On a Tuesday morning at an old tomato farm on Johns Island, a group of women gather under the oaks. The eight-hundred-acre Kiawah Island Sporting Club sits down an unpaved, sandy lane cut through the woods off Bohicket Road. Several women pull their hair into ponytails, and they all carry shotguns.
The women meet monthly on the private sporting clays course and call themselves the Charleston Annies, named for that tough-yet-feminine American sharpshooter from more than a century earlier, Annie Oakley. The women range in age from early thirties to seventies, and they spend one Tuesday a month following the looping course that winds through woods of live oak, cedar, and loblolly.
After checking in, everyone “coveys up” into groups of three or four to begin. Aspects of sporting clays are reminiscent of golf, with rental carts and a numbered course to follow. Typically, the women spend two or three hours shooting before lunchtime. Some use scorecards, some don’t. Some are lifelong hunters, some aren’t.
At the first stop, a mechanical trap throws the target in a bunny-bouncing pattern, and Ellie Howard gets a crack shot at the spinning disc of blaze-orange clay, sending shards and bits into the tree line beyond. Jane Perry McFadden shouts out, “You’ll be eating rabbit tonight!”
Scotland to Johns Island
A chance meeting in Scotland spurred the creation of the Charleston Annies. Peggy Watkins of Charleston and Mary Huntz of Atlanta started talking while hunting grouse on the Scottish countryside two years ago. Huntz is one of the founders of the Annie Oakley Shooters, an Atlanta-based organization that has coordinated women’s clay shooting tournaments for nearly fifteen years.
Watkins, an artist, paints sporting scenes, hunting dogs and horses, and wildlife in landscape. Her art depicts places like the Kiawah Island Sporting Club, once a Sea Island plantation of indigo and cotton. So just being on a hunt or a clays course “helps me see from a hunter’s viewpoint,” Watkins says. “My senses are always heightened.”
From their conversation, Watkins was inspired to start a clay shooting series for Charleston-area women. She pitched her idea to the Kiawah Island Club. If Watkins would organize the group, it was a go. She agreed, put together a list of email addresses, and the Charleston Annies monthly outings began.
Since January, ten to twenty women have attended each month. Many are mothers or grandmothers who first fired a shotgun with their fathers or husbands. Some wear fedoras or caps, button-up shirts with collars, stretchy pants, and boots. Others wear athletic gear and vest pockets or satchels filled with shotgun shells. In this traditionally male sport, these women have as good or better aim as any man. “I find that women are a lot harder on themselves. They get frustrated and take it fairly seriously,” says Watkins. “Then with one lesson, they can go out and do really well.”
Roses, Doves, and Snakes
Virginia King, of Charleston, began shooting sports a couple of years ago, going to a private club in Ridgeville or down to her father’s property on Edisto. She started with a borrowed shotgun that didn’t fit her well, and “it mule-kicked me.”
Now, standing near a mass of yaupon holly along the course, she reveres her 20-gauge resting in the cart. Nicknamed “Rose,” this shotgun comes from the Syren line for women, by the Italian gun maker Caesar Guerini. And it’s engineered to shoot with far less kick. Suddenly, it’s King’s turn on the stand. “Pull!” she calls out as she aims and then, “Coming in hot!” after the shot from her gun smashes the clay whizzing past. The smell of gun smoke rises.
After a while, sporting club instructor Tony Starling drives up in a golf cart to say hello and to see how everyone’s doing. “Don’t shoot the snake,” he tells the group, explaining that he’d just seen a nonvenomous corn snake in the pathway between stations three and four on the course. These women aren’t the least bit alarmed. They know the copper-colored snake is searching for a lunch of rodents, not people.
Shotguns continue to boom and clay targets shatter, and the conversation ranges from gardens and guns to fashion. There’s lots of buzz about an upcoming trunk show of field gear at Circle Seven. McFadden’s daughter-in-law works at the recently opened downtown Charleston shop of the Mississippi outfitter. (Sloan McFadden wasn’t on the course that morning, but she’s an Annie too, and she cofounded the Covey Charleston custom line of women’s outdoor clothing a few years ago.)
Other talk revolves around wildlife, conservation, and the outdoors. McFadden discusses dove hunts and the merits of planting native longleaf pines, another woman tells of seeing a manatee on the Kiawah River, and Watkins says she and her husband have bought a couple of horses.
Once they finish the course, most of the women linger a little longer in the shade of tall trees and then dig into boxed lunches on the Club’s back porch. Love bugs crawl onto shirts and necks and across tables. And the day is turning steamy and hot. From chairs and stools all around, they’re already talking about meeting again in the fall.
“Really, it’s a simple idea,” Watkins explains. “We’re women shooting with other women.” And in the legacy-rich Lowcountry, that certainly sounds novel—and like another sporting tradition in the making.