Next week, for the 78th consecutive year, the biggest, loudest show in sport gets under way at Vandalia, Ohio. Coming from every state in the union and from a dozen foreign countries, more than 20,000 men, women, teen-agers and toddlers will descend upon that hamlet (pop. 10,796) 10 miles north of Dayton to stage the Grand American Trapshooting Tournament, surely the largest peaceful armed invasion ever to take place anywhere.
Some will arrive by bus, train or even private airplane, but most will have driven to Vandalia. Every kind of vehicle—from pickup truck to family sedan to limousine to motorhome—can be found parked behind the shooting fields. Surprisingly, few people will have come solely as spectators. The two-century-old sport of trapshooting was created for the joy of participation, not as a means to fill idle time, and matching the diversity of the vehicles in the parking areas are the shotguns that everyone, it seems, is toting. They range from $200 stock model automatics to elaborately engraved, gold-inlaid, custom-fitted doubles with price tags that begin at several thousand dollars.
For nine days, beginning each morning before 9 a.m. and continuing some evenings until well after dark, the contestants will fire more than three million shells at clay targets released from 72 traps located along a firing line that stretches for a mile and a quarter. The scores and averages of the 22,500 entries in 19 events will be recorded, computed and made part of the Amateur Trapshooting Association official record. Some 130,000 boxes of shells in 75 different trap loads will be sold, along with several truckloads of sporting clothes, shell bags, reloading machines, caps, T shirts, shooting glasses, souvenirs and emblems. More than 50,000 meals will be served in the commissary; three times that number will be consumed around campfires, barbecue grills, from the tailgates of station wagons and from bulging picnic baskets. Some $65,000 worth of sterling silver trophies will be distributed, along with a Brinks-load of cash prizes. Another $3,500 worth of prizes will be awarded to card-and bingo-playing women and children, who can also take bus excursions to nearby museums, attend luncheons and watch fashion shows.
But for every woman at the shows there will be at least two on the firing line. It is not uncommon at Vandalia to see a grandmother shooting alongside a truck driver or a young woman in a maternity smock beside a business tycoon. And there are events and trophies for just about every possible combination of shooters: husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, sister and sister, veteran men, veteran women, juniors and sub-juniors (under 15).
August 7, 1977
The first Grand American was held in 1900 on Long Island, and since then so many people have made it an annual part of their lives that the number of jacket patches outstanding for attending 25 Grands is expected to exceed 300 this year. For some shooters this will be the 30th, 35th, 40th and even 50th Grand American; one father-son team compiled a record of more than a century of combined attendance.
While the most popular event is the Grand American Handicap—a wide open one-day affair that drew 3,925 shooters last year—the most prestigious title to be won at Vandalia is the International Clay Pigeon Championship of America, an event which attracts only the best shooters. This year it should also attract a large gallery of spectators, as 54-year-old Elgin Gates of Needles, Calif. tries to capture the title for an unprecedented third time. He will be competing against the hottest shots the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have been able to produce in a year-long training effort to win back a crown the military had come to consider exclusively its own.
Unique among Vandalia's multitude of events, the International is the only contest at the Grand American that is shot under international rules, the form of trapshooting shot in major world and Olympic contests. International trap differs from conventional "American" trap in a number of ways, not the least of which is the speed of the target. In conventional trap the clay bird travels away from the shooter at approximately 60 feet per second. In international shooting it moves twice as fast, and is thrown from a trap that not only swings from side to side, launching the birds through the angles of a 44-degree arc, but also oscillates up and down, so that there is wide variance in the horizontal plane on which the targets are presented to the shooter.
In conventional trap most targets are broken within 30 to 35 yards of the firing line. This means the shooter has barely a second after calling for the target to mentally compute the angle of flight and the effect of the wind before firing. But a shooter firing at an international target has less than half that time to make an even more complex computation, a fact that favors the young and swift of reflex. A competitor does, however, have two shots instead of one with which to break the bird, and many international shooters habitually fire both barrels as insurance.
At 12¢ to 15¢ a shell, such insurance can be costly, which is one reason the sport of international trap has been dominated in this country by young men shooting under the auspices of the military services. It is estimated that Sergeant Don Haldeman, who last summer brought the U.S. its first Olympic gold medal in trapshooting since 1920, burned about 300,000 rounds of ammunition training for that victory. Only someone with a very rich uncle could have afforded Haldeman's $36,000 tab for ammo, not to mention target costs and the time, travel and living expenses while firing all those shells.
It was actually the Army's elite shooting unit at Fort Benning, Ga. that turned Elgin Gates on to international competition. Members of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, as it is called, are recruited in much the same way colleges and universities sign athletes. The ancillary benefits these military deadeyes receive in return for their performances are, if anything, superior to what they would find in civilian life. Gates' two older sons, both of whom started trapshooting in 1966 along with their father, were spotted at a Winchester public trap range in Needles by an Army scout and invited to join the unit. Elgin Jr., then 18, did so in 1968. His brother Randy, then 17, joined the following year and is still in the service. Both were stationed at Fort Benning.
"I went back there to shoot with them," Gates recalls, "and to see what the program was all about. Here were all these young kids, 19, 20, 21 years old, doing nothing but shooting for three hours each morning, breaking for a leisurely lunch at an NCO club, then shooting a couple of hours more in the afternoon. All at taxpayers' expense. I've got nothing against that because we never would have done anything in European competition without this program—it's what has kept the U.S. in the international game. But when these Young Turks began to patronize me, to make cracks about my age, they didn't know what they were turning on. Nothing stimulates me like that kind of challenge. I decided to show these smart kids that the old man could lick the best of them. That became my sole and absolute desire: to beat these military hot shots, to beat the government, to beat Uncle Sam at this game."
Gates came close on his first real try, at the Grand American in 1971. In addition to winning the Class AA Trap Championship of America and two other titles, he tied with Spec 5 Doug Elson, a 23-year-old Army shooter, for first place in the International. A local sports-writer reported, "In a fantastic exhibition of shooting skills, Elgin Gates took on the world's greatest trapshooters and mowed them down like sitting ducks.... The home grounds of the Grand American National championships have never seen anything quite like it and may never again. When the smoke cleared away. Gates had smashed 1,008 clay targets without a miss."
In the shootoff with Elson, Gates' 1,009th bird, unfortunately, eluded him. The consolation prize was a trophy naming him "civilian champion" in the international event. Talk about being patronized. Gates was more determined than ever to beat the military. The next year he did, the first civilian to win the International since the event was begun in 1967. Last year, competing for the first time since '72, he won again, an unprecedented second in a row. The odds against a triple crown this year are long but, considering how Gates thrives on challenges, it would take a brave bettor to go against him.
Gates was born in Salt Creek, Wyo. on Nov. 7, 1922, the second son of an oil-line contractor who managed to move his family at the rate of once a year for the first 15 of Gates' life. "All the moving around made me a loner," Elgin says, "which was good because without a bunch of childhood friends to fall back on I had to rely on myself."
The longest he remembers staying in any one spot was the two years he spent at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he managed to win high school letters in track, tennis and archery.
After graduation Gates took a job as a busboy in the hotel run by the Fred Harvey chain at Grand Canyon, Ariz. where his future wife Dolly worked in the laundry. At night Gates played bass fiddle in the hotel band. Dolly and Elgin eloped to Flagstaff one night that summer, then drove all night to get back to their jobs by Monday morning. They spent their honeymoon in the woods because they were housed separately in the hotel's men's and women's dormitories.
"We worked for room and board and $1 a day," Gates recalls, "and we were glad to get it. Playing in the band was worth another $10 a month. But those were hard times and anyone with a job was lucky."
When the hotel closed in the fall the newlyweds moved to Las Vegas and then to Needles, where Elgin worked in his brother's gas station. Later, when World War II began, he moved to Los Angeles and spent the next two years as a welder before joining the Army in 1943. With the mustering-out pay he collected in 1945 Gates moved back to Needles with his wife and two baby daughters and opened a sporting-goods store. To promote the outboard engines he sold, Elgin began racing, first locally and then in state and national events.
"I was always a good mechanic," Gates says, "and I made some modifications in the Mercuries I was racing that made them go faster."
They went so much faster that E.C. Kiekhaefer, then president of what is now Mercury Marine, brought Gates to the factory in Wisconsin to explain his improvements to the company's engineers. Kiekhaefer was so impressed by Gates' mechanical innovations that he made him a technical consultant and awarded him the Mercury distributorship for the Northwest. A year later Gates was switched to Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, and soon he was both affluent and. in racing circles, famous. By 1956, when he retired, he had won 463 trophies and set 26 U.S. world and international speed records racing all classes of outboard hydroplanes.
"But the racing game is a youth game," he says. "It's for instant reflexes and quick responses. The sound of a propeller under water is about four times louder than above. The sound of 30 or 40 of them coming at you when you've turned over is one you don't forget. I decided the time to quit was when I was on top."
Gates stopped racing with his health and titles intact and his eye on another sport: big-game hunting. Besides silver and gold loving cups, he had already begun adding trophies of another kind to the mansion at Newport Beach, Calif. that his outboard business had built. Growing up in the Depression West where a deer in the larder was often the difference between going hungry and not, Gates was not new to hunting. He had followed his brother and father afield almost as soon as he was old enough to walk. But it was not until 1955 that his interest shifted from meat hunting to trophy hunting and he made a safari to Kenya. In the subsequent 10 years he became one of the best-known big-game hunters in the world, putting more than 200 entries into the African, Asian and American record books and in 1960 winning the Weatherby award, the most esteemed in hunting.
In 1959 he was the first U.S. sportsman since the American Museum of Natural History's Morden and Clark Expedition 30 years earlier to collect the rare Ovis poli sheep. It was a formidable hunt involving some 400 miles of travel on foot and yak, the loss of 35 pounds from his already lean 6' 1", 185-pound frame and a lung-racking passage over a 20,800-foot pass in the mountains of the Himalayas.
"I was taking folic acid pills and vitamin B, which had been given me by a doctor who claimed they would make my red corpuscles more receptive to picking up oxygen," Gates recalls. "Suddenly nothing seemed to work. I'd take a step, then breathe three or four times. My chest felt as if it were in a vise. I thought I was running out of gas. Then I pulled out my altimeter and saw that it read 20,800 feet. I shook it a few times and the reading stayed the same. I was stunned by the height. For me the wild sheep of the world have always been the most challenging of all game, but taking this particular sheep was the No. 1 hunting experience of my life."
The Ovis poli and some 145 other trophies collected on his 35 safaris to various parts of the world literally filled the Newport Beach mansion. There were full-mounted antelopes, a tableau of lions, wall-to-wall zebra-skin carpeting in the den, several sets of elephant tusks and a full-mounted elephant head. Towering over all the other trophy specimens was a 10-foot polar bear.
When Gates retired from the outboard-motor business and moved back to Needles in 1965 he sold the Newport Beach house to John Wayne, who still lives there, and donated his trophy collection to the Omaha Zoological Society, where it is currently on display.
"I had collected everything I considered worthwhile," he says, "and I had seen the great hunting grounds of the world when they were at their best. Nothing ever really grabbed the eye like Kenya. But by the mid-1960s big-game hunting was running out." Gates has made only one safari back to Kenya, a sentimental journey in 1973, but by and large hunting, like boat racing, has now become part of his past.
"I knew I was ready for another sport," Gates says. "The woods are full of one-sport athletes—athletes who get bitter when their sport wears out, and who never find another one to take its place. I've been fortunate. When I left boat racing I was 35 and I just did not have the reflexes of an 18-or 19-year-old. It was the right time to get out. I stopped hunting because there was really nothing left. I had taken the best. When I moved back to Needles I got into trapshooting, and it was the most natural thing in the world for me to try for the top.
"There are some people who enjoy any game just for the fun of competing and being there, but I can't do anything halfway. If I do something, I do it to win. I want to do it better than anyone else. Still, only a fool sets unrealistic goals. When I started shooting trap my first goal was to break 100 straight. My next was to make the All-America team. At my age that was considered to be quite a feat. Then I made both the International and National All-America teams twice in a row. I also won 18 national championships in five countries and set a world doubles record.
"When I tried for the International title again last year, it was to see if I could win it twice because nobody had ever done so. That's the kind of challenge I like. But an athlete has to recognize his physical limitations. In 1971 I shot all the events at the Grand—2,000 targets. Near the end of it, I was shot out. Last year I knew if I shot any preliminary events, I'd wear myself out for the International, so I saved everything I had for that event. It was worth it.
"Nobody has ever won the International three times, which is why I have to try for it once more. But if I don't win it, I'm not going to throw myself into the lake. I've won far more than I had ever hoped or expected to win. If I never fire another shot, I'm still miles ahead of the game.
"Now I'm up to my eyeballs in my fourth sport, handgun metallic silhouette shooting, and I expect to be as involved in this in the next few years as I ever was in racing, hunting or trapshooting. That's not to say that I am no longer interested in trapshooting but, at 54, I'm no spring chicken. It's time to set my sights on some new goals.
"But when I step out on that trap line next week, the one and only goal that will have 100% of my concentration is winning the International Clay Pigeon Championship of America for the third time. You better believe it."
Elgin Gates has already made believers out of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines.