Hours after Neolithic aborigines finished prototyping the lever-cast arrow-dart, a contest broke out to crown the world atlatl champion. Shooting games are as ancient as campfires.
At first glance, helice (French for propeller) is similar to standard clay pigeon shooting, but the main difference is the helice target is made of two different plastic pieces, providing erratic flight and a challenging game.
Present-day helice competitors seem a bit defensive when they proclaim that their obsessive shotgun amusement is not a new game. Helice emerged from the Old World in the 1960s they say proudly, as though being new might disparage a game with ancient origins, one that really began to define itself in the era of castles, kingdoms and the birth of the English double gun.
As everyone nowadays seems to know, the genesis of helice—its dark past or its golden age, depending on where one stands against the plague of political correctness—was the box-bird sport of live-pigeon shooting.
Little more than a century after the term shotgun was coined in Kentucky by a nameless American longhunter, pigeons had become a game for the whole family, attracting intellectuals, politicos and shotgun sharps of every depth. Ernest Hemingway visited the pigeon rings of Spain while gathering material for his fictions and his nonfictions on war and bullfighting, to include the seminal Death in the Afternoon. It is widely held that Papa moved to Cuba, purchasing his beloved Finca Vigia and his yacht Pilar, to better explore the finest big-game fishing grounds on earth. Fewer will know that Cuba was also the big-money destination for hand-thrown live birds.
Still relatively new to the U.S. market, helice has an adventure component that is hard to resist and addictive. The current cost of a 30-bird run of helice is considerably higher than a round of skeet.
Could it be that the rinsed carcasses of those box-birds were ground with pork to create a flavor of chorizo that is now difficult to acquire? Who can say?
Many wing-shooting Americans are old enough to recall that moment, decades after the great author’s passing, when a television “news” crew descended in the way of vultures on the Grand National box-bird tournament in Pennsylvania expressly to close it down. Longtime participants—men, women and youth—were vilified, leaving at least one castigated mom to weep on camera at the significant loss of such cultural tradition.
Most competitors at Nationals wielded tricked-out O/Us. But you’ll see side-by-sides, duck guns and everything in between at the helice field. Regardless of style, this is 40-yard gun game. Enthusiasts score more ZZ-birds with tighter chokes.
Whether expertly pitched by hand or mechanically catapulted, nothing, it seems, is more difficult to quickly and repetitively drop with a well-timed shotshell than the otherwise inglorious pigeon. As the orchestrated shooting of feral pigeons faded and retreated to private estates, helice “trap” machines and “ZZ-bird” targets (the latter originally cut from sheets of zinc alloys) were well underway in Europe and specifically France, the game’s nation of origin. And it is very much the 50 years of refinement to those game pieces that is nothing short of engineering at the aerospace level.
The name Alan Shelfer was regularly mentioned by nostalgic competitors during the most-recent Helice National Championships, which was hosted in 2020 by Prairie Wildlife of West Point, Miss. Champion competitor Mimi Wilfong, the association’s organizing spear point at Nationals, allowed that without Shelfer and the father of American helice, Cyril A. Adams, there would be no helice stars to align on this continent. Prairie’s owner, Jimmy Bryan, seconded those notions, pointing—with the emphasis his superb gun dogs use for the morning’s first quail—to his copy of Adams’ iconic book detailing shotgun games and their histories.
Jimmy Bryan, owner of Prairie Wildlife, which hosted the 2020 Nationals, and helice champion Mimi Wilfong, share a laugh between runs. A sense of humor is a prerequisite with helice.
Helice traps are not simple devices, and the helice ring requires five such apparatuses; three rings and 15 traps for an international-caliber event like the Nationals at Prairie.
When the job is building, re-building and maintaining helice traps—machines that automatically load stacked sleeves of two-piece winged targets to polished spindles, roar them up to 10,000 rpm and release them electronically, you’d better know someone who owns a lot of tools, is mechanically inclined and is impassioned by helice. For about two decades, ever since the emergence of this game in the U.S., that guy is Alan Shelfer.
“The Mechanic” was observed enjoying the fruits of his helice labors in the rings at the Prairie Nationals—unilaterally relaxed there at-the-ready with his side-by-side held to a low 45-degree angle out from his belt buckle, his stance tactically open to reduce the torque of covering the fan-shaped ring. At Shelfer’s command, a bird whizzed randomly away from one of the five traps. The ZZ-bird may be relatively easy to hit, its detachable “witness” cap popping free and landing within the bird ring to score. Often enough, however, the bird may corkscrew madly away, redefining the term “whirling dervish.”
With his practiced nonchalance on full display, Shelfer showed his appreciation for the five good birds he’d drawn with a clean, sweeping run that might make one think of waterfalls rushing into clear pools. Or a job well done.
Shelfer adores the game and, in turn, the game often loves him back. And one of the ideas that keeps this man young at heart is his next 30-for-30 race.
Helice perfection over two- or three-consecutive days is likely the rarest accomplishment in shooting. From storybook settings like Prairie’s still-new three-ring masterpiece in Mississippi, to the opulent field-of-fire at Tiro a Volo in Ghedi, Italy, a championship bird sweep is the fool’s dream even for the world’s top shots. Among the best—of those who celebrate speed, revel in the vicissitudes of asymmetrical flight and the grace of the swinging lead—outwardly, no one seems to care one bit about losing one of these targets to the low fence. Missing these damn things is inevitable.
In 2017, Shea Self (left) became the first woman to win the World Helice Championship. As more venues come on-line and prices level, helice is poised to become America’s next breakout hit among shotgunners.
Midway through the last day of the Nationals at Prairie, Shea Self sat chatting with her friend and fellow Texan, Brittina Mathis. They were enjoying the magnificent view of the sun-splashed rings from one of the facility’s shaded, fan-cooled galleries, quietly awaiting their next performances—confident and ready to shoot. It is Shea, most here know, who won the overall 2017 FITASC Helice World Championship, besting all comers, male and female. When asked about such accomplishment, the women lightly acknowledge the significant wonder of such a feat before moving on in conversation.
Self soon admitted, with some 20 birds to go, that she was not tracking where her number of broken birds placed her in the event’s current standings. It is better to not know that, she said. The friends agreed that having fun, seeing old friends and not being bothered with the misses or “where you were in the tournament” was one of the keys to being your best person out there alone in the helice ring.
Brad Williamson pulls across one of the 79 ZZ-birds he broke for third place in the men’s division. As a local shooter, Brad’s helice skills parallel the rise of Prairie Wildlife as one of the game’s newest world-class venues.
Unprompted, Mathis spoke to the beauty, the terrific food, the setup, the southern hospitality and the top-flight level of tournament organization exhibited by the staff and the volunteers of a Prairie Wildlife match. “It’s the friendliest town,” she said of West Point, which is also home to Mossy Oak camouflage and a pair of nationally significant golf links. “I’ve never seen anything to match all this,” Mathis proclaimed.
Shea Self approved, rose from her seat and politely excused herself to shoot a few of the last birds of her event.
In the ring, the young woman’s gun-up stance was more familiar with the composures of skeet, trap and sporting-clays competitors. Inscrutably, her fourth bird bounced unscathed above, perhaps through, the fringe of her first charge. That her second barrel produced no lasting effects to the plastic target seemed one of those riddles that is usually reserved for the wildest of game birds. Stoically, she spun the white cap of the fifth winged disc loose from its fluorescent airframe as quickly and exquisitely as she’d dispatched the first three.
Self, the World Overall Helice Champion from 2017, then exited the field and the summer heat without expression. A short while later, she would be presented as the runner-up to Laurie Daniel, the 2020 U.S.H.A. National Champion of the lady’s division.
The numerical designation following the name of each champion (above) represents the scored hits from each of the competitor’s 90 targets during the 2020 Helice Nationals. Team USA is selected following careful tournament reviews by the American Helice Association and its competitors. The team had not been named at press time.