The photo issued this winter by the White House of President Barack Obama shooting skeet at Camp David intrigued a lot of people. Not only because of the perceived incongruity – the president is not known to be a hunter or target shooter – but because most people, including most gun owners, didn’t know a skeet range existed at the Maryland presidential retreat.
Such a range has existed at Camp David for about a half-century.
An avid skeet shooter, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered one built and regularly tried to improve his shooting eye.
This was at a time – the 1950s – when skeet enjoyed a social standing similar to what golf and tennis do today.
Subsequent to Eisenhower, other presidents also have shot skeet at Camp David, including President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie (video at youtu.be/bwBEsLsEZHw).
More recently, during George W. Bush’s presidency, Camp David’s skeet range was refurbished and a new trap range overlaid on it. The work was completed free of charge by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade group that represents gun and ammunition manufacturers and gun retailers.
The NSSF and at least one of its member gun manufacturers – Remington – also donated shotguns for use at the range, which is maintained by a U.S. Marine contingent.
“We donated the time and equipment and were happy to do it,” Larry Keane, NSSF senior vice president and general council, told me Thursday from the group’s Connecticut headquarters. “It wasn’t for the benefit for any one individual, but for the presidency.”
Developed in the 1920s by Charles Davis, an avid grouse hunter from Andover, Mass., skeet (reportedly derived from the Norwegian word “skyte,” meaning shoot) became the preferred shooting game of many of Hollywood’s leading men during the first half of the last century, especially Clark Gable, but also Robert Stack (perhaps the best shot of the bunch), Fred MacMurray and others.
Given skeet’s social cache, it makes sense that Eisenhower ordered a skeet range to be built at Camp David, not a trap range, which at the time didn’t carry the gunning gravitas skeet did.
Not only presidents, but presidential guests, have taken a crack at Camp David skeet shooting.
The July 17, 1970, edition of the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, for instance, published a news service story that then 21-year-old Prince Charles of Great Britain was a guest of President Richard Nixon.
At Camp David, Charles shot skeet with – and easily bested – Nixon’s son-in-law David Eisenhower.
Additionally, in a photo taken by the late Kennedy White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, President Kennedy is shown shooting skeet at Camp David with David Niven, the Academy Award-winning actor and novelist, and Ben Bradlee, retired Washington Post executive editor. Neither wore eye or ear protection.
The long history of presidential gunning aside, the tightness of the framing of the Obama “skeet” photo gives rise to questions that snapshots of other chief executives shooting at Camp David do not.
Namely, was Obama actually shooting skeet? Or was he instead shooting trap on the retreat’s relatively new range – or just shooting clay targets?
A big deal? Not really.
The point shooting instructors make is that given the president’s athleticism, doubtless he could improve his accuracy with a shotgun very quickly, with proper instruction and practice.
Like millions of other Americans, Eisenhower, another two-term president, found not only challenge and satisfaction in trying to bust clay targets, but exhilaration.