Much as I love Trap shooting, I sometimes feel the game that was once the province of the hard men of clay shooting has recently become more than a little too decorous – how different from my early Trap shooting days.
Picture the scene 40 years ago in the clubhouse at Sealand, East Yorkshire Gun Club or Walter Benbow’s chicken hut that doubled for a clubhouse at Thurlaston. A throng of burly men above which hangs a pall of cigarette smoke, and among the dirty coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays there is already a poker game in progress.
The crowd jostle one another, exchanging jokes and jibes all carefully contrived to upset, disturb and generally discourage their rivals.
Men like Braithwaite, Bailey, Brocklesby, Carter and others with only one thing on their mind: to beat everyone in the room.
At my first shoot at Sealand, as a youth of delicate sensibilities, I thought I’d entered Bedlam. I was greeted by a small jockey-sized man with a lined and weather-beaten face. “Hello kid, come to watch me win?” he said. This was my introduction to Brian Bailey.
That is how it was, and is it too fanciful to suggest this atmosphere of intimidation, rivalry and challenge implicit in every word and gesture of these men, was at least in part inherited from even rougher, tougher times when Trap shooting was a gambling game with its main objective to win money?
In those days live pigeons were the targets at the better events, specially bred for their speed and agility. Concealed under top hats then released by a man pulling a cord, later in spring-loaded boxes which on the word “Pull!” collapsed and the bird streaked for the low fence and safety 21 metres away.
In Europe, live pigeon shooting was even more popular. In England however we had Queen Victoria and she was not amused; needless to say she exerted her influence to attempt to ban the sport, although this did not happen until after the First World War.
Elsewhere the demise of live pigeon shooting was a protracted one, and even now the sport continues in Spain and Portugal. In France and Belgium too it was much later before public opinion caused the sport to be abandoned, and only then were minds concentrated to create a substitute.
A Belgian aristocrat, David De Lossy, eventually devised a suitable propeller-like target, dubbed ZZ – which stands for zinc, from which the blades were originally made, and zurito, the Spanish word for pigeon – together with the machines to launch them. His invention had a ready market; with live pigeon shooting now falling out of favour in many places in Europe, the exclusive clubs who were the venues for the sport were losing their customers.
In England, without the same imperative to replace live pigeon shooting, Hélice did not arrive in the UK until 1977 when it was introduced as an extra attraction at the British Olympic Trap Grand Prix held at Sealand. Unfortunately, the UK’s electricity supply wasn’t up to powering the machines so the targets weren’t presented properly. This was a setback for the discipline, but in 1978 at Blandford and Dorchester Gun Club (now Southern Counties) it surfaced again. Shot over 15 targets with £500 for the winner, it was billed as a re-entry competition, so even with 30 entries the club made a profit.
Almost by accident I attended this year’s UK Hélice Championships at Rugby Trap Club and while I didn’t compete and it was the first time I had witnessed a proper competition, I knew a lot of the competitors: my old friend Chris Potter, a silver medallist in the European Championships, his colleague and seven times Ladies World Champion Dionne Rogers, Howard Batt, Marcus Iddon and of course Peter Croft.
What first strikes the newcomer, is how different the format is to other forms of Trap shooting – until you remember this is live pigeon shooting without the pigeons. The modern Hélice target is a hard, plastic disc fitted in the centre of two lightweight rotor blades. To achieve a kill you must blast the disc from between them.
The UK Championship was shot over a course of 20 targets in three rounds of six with two subsequent targets at the end of the competition that helped decide the ties.
The shooter stands alone on the layout up to 30 metres behind the machines that are set in a concrete trench or bunker. The UK Championships were shot at 26 metres and the targets released by microphone.
As in live pigeon shooting, the target must be brought down before it crosses a low fence some 21 metres behind the machines. With five machines (up to nine can be used) five metres apart, the shooter is covering a lateral line of 25 metres. On release the Hélice target’s flight is erratic to say the least, and can go in any direction except towards you. It’s testing, and like live pigeon shooting there is an element of luck as to whether you get a relatively easy target or one that’s near impossible.
The gun and cartridge
The 36g cartridge loads traditionally used for live pigeon shooting are now limited to 28g. As for the type of guns used; by its very nature Hélice is a Trap shooting game, so a Trap gun of some sort is required.
As in all clay shooting disciplines, the over-and-under now rules the day; I saw no side-by-sides in use. As to chokes, you’ve got to hit the Hélice target hard so I would suggest nothing less than half will do it.
A gambling game?
I am told that in Southern Europe big wagers are made on the outcome of these shooting matches. There were, however, no books being made at Rugby so far as I could see, but I could think of two old friends from my Trap shooting past who would have organised one in minutes.
When researching for this piece I looked up the early winners of the British Hélice grand prix, and it brought a smile to my lips. The first was Neil Morrison in 1978, the next Chris Goodchild – friends of mine and both inveterate gamblers who I would describe as ‘money shots’. Over a short course of fire, with money on the outcome, they would both have been worth a wager, and Morrison could have made the book himself.
If Hélice doesn’t quite take us back to Trap shooting’s colourful past, it still reminds us of the qualities the great live pigeon shooters must have had, and all Trap shooters must still. For that alone it’s a great game.
It has always been my view that progress and change, for either good or ill, is not brought about by mass movements but a few, sometimes just one, determined and well-motivated individual.
The success of Hélice shooting in the UK was almost entirely due to one man: ex-marine commando Pat Lynch.
He was fascinated by Hélice shooting and his interest was heightened in 1981 while shooting Olympic Trap in Belgium with his wife, European Champion, Barbara.
At the subsequent National Hélice Championships he met Baron Charles de Moffaerts, a prominent figure in Hélice shooting, who introduced him to Francois de Harenne, the inventor and manufacturer of reliable and well-engineered Hélice machines.
For the two days of the competition Lynch quizzed the two men on every aspect of the discipline. By now Lynch was sold on the idea of establishing a permanent Hélice facility in the UK and immediately purchased a second-hand system for £3,000 and transported it back home.
Over the next 10 years Pat was the driving force behind the establishment of the first permanent Hélice layout in Kent, also liaising with the British International Board to organise championships and teams to represent GB in the major events abroad. By the end of the decade, the country had its first European Champion in Hélice and in 1991 the BICTSF granted full funding status for its international teams.