Trap Talk

By Chris Batha
[S]hooting trap is likely the most popular clay-target sport in the US, though so much of it is shot casually that participation would be hard to measure. Trap is the original clay-target sport and the most ubiquitous; it is also the easiest and least expensive to set up, because it requires only one trap and a small piece of land. Because of the easy accessibility of trap clubs, it is no surprise that the majority of today’s clay shooters took their first shots at trap targets.

Trap Talk
For new shooters, the best starting point is the simplest presentation on an ATA trap field. With the trap locked in its center position, start the student shooting straight away at Station 3 (middle). As the student progresses, move to the angled perspectives of Stations 2 and 4, and then 1 and 5 before changing the launcher angle.

A Brief History of Trap in the US

As mentioned, trap is the oldest shotgun sport in America. The game evolved from live-pigeon shooting, which began in England in the late 18th Century, and when pigeon shooting was introduced in America, in the early 19th Century, it proved to be as popular here as it was in England. By the mid-1800s the number of live-pigeon clubs had grown tremendously, particularly in New York and Ohio.

Because of the difficulty of sourcing enough live pigeons to meet increasing demand, shooters began using inanimate targets. Various alternative targets were tried—from steel plates to glass balls filled with feathers—but it was George Ligowsky of Cincinnati, Ohio, who secured his place in shooting history when in 1880 he invented the clay target.

Of course, inanimate targets required machines to throw them in a way to imitate pigeons in flight. With the popularity of clay-target shooting, an official standard was agreed upon for both the targets and the machines, and the first US National Championship was held in 1885 in New Orleans.

Many of the terms we use in clay shooting today came from pigeon shooting. The machine that throws the clays is called a trap after the box that held the pigeons. The person who caught and released the pigeons was called the trapper. The pigeon was released when the trapper yanked on a cord at the call of, “Pull!” Today a target made of pitch is referred to as a clay pigeon or claybird, and if a trap breaks or fails to throw a target, the call is “No bird”—from when a trap was sprung and the pigeon failed to fly.

The Trap Shooting Evolution

The American game of ATA (Amateur Trapshooting Association) Trap has the largest number of participants, and many of today’s young shooters are progressing from ATA Trap to Olympic, or International, Trap. Though similar in concept, ATA and Olympic Trap differ substantially in degree of difficulty. Here is a simple explanation of the differences between the two sports.

ATA Trap

ATA Trap and the slight variation known as Down the Line (DTL) in the UK and elsewhere use a single trap machine that typically is enclosed within a trap house downrange from the various shooting positions. The house provides protection for the machine from weather and errant shots and also acts to obscure its oscillating throwing positions.

In ATA Trap for singles and handicap, the machine is regulated by the following standards: Elevation is set so the target will pass through a three-foot hoop (used only for target setting)—10 feet off of the ground and 10 yards in front of the house—and travel 48 to 52 yards with a maximum angle of 22.5 degrees either side of a center peg.

ATA Trap usually is shot in squads of five shooters. Each trap field consists of five shooting stations that are numbered consecutively from left to right, with paths radiating out from the trap house with distances from the house marked from 16 to 27 yards. In handicap matches competitors shoot somewhere from the 18- to 27-yard marks based on previous performance. Five clay targets are thrown for each shooter at each position, with one shot fired at each bird. After firing five rounds in rotation, each squad member moves one station to his or her right, with the shooter on Station 5 moving to Station 1.

Thus, a round of trap consists of 25 targets: five targets from each station in rotation. A competition is usually four rounds, or 100 targets, though the ATA Clay Target Championship is 200 targets.

Doubles are shot from the 16-yard line and thrown as simultaneous pairs, with one target to the left and one to the right of the center line on fixed paths from launchers that do not oscillate. The targets are scored individually, and a match consists of 50 pairs.

Olympic Trap

Olympic Trap has various names for the same discipline in different countries, including international, bunker, ISSF (International Shooting Sport Federation) Trap and trench. Olympic Trap uses 15 trap machines housed within a large, elongated trap house that is recessed into the ground to form a trench-like bunker (thus the other names).

In all cases the game requires 15 fixed traps set in a trench 15 meters in front of the shooters. The traps are arranged in five groups of three, with one group placed directly in front of each of five shooting stands. Each trap is set to send targets 83 yards (+/- 1 yard) at various elevations (5 to 10 feet high 11 yards from the trap) and various horizontal angles (from 0 to 45 degrees).

The left trap in each group of three can send targets at an angle between 0 (straight ahead) and 45 degrees to the right. The center trap can throw them up to 15 degrees either side of straight ahead. The right trap can throw targets at an angle between 0 and 45 degrees to the left. The angles of the traps are specified in a number of “schemes” that are set by the ISSF. Olympic Trap targets are far more challenging than ATA Trap targets, as they fly faster, go farther and present a greater variety of random angles.

An Olympic Trap competition consists of 75 targets the first day and 50 targets the second day, with a 25-target final round for the top five shooters.

Double Trap is shot from the same layout as Olympic Trap but uses only one cluster of three traps, with fixed trajectories and two targets released simultaneously. There is a random delay of up to one second before the targets are thrown. It is contested over 25 pairs, or 50 targets.

Introducing New Shooters

Shotgun shooting is no different than any other sport: Its success and future depend on attracting new and younger participants. Too often a new shooter’s first experience with trap shooting is being taken to a trap range, having shotgun use and safety explained, then proceeding to the center station and being presented a series of targets. Once he or she is having some success, the rules and etiquette are explained and he or she joins a squad and proceeds to shoot a round.

This often constitutes all of the practice and formal instruction given, and over the course of several months the new shooter will attempt to learn, station by station, each target and its various angles. This takes time and can be very frustrating as the new shooter discovers “bogey birds” (see below) and, depending on how many of these random targets are presented within a round, ends up with scores that yo-yo up and down.

The best way to introduce a beginner or help an intermediate shooter progress is to simplify the game and explain the rules and target presentations, starting with the basics.

The Trap Shotgun

A trap gun is typically a single-barreled 12-gauge choked Full or Improved Modified, with a barrel length of 30 to 34 inches. It usually is set up to place its pattern higher than a skeet or sporting clays gun. As targets should be shot on the rise, placing patterns higher allows for keeping the targets in sight throughout the shot and helps avoid head lifting. If the pattern is lower, the target must be obscured behind the muzzle in order to hit it. This higher pattern placement is achieved with a higher comb and, to maintain comfort and control recoil, the stock of choice is a Monte Carlo. Gun weight is usually around 8¾ pounds, which ensures a steady swing and helps control recoil. That said, a beginner can start out using any shotgun: pump, semi-auto or double in 12 or 20 gauge.

Starting the Young Trap Shooter

The first thing to do is to get the course owner to turn the trap’s oscillation system off and lock the trap to throw targets straight ahead, directly away from Station 3. With the random arc removed, you can observe the shot and see if the target is effectively “catching the shooter out” and “beating the barrel,” causing a rushed move to the target. You can watch to see if the gun hold is too low, with the target appearing above the barrel, making the shooter rush to catch up. If the gun hold is too high, the barrel obscures the rising target and it pops out above the barrel, resulting in a similar poke and miss. A smooth move to the target and the correct gun and visual holds must be learned early to ensure swift progress. Through repetition and experimenting with gun holds and visual holds, the shooter will be able to achieve a consistently smooth move to the target with minimal movement.

Because trap is shot with a pre-mounted gun, the gun hold is where the barrel is pointed on each station to minimize gun movement. The visual hold—where the shooter looks before calling for the target—is also essential to learn on each station. With the combination of the two, the bird is seen early in its flight and the eyes guide the barrel to the target.

The next step is to move to Station 2 and repeat the exercise. I often use stacks of clays on the lip of the trap house to act as memory aids so the student can achieve the correct gun hold. The stacks are adjusted for position and height for each station. It is easier for a beginner to learn with these memory aids than to try to discover proper hold points through random experimentation. Once the shooter can break the targets at Stations 2 and 3 consistently, repeat the exercise at Stations 1, 4 and 5. This may take several sessions. Just remember to keep the exercises short and fun and always finish on success.

Hard Left and Hard Right Made Easy

Next, tackle the hard-left and hard-right targets—aka bogey birds for left- and right-handed shooters, as they go against the body’s natural rotation. Have the course operator lock the trap in the hard-left position, and repeat the process of establishing gun and visual holds, working on creating a smooth swing and move to the target.

Repeat the exercises with the trap locked to the right until you feel that the student has learned the visual holds, gun holds and timing. At the end of these sessions the student will have learned all of the target/barrel sight pictures and gun/visual holds needed for trap.

Trap Full On

You then can have the trap set to full oscillation and, starting on Station 3, work with the student station by station. It may take several visits to the range for the new shooter to achieve consistent success, but he or she likely will make swift progress. This is a far better way to approach the game than by diving in with the traps on full oscillation, when the student might not get more than one chance at the hard-left or -right targets in a round.

[B]ecause trap is the most accessible of the clay-target games, it is a fantastic opportunity to learn the art of shooting a shotgun. Students will learn the principles of straight shooting, which, regardless of the name of the game, are constant: fundamentals, fit and focus. Trap teaches and requires all of these, and the lessons learned are the same as those required in skeet, sporting clays, an afternoon dove shoot or a day spent hunting over dogs in the field.

If you are a keen young trap shooter, consider what a great way it could be to work your way through college doing something you love and that could lead to international travel and perhaps even a gold medal!

Author’s Note: Academics, Integrity, Marksmanship (AIM) is the official youth program of the Amateur Trapshooting Association. AIM allows elementary- through college-age shooters the chance to compete in registered competition on a level playing field either as a team or as an individual. For more information, visit


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