Second of two parts
Part 1: Trap gun tribulations
After a tour of the Ljutic factory, I wanted to find out what it's like to shoot a Ljutic shotgun. So Jimmy drove me 20 miles to Al's and Nadine's trap field, in the sagebrush-covered prairie behind their house. He showed me how to break open the classic Ljutic single-barrel shotgun, the Mono Gun, and load it with a lead-shot shell. I raised it to my face.
"Lean forward, hold your head upright, keep both eyes on the target," Jimmy told me.
With the Mono Gun's walnut stock pressed to my cheek, I stood 16 yards from the low-slung trap house and called "pull." Jimmy pressed a button, and an orange clay disk, 4.3 inches in diameter, whirled away from me at a slight angle. I fired and missed. Fifty misses later, my shoulder a little sore from the kick, I handed the gun back to Jimmy.
A few days later, at the Spokane Gun Club's Inland Empire Handicap, I see how it's supposed to be done. Several hundred men, businessmen, farmers, professionals and tradesmen, all white and mostly in their 40s through 70s, line up five abreast on the club's 16 trap fields to compete in the five-day tournament. There are a few women. Many people arrived in recreation vehicles from hundreds of miles away. Juniors will compete over the weekend when school's out.
They are shooting for $51,000 in sponsor prize money. The shooters also compete for thousands more in gambling pots.
The competitors wield trap shotguns made by Ljutic, Perazzi, Kreighoff, Alfermann, Browning, Beretta, Remington, and others. I'm told there are more Ljutics at the Spokane event than at shoots in other parts of the country because of Ljutic's regional appeal in the northwest.
Bill Johnson, a shotgun dealer from Chattaroy, Washington, brought his Ljutic Mono Gun to compete. "Ljutic makes the best gun in the world," he said. He is expecting to sell a new Ljutic at the shoot to a customer he previously fitted.
While new, entry-level Brownings can cost about $1,200, some customized guns with precious metal inlays and rare-wood stocks cost more than $20,000. Many of the competitors in Spokane carry such trophy guns over their shoulder, with the barrels broken open for safety. In contrast, out in the trap houses, day laborers hand-set the clay targets in the throwing machines. They earn minimum wage for this fast-moving and dangerous work.
Trap shooting with artificial targets evolved from live pigeon shooting about 200 years ago in England. Some invitational shoots in the U.S. still feature live birds. American trap has different rules from international and Olympic trap, with random versus standard flight paths for targets.
Trap shooters readily tell you they come for the money. The top shooter at a tournament can pocket around $5,000 — more than enough to cover the swelling cost of shells, which can total several hundred dollars, gas, and hundreds more for entry fees and pots. Only a few shooters cover their expenses.
Most competitors at the Spokane tournament break at least 90 out of 100 targets in singles, where they fire at one target at a time from 16 yards. The majority break at least 80 out of 100 in doubles, where they have to hit two targets thrown simultaneously in opposite directions. The hit rate is similar in handicap events, where they move back as far as 27 yards depending on their past shooting record.
But breaking 90 isn't good enough. Winning an event often takes a perfect 100, which is why the shooters are so quiet and focused. The high overall winner at the Spokane tournament was Doug Starkel, who nailed a remarkable 971 out of 1,000 targets in all events.
There are hundreds of competitive trap shoots around the country every year. The Grand American in Sparta, Illinois in August is the major, usually drawing about 6,000 shooters. The sport's All-Americans — a few top-scoring semi-professionals like Dan Bonillas and Sean Hawley — are there.
With so many money shoots, shotgun target sports are growing faster than other shooting sports. Last year, 5.5 million Americans shot trap or skeet (similar to trap but with two crossing targets), according to the new American Sports Data sports participation study. That was up 46 percent from 1998. Sporting clays, a shotgun target sport simulating hunting, grew by 37 percent, to 3.7 million.
In contrast, there were 15.3 million rifle target shooters in 2007, up only 9 percent, and 14.2 million handgun target shooters, up a mere 3 percent. Participation in hunting was flat, the study found.
Still, over the past couple years, gunmakers, dealers, and club officials complain that participation in trap tournaments and sales of new, high-end trap guns are down. They blame the economy, higher shell costs, and soaring gas prices.
To boost interest in trap and promote their brands, Ljutic and other gunmakers scout for teenage hotshots and provide their guns, hoping to groom future legends. One Ljutic find is 16-year-old Zack Nannini of San Jose, who already has beaten adult All-Americans in several events.
"I hope my shooting Ljutics helps their sales," says Nannini, who travels to shoots with his parents and earned more than $15,000 last year in competitions (his mother bets on him). "But I don't do it to sell more Ljutics. I love the gun."Big changes fast
Despite such loyalty, Jere Irwin quickly realized he had to make big changes fast to save Ljutic. He discovered that, to be competitive, the company needed to produce a good adjustable sighting rib on top of the barrel. That allows shooters to change the sighting plane depending on whether they want the BBs to go higher or lower.
On a napkin after a pizza dinner, Irwin, who has never shot a trap gun, sketched a rib that could be adjusted easily without tools — something no other gunmaker offered. It hit the market early last year. Dealer Doug Gray says Ljutic's adjustable rib is catching on, and that the new owner is doing a good job of rebuilding consumer confidence.
One way Irwin accomplished that was by spending at least $100,000 to make good on gun orders placed before he acquired the company. That's a financial loss for him but vital for future relations with customers and dealers nationwide.
Now Ljutic is working hard to produce a new, competitively priced combination gun with detachable barrels for both singles and doubles shooting. "People are expecting something great and we hope we don't let them down," says Irwin, who admits sinking "a couple million" dollars in the gun firm so far.
Ljutic also is considering producing a high-end hunting shotgun for the first time. Gray and others think the future of Ljutic may depend on the combo gun's success. Serious shooters who compete in doubles as well as singles want the consistency of shooting one gun in both events.
John Ross, former chief operating officer of Deutsch Bank Group in New York City, bought a rare, custom-made Ljutic combo gun for $22,000 after visiting the Yakima facility in 2003. For many years before that, he had shot an ancient, double-barreled Winchester hunting shotgun. Now he says he won't shoot anything but the Ljutic.
While skeptics claim cheaper guns shoot just as well ("It's the Indian, not the arrow," says one), Ross marvels at how the Ljutic keeps his head and eyes in the proper position on every shot. That's critical when missing one clay bird out of 100 can put you out of the money.
"I hope the Ljutic name lives on forever," Ross said.
Part 1: Trap gun tribulations