M.D. Clark

This being my first column, I thought it best to give those who will read what I write a little background on the fellow doing the writing.

I am a third-generation trapshooter. My grandfather, with a Parker hammer gun, shot live pigeons, glass target balls and, eventually, clay targets. He was also a market hunter.

My dad started as a trap boy at the Pahquioque Rod & Gun Club in Danbury, Conn., where he became John Philip Sousa’s favorite puller. After World War I, he was hired by the Remington Arms Co. for his shooting ability and assigned by them, as a professional shooter, covering Virginia and North and South Carolina. At Pinehurst, NC., he shot in exhibitions with Annie Oakley whose husband, Frank Butler, was a special consultant to Remington. I shot my first registered targets in 1948 and have been to 52 Grand Americans. In 1957, at age 20, Remington hired me, and I shot, with modest success, as a professional (later called industry reps) for 28 years.

Growing up in a shooting family, I listened to many stories passed on to me by my dad and other old-timers long since departed. I volunteered to write for TRAP & FIELD so I could pass on these tales about men and events of years ago. Times when shooters wore spats, white shirts and neckties, drank plenty of whisky and played a lot of poker.

Like all youngsters, I had my heroes, and my dad was at the top of the list—not so much for his shooting ability, but because he seemed to know so much about guns, shells, hunting, trapshooting and hound dogs. Our home was like a clubhouse, with people stopping by all the time to ask him questions about guns or shooting-related subjects. And he always seemed to know the answers. He started me out on the right track, and the small success I’ve achieved over the course of some 60 years I owe to him and the upbringing he provided.

I had trapshooting heroes back then, too, but there are few left in the game who would remember names like Ned Lilly, Joe Hiestand, Julius Petty, M. D. Clark and Forest McNeir. They are now enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame where they rightly belong. These were the iron men of trapshooting some 60 or 70 years ago, men from another era when things just didn’t move so fast and winning scores were much lower. The Harrison's,Stafford's, Dysinger's,Ohye's and Munson's have replaced them as they too will be replaced as the years move on.

My real favorite as a boy growing up was Big M. D. "Mink" Clark, a mink rancher from my home state of Connecticut. I first remember seeing him in the late ‘40s before I started to shoot. Dad always took me to shoots, and I just followed good shooters down the line sort of quietly cheering them on.

Clark was well over six feet tall, straight as a hickory stick and just as strong. Everyone called him "Clarky," but he was Mr. Clark to me. He shot 16 yards, handicap and doubles with one gun. a Winchester Model 12 pump. He shot that Model 12 pump so fast at doubles that in a photo taken of him shooting doubles at the 1950 New York State Shoot at Buffalo, the picture very clearly shows two empty hulls in the air no more than three feet apart. And he was as good as he was fast.

He wasn’t the most friendly fellow around, and he was distant to me for quite a while. But he treated me no differently than others and only really associated with a handful. Clark liked to win. I don’t care if there was a box of tissue paper up for a high gun prize, he just had to go home with it. And he usually did. Pity the poor soul who tried to speak with him between trapfields and break his concentration. He would just glare at the man with an expression that would send shivers down the spine of the most hardened shooter.

During the 1940s and ‘50s, he dominated trapshoots in the eastern states. I was a "hot shot" kid by the mid- ‘50s and occasionally won a major tournament, but 90% of the time Clark beat me. The more targets I broke, the friendlier he became, and we began to talk on a regular basis.

After he won the 1951 Grand American Doubles Championship—he beat Mercer Tennille of Louisiana, the greatest doubles shooter of the time, in a shootoff—some Eastern shooters began to say, "Clark was lucky to beat the great Tennille" who had won three previous Doubles Championships. The more Clarky heard this, the more he thought they might be right. To convince himself they might be wrong, he went back to the Grand in 1953 and won the same event again, this time beating Arnold Riegger—the best in the country at the time—in a 20-bird shootoff. He believed that to truly prove how good a trapshooter was, he should win a major championship at least twice. Anyone can get lucky once.

In 1953 at the New York Athletic Club’s Amateur Clay Target Championships of America, held within 15 miles of New York City, Clark asked me to sit in on a poker game with him. All the big shoots in those days had poker games going all the time. That night in a 25 and 50 cent game, I lost $60, quite a sum to a 16-year-old high school junior.

There were some famous shooters in the game that night—Phil Miller, probably the greatest poker-playing trapshooter of all time; Fred Tomlin of New Jersey and Hank Pendergast of Phoenix, N.Y., who tied for the 1918 Grand American at the South Shore Country Club in Chicago.

My dad had a fit when he found out how much I had lost and who the guys were that I was playing with. My Baptist mother, fortunately, never found out.

The next day, I broke 93x100 handicap targets in a driving headwind and won the shoot along with $1,700. Clark said it was because I played poker the night before. I believed him, along with everything else he ever told me. During the 36 years I knew him, I never had reason to doubt what he said.

He shared with me quite a few secrets, and one was how to win a shootoff. If you were still tied after the first round, say to your competitor, "I sure wish I could shoot ‘em as fast as you do." Now one of two things has to cross his mind. Either he’ll say to himself, "If you think that was fast, just watch this 25." Or, he’ll think, "Wait a minute, maybe I am shooting too fast." But it doesn’t really matter which thought he comes up with, because either will throw his timing or concentration off. Psychological warfare isn’t mentioned in the ATA rule book.

M. D. Clark was inducted into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1978. At age 71 in 1976, he won the Connecticut State Handicap Championship. It was his 39th major state win going back to 1937, the year I was born.

He died on April 21, 1983, at the age of 78. I, along with five other trapshooters, was a pallbearer at his funeral. After the family left the cemetery and before the first shovel of dirt hit his vault, I threw an empty green shotshell hull down the hole. He would have done something like that for me.

The question often comes up, "Could the Clarks, Hiestands, Lillys and Reinders—the best of years past—beat the best of today?" Certainly scores are higher now. I can remember when a doubles score in the low 90s often won a big shoot. It would seldom win Class D today. M. D. Clark, who won the Grand American Doubles twice and the Connecticut State Doubles Championship 16 times, never finished a year with a doubles average of more than 90%.

I don’t believe because scores are better now means the shooters are better. Our equipment is without question superior to what was used in the 1950s, but more important to good shooting is the mental game many have learned. This is talked about in columns by Frank Hoppe and Phil Kiner, taught by the late Frank Little, and currently taught by Hoppe, Kiner and Kay Ohye at their clinics. It is discussed wherever students of the game gather.

To my knowledge, it was never a topic some 50 or 60 years ago. The old-timers had to know about it, but they kept it to themselves. Why make your competitor a better shot? The mental part has always been there, but it only recently came out of the closet.

So could the best of yesterday beat the best of today if everything was equal? Ty Cobb, probably the best major league baseball player of all time (and an avid Georgia quail hunter) was once asked a similar question late in his life. "Ty," the reporter said, "you had a lifetime batting average of .364. If you were playing today and hitting against our modern fast-ball pitchers, what do you think your average would be?"

Cobb thought for a while and said, "Oh, I guess about .320 or something like that."

"Oh," the reporter replied, "some 40 points below your lifetime average. Are the pitchers that much better than when you played?"

"Hell, no," Cobb replied, "I’m 74 years old!"

If you’re interested in trapshooting history, try to make it a point to stop by the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum located at the ATA headquarters in Vandalia, Ohio. The museum houses one of the largest collections of trapshooting memorabilia in the world and is open to the public, free of charge, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Should you have a trapshooting artifact that you would like information about, contact me at the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum, 601 W. National Rd., Vandalia, OH 45377.

The museum is always looking for select items to add to our collection.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 14:01