As young shooters sight along their gun barrels toward soaring clay discs, their aim actually is on the future.
Members of the Clay Pigeon Target Sporting Program will be developing their shooting skills for competitions while practicing firearms safety rules, coach Keith Howard said.
"It's very important for kids to learn to handle a firearm in the proper way," said Howard, an avid hunter and fisherman who volunteered to lead the program three years ago when his son expressed interest.
The program is preparing for another successful season and is open to boys and girls in the seventh through 12th grade, said Shirley Williamson, county extension agent for 4-H and youth development. Information and sign-up meetings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 10 at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion.
The club is sponsored by the University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.
The program began with 12 members three years ago and grew to as many as 26. "We'd like to see even more kids join this year," Howard said. Coaches and volunteers are also encouraged to participate. Like Howard, additional coaches may be certified by Georgia 4-H and Project S.A.F.E. - Shooting, Awareness, Fun and Education.
In its short history, the group has done well with members qualifying each year to attend the state competition in Rock Eagle, which draws 700 participants from across Georgia. In addition, the local program had first- and second-place finishes in the district competition in Millen, Howard said.
"The kids really enjoy it and can compete as an individual and part of a team," he said.
In the modified trap competition, shooters try to hit as many clay targets as possible as they are hurled in the air on the shooter's signal. Their scores go toward individual recognition but also may be combined for a team score. Juniors, or competitors in the seventh and eighth grade, must hit 15 of 25 clay discs to qualify for state competition. Seniors, in grades nine through 12, must hit 18 of 25 to qualify.
Although shooters enjoy qualifying for state competition while sharpening their skills, there are other benefits to the program as well, said participant Ben Howard, 16.
"It brings us closer to people from different schools and promotes good sportsmanship," he said. In addition, participants see the value of discipline as their practice pays off and their aim improves, he said.
Practice can be very rewarding for new shooters, who began with no knowledge of firearms and end up hitting clay discs with increasing accuracy, Ben said.
Many times, shooters new to the group have had no previous chance to learn about firearms.
"As we grow from rural to suburban, the opportunity narrows for kids to develop firearm skills," Williamson said. The program offers suburban youths the chance to learn to handle a gun safely and teaches important skills that participants will later pass along to their own children, she said.
"It's a great outlet for metropolitan kids," Howard said. "They learn to follow safety protocols that will foster a lifetime of sporting enjoyment and competition."
The sport is "fun, exciting and different," he said, and provides youth another sporting outlet other than more traditional activities like football and basketball.
The group practices about once a week, although the location is not finalized. "We'd like to find a centrally located practice area, such as a five-acre field," he said.
Group members use 12- or 20-gauge shotguns but don't have to own a gun to join the group. Guns are available to borrow.
Howard and Williamson will arrange for participants to take the Hunter Safety Course offered by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Participants pay an annual fee of $25, which includes competition fees. For more information, call 868-3413.
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