Cigar smoke mingled with fragrances of autumn, marking the twenty-first annual weekend of convivial sporting-clays competitions in the mountains of Virginia by the exclusive Green Jacket Club.
Our friend Silvio Calabi gave us a heads up that the book he co-wrote called “Hemingway’s Guns: The Sporting Arms of Ernest Hemingway” was about to be published. Having seen some of the chapters in advance, we were excited about the new information revealed from the in-depth research. Silvio gave us permission to run a chapter titled “The Winchester Model 21 Shotguns,” which appears following the introduction below.
This story is the first in an occasional series called “Confessions of a Target Setter” where we speak with the men and women who try to confound us at every turn in sporting clays.
It’s August 27, 2010 and the summer heat wave that wracked the country seems to have finally broken here in the hamlet of Wellsville, Pennsylvania – home of Central Penn Sporting Clays. Owner Harold Stoneberger and his young helper, Ben Rickland, are scrambling to set targets for a 3-bird shoot the next day, and I’m here in the field with them as they share their tricks of the trade racing from one trap machine to the next, wrench in hand.
Common wisdom says one thing, Bobby Fowler Jr.’s trophy case says another.
Since he first started shooting competitively in 1993, Fowler has won about 150 titles in sporting clays and FITASC. He’s dominated the sports so thoroughly, that his middle initials should be HOA. Every gauge, on both sides of the Atlantic, in his home state of Texas – no tournament is safe from Fowler’s monumental skills in achieving the highest overall average.
Story and photos by Mike Childress
Last Friday was atypical. I got an invitation from my brothers- and father-in-law to come out to the property and take my chances against clay pigeons thrown from the back of an old International Harvester pick-up.
It’s been a while since I shot clay birds. More than a little while actually, from the days my dad and I used to reserve our Sundays for the local trapshooting club. And, after a day of office work, it was a welcome change. After rummaging around for what seemed like an eternity I found my shotgun, shells, and even some “birds” that my father-in-law had given me for a birthday present the year before, still unopened. My wife and I made quick preparations for the 15-minute trek north. Car seats, check. Diaper bag, check. Guns and ammo, check. We were off.
Wouldn’t it be great if four-time Olympic shooting champ Kim Rhode finally appeared on a box of Wheaties?
As legend has it, if it had been up to Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, Kim would’ve been beaming her warm smile on the Breakfast of Champions back in 1996, when at age 16, as the youngest member of the U.S. Summer Olympic Team, she won her first Gold Medal for double trap.
Anyone who shoots a 16-gauge shotgun should send Doug Oliver a big cigar.
As founder of the 16 Gauge Society, Doug has been keeper of the flame for a shotgun orphaned by the industry.
Over the years marketing decisions within the shotgun industry have relegated the 16 gauge from the second-most popular shotgun to an icon of perfection among a small band of bird shooters. They marketed the smaller 20-gauge rival, despite the superior ballistics of the 16 gauge. At the same time, the 12 gauge has been gentrified from its bruiser, meat-market heritage to a relatively comfortable, all-purpose shotgun.
The world of tournament shooting has also conspired against the 16 gauge. Simply put, there are no 16-gauge competitions in major clay-shooting events – depriving the 16 gauge of the credibility and high-profile marketing opportunities to sustain a thriving market.
Still, the perseverance of devoted 16-gauge shooters has kept the shotgun alive. And you could easily make the case that Doug has emerged as the voice of the 16-gauge shotgun community.
“If I were trapped on a desert island, I would want the 16 gauge, because it won’t beat you up and it kills birds without killing you,” Doug said.
Maybe it’s a confluence of happy circumstances that Doug, who owns a graphic-design firm in Bell Canyon, California, fell in love with 16-gauge shotguns to the extent that he started the 16 Gauge Society web site.
He fondly recalls shooting 16-gauge shotguns as a kid in Newton, Kansas with his father.
“From the age of 10, I started hitting birds, and I became joined at the hip during bird season with my father. We’d hunt quail, pheasant, doves…,” he said.
During that period, he started out with a .410, and passed through a 16 gauge on his way to a 12 gauge. He remembered liking the 16 gauge, although for the bigger part of his life he shot 12 and 20 gauge.
“The 16 gauge is absolutely the perfect shotgun,” he explains. “It has a perfect load for wingshooting. Plus a 16 gauge will typically be a pound lighter than a 12 gauge if you’re carrying it all day in the field. The 16 gauge shoots like a 12 gauge but carries like a 20 gauge. It’s a great gun.”
When Doug turned 50, for his midlife crisis instead of a Porsche he bought himself a shotgun. It was a 16-gauge F.A.I.R. Rizzini over/under. It was a better gun than he had known at that point.
On a flight from Los Angeles to New York, he had been reading an article in Double Gun Journal about dove hunting in Argentina. Until that point he had every intention of buying a 20 or 28 Beretta, but the article deflected him to the 16-gauge F.A.I.R. Razzing.
Doug found himself smitten by the lovely 16 gauge. In doing his “homework” for that 16-gauge F.A.I.R. Rizini he realized “that 16 gauge was a stepchild,” he explained. “Information at the time was so hard to dig out and that’s where the 16 Gauge Society web site came in. I though I’d just design and throw up 16 gauge web site and maybe sell a couple of hats. The project itself was fun and informative.”
After a few months of hard work, the 16 Gauge Society web site went up in 2002 at http://www.16ga.com.
It now has approximately 1,500 members of the 16 Gauge Society, plus another 2,400 people who frequent the site’s forum which serves as a clearing house of information for everything 16 gauge. Over 60,000 posts have been recorded on the site.
As Doug relates about the forum “You can throw a question out about a gun and 10 guys will answer you – civilly.”
There is a one-time, lifetime $25 membership to the 16 Gauge Society. But for Doug, the organization “is not a moneymaker. It’s a passion.”
Last autumn, one of the members of the 16 Gauge Society organized a pheasant shoot in North Dakota. A dozen or so members met for the first time there. “It was fun, everybody got pheasants,” he said. “A good time was had by all.”
In a way, that was a trip back to the good old days of 16-gauge hunting.
Doug is an active 16-gauge shooter. Of the 10 shotguns he currently owns, four of them are 16 gauge. He still has that F.A.I.R. Rizzini, in addition to a 1959 Beretta Silverhawk and two Browning Sweet 16 A-5s.
He recalled that when he began hunting there were a lot of 16-gauge shotguns on the market. Winchester Model 12s, Ithaca and Remington pumps, and the Browning Sweet 16 A-5s dominated the market, alongside a smattering of Fox, Parker and L.C. Smith doubles.
Although many a young hunter was started in the field with a 16 gauge, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the 20 gauge, and later the 20-gauge 3-inch magnum, simply buried the 16 gauge shotgun in the U.S.
Doug now thinks that the 16 gauge is experiencing a renaissance. “After a 50-year decline in popularity, the sixteen is making a well-deserved comeback. And in a number of production lines, too.”
Today, although sometimes difficult to find, the industry still offers the standard and high-velocity lead and non-toxic loads from all major manufacturers. “Yet even though this situation has improved in the last few years, most serious 16-gauge shooters custom hand load their own shells. This is true of many shooters regardless of gauge,” Doug observed.
Affordable 16-gauge shotguns are available from a number of manufacturers including Griffin & Howe, Arietta, A. H. Fox, Browning, Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company’s Model 21, Cortona, Arietta, Dean, Grulla, Stoeger and a handful of others.
And of course, there are also thousands of used 16-gauge shotguns in search of a new home.
It started in a pizza and sandwich shop in South Philadelphia, and eventually led to one of the great finds in the world of big-bore collectors.
Today, Bernie Liberati can legitimately claim he is the only man to own two consecutively numbered L.C. Smith 8-gauge shotguns -- a highly coveted find given that only 35 total were ever made.
The achievement is a far cry from the kid who delivered pizzas and sandwiches in South Philly. Delivering food in that neighborhood may not sound glamorous, but it opened the door into the world of big-bore shotguns for Bernie...
After working there for a while, the shop owner had taken Bernie out hunting one night.
"We didn't get anything, but I had fun," he said.
The Boy's First Shotgun
Afterwards, his boss suggested that Bernie may want to buy a shotgun. Bernie didn't own a shotgun (or any other kind of gun for that matter). The man offered to get one for Bernie, and soon the delivery boy entrusted his boss with the cash to buy his first shotgun.
It turned out to be a 12-gauge Daiwa, made by Singer Nikko in Japan.
"It was beautiful," Bernie recalled.
So beautiful, in fact, the man offered Bernie $175 -- a full $25 more than what the boy paid for it. Did Bernie bite? No way. But it was his first introduction into the value of shotguns -- planting a seed that would grow into a fascination with the thunderous big bores.
Telling Dad About the Shotgun
In the meantime, though, Bernie had to contend with his father. You see, when he came home that night with a shiny new shotgun in a cardboard box, he father reprimanded: "You can't bring that in the house."
I said "I have no place to put it."
Dad: "That's your problem."
As the sun went down, young Bernie was relegated to the porch. Wearing only a t-shirt, it was like sitting in a refrigerator out there -- until his mother intervened.
"My mother was inside, complaining, ‘How could you let my son sit out in the cold?'" Finally, his father let the boy in...along with his brand new shotgun.
Bernie and his friends loved to take his new Daiwa out to a field near the Philadelphia airport. "We'd set up a skeet machine and no one would bother us. The police would come by to make sure we weren't doing anything wrong, that we weren't drinking."
Yes, those were the good old days.
Fast forward to 1992...
Bernie's father, now 78, wanted to retire from the customs house broker company he owned since 1963, Morris Friedman and Co. So rather than sell the business to a stranger, he gave it to Bernie.
A Fateful Meeting With Jim Stahl
One day, Bernie was hard at work in the office, when one of his regular contacts from U.S. Customs stopped by -- a guy named Jim Stahl. He suggested to Bernie they go trap shooting one night. (As fate would have it, Jim would become active in the L.C. Smith Collectors Association.)
They had such a good time they thought it would be a good idea to make it a regular Wednesday night ritual.
After a few times out trap shooting, Jim invited Bernie to go hunting... and they had a great time doing that too.
As their friendship grew, Jim introduced Bernie to side-by-side shotguns. Bernie was bowled over when he discovered that Jim's collection actually reached 25 side-by-sides.
"That's unbelievable," Bernie told Jim, laughing about it today and given the size of his own collection.
Bernie's Shotgun Education
In conjunction with the side-by-side collection, Jim was an avid collector of books related to vintage and big-bore shotguns.
Thanks to Jim, Bernie embarked on his shotgun education.
But Bernie was about to get hooked.
One Saturday afternoon, Jim took Bernie to visit Hollowell's Gun Shop in Connecticut.
"We're walking around and Jim says what kind of gun do you want?"
Bernie's wasn't exactly sure what he wanted, but he knew what he didn't want: a 12-gauge.
"Everybody has a 12 gauge," Bernie remembers telling Jim.
As they wandered the around the store, Bernie thought he would go for a .410.
"But there was this 10-gauge Remington. It was cheap and unique," Bernie said.
Out of the Corner His Eye...
Then lightning struck...
Out of the corner of his eye, Bernie spotted an 8-gauge J.P. Clabrough "in the middle of the table. It was the first 8-gauge I'd ever seen." After negotiating about 90 minutes, Bernie brought home the first two big bores of what would become an extensive collection.
"And that's how I started. I was fortunate in that people were not that enthusiastic about buying them, and the prices were pretty affordable," he said.
After years of collecting 4-, 8- and 10-gauge vintage beauties, Bernie was finally able to put it together: his prized consecutively numbered 8-gauge L.C. Smith Grade 2 shotguns.
The first one he purchased was number 46291. As fate would have it, Bernie bought it on Valentine's Day 2006.
Only three weeks later, another 8-gauge L.C. Smith Grade 2 became available.
As Bernie tells it, "There was a fellow who was member of the L.C. Smith Collector's Association. Unfortunately, he was going through some rough times." The man needed to liquidate his collection, and the dealer who got it immediately gave Bernie a call.
When Bernie got it, he realized it was numbered 46290.
Well, from the kid sitting out on the porch that one chilly night with his first shotgun, Bernie now owns about 50 big bores.
"I like the fact that they're unique, and have a history behind them," Bernie said.
But these stunning shotguns aren't mere museum pieces for him.
"I shoot them at least twice a year."
Bernie Liberati today with his son, Bernie.
Chris Corkell leads the way into the gazebo of station six at Pintail Point. She's followed by her husband Charlie, instructor Wes Russum and their trapper, Kelly. The presentation is a report of outgoing crossers -- in a breeze coming off the Chesapeake Bay -- and Chris is up.
After Kelly pulls the lookers, Chris pauses to take in the shot. The landscape is flat with a trap house about 40 yards out, and beyond that a large dairy barn in the distance.
What she doesn't realize is the conspiracy that's developing behind her back. Charlie discretely took the three-button control from Kelly, and then he gets a sly, contagious grin.
Chris raises her Beretta 391 Teknys. It's a serious gun. Stock cut down to fit her small frame, hydraulic recoil pad, impressive wood, and an extended ported choke that looks like the muzzle on a Howitzer. She's in the moment -- focused.
Chris is suddenly baffled by the simo pair criss-crossing away from her. She whips around...and there's Charlie laughing -- along with everyone else. Chris gives Charlie that look (Oh that's so typical of you) and joins in the laughter.
Passionate About Sporting Clays
In a way, you begin to think its Charlie's way of getting even with her. After 27 years together, they took up sporting clays about 18 months ago. Now, all Chris wants to talk about is shooting....
Charlie is watching NASCAR and Chris wants to talk sporting clays. Charlie is watching football and Chris wants to talk sporting clays. And when Charlie is watching baseball, Chris wants to talk sporting clays.
You can tell who's taking the sporting clays lessons and who isn't. Not because Chris outshoots Charlie (they both shoot about 60 out of 100). It's simply that Chris has found a calling. She's on a mission. She wants to shoot competitively. And she'll do whatever it takes to become a championship shooter. She's willing to pay her dues.
"I've never been competitive at anything, until I got into shooting," she says. "But I fell in love with the sport, and I would like some day to be the Maryland State Champion."
Dig a little deeper and she's hard-pressed to explain precisely why she loves sporting clays so much. Maybe it is a means of relieving stress and being able to get outdoors as she has an office job at Talbot County Planning & Zoning/Board of Appeals. Maybe it's because sporting clays gives her and Charlie more time together. Or maybe it's because sporting clays is a heck of a lot of fun.
The Sporting Clays Habit
Whatever the reason, she's going with it. The couple is up to a monthly habit of numerous boxes of ammo per month. And Charlie is 100% supportive (despite the antics)
He proudly says that Chris is doing "real good" with her sporting clays. But for him, sporting clays is a different story.
Ever since he was old enough to pick up a shotgun, Charlie's been hunting in Caroline County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He still hunts birds and deer there. For Charlie, shooting has always been a way of life.
It All Started with a Remington 870 Pump
Ironically, Chris has never even owned a gun until that fateful day Charlie gave her a Remington 870 pump (in camo). The way it happened is that Charlie manages a 130-acre estate called Essex Farm, located in Royal Oak. Chris and Charlie grew up in Caroline County. One day, the owner purchased a manual trap machine to use on the property. To get Chris involved, Charlie gave her the Remington.
"The guys were hitting all the targets, and I wasn't," Chris recalled. "Right after that, I started taking lessons."
Her initial instructor was Bruce Ney -- a member of the National Sporting Clays Association U.S. team, former World Champion and in 2007 inducted into the NSCA Hall of Fame . As Chris tells it, when she showed up the first time with that Remington, Bruce took it away and let her use his Beretta shotgun.
Chris Crushes the Targets
Right after that, he fixed her and Charlie up with a pair of custom-fitted Beretta391
Teknys -- drawing on his experience as an authorized Beretta dealer, instructor and stock fitter.
Now, when she hits a target, she absolutely crushes it -- far exceeding anything she could've done on the sporting clays field with that Remington 870 pump.
Charlie, meanwhile, is more sanguine about the sport. While he really likes it, he found that sporting clays improved his hunting (there's plenty of excellent duck and geese shooting on the Eastern Shore.)
Sporting Clays Comes Full Circle
In the brief 18 months that Charlie and Chris have been shooting, sporting clays has come full circle in their lives...
They've become active members in the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited, and Chris is organizing her first sporting clays shoot at Schrader's Bridgetown Manor.
They've encouraged their daughter, Chastity and her husband, David to take up the sport, so that "We can shoot as a family," Chris said.
And after Bruce Ney hit the sporting clays circuit, Chris started taking lessons from Wes, the resident pro at Pintail Point. As it turns out, Charlie and Wes grew up together playing softball.
Today, you can see all three of them laughing and enjoying themselves as they move on to the next station.
In the back lots of Hollywood, when you say Jack, everyone knows you mean Jack Nicholson. In the shotgun industry, when you say Jack, everyone knows you're talking about Jack Muety.
If you ever owned a Beretta, Benelli, Franchi, Stoeger or Blaser, Jack Muety has helped you find the right shotgun -- and made sure you enjoyed it.
You would be hard-pressed to find another person with more insight into the American shotgun market than Jack. So when he says change is imminent in the shotgun sports, you have to take notice. He has the experience, stats and instincts to know what's coming down the pike -- and how it directly affects you.
He served as CEO and President of Blaser USA for 18 months before retiring in January 2008. While at the helm of Blaser USA, he introduced the company's F3 shotgun to American shooters. With Jack's marketing savvy, the F3's rave reviews served as a springboard for its continuing success.
Jack was an easy choice for the Blaser USA corner office.
Before joining Blaser, he held the position of Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Beretta USA. The Beretta spot was Jack's hard-earned reward after six years as the Vice President of Sales & Strategic Markets for Benelli USA, where he created the most successful brand of semi-automatics in America. He also applied the same ingenuity and experience to increase the popularity of Benelli's extended family of shotguns which includes Franchi and Stoeger.
Reaching the Top the Old-Fashioned Way
Jack's achievements came the old-fashioned way -- from spending quality time with customers. He's been recognized for his countless hours of volunteer service with Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, Ruffled Grouse Society, National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association. He serves as a volunteer coach of the trap and skeet team at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Now that Jack is retired, he spends his days sailing, hunting and hanging out at his beach house with his wife and friends. And even though he no longer reports to work, he still lives and breathes guns.
We First Met Jack Pheasant Shooting
We first met Jack at a pheasant shoot on Maryland's Eastern Shore. We began talking and discovered that we shared many ideas about the shotgun industry.
Since then the economy has changed fast. Suddenly, we were hearing people we shot with bring up the prices of gas and shells in our conversations. These are the same people who only bought premium shotguns, who never hesitated to drive hours for wingshooting and sporting clays, and who spend just about every weekend enjoying the shotgun sports.
Of course we knew gas and ammo prices were skyrocketing, but when you start to hear it from investment bankers, advertising executives and software developers you realize how deeply the problem has crept into the psyche of the shotgun community.
We thought it would be a good time to give Jack a call to get his big-picture take on what was going on.
We caught up with Jack at the Fador Irish Pub in Annapolis.
"Right now, in the current market, there are several influencing factors," he said. He went down the list: the upcoming election, a sour economy, a drop-off in new shotgun sales and the decline of the dollar against the Euro.
The New Regionalism
Jack saw a potential convergence of political and economic forces that could give rise to what we call a New Regionalism in the American shotgun sports. Shooters would stay closer to home for their clays and wingshooting. The local gunsmith would see a growth in business as people put off new-gun purchases. And the corner shotgun dealer would have a better inventory of used shotguns.
In a way, it was a return to the fundamentals -- forsaking the bling and getting back into the heart and soul of the American shotgun sports. New Regionalism could be a homecoming to simpler days.
"The [shotgun] market is in transition right now driven by the national economy," he said.
Whether you shoot a Holland & Holland, a Beretta or a Benelli, the rising prices of shotgun shells, gas and airfare is a point of conversation that comes up. For some shotgun owners, the higher cost of shooting has absolutely no impact. They shoot the same number of rounds, travel to the same wonderful destinations and buy the best guns available. Other shooters, meanwhile, feel the pinch and they comprise the majority of the market who will embrace the New Regionalism.
What Louise Terry Wrote
You can already see it happening. In the June 2008 issue of Skeet Shooting Review, the National Skeet Shooting Association President, Louise Terry, wrote how the "economic conditions" are forcing shooters to "curtail their shooting plans, and they may not be able to participate in as many shoots as usual this year."
She laid the resolution squarely on the shoulders of the local clubs to consider new alternatives for line-ups that could cut-down on driving. In effect, it's a national problem with a regional solution.
Even Jack talked about how he and his shooting buddies have started car pooling for their annual wingshooting trip to New England.
And then of course there are the escalating prices of shotgun shells. The culprits are the war in Iraq and the surging prices of lead and copper.
For the majority of shooters, higher gas and shell prices are an economic reality. But the decline of the dollar is also taking its toll.
Here in the U.S., the most popular shotgun makers are British and European. People were always willing to pay a higher price for those guns because they are "perceived as being better than guns made in the U.S., Turkey or Asia," Jack said.
For U.S. shotguns, the perception is not just about quality; it's about a company's commitment to its loyal customers. For example, Jack talked about how Wall Street investment bankers like Cerberus Capital Management bought Remington -- after it acquired Bushmaster. The Cerebus portfolio also included Marlin and DPMS Panther Arms. Jack believed that when speculators come into a shotgun company, shooters began to question management's commitment to quality and customer service.
The long shadow of private equity in the shotgun industry is, in some ways, heresy to grass-roots shotgun owners. Fiercely independent, there could be a gathering of sorts around the home fires -- the gospel of New Regionalism.
From Jack's perspective this also presents a unique opportunity for shotgun makers. It gives them a chance to get back to basics. While their sales slip, the biggest shotgun makers should place greater emphasis on customer satisfaction. "They just can't count on volume alone," he said. "They have to take the approach ‘How can I help?'"
Well, we thought that sounded downright neighborly. And after all, that is the foundation for New Regionalism.
The phone rang and I got my assignment: track down the elusive chaps at the Georgetown Trout & Gun Club for a daring exposé in Shotgun Life.
Only in certain circles did the name Georgetown Trout & Gun Club ever bubble to the surface. It was the equivalent of the Order of Skull & Bones at Yale that counted presidents, spies and billionaires among its ranks.
The Georgetown Trout & Gun Club was a name never spoken -- only whispered with great reverence.
Members valued their privacy above all else. If you were fortunate enough to ever find yourself in the company of a member, you could never ask about the club. His customary reply is that the organization was established to promote interpretive dance.
The national media was all abuzz when the Georgetown Trout & Gun Club turned down the Washington Post for an interview. And the group's reticence doesn't stop there.
Most queries about membership fall into a black hole of silence. Or if you did receive a reply, it's usually one word.
In our Information Age, you have to really dig deep for the smallest scraps of intelligence about this private men's society.
An Extraordinary League
They say it was founded 700 years ago and is now the oldest and most exclusive sporting club in the country -- if not the world.
It is "the extraordinary league of very ordinary gentlemen," yet when you dig into the annals of the organization the members seem far from ordinary.
A former FBI spy who is serving time on espionage charges was booted from the club for non-payment of dues since 2001.
The club's Director of Fishing left for Denver (at least that's what he said) as part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Then there's the Chairman...
He is only shown in photos as Sir David Niven. The Rules Committee stipulates that members must stand when the Chairman enters the room. The Chairman is always the last to enter and the first to leave. And he is never to be addressed by his Christian name, only as Mr. Chairman.
The Chairman is known for reciting The Iliad by heart in local taverns. His favorite diversion on road trips is staying in Howard Johnson motels.
A Powder Keg: The Smith Endowment
And the club's secret handshake? It's only known by two people: the Chairman and the Director of Ops.
Despite its secrecy, there was one powder keg that the group managed to quietly extinguish.
It was started by the club's Smith Endowment, after word leaked that some of them claimed to have fathered children with the notorious blonde bombshell, Anna Nicole Smith.
So now that I finished due diligence on the club, my next step was to make contact. How would I do it? Would I ever get through? Would they completely ignore me? Was bribery appropriate?
The Phone Number
As it turns out, I had an ace in the hole. After digging and digging and digging, I found a phone number. I did a quick Avé Maria before I called it. A man answered. It turned out apparently to be the Director of Ops, since he answered the phone "Ops."
I politely introduced myself. There was a long pause. I continued that I was with Shotgun Life and could I do a story on the club?
"Sure," he said. He explained that The Great Challenge was coming up in a few weeks and asked if I would be interested in a press pass.
"You bet," I said.
"Consider it done. And by the way..."
"There's one teeny-tiny stipulation."
"You cannot identify our members. You refer to them by their numbers. To shield our privacy, you understand."
I couldn't believe my good luck. I must've caught him in a good mood -- or on the tail end of a three martini lunch. Regardless, I shot him off my email address. Over the next several days, I received missives about the upcoming Great Challenge. Finally, as we neared the date, the actual invitation arrived.
Attention able-bodied men -- and The Chairman!
Remember that Saturday is our Great Society's annual Sporting Clay Tournament in Remington, VA. Due to the success of last years event, we have many more guns attending and it will be much fun as we shoot and eat while enjoying the companionship of our fellow lads in the field. Several non-resident members are traveling from California, Pennsylvania and The Democratic Republic of Congo to compete.
Schedule of lively events:
Arrival, coffee and registration
Identity and gender check
Practice shoot through the APC course
The 2008 Challenge begins
another knife fight
Be sure to see the Shooting League page on the club's website for details, directions, convoy and late breaking news of the event.
This event will define, defy or defile you as a man.
Knife fights? What was I getting myself into?
I laid awake nights leading up the Great Challenge. Knife fights was all I could think about. I obsessed over the knife fights. During the day, the distractions of daily life kept my fear at bay. But at night, when I turned off the lamp and lay my head on the pillow and the silence welled up around me...knife fights...glimmering steel in the darkness -- and blood!
The final email before the Great Challenge revealed that this manly day of action would be staged at the Shady Grove Kennel and Hunting Preserve. Owned by the renowned trainer, Mr. R.N. Selby, Shady Grove was the venue for the prestigious 2007 Master National Retriever Trial hosted by the Rappahannock River Retriever Club.
Smelling the Pedigree
I could already smell the pedigree of the members.
On the appointed morning I donned my Harris Tweed shooting jacket, tattersall shirt, pheasant tie and Barbour hounds-tooth cap. My shotgun of choice was a 20-gauge Caesar Guerini Magnus -- a lovely gun ideal for the highly anticipated Great Challenge.
In addition to packing ammo, water and a clean towel in my waterproof shooting bag, I added a roll of sterile gauze, white adhesive tape, antiseptic ointment and a fresh change of boxer shorts.
Finally, I removed my razor-sharp buffalo knife from its crocodile sheath for a quick once-over: mirrored stainless steel, full tang, trailing point blade with a polished buffalo horn handle. It had been a gift from my beloved uncle, my namesake, Cletus Clapp. I slipped the knife into my bag. There, I was set.
I departed from home just north of Baltimore in the wee hours of the morning, and some two hours later I arrived at Shady Grove in rural Remington, Virginia.
The First to Arrive
The gravel parking lot was empty, but upon my arrival a rugged-looking man pulled up in a sporting-clays cart. With his long Southern drawl, he introduced himself as Mr. Selby. Yes, indeed, I was the first to arrive, he confirmed, and then suggested I take a stroll down the pasture to the safari canopy in the distance, which would serve as the nerve center for the Great Challenge.
The canopy stood under a tree ringed by the sporting- clays stations. There was an underbelly of ominous storm clouds, with the heady scents of imminent rain and fresh-cut grass. The club's coat of arms waved in the breeze from a low branch.
The hospitable and witty Mrs. Selby introduced herself as she applied the final touches on a beautiful spread of pastries, juice, fruit and coffee. Mr. Selby joined her to help attach the table skirt with Velcro.
Cup of coffee in hand, I mentioned that this was my first time shooting with the gents, and Mrs. Selby chuckled -- shooting her husband an all-knowing glance.
Prodding Mrs. Selby
I prodded Mrs. Selby with a few delicate questions about the knife fight, but all she said is that I would enjoy the company of the boys. Mr. Selby remained mum as he worked the Velcro around the table. At the first opportunity, he hopped in his cart and sped off.
With the conversation clearly closed, I decided to reconnoiter the property on foot. The club house was a converted drive-up ATM booth with a sagging wood porch. A few pick-up trucks were parked nearby, some with kennels in the beds. Two Porta Potties stood sentry against the looming storm.
A pair of retrievers frolicked with each other as their owners attended to the property.
The sporting-clays stations looked like short-range shots, but experience taught me that these types of presentations could be tricky with deceiving quartering angles, sudden drops and small windows of visibility. My analysis later proved correct, but I couldn't possibly foretell what our gonzo trapper had in store for us.
As I walked back to the canopy I noticed two men had arrived. They turned out be members 454 and 302. At the same time, a fetching member of staff in snug jeans named S. had taken to tending the food and beverages. Of course, the lads were preoccupied with S. -- a slender, raven-haired beauty with penetrating eyes and a really, really tight body.
What About the Knife Fight?
Introductions all around. One of the members was obviously English, and the other, a former college roommate of the Director of Ops, had flown in from California specifically for the Great Challenge. They gave the impression of being decent sorts. At the first discrete opportunity I asked about the knife fight and everyone seemed to laugh at my expense.
After some chit-chat, a convoy entered the parking lot. The two members took leave for the convoy and I quickly followed.
About 10 gentlemen piled out of the vehicles. The Director of Ops immediately identified me as the new face and extended a hail-hearty welcome. A dashing and hospitable fellow, we walked together back to the canopy in an affable manner. I thought it indelicate to broach the subject of the knife fight with him, not wanting to blow the opportunity for this exclusive exposé at the risk of being pegged a chicken.
So as we sauntered along, he introduced me to members we encountered by their three-digit numbers. Of course I was the picture of decorum, but I judged each handshake by its strength and firmness, assessing whether or not I could take that guy in a knife fight.
Finally, the Chairman
We bantered about under the canopy when, out of the corner of his eye the Director of Ops saw something that turned his countenance sober. "I want you to meet the Chairman," he whispered.
I glanced in the direction of the Chairman. All I could see was his back. It was a distinguished back, probably hairy based on the thickness of his mane. The Chairman was in the middle of a lesson with the resident pro.
As the Director of Ops accompanied me, he listed all the rules and protocols of greeting the Chairman. After each one, I had to say "Yes I understand" or "No, I do not understand."
We deferentially waited until the Chairman acknowledged us. Shaking hands I said "A pleasure to meet you Mr. Chairman," thinking that I could definitely take this guy.
"Welcome, Fielding-Clapp." And the Chairman returned to his lesson.
"Good form," the Director of Ops told me as we returned to the canopy.
The Practice Shoot
Soon, the Director of Ops had convened everyone for a pairing of the teams for the Practice Shoot of the Great Challenge. I was in a squad with the Director himself and member 327, a tall chap with an excessively long reach and big hands. Hmmm, I thought.
Ready with gun at hand, I observed the chaps as they prepared themselves. It was 09:00 and since the scheduled identity and gender check had not taken place yet I wondered if the men did it in the cars on the way up here to save time. As for me, well, they either didn't care about my identity and gender or they had much bigger plans to spring on me.
And what about the knife fight? It too was behind schedule. Everyone seemed blissfully blasé about it as the team-up coalesced. One thing was absolutely certain: I had no intention of bringing it up.
We convened at station 3 for the kick-off of the Practice Session of the Great Challenge. The Chairman prepared to take the first shots. As skill and fortune would have it, the Chairman ran the station, followed by a genteel applause. The 50-round Practice Session of the Great Challenge commenced.
Our Wily Trapper
Our trapper proved to be a husky fellow with a booming laugh named B. We discovered that he worked full time for a military contractor in Virginia. His expertise was submarine logistics. He enjoyed trapping to spend quality time outdoors. He obviously took his profession quite seriously because B.'s trapping skills were every bit as wily and stealthy as a submarine.
He would give us the lookers then change their order when we called for them. He threw targets upside down, the centers punched out, midis, minis, battues -- concocting any combination of simos on a whim that would take a contortionist to hit. He especially liked to tilt forward the portable platforms that held the manual throwing machines so the targets angled straight into the dirt. Nothing was too devious for that big lug of a chap and each round would be punctuated with his great booming laugh.
Now that we had the defilement out of the way, I look forward to a hearty lunch.
She Squeezes Between the Lads
We took to our vehicles and drove the few miles to the lodge. The house had a sprawling country kitchen and wide verandah where we ate our build-your-own sandwiches, wraps and savory side dishes. S. would squeeze between the lads ready to fill a glass or take an empty plate. It was a picture-book spring afternoon in this part of Virginia, and everyone was of lively disposition.
I was just about to ask about the knife fight when the Chairman stood and announced that it was back to Shady Grove for the Great Challenge.
With backslapping and fanfare we repaired to our vehicles. I wondered, which I would encounter next: define or defy? Or perhaps I would be defile all over again. Either way, with a full stomach and a perky attitude I was ready for whatever lay ahead in the Great Challenge.
The three-man teams were different this time around. My squad consisted of members 351 and 409, and we were accompanied by trapper, J. -- a short wan fellow who was an excellent instructor.
The Chairman Chokes
Once again, the Chairman led with the opening shots followed by a polite applause after choking big time and missing all the targets.
The character of this squad and the Great Challenge itself was markedly more serious. Fifty rounds, and may the best man win.
The pressure of the competition compressed time. Before we knew it, the Great Challenge was over. I fared second in my squad -- behind the architect and ahead of the movie producer.
No doubt, we were more than ready for the alcoholic beverages, cheese and crackers and more desserts. It was back to the lodge.
The Dreaded Ballerina Cup
Unbeknownst to me there was a palpable trepidation among some of the members. What I was about to discover is that the man with the lowest score of the Great Challenge wins the dreaded Ballerina Cup.
On the verandah we quenched our thirst with beer, wine and just about anything within reach that contained alcohol. The Director of Operations called the meeting to order with a slam of the gavel. Past, present and future business was covered in true parliamentary procedure, yet the well-lubed lads broke out into rollicking laughter as we moved to the prizes.
The Great Challenge of 2008 would prove to be the biggest upset in the 700-year history of the club. The Chairman took the floor and announced the results. The ace shooters didn't place at all. The winner's cup went to member 428. The second-place ribbon was awarded to member 305. And much to my own surprise, yours truly placed third.
Member 413 accepted the Ballerina Cup with fortitude and magnanimity.
Another Heaping of Defilement
The Chairman returned the floor to the Director of Ops. It was time to announce new members. He read off six names followed by their numbers, each garnering a round of applause.
The Director of Ops then called for silence. I felt certain that the knife fight would begin, with yet another heaping of defilement coming my way. This was going to hurt bad.
"We have one more new member to announce," the Director said. "This is a big surprise, but the decision is unanimous. Let us welcome to the Georgetown Trout & Gun Club, Cletus Fielding-Clapp."
It certainly generated the biggest applause of the day and I beamed with pride. A few words were called for. The Chairman stood beside me and I thanked everyone for acknowledging me as a member. It was a heady moment, indeed, to be standing right within spitting distance of the Chairman.
The group began to disperse. What an incredible feat, I thought, to become a member of the Georgetown Trout & Gun Club.
As we filed into the parking lot, I managed to find a moment to buttonhole the Director of Ops.
"What about the knife fight?" I whispered.
He looked at me in amazement, then broke out laughing.
It's at great peril that we publish the link to the web site of the Georgetown Trout & Gun Club: http://www.georgetownleague.info/. Please be advised that the photos of gentlemen depicted on the group’s web site are professional models paid to shield the real members from the prying eyes of the public.