events that predated modern day weapons.
The Origins of Target Shooting (Before Guns)
You’ll probably be surprised to learn that shooting pigeons dates back to Homer’s Iliad.
That’s right — only with a bow and arrow.
In Homer’s writings, he mentioned that Greeks would aim at pigeons that would stand on poles in order to honor their gods.
That isn’t necessarily trap shooting, but it provides for a unique starting point that would later fuel what the sport is today.
And it wasn’t just the Greeks.
Indians, Persians, Germans, and others had similar archery traditions.
Fast-forward to the 10th century, and shooting became a popular recreational sport.
The first shooting clubs opened in the 13th and 14th centuries among Germanic territories in Europe (not the Germany of modern times). Originally, these clubs used simple bow and arrows or wheel lock muskets in competitions.
The profession quickly gained notoriety as a gentleman’s sport, with figures such as William Tell becoming famous for their archery skills in the 14th century. (Of course, Tell was famous because he was ordered to shoot an apple off his son’s head — which he did successfully).
And although these clubs were for men only, they created a foundation that all the shooting sports, including trap shooting, would arise from, which now include women.
They held shooting matches during popular national holidays and religious festivities.
Indeed, this would allow shooting sports to normalize among the communities which held these competitions. Competitions started using classic rifles in the 16th century, marking the turn from bow and arrows to the shotguns that all trap shooters know and love today.
What Is Trap Shooting: From Pigeons to Clay
We now know that people used pigeons for target practice long before guns existed.
We also know that this love for target shooting led to the development of recreational shooting clubs that held competitions for male participants.
But you’re probably still wondering, what is trap shooting? How did all of this translate into what is now known as trap shooting?
Trap shooting in England
Well, starting in the late 18th-century, trap shooters emerged in England from those who sought to use the sport to improve on their hunting.
So, as a means to improve their hand-eye coordination for hunting, naturally, they used real pigeons.
These early trap shooters would place the birds in cages, set them loose once the shooter was ready, take aim, and fire. The shooters knew when the bird would be released, but not where it would eventually fly. That is what allowed them to practice real-life hunting because. technically, it was.
But this practice didn’t last long.
If you want to try trap shooting today – don’t worry – you don’t have to kill any birds.
The tradition of shooting live pigeons died out during the 19th and 20th centuries as trap shooting became a sport to showcase a shooter’s skill, and not to provide dinner for the family. (Several countries and states outlawed the practice.)
Trap shooting in the United States
In the U.S., trap shooting started in the early 1800s.
The origins of shooting sports in America were similar to England, as hunting was a primary concern in the 1700s and men wanted to improve their aim.
But Americans had another reason aside from hunting to improve on their shooting skills. They were often at war with neighboring native tribes.
Therefore, shooting sports provided a means to enhance their capabilities during warfare, as well.
But as time went on in America, the threat of going hungry and attacks diminished. Trap shooting, like other target-shooting activities, then became a sport on its own for competition.
Cincinnati, Ohio held the very first competition in the states in 1831. Here, too, trap shooting originally consisted of aiming at live pigeons. But America quickly led the way to develop alternatives to live pigeons.
Glass balls filled with feathers were the first replacement for real pigeons, but the sport switched to a clay projectile that we still use today.
Clay projectiles are usually 11 centimeters in diameter and 3 centimeters thick.
To imitate the random direction that actual pigeons would make upon release from the cage, these projectiles are in a “trap” that oscillates back and forth.
So, like original pigeon shooting, the shooter is unaware as to where he or she needs to aim until the projectile is actually released.
Trap shooting has become such a huge shooting sport that it entered the Olympics.
Trap Shooting at the Olympics
As mentioned above, trap shooting has been a frequent sport featured in the Olympics. In 1900, they used real pigeons to conduct the event. It was the only time in modern Olympic history that live animals were killed on purpose during the games.
Thank goodness the sport has moved on from those times.
Although pistol and rifle target shooting was introduced to the Olympic games in 1896 with five separate events, Olympic skeet started in 1968.
Since then, shooting events in the Olympics have grown to 15 competition events, including trap. The only time since 1896 when shooting of some degree wasn’t part of the Olympics games was in 1948 when the committee cut them from the roster.
The growth of shooting events has been something quite incredible, with only 13 countries participating in the 1896 Olympic games, growing to 83 in 1996. That’s good for the third largest for participating countries at the games.
Of course, the world was not always so welcoming back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Many countries in Africa, South America, and Asia still practiced slavery, even, and were just coming around to abolishing it. This lack of acceptance, no doubt, played a role in the lack of participants from around the globe.
The Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries dominated the events at first in the 1950s but were surpassed by Americans in the 1960s.
American dominance continued, and 4 of the only 13 shooters to obtain two gold medals in individual events belong to the U.S. shooters: Gary Anderson, Morris Fisher, Alfred Lane, and Lones Wigger Jr.
Alfred Lane got both of his in 1912.
Bring on the women
Women’s participation in Olympic shooting events started much later in the late 1970s, before the first women’s event even started.
Margaret Thompson Murdock showed men what women could do with a rifle in 1976 as she became the first woman ever to place in an event, winning a silver medal. Separate women’s events were introduced soon after in 1984.
But that wasn’t trap shooting.
Trap shooting remained an open event for some time after in the Olympics — meaning that it was a mixed gender competition, which both men and women competed against each other.
That changed in 1996, but in an effort to work on gender equality in the sport, they replaced three of the men’s events with three mixed ones. This change brought the overall events to six men’s, six women’s, and three mixed.
Trap Shooting at the World Shooting Championships
Another lesser-known competition, the World Shooting Championships, started one year after the very first modern Olympic games in 1897.
A shooting club in Lyons, France started the competition to mark its 25th anniversary. Instead of being held every four years, as they do now, from 1897 to 1931 they were held every single year except during World War I.
However, trap shooting was not an event in the first World Shooting Championships because they originally only held one event — the 300-meter Free Rifle Target Shooting.
Trap shooting started in the World Shooting Championships in 1929. These original events had shooters fire at 300 clay targets!
That’s a lot of shooting, which, from my experience, is not very friendly to the shoulder.
In 1933, a separate trap shooting event emerged out of the World Shooting Championships, where only trap shooting competitions would take place. This event occurred from 1933 to 1939, then picked up again after 1950 because of World War II. This separate championship would eventually incorporate skeet-shooting and double trap into the events.
But, as the sport grew, the number of targets was eventually reduced to 200 in 1970, then down to 125 in 1994. Also, in 1990, the competition incorporated a 25-target final event to weed-out the winner.
Famous Trap Shooters
Now, for some of the greatest trap shooters to ever live.
The ones picked out here are from an older time, but their fame and talent are hard not to mention.
Some of them even shot during the same time period, and rivaled each other for the best shooter around:
“Captain” Adam H. Bogardus, lived from 1833 to 1913. (Although, he wasn’t really a captain in any military, and merely adopted the title due to his extreme ego.) Before he was involved in making trap shooting the sport it is today, Bogardus was already heavily involved in marksmanship as an avid hunter. Taking up pigeon shooting in 1868, he would later be highly influential in creating glass ball and clay targets.
Paine was born in 1837, around the same time as Bogardus, but by all accounts, had much more accomplishments in a vast amount of areas. He was a plumber and a gas fitter, a vocalist, and an avid outdoorsman. That got him wondering, “what is trap shooting?” Shortly after joining a local club at a very young age, he found himself pitted against the top shooters from around the country. However, Paine’s fame primarily came when he stopped shooting for sport and took his craft on tour around the states, where he performed daring stunts like shooting cards from his wife’s hand and walnuts off of a helmet placed on her head.
Named Pheobe Ann Moses at birth, “Annie” Oakley was born in 1860 and died in 1926. Oakley has gone down in history as one of the most gifted markswomen ever to live but was also one of the best shooters of her time among both men and women. She started hunting early on for a local grocery store, earning enough money at age 15 to help pay off her family’s mortgage. She took on the stage name of Annie Oakley after she married. Oakley impressed a lot of people throughout her career, but no one more so than the famous Native American, Sitting Bull, who would formally adopt her and give her the title, “Little Sure Shot.”
Arie was an interesting trap shooter who started as a cars salesman. He lived from 1882 to 1958 and started trap shooting in 1905 at 22 years of age. Although he had a late start, he went on to become one of the most decorated trap shooters in American history at the time. He won the first event he ever entered and obtained two gold medals in the 1920 Olympics -– one in a singles event, another in a team event. Shortly before he retired, he won the World Championship in 1930.
The Long History of Trap Shooting
Being one of the original sports at modern Olympic games, trap shooting has been around for a long time.
And this time has allowed for plenty of changes throughout its history.
From Greek’s shooting bow and arrows at pigeons to English hunters using the birds as target practice, it’s almost hard to believe that the sport now uses clay projectiles.
But these projectiles preserve what the game originally was — thankfully it just doesn’t involve killing any birds.
The randomness of how these projectiles fly out of the trap is designed to imitate the randomness of how a pigeon would fly from a cage.
The trap itself is similar to the cage in which the birds lived.
As you can see, even though the sport has come a long way from a means to enhance hunting skills to becoming a skill itself, trap shooting still retains that original style and likely always will.
Some of the early marksmen and markswomen were instrumental in this. Take “Captain” Bogardus, for example, who shot pigeons, glass balls, and clay projectiles. He was present for all the changes that made trap shooting what it is today.
And now, there are over 10 million participants in shooting sports in the United States alone.
In the U.S., the task of organizing shooting sports lies in the hands of the National Rifle Association (NRA). That responsibility started in 1978, and the group has been fulfilling this responsibility from the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center ever since.