Forty-one years ago, when skeet shooting was only 13 years old, an ancient chemical company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours of Delaware, put out a booklet explaining and praising the bumptious new sport. In its brochure DuPont went so far as to predict that with improvements in guns and ammo and technique, thousands of shooters would some day master the art of busting whizzing doubles and even the particular horrors of station eight. To punch home the fact that skeet was a good game for almost everybody, the company prefaced its text with a photograph of the Pickens Sisters of radio fame strolling along the walk of a skeet field.
In the picture the three Pickens songsters are wearing outfits that look as if they had been cut to fit someone like Kate Smith and are clumsily toting shotguns, making one doubt they had ever used any weapon deadlier than a parasol. Although the gun carried by one of the sisters is obviously a single-shot, their broad smiles suggest that all three had just dusted off 50 consecutive doubles from station four.
Since DuPont had plenty of powder to burn, its early claims for skeet are understandable, indeed laudable, and what the company fancied back in 1933 has become fact.
At a skeet competition like the World Championship held in San Antonio last week, almost everybody from the perambulator to the grave gets to whang away at clay birds, in quest of a greater or lesser grail. A skeet tournament is a multifaceted war involving complicated alliances and minor conflicts sufficient to befuddle a Metternich. There are team competitions for husband and wife, for parent and child, for members of the immediate family, as well as ordinary two-man and five-man events. While working together on such team efforts, everybody—grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and parish priest—is trying to beat everybody else out of individual honors and sub-honors in four gauges of gun as well as the overall four-gauge title.
Because of the tensions that can build and the moments that are often crucial, skeet has been likened to baseball and golf, but in spirit it is a friendlier game. In all the World Series that he worked, was Augie Donatelli, the august baseball umpire, ever allowed to take a turn at the plate? Never. In the annual world skeet meet, by contrast, there is even a competition for the referees (as one snide skeeter has explained, to find out if they are really as blind as they sometimes seem). At the Masters in Augusta, when icy Ben Hogan was teeing up for the last hole of the last round, two down, did his playing partner ever bellow in his ear, "O.K., Ben baby, let 'er go. Stroke it, man"?
Of course not. But in skeet it is customary to lend encouragement to one's rival in a voice that can be heard through a solid lead earplug. Skeet shooters are sometimes tense and often disappointed, but they are rarely without voice or heart. Noise is their bag. Chatter is the order of the day.
To appreciate the proficiency of today's skeeters and how they have lived up to the forecast made by DuPont back in the dark ages, one need only examine some of the carnage wrought by the 641 men, women and children at the National Gun Club in San Antonio. Twenty years ago a competitor who got 98 of 100 clay birds with a .410, the little gun that spatters out only half an ounce of shot, could be fairly sure of the title, or at least a place in a shoot-off. At San Antonio 36 shooters did 98 or better, Kenny Barnes of Bakersfield, Calif. finally winning after a perfect score and a shoot-off against Richard (Red) Hill, a former .410 champion from Detroit.
In the larger gauges perfect scores have been commonplace for 20 years, but of late there have been so many in the 28- and 20-gauge that the actual 100-bird competition has become, in effect, a qualification string.
To keep the show from dragging on and on, the National Skeet Shooting Association decreed last year that after four orthodox rounds of 25 birds in a shoot-off, the surviving guns would shoot only doubles in subsequent rounds. Nonetheless, in the 28-gauge event it took Dennis Thomas, a Phoenix flooring contractor, six rounds to shake off 25 rivals. In the 20-gauge event 19-year-old Terry Nichols of Shelton, Conn. needed seven extra rounds to win in a shoot-off field of 48. In the 12-gauge, since there are 250 birds in the regular competition, there would naturally be fewer perfect scores; still, at San Antonio there was a shoot-off field of 22 and Tito Killian, a local 18-year-old, spent six rounds getting rid of the other 21.
As might be expected in a sport where tension needs release, there is some lamenting among oldtimers about the steady march of able women and teenagers to the forefront. At San Antonio, Ralph Dameron, an ordinarily easy sort of shooter from Tennessee, lamented, "I tell you the women and the kids are fouling up this game for everybody. They have keen eyes and quick reflexes and no worries, no business problems."
Although Dameron is only 44 and barely looks it, to hear him weep about his failing eyes and other incipient signs of decay one would conclude that he was an octogenarian ready for the nearest pine box.
His lament about insurgent youth is somewhat justified, though. Dameron had hoped to enter last week's champion of champions event, open only to shooters who have won a state or comparable major title, but back home younger competitors slammed the door on him, most of the slamming being done by his own 20-year-old son David, who won the Tennessee .410, 28-gauge and overall titles. At San Antonio, David did right fine, copping a number of minor placings and scoring 545 for four guns, although he lost out in the overall, the ultimate grail. Decrepit Ralph did even better, taking the runner-up spots in both the 28- and 20-gauge. It was he who carried the 28-gauge winner to the sixth shoot-off round and the 20-gauge winner to the seventh.
Although he insists his eyes aren't what they used to be, in the 20-gauge competition Ralph Dameron shot through one round without a miss at 8:30 in the evening, in light so dim the breech and muzzle burn could be clearly seen. "I was shooting where I thought they ought to be," he explained.
As if there were not glory enough to be gained in the orthodox program, at its annual meet the National Skeet Shooting Association runs two side-bar tests known, for no good reason, as the East and West Opens.
The two oddball events are open to all 12-gauge competitors who make perfect scores in the first two days of the regular 12-gauge competition. Although both Opens attracted more than 60 guns, they are in the opinion of some skeet-wise men, notably Alex Kerr of Beverly Hills, Calif., only a good way for men still in the running for the 12-gauge and overall titles to fritter away their chances. Kerr's low opinion of frivolous events carries weight on a number of counts. For one, he was something of an authority on making the most of what you have before he took up skeet. Although he stands only 5'8", back in the early '30s he was a high jumper and once managed to get over 6'4" while competing against Walter Marty, who held the world record of 6'8‚Öù".
As a shooter Kerr never bothered with frivolous quests, focusing on the big prizes, and in the process he won the All-Around championship five times between 1941 and 1957, as well as 10 titles in the individual guns.
No other shooter has ever hauled in half as much. To anyone who still tries to argue about this particular rule of his success Kerr points out that only one man who has distracted himself with the East-West junk has ever won the overall the same year.
Kerr's thesis is further borne out by this year's overall winner, Noel Winters, a 24-year-old building-materials supplier from Baltimore who, although he had never "won as much as a whoopee pin" in two previous world meets, resolved to ignore the trivial fluff and shoot only for the big apples.
"All I had ever gotten before was a handshake and a thank you for coming," Winters said. "Still I wasn't about to go in the East-West and dump a shot and worry about that while trying to win something bigger."
Although he has been serious about skeet for less than four years, Winters, speaking as if he were an oldtimer, observed, "The only people hard to beat in shoot-offs are women, kids and old men. They don't seem to be aware how much is at stake on each shot. While you're lucky to get chips off the birds in a shoot-off, a woman will be silver-dollaring them right and left." Despite the fact that he is only 24, Winters does not qualify as one of Ralph Dameron's quick and keen-eyed young bloods who are making it so rough for the Old Guard. Winters barely sees better than the average mole and wears glasses simply to avoid colliding with furniture. Abetted by specs as thick as the bottom of a beer glass, he knocked off a 99 in the .410, a 100 in the 28-gauge, a 99 in the 20-gauge and a perfect 250 in the 12-gauge for a record-tying total of 548. This put him in a three-way shoot-off against veterans Red Hill and William Peale Jr. of Austin. Not being women or beardless youths, hence duly impressed by the gravity of the occasion, Hill and Peale straightaway blew shots on the fifth station of the first extra round, giving the biggest apple of them all to Winters.
Most of the honors reserved exclusively for women went to Karla Roberts, a 37-year-old Missourian who currently rules the roost much as Carola Mandel, the winsome Cuban import, did 20 years back. After a weak start in the .410, Roberts won the 28-gauge in a three-way shoot-off, lost in a three-way shoot-off in the 20-gauge event, then won the 12-gauge and overall with a total of 542. While reigning women do not have to worry about men invading their exclusive competition, they do have to be concerned about insurgents in their own ranks.
In the 12-gauge, 18-year-old Patty Loyd, a little-known left-handed class B shooter out of Wichita, gave Queen Karla a start. Because Patty is naturally right-handed, when she first shot three years ago she did poorly until she realized her left eye was dominant and switched her gun over to oblige it. After shooting 90-93-96, scarcely better than her class B rating in the first three guns, suddenly blam, blam, on consecutive days in the 12-gauge Patty hung up perfect scores. But as they say about the 12-gauge, it is the 50 birds on the final day that separate the knaves from the king and the maids from the queen. On the last 50, Lefty Loyd, pretender to the throne, lost two birds to end up one point behind Queen Karla and settled back to being maid for another year.