A Grand American Tradition
The Super Bowl of football is 51 years old; in golf, 84 for the Masters; and the Major League Baseball World Series dates back 115 years.Inaugurated in 1900, the Grand American World Traphooting Championships is older than them all. Probably among the largest sporting tournaments in the world, the “Grand” spans 11 August days of shooting and 24 separate events. By the time it is done, over 4 million targets will be thrown, a better than fair percentage of them reduced to dust.
The Grand began with 20 shooters gathering for four days in Interstate Park in Queens, New York (yes, that New York). For the next two decades, the shoot was something of a roadshow, rolling into Chicago, St. Louis, and Columbus, before coming to rest in small town America in Vandalia, Ohio, where it remained for more than four-score years. In 2006, drawn by the promise of 1,600 acres, a 3½-mile trap line, and 120 fields, the Grand made a new home at the World Shooting & Recreational Complex in Sparta in southwestern Illinois. Injecting $16 million into the local economy each summer, the Grand was certainly the biggest thing to hit Sparta since Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger came there 50 years ago to film In the Heat of the Night. The Grand, though, had become legendary long before then.
Among the first shooters was one Phoebe Ann Mosey, better known as Miss Annie Oakley. Among other early contestants was, of all people, John Philip Sousa, for many years the conductor of the Marine Corps Band and composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the official march of the USA (often sung by wags with the lyric, “Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother...”; and if you are ever at the circus and hear the band strike up that tune, stand and leave calmly and quickly by the nearest exit–it’s the alarm that the big top has caught fire), and a mainstay of the Navy shooting squad in its matches against the Army. Other celebrity shooters have included, Roy Rogers, a champion shooter at the grand; and Robert “Eliot Ness” Stack, though more of an accomplished skeet shooter, could be seen there, too.
One of the more interesting personalities at the Grand was Fred Kimble. A 19th-century market hunter and later superb target shooter, Kimble is credited with having innovated the first choke-bored shotgun barrels in the 1860s, in order to outshoot the other commercial gunners in the marshes. He also developed an artificial shotgun target made from a composite material that was lighter than the actual clay pigeons it soon replaced, as well as a mallard-duck call. He was also a wizard at checkers.
The most recognizable face at the Championships, though, with a cigar planted permanently in the middle of it, was for much of the 20th century that of the roguish Sports Afield writer, Jimmy Robinson. For more than 50 years, from his first published article in the early 1920s, about none other than “Little Sure Shot” Annie Oakley, the one-time semi-pro baseball player and World War I vet faithfully covered and promoted the Grand American. Affectionately described as a cheerful moocher and flatterer–if anyone has a copy of a check he ever picked up, it should be sent at once to be framed beside his plaque at the Trapshooting Hall of Fame–Robinson rubbed shoulders and shot with the rich and famous, including the likes of Hollywood icon Clark Gable; and in 1965 he took the world’s record southern gerenuk antelope while on safari in Kenya with the professional hunter Patrick Hemingway (yes, that Hemingway).
The Grand is hardly only history and nostalgia, though. Each year brings another crop of shooters and greater achievements, such as the astounding run made by the two South Dakota brothers, Matt and Foster Bartholow, at last year’s Championships, firing Winchester AA ammunition. This year they, along with between 4,500 and 7,000 other participants and an estimated 10,000 spectators (need to confirm stats), will be back in Sparta for the Grand, running from August 1 through 11, with new targets to break and new trophies to win. It’s a fresh page for the Grand, though you may still hear the echo of Sousa’s words when, asked about his favorite music, he replied, “Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead’.”
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