Know your guns: A brief history of clays

Vic Harker charts the development of clay target guns over the years…

Brian Hebditch putting
his Sporter to use

Some clay target shooters change their guns as often as their socks. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but ‘gunitis’, as I call it, is a common disease among competitive shooters and it seems an integral part of our sport.

What these shooters are searching for is success with a gun that will have all the qualities to transform them into a champion. As to what these qualities are, they are clearly unable to identify and rather hope to know when they find them.

Some look to well-established and successful shooters and the guns they use. Certainly, the firearms industry understands this, which is why those shooters at the very top of their particular discipline are courted by manufacturers to adopt their particular gun.

While this is perfectly understandable and sponsorship in all its forms is common to every sport, it’s no guide to those not sponsored or the newcomers to our sport as to what is best for them. Only when this is understood can the shooter new to the sport begin to acquire a knowledgeable approach to obtaining the right firearm, together with the unbiased assistance that is available.

It is to their benefit they understand as much as possible about the three types of guns available and that it’s not just a matter of brands and labels. There are specialised guns for differing disciplines, divided into three categories – Trap and Skeet guns and those for Sporting. All differ significantly and it should be understood there is no gun that is equally satisfactory for them all.

The launch of the Winchoke at Somerly Estate

The Sporter

In describing these guns and their characteristics, I will begin with the Sporter, which, until a few decades, ago didn’t exist. It was not until a small group of British shooters drew Fabrique Nationale’s attention to Sporting’s growing popularity and they adapted a Browning over and under to what they considered to be the new game’s requirements. This was simply a matter of fitting a Schnabel forend to one of their 28” barrelled game guns, choked quarter/three quarter. Nevertheless, it was well received, in part because it was recognition of Sporting clays as a distinct and bonafide discipline.
One of the first customers for this new Browning was former gamekeeper Brian Hebditch, who went on to win the recently established European Championship with his new Sporter gun.

For a considerable period, the Browning was the only Sporter available and the Belgian manufacturer enjoyed the benefits its sales achieved. Meanwhile, the Italian gunmaker Beretta showed little interest and only after considerable lobbying on the part of its UK distributor did a Sporter model finally appear in their line.

Derek Partridge, Daniele Perazzi and Ennio Matarelli in the late 1960s

It would take American gunmaker Winchester, who at that time had no interest or knowledge of Sporting clays, to revolutionise the Sporter with their ‘Winchoke’ hand-detachable chokes that they introduced into their 101 game guns. It took very little time for British shooters to grasp the Winchoke’s potential for Sporting clays. In the UK, where Winchester had a subsidiary, demand for their Winchoke guns was brisk and it took a relatively short time for other gunmakers to appreciate the usefulness and appeal of detachable chokes and to incorporate them into the design of Sporter guns, as eventually did Winchester.

With barrel length ranging between 28” and 32”, with or without detachable chokes, longer barrels were preferred. The Winchester Winchoke has long disappeared, but Beretta, Browning, Kreighoff, Perazzi and others each produce Sporter models that represent a significant proportion of their total gun sales.

The most popular barrel length is 30”, but I suspect 32” models are very close behind. The hand-detachable choke is extremely popular, including those designed by Nigel Teague, which, though expensive, are lighter than most other types and are almost invisible in situ. That said, shooters are no longer shy about flaunting the easier, and quicker to remove, extended chokes. One thing is certain – the multi-choke Sporter is here to stay and represents a significant percentage of the number of over and under guns sold
in the UK.

Nigel Teague of Teague Chokes fame

Trap Guns

The Trap gun, in all its many incarnations, was the first firearm designed exclusively for competition, long before clay targets were introduced. They are sometimes described as pigeon guns, because live pigeon shooting competitions with birds released from traps were organised a century or two before the invention of the clay target. From flintlock to percussion cap, and then the centre-fire cartridge, the Trap gun slowly evolved.

In the modern era, no Trap gun is held in greater regard than the Perazzi. It was designed by Daniele Perazzi specifically for Italian Trap shooter Ennio Mattarelli to win the Trap event in the Olympics and he did so at Tokyo in 1964. This victory saw a collaboration between Perazzi and Mattarelli to produce the ultimate Trap gun to win the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Mattarelli and his MX8 did not win the gold medal, instead Great Britain’s Bob Braithwaite did with a Browning. Fast forward to Tokyo in 2008 and 15 out of the first 16 shooters placed in the Trap event used a Perazzi. Many of those had purchased their own guns, but by the 2016 Olympics things had changed, with Beretta shooters winning 10 medals out of the available 15 in Trap, Skeet and Double Trap events.

Shooting Skeet with Browning extended chokes

Skeet Guns

As for Olympic Skeet shooters, although their discipline’s requirements differ significantly from those of both Trap and Sporting, they are still influenced by their most successful rivals and what works for them, which are shorter barrels and open chokes. In contrast, the domestic forms of Skeet both in the UK and America, where speed is less important, longer barrels and tighter chokes are sometimes seen, though this puts a premium on accuracy. The Olympic discipline allows no such casual approach as in recent years it has grown increasingly difficult. With eight doubles shot on seven stations, the shooter’s gun-handling skills are greater than ever, and shorter barrels and open chokes remain the norm. As to gun fit, as with Trap it is a vital ingredient of success and, regardless of maker, money is well spent in this area. As with other target guns, Perazzi and Beretta sponsor a number of champions and Krieghoff also has its loyal adherents.

Together with all the other guns I have mentioned, keep in mind the second-hand option. Good guns, if looked after, can last a lifetime and even longer. Most importantly, in a nutshell, GUN FIT, GUN FIT, GUN FIT is the essential requirement.


This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Clay Shooting magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online store

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One comment on “Know your guns: A brief history of clays
  1. Richard Atkins says:

    Nice article.
    I remember when ‘Winchoke’was added to Winchester guns in UK. I was already testing guns & cartridges and writing articles for gun magazines.
    The then Winchester MD, John Donne,asked if I would test the new chokes for pattern performance. I did so and then the Winchester Advertising agency contacted me to produce photographs of my actual pattern test results, using a selection of Winchokes from open to Full choke. I did so and the early adverts for Winchester Winchoke guns included my photographs of the patterns I produced in their early advertisements.
    Long time ago now but I still work with gun & cartridge companies today; and still enjoy testing both!

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