Berkeley Springs resident Gary Gaither was one of several area trap shooters to travel to Sparta, Ill. earlier this month to compete in the World Championship Trap Shoot.
It was Gaither’s first trip to The Grand, as trap shooters call the Grand American. It is the premier shoot of the season for the Amateur Trapshooting Association and draws more than 17,000 shooters from around the world.
Halfway through the weeklong competition, Gaither shot a 96 out of 100 to tie for third place. Ronnie Moreland of Levels shot a 97 to tie for Veteran champion.
On championship day, Saturday, August 11, 2,050 shooters took part in the handicap event. Gaither shot 99 of 100 clay birds from the 21-yard line to win the Veteran category – shooters aged 65 to 69. Only one shooter of 2,050 that day shot a perfect 100.
On his first trip to The Grand, Gaither won his age category to become the World Veteran Handicap Champion of 2018.
Gaither was a longtime teacher with Morgan County Schools, a former baseball coach, groundskeeper for Berkeley Springs High School sports fields and now works as a substitute bus driver.
His interest in shooting has woven through different phases of his life, he said. It started early.
“They gave me a BB gun when I was 7. I was to shoot only the black birds, not the snow birds,” he said.
His uncle took him hunting when he was 11, shooting a .410.
“I hunted for three years before I killed a squirrel,” he said. When his uncle asked what he was aiming at, the young Gaither said he had been taking shots at the tail because it was the biggest part of the animal.
His uncle bought him his first gun – a bolt-action Mossberg .20 gauge shotgun – from Howard Floyd in Great Cacapon for $10. The clip wouldn’t stay in it.
“I missed my first deer with it,” he said.
It was 1967 and he was shooting old paper shells. The bolt action caught the shell and tore it instead of firing, Gaither recalls.
A few years later, one of his uncles got a hand-thrower – a device to throw clay birds up for shooters. Gaither remembers practicing on the clays on New Year’s Day.
“I practiced and I got pretty good.”
A standard clay bird is 120 mm in diameter – roughly four inches across. Those are the birds Gaither shot to win his Grand champion title.
In the sport of trap, the shooter typically stands 16 yards from the house – a low building where the clays launch. The better a shooter gets, the further back he must stand in a match.
The round and often bright orange target travels 42 miles per hour from the house away from the shooter. Its direction is unknown until it appears in the sky, so the shooter has to be watching closely and react quickly to pull the trigger.
In Gaither’s championship match, he only let one of 100 clay birds go without fracturing it in midair with shot.
While the clay is four inches across, a shooter doesn’t really see that much of the bright target. When it flies out of the house, the bird is almost horizontal, spinning parallel to the ground. Gaither said a trap shooter is really aiming at just the narrow edge of the clay – a rising target maybe an inch and a half thick.
“What makes the bird break is hitting it as it spins,” he said.
Gaither said keeping a clear mind is one method a good shooter uses to stay relaxed and focused.
“You see the bird, and take the gun to the bird,” he said. “It’s either 22 degrees to the left or it’s 22 degrees to the right. You only have a split second. You gotta read the bird coming out of the house.”
After years of practice, Gaither and his gun move as one unit. His gun goes where his eye looks. That comes with a lot of repetition.
“I’ve put that gun to my shoulder 50,000 times,” Gaither said.
Gaither practices trap shooting twice a week with several other locals.
Fellow Morgan County teacher Mike Wilder has been shooting alongside Gaither for two years at ranges in Winchester and Gainesboro. Sometimes they travel to tournaments in nearby states.
Wilder himself won the West Virginia state trap shoot for his age group, earning a trip to The Grand as well. Gaither said Wilder and others convinced him to go to the event.
Wilder shot a 90 out of 100 at 20 yards in the Remington Grand American handicap event. He said he was happy with his shooting but really excited to watch Gaither shoot so well.
Another regular at their range outings in Gainesboro is Gary Van Horn, who has traveled with Gaither on bird and game hunts out west. The pair have hunted wild ring-neck pheasant in South Dakota. Gaither joked that wild birds don’t act the way clay birds do.
He’s pleased with his first performance at the trap shooting championship, since he accomplished his goals – to win a little prize money and set himself up for shooting at a new distance in the coming year. Because of his success, he will now shoot from the 23.5-yard line – an indication to other competitors that he’s a good shot.
Pulling a paper shooting record from his wallet, he points out that he crossed another goal off his list.
“I wanted to get my card punched at The Grand.”