The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

Clay pigeon shooting history: how it all began

Diggory Hadoke charts the history of trap shooting from the days of top hats to the era of sophisticated machines

clay pigeon shooting history

Clay traps today are super-powerful, complex, remotely controlled and capable of throwing clays on many different flight patterns to simulate a variety of birds. (Read can I set up clayshooting on my own property?)

Their journey has been long and storied, from the earliest days of competitive shooting at captive birds placed under old top hats to modern Olympic disciplines, requiring faultless repetition. The invention and ingenuity of each age has always shaped the machinery.

Clay pigeon shooting history explained

Clay pigeon shooting history

Left: trap closed. Right: Trap open, live-pigeon traps held the bird until they were released using a string on the should of ‘pull’.

In the beginning, there was live-pigeon trap shooting. Competitive as human beings are, boasts of who was the best shot demanded proof and the field was too random. It required a scenario in which multiple, repeated flying objects (captured birds) could be shot and a venue (usually behind a pub) where spectators could observe and bet on the outcome.

Given that the original clays were live birds, the original traps were containers from which the bird could be released. There was no need to throw it as, once airborne, it provided flight by its own means.

The first traps were old top hats. The bird would be placed under the top hat, in a small scrape in the ground. A string was attached to the top hat and on the command ‘pull’, the trapper pulled the string and the hat rolled over, releasing the bird. The first pigeon shooting club was unsurprisingly called The Old Hats, founded in the early 19th century and meeting around north London.

Traps became gradually more sophisticated. By 1793, they had morphed into a shallow box with a sliding lid. Now, ‘pull’ instructed the trapper to pull a string and the lid would slide off the box, freeing the bird, which by this time was a blue rock pigeon in genteel circles, while the riff-raff still shot at starlings and sparrows, which were cheaper.

Pubs gave way to organised gun clubs, with manicured lawns, detailed rules and lots of spectators. As the ante went up, the machinery got better.

End of live-pigeon trap shooting

Metal traps were developed and, when the cord was pulled, a split lid opened and raised the floor a few inches, launching any reluctant bird into the air to meet its fate.

By 1921, live-pigeon trap shooting was finished, at least in Britain. Public sensibilities had changed and the slaughter for sport (and wagering) of untold thousands of captive birds was no longer deemed morally acceptable.

With the demise of live-pigeon shooting, clay target shooting became its natural successor, though it had been in existence for decades. At first, it mimicked live-pigeon trap shooting, with a set of traps in front of the shooter, rising at an agreed distance.

The first inanimate targets were balls — hollow glass balls, often filled with feathers, to be precise. These first emerged in Boston, US, in 1866 and made their way to Britain by 1875, when there was a facility throwing them from “a catapult, formed of two pieces of India rubber having a cup in the centre”. This was the birth of the ball trap.

The best known glass ball trap was patented in 1877 by an American, Capt Adam Bogardus, a famous showman and competitive pigeon shooter. Glass balls were rivalled by balls made from pitch, which was less messy and dangerous.

The Bogardus trap was a leaf spring on a board, with a crude, upright iron rod that had three notches, which caught the tip and held it under tension. A string was attached to the top, to act as a trigger. A cup on the spring held the ball. When the string was pulled, it released the spring, flinging the ball skyward. This spawned many imitators and improvers on the ball trap theme, like the Morris, the Payne and the Huber.

Early clay trap

There have been great advances in the design and functionality of traps since the earliest cast-iron lever-release versions

The development of the trap went hand in hand with the development of the target. Most sources credit the invention of the clay pigeon to American George Ligowsky of Ohio. It was a domed saucer made from actual clay, with a tab attached to facilitate throwing. Being terracotta, it was much harder to break than modern clays.

Olympic clay pigeon shooting history

Olympic clay pigeon shooting history began when clay shooting was first mentioned in Britain in 1882, in a report in The Field and, in 1883, there was a demonstration of terracotta pigeon shooting at London’s Ranelagh Club. The London Gun Club trialled the improved Cogswell & Harrison Swiftsure trap in 1889.

This proved effective and became widely adopted. During the development of these static traps, handheld ‘flingers’ were also being improved, with devices such as the Midget and the ICI-Eley Hand Trap.

Glass ball shooting did not vanish with the invention of clay pigeons — it continued into the 1920s for trick shooting displays and competitions.

By 1900, self-loading traps were being used and traps that recocked automatically followed nine years later. Trap shooting was first shown at the Paris Olympics in 1900 and became a permanent feature of the Games in 1952.

clay pigeon shooting history

Great Britain’s clay shooting team in action during the 1908 Olympics in London

Trap shooting diverged into different disciplines — those using clay disc targets and those adopting a type of propeller-driven target, which grew into the modern sport of Helice (also known as ZZ).

Helice developed from the Bussey Gyro Trap, patented in 1872. It was almost a century before a modern version emerged, with progress instigated by Belgians David de Lossy and Fernand Moinil. This sparked renewed interest in Helice in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1990, the modern Helice trap was standardised and is now used worldwide, releasing helicopter-like targets to mimic the random flight of live pigeons.

Rapid improvements In 1910, W J Jeffery was advertising a clay trap called the Expert, which featured the familiar, long coil-spring and arm with lever release, set on a cast-iron base, which was fully portable. It was alterable for direction and angle of throw. Jeffery claimed the traps were “used by many of the leading clubs, shooting grounds and gunfitting schools in Great Britain”.

In 1976, the Bowman Pedal Trap claimed to be able to put “eight clays in the air at once”. The advert boasted that “the fastest down-the-line team in the world can be kept going by a 15-year-old boy”. Another popular trap was the Markham, pitched at “sporting layouts or the private owner”. It featured a pneumatic release that could be operated 22 yards from the trap. An improvement, the Markham Major, included adjustable spring tension and was adjustable for angle and elevation. These were widely used in shooting schools. Olympic trench traps of the 1970s were electric and powerful, designed to throw clays at high speed, including close doubles.

Bowman clay trap

The Bowman Supermatch Eight throws a clay 150m and quickly became a popular choice

In 1980, Parker-Hale advertised the Swedish-made Thulin Thrower, which could be clamped on to a tree and was fully adjustable, throwing clays 60m.

Bowman then introduced its Super Trap range, made from aluminium rather than iron castings. These manual traps continue to be widely used and remain popular. The Bowman Super Trap 2000 is a good example of the pinnacle of this type of trap development. Andrew Davidson, of Bowman Traps, said: “Manual traps can throw a simultaneous pair in a way that only very expensive double-rise automatic traps can. Many early 1970s manual traps are still working and get called into service when the auto traps pack up. Reliability is key.”

However, the demand for automatic traps and the technology to produce them had arrived and, from 2000, the range, sophistication and reliability of these increased rapidly. The Bowman Supermatch Eight throws a standard clay 150m, which represents the cutting edge of modern performance, and has become a staple in the world of simulated game shooting. Specialist automatic traps now exist for every trap shooting discipline, capable of holding 400 clays, fully adjustable for crosswinds and built with multi-function timers and interrupter programmes. Some of them even have voice-activated release mechanisms.

Modern traps are pieces of precision machinery, made to be reliable, easy to maintain and robust, and with that come eye-watering price tags. Manual traps remain tried and tested, and remarkably effective, with a good operative able to throw single or double targets at a remarkable rate.

However, professional shooting schools and grounds have moved to automatic traps and the quality and realism of the targets provided for shooting practice or competitive disciplines is better than ever. Whether you’re paying £100 or several thousand pounds, there will be a clay trap to suit your needs.