Rising to popularity in the U.S. over the past three decades, sporting clays has become the newest gentleman’s game, and the Seminole Cup is a surefire hit for the sport.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
The shooter steps up to the station overlooking the grassy landscape, loads his shotgun, brings the gun up to position and takes a deep breath. “Pull!” he says after a moment.
Suddenly, a clay disc is hurled from a trap in the field. The shooter follows the target with his shotgun, then pulls the trigger. The clay explodes in midair sending shards shooting in every direction beyond a puff of dust.
Pro shooters describe the experience as a moment of instant gratification—a powerful payoff that validates their skill and mastery. Even novices use words like “fun” and “exciting,” and perhaps that’s why sporting clays has attracted a strong following in the three decades since being introduced to the U.S. by sportsmen from England. It’s one of the fastest growing shooting sports in America today.
Pulling the Trigger
Sporting clays has been likened to playing golf with a shotgun. They share the same element of concentration and the process of playing a course. Instead of nine or 18 holes, however, shooters stop at 10 or 15 stations laid out over natural terrain and shoot at targets, called clay pigeons. Courses sprawl across several acres with each course presenting different challenges, so shooters often travel to experience a variety of target scenarios and landscapes.
It may be easy to confuse three common shotgun sports—trap, skeet and sporting clays—but the difference rests in the projection of the targets. When shooting trap, gunmen shoot at targets released from a single trap, also called a house, machine or thrower. The trap is positioned 16 yards from the shooter and all targets are outgoing, or travel away from the shooter at different angles.
Skeet incorporates two houses, one on either side of the shooting stations at different heights. Each station is at a different location on a semicircle, presenting different angles at which to test your skill. Instead of moving away from the shooter, skeet pigeons travel laterally across the shooter’s field of vision.
Of the three sports, sporting clays is the closest to field shooting. The courses simulate the experience of hunting ducks, pheasants, other upland birds and rabbits. Clays vary in size and are thrown from different angles and distances. And safety is punctuated throughout the game for all the shotgun sports. After shooting at a station, shooters open guns, remove used hulls and exit the station.
Another commonality among the three is the goal. “Break the target and it’s a dead bird—a hit,” says Gebben Miles, a pro shooter with dozens of titles and achievements in his portfolio. “That’s what you want each time you shoot. Miss it and it’s scored as a loss.”
Miles knows sporting clays well: As the current Team USA point leader, he’s ranked third in the world in the Fédération Internationale de Tir aux Armes Sportives de Chasse (FITASC). “I was introduced to sporting clays when I was 12,” Miles says. “It was something that my dad and I could do together, and I fell in love.”
Growing up in Arizona, Miles’ top sporting interests were basketball and golf. But those dreams began to fall apart after breaking his elbow at 15. Even after three years of rehab, he couldn’t get his golf swing back. His father urged him to concentrate on sporting clays.
“After a while, I started working with a coach—Steve Schultz—and that was really a turning point for me,” Miles says.
Today, he captains Team USA FITASC. He’s sponsored by the big names of the shooting industry and uses a beautifully embellished Krieghoff 12-gauge, over-and-under K-80 Pro Sporter. In 2014, he won an international competition in Dubai, earning $140,000 in winnings—an historic haul for sporting clays.
“Sporting clays is still a relatively new sport in America, and so the purses are still rather small compared with other types of sports tournaments,” Miles says. “But that’s changing.”
Growing the Sport
In 2013, a group of sporting clays enthusiasts established the Professional Sporting Clays Association (PSCA). “Recreational and competitive shooting sports are on the rise, and sporting clays incorporates more of a social element,” explains PSCA President Dan Carlisle. “Still, a lot of people haven’t been introduced to the sport yet. So we created the PSCA to make people more aware of [sporting clays] and help elevate it to the mainstream.”
Carlisle and others close to the PSCA believe the best way to gain interest in the sport is through televising it and getting prime media coverage. After a lot of time and effort, they landed a contract with NBC Sports Network.
“This is big for sporting clays,” Carlisle says. “[NBC] began airing the PSCA Tour in July and will continue to broadcast the events until the end of September—nine weeks of sporting clays competition. It’s all about exposure.”
Carlisle believes that sporting clays is at the cusp of great growth, and that NBC Sports airing the tour with expert commentary and key advertising is just the boost the sport has needed to move to the forefront.
“I believe in three to five years, we’ll have worldwide tours—a European tour, an Arabian tour and other opportunities from across the pond,” he says. “It will help grow the purses for competitions. It will become more lucrative for shooters to pursue the sport full time—just like golfers.”
A Family Tradition
The Seminole Cup is one of the well-known American tournaments that’s gained notoriety for the sport and offers a hefty purse for the champion.
“We are proud and honored to host the Seminole Cup here at Sea Island,” explains Sea Island’s Director of Outdoor Pursuits Jon Kent. “Neil Chadwick, one of sporting clays’ top target setters, is designing the presentations for this year’s cup. We are expecting about 500 shooters and will offer 800 registered targets in the course of five days—a great way to see how you match up against the pros.”
To make the event even more fun, Kent has gathered a great lineup of sponsors and believes that the Seminole Cup purse will be quite impressive this year.
Aside from helping bring the event to Sea Island, Kent has a personal connection to the competition. His father-in-law, Randy Mitchell, who owned Seminole Gunworks, started the Seminole Cup 22 years ago at a small shooting club in Florida. It’s been a family affair ever since.
Mitchell’s daughter, Jessica Mitchell Kent, was a shooting phenom 14 years ago, and continued honing her skills after marrying Jon Kent. She made Team USA twice and has traveled across the globe competing, but took a temporary leave of absence in order to raise the couple’s three sons.
“I started shooting when I was 15,” she describes. “I was a daddy’s girl, and sporting clays was a way for my father and [me] to spend quality time together.”
Despite her absence from the sport, she’s been an advocate for the industry and encourages women to give the sport a try.
“Sporting clays is a sport where ladies can compete with men,” she explains. “It’s a level playing field, and more and more ladies are winning. It won’t be long before our national champion is a woman.”
Sporting clays also draws shooters of all ages. “It’s a great sport that the entire family can enjoy together,” she adds. “For kids, I think that 12 is a good age to start—if they can handle a gun from a mechanical standpoint. And of course, you have to consider the maturity of the child.”
To get acquainted with sporting clays, Jessica Kent and other shooters suggest joining a local club to gain regular access to facilities and meet other shooters who can help novices learn the sport. The Shooting School at Sea Island offers private and group instruction in sporting clays, skeet and trap that can be customized for shooters of all ages and experience levels. Experienced shooters can also set up practice sessions at the facilities. Taking lessons from a qualified instructor can reduce the learning curve and foster good form earlier rather than later. All of the pros agree, practice is key to the sport—shoot, shoot, shoot.
Although Jessica Kent put sporting clays on a back burner, she says the hiatus is ending soon. “I’ve missed it so much,” she says. “It’s a great sport and I’m looking forward to jumping back in.”