Pull!

The clay pigeons are flying at the M.V. Rod and Gun Club.

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Finding the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club, located off the Boulevard in Edgartown, was a little tricky; the sign doesn’t exactly jump out at you from the road. I was going there to learn about skeet shooting at the club, so I just pulled over, rolled down my windows and listened for the sounds of shotguns and followed my ears down the dirt driveway.

It was a clear and crisp fall afternoon as I drove up to the clubhouse, and you couldn’t have asked for a more idyllic location. The clubhouse had the look and feel of a rustic hunting lodge, and it overlooked a broad lawn, a salt marsh, and Sengekontacket Pond, with Nantucket Sound in the background.

I was met by Dick Carlson, a dapper-looking gentleman in his 70s wearing a Panama hat and a shooting vest. He was there to give me a little background on the club and tell me something about the sport of skeet shooting. He told me that the club was started in 1911, and today it occupies16 acres on Sengekontacket Pond.

And not really knowing much about the sport of skeet shooting, I did a little Googling before I met with Dick, and learned that skeet shooting was invented in 1920 in Andover by some avid bird hunters. The goal was to simulate bird hunting by attempting to break clay targets called pigeons that were flung through the air. The folks in Andover devised a game called Shooting Around the Clock, which was played in a 50-yard-diameter circle with 25 shooting stations, and each shooter took shots from each of the stations, which left few — if any — possible field shots unpracticed.

In theory, skeet shooting has varied little since its origins in the 20s. One difference is that in today’s game there are just eight shooting stations, laid out in a semicircle extending from what’s called the High House to the Low House, with one station in the middle of the field. The High House and the Low House stand at opposite ends of the field, and hold devices known as “traps” that mechanically launch clay pigeons. The High House launches from 10 feet above the ground, and the Low House launches from 3 feet above the ground.

Each hunter is given 25 targets to shoot at while progressing around the stations, some from the High House, some from the Low House, and some launched from both houses at once. The winner is the shooter with the most hits.

Carlson took me out to the range, where several shooters were practicing. There was a whiff of gunsmoke in the air, and the silence was broken by the sound of the shooters yelling “Pull!” to command the release of the clay pigeons, followed by the crack of shotgun fire.

Carlson explained that there are a number of variations on competitive skeet shooting. Trap shooting is similar to skeet shooting, but there are five shooting stations, and targets are launched from a single low trap house.

Sporting Clays is shot on a course made up of 10 to15 stations. These stations are laid out one after another, like holes on a golf course. “It’s great fun,” Carlson said, “It really simulates the hunting experience.”

Five Stand has been likened to combining skeet, trap, and sporting clays in a blender. It’s a line of five “stands” for shooters, and a number of launchers are arranged in front of the shooters, to their sides and even behind them.

Another variation of the standard trap is the Wobble or the Wobble Trap. The trap oscillates up and down as well as side-to-side to replicate the unpredictable flight of an actual bird.

The M.V. Rod and Gun Club has about 460 members, with a nucleus of about 30 members who are involved with skeet and trap shooting. They shoot on the grounds, but also travel to clubs around Southeastern New England to compete with other club members.

“We’re pretty competitive,” Carlson said. “We hold our own against other clubs.” In 2017 Carlson won the championship when the M.V. Rod and Gun Club competed against the Falmouth Skeet Club.

Neil Rice is one of the members who goes off-Island to compete with other clubs. “It’s kind of loose, we don’t have an official team,” Rice said, “but it’s great, and we have a lot of fun.” Because of the logistics of getting to the Vineyard, other clubs no longer travel here to compete with the M.V. Rod and Gun Club.

Rice moved to the Island from New Jersey about four and a half years ago, and was looking for a way to get involved socially on the Island. Someone told him that he might want to talk to his neighbor about the Rod and Gun Club, and his neighbor turned out to be Dick Carlson. “I didn’t know anything about skeet shooting, but somehow Dick cajoled me into coming down to the club, and today I own three shotguns and I shoot three or four days a week. Sometimes I’ll even go down by myself and shoot for practice; I have a voice-activated device I strap to my belt that launches the pigeons when I say ‘Pull.’”

Rice takes advantage of many of the activities offered by the club, but mostly he enjoys the camaraderie. “It’s a great bunch of guys,” he said.

Rick Hamilton joined the club in early July. “It was during the pandemic, and I began watching the fragility of the food chain,” he said, “and I thought, We live in an area where we can feed ourselves, the options on the Island are really good.” But for now Hamilton’s hunting has been limited to shooting skeet. And by all accounts he’s gotten quite good in a short period of time. “One of these days I’ll get around to shooting duck,” Hamilton said, “… one of these days.”

One of the things Neil Rice would like to see happen with the club is to have more young people get involved, with skeet shooting in particular. His daughter came out over the summer, and fell in love with the sport. She went back home to California and reported that in a skeet club out there, boys and girls — 10 years old and up — were getting involved, and even folks in wheelchairs were shooting. “It can be a very inclusive sport,” Rice said, “and it would be great to get more people on the Island involved.”

But skeet shooting is not the only attraction at the M.V. Rod and Gun Club. There’s an archery range, a rifle range, fishing and shellfishing, fly-tying classes, kayaking, and clam bakes.

And if you want to stop by and give skeet shooting a try, Dick Carlson would love to show you around. And bring the whole family, while you’re at it. There’s a little something at the club for everyone.