A Shooting Sports Renaissance in Schools?

Sporting Clays by MyFWC Florida Fish and Wildlife is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 .

Air rifle ranges in school basements may still largely be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean the teams themselves have disappeared. As we’re highlighting on today’s Bearing Arms Cam & Co, with trap shooting one of the fastest-growing high school sports and other groups like the Student Air Rifle League hosting competitions for elementary, middle, and high school teams, the shooting sports are making a welcome return to school districts around the country.


The impetus for today’s show was this write-up from Courthouse News Service reporter Amanda Pampuro, who did a great job of covering the issue without putting an anti-gun spin on her story. In fact, I kind of wish that she’d included a comment or two from a gun control group so her readers could see that the gun control lobby views the youth shooting sports as a dangerous marketing ploy from the firearms industry. The closest Pampuro comes to featuring critics of high school trap teams in her piece is a comment by Wake Forest professor David Yamane rejecting the idea that these teams are part of some sort of plan to indoctrinate teens and turn them into Second Amendment activists.

In a phone interview, Yamane said enjoying and participating in trap shooting might make someone more inclined to want to own a firearm and thus more attuned to the politics around firearms — a pattern sociologists call downstream politicalization. Still, he stressed that only a minority of gun owners are actively involved in Second Amendment issues.

“I don’t think that anything that happens with guns in the United States can be entirely divorced from politics — that’s the reality — but there are certainly people who are involved in trap shooting, who love trap shooting, and are apolitical,” Yamane said. “I don’t think anybody who’s coaching a trap shooting team is trying to actively win kids over to the gun-rights cause.”


For the most part, Pampuro focuses on the student-athletes and their coaches, allowing folks like John Nelson, president of the USA High School Clay Target League, to share why they believe the shooting sports have been met with such enthusiasm by so many students. Nelson admits that one of the reasons for starting the league 20 years ago was to ensure the sport would continue in the future, but unless there was genuine interest and widespread appeal the efforts of the league’s founders would have been in vain… something that’s clearly not the case.

The USA High School Clay Target League grew from six teams and 60 athletes in 2009 to 49,337 students spread across 1,647 teams this year. By 2025, the league aims to have 100,000 participating students nationwide.

According to an internal survey, 40% of students on trap teams don’t participate in other sports. Without trap, Nelson figures those students would have no extracurricular activities at all.

It’s not just athletes getting in on the action. Cutting across cafeteria cliques, trap shooting draws in students from traditional sports like football, wrestling and soccer but also from other extracurriculars like farming and band clubs. Some grew up hunting with their parents and were already familiar with guns before joining. Others had never seen a shotgun before or had only handled one in video games.

Nelson thinks a few factors help explain the sport’s surging popularity. With good eyes and young reflexes, most kids are quick to pick up trap shooting — though as with all sports, patience, persistence and practice are key.

Besides, “a kid does not have to be the fastest or the tallest or the strongest or even the right gender to participate,” Nelson said. “Everyone is included.” Unlike other sports where the top athletes get the most game time, everyone has the same number of clays and shells.

“The true difference between top performers and those that aren’t is the six inches between their ears,” Nelson said. “It’s you against a 44-mile an hour clay target flying through the air.”


The USA High School Clay Target League still faces some hurdles, including official recognition as a school sport in many states. But even in places like New York where clay target teams are treated as a club activity instead of a varsity sport, the number of both participating schools and students is growing, led by interested teens and adults willing to lend their experience and time to the cause.

While Pampuro’s report focuses exclusively on the USA High School Clay Target League and its phenomenal growth, there are some other (and smaller) programs out there as well, The Student Air Rifle League, which held its national championships in Festus, Missouri this past weekend, is open to students in grades 4 through 12, and 2023’s youngest champions came from a school that just started its air rifle program this year.

The Chouteau Elementary air rifle team won the national championship competing over the weekend in Festus, Missouri.

Then in the individual category, Harper Emory won the girls national championship, and Grady Bullock brought home the boys division championship.

The middle school team placed second.

While the start-up cost of competing in clay targets or air rifle are nothing to gloss over, many teams rely on support from local businesses and supporters as well as from 2A like the NRA to help with funds. The goal is to reduce the barriers to entry so that any student who wants to participate can do so, and unlike many high school sports, everyone has a chance to compete instead of spending their season riding the bench. Being a part of a team is also a great way to forge social connections; something that takes on outsized importance when considering that younger generations are more likely to report feeling lonely than their older counterparts.


We’re going to get back to reporting on some of the concerning events for gun owners on Tuesday’s Bearing Arms Cam & Co, when the NSSF’s Larry Keane will join us to talk about the latest gun ban bill to be introduced in the Senate, but it’s nice to have some positive news to share today, and I encourage you to check out the entire show in the video window below.


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