Driving up I-94 into Alexandria, Minnesota, a vast colony of tents peer over the horizon on the west side of the highway.
No need for the GPS anymore—target acquired.
There’s not a parking lot, per se, but a bustling campground filled with RVs, tents, grills and lawn chairs. Vans, cars and trucks strewn about, embroidered with school colors. Concession stands firing up state fair delicacies such as corn dogs, pulled pork sandwiches, bacon cheese fries and fresh strawberry smoothies.
Welcome to Alexandria Shooting Park, home of the world’s largest trap shooting event, and proof that the renaissance of shooting sports in America has truly arrived. Last spring, nearly 7,000 kids—all from the state of Minnesota alone—journeyed to Alexandria throughout the span of eight days for year-end competitions. “It is bigger than my wildest dreams,” said Jim Sable, founder of the USA High School Clay Target League, the fastest-growing high school sport in the nation.
A stark realization
Jim’s vision to create a high school league began at the Plymouth Gun Club in 2001. One day, a semitrailer load of targets arrived. The truck driver came into the clubhouse and said he needed “a couple of you younger guys” to help him move the pallets.
“He was looking at me, and I thought, ‘Jeez, I’m retired, and I’m one of the younger guys?’” he said.
Jim contacted the Minnesota DNR to try and find out how other gun clubs were faring. The former marketing executive convinced them to conduct a survey—and the results reinforced his fears: 10 percent of the state’s gun clubs had closed, and another 10 percent were hanging on by just a thread.
“And I suspect the same was happening nationwide,” said Jim.
Jim, a firearms safety instructor for more than 48 years, began putting a plan in place for the Plymouth Gun Club. The club president asked where he would even begin. “You start where the kids are—and the kids are in school,” said Jim. “If we can find a way to make trap shooting, which is an Olympic sport, a high school sport, that’s where we should start.”
With his newfound vision, Jim spotted an ad in his church bulletin. Orono High School was calling for mentors who have a special hobby and an hour or two per week to share with a student. Jim dialed up the counselor and said he’d like to take five kids under his wing. Well aware of the stigma associated with the words “guns, kids and schools,” Jim cautiously tempered the counselor’s excitement.
“I said, ‘Now just wait until I tell you what I want to do,’” Jim recalled. “I’d like to teach them trapshooting.”
The counselor paused, then said:
“The Lord really does work in mysterious ways.”
Just one minute prior to Jim’s phone call, a 14-year-old girl had come into the counselor’s office and said she wanted to learn how to shoot, but didn’t want to kill anything. The counselor had no idea where to start—and then the phone rang.
Jim took the girl, her brother and four friends to the Plymouth Gun Club, and the adventure began. That gave Jim the opportunity to meet with Wayzata High School’s principal and activities director. He said Orono had a trapshooting team, but they had nobody to compete with. So a handful of Wayzata students gave it a shot.