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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: Molding safety out of clay

Youths at the first meeting and practice of the Orleans County Clay Crushers began on a sunny, crispy-cool day at Barre Sportsmen’s Club on March 20.

Twenty new student-shooters and seven veteran gunners were in the clubhouse and on the range for the start of gun-safety instruction, trap-shooting instruction and an enjoyable launch into individual and team competitions.

Chris Rice of Albion, an NRA certified instructor for shotgun, rifle and pistol, has coordinated this program since 2007, providing youths shooting opportunities with shotguns, rifles and a pistol program. Many of these young shooters have posted high scores in local and statewide competitions.

Each shooting season, Rice provides a summation of competitions, but the first focus is on gun handling and shooting safety. Young shooters, ages 12 to a senior in high school, begin shooting a shotgun at trap, then skeet and later at sporting clays.

Rice began with the basics of trap shooting, which requires only one round in the chamber for each shooting turn on the range. Later, skeet and sporting clays allows several rounds in the shotgun for multiple shots.

Nonetheless, the basic firing of just one round can pose safety concerns, despite the technological improvements of shotgun rounds/shot produced for hunting and shooting-competition use.

Rice described three possible difficulties the young shooters might encounter while on the range. The three firing problems are part of the overall mandate for all shooters. He stressed, “We treat all guns as if they were loaded at all times and we don’t put a finger on the trigger until ready to shoot.”

Once ready to shoot, instructors stress that youths always keep the gun’s muzzle faced in a safe direction, especially after a problem with a shot.

The first problem is a misfire; the shell simply does not fire. Shooters are told to keep the muzzle aimed down range and call for a coach to check on the load. Internal or primer problems could account for the failure of the shot to discharge.

The second problem could be even more difficult to deal with – a “hang fire.” The shell might fire seconds after shooting or could go off when loading the shotgun, both occurrences a major reason for safe muzzle-direction attention.

The third problem, more frequently seen with hand loads an individual might prepare but could be experienced with commercial shotgun loads, is the squib or blooper load. The round fires but a lack of powder ignition causes the shot to leave the barrel and the wad holding that shot remains somewhere in the barrel.

Shooters are cautioned not to fire another round, presuming a good round will clear the shot wad; that blockage could cause a barrel to burst. In all cases of a misfire, young shooters are asked to call a coach before further handling or shooting their firearm.

Each Clay Crushers practice has four or five assistant coaches ready to help youths on the line or readying for a shoot. Jeff Atwell of Albion, one of the coaches with about two decades of competitive shooting, stood ready at one of the two trap ranges at Barre to assist new and returning shooters this first day of practice.

Son Jared Atwell, 17, began his fifth year in the Clay Crushers program, breaking nearly all his clays on each practice round. Jared has advanced in the Crushers program and has made a mark in sporting clays competitions. So far he has won individual honors in the Sub-Junior shoot and in the B class of sporting clays contests.

Jenna Coyne, 16, also broke most clay birds sent from the trap shed that Sunday afternoon. Jenna travels from Pittsford near Rochester to practice and compete in Clay Crushers shoots. Her parents and grandparents are veteran shooters. She also enters ATA (Amateur Trapshooting Association) contests in the junior division.

This Scholastic Clay Targets Program youth-shooting program in Orleans County also provides youths with rifle instruction for ages 12 and 13 and .22 pistol instruction for ages 14 to a senior in high school. Youths bring their own shotguns and rifles for instruction and practice; the program provides on-range pistol use.

Atwell, Coyne and all other shooters will continue team-competition practices; a skeet session is set for April 3. The next statewide Scholastic Clay Targets Championship will be at Rochester Brooks International Trap and Skeet Club in Rush on June 25 and 26.

The Scholastic competition, part of a National Shooting Sports Foundation program, conducts activities nationwide.

In New York State, Catherine Barney is the state advisor; Barney can provide clubs and shooting groups information about forming a youth shooting program. Call her at (315) 382-0944 or email

For details about the Clay Crushers program in Orleans County, check with Chris Rice at (585) 590-6282.