The hat looked like it survived a war, and its surface was so full of bumps from shrapnel it felt like Braille. Near the top, a half-dollar-sized hole was ripped in the frayed fabric.

But the hat and its owner, 19-year-old Alex Rennert, are neither veterans of war nor guardians of peace.

The hat was fired upon by Rennert’s friends and teammates in the Florida Gators Trap, Skeet and Sporting Club as congratulations for shooting his first perfect score in skeet — a sport where shooters try to hit a clay target ejected in a random direction.

“It’s kind of a weird tradition,” the UF aerospace engineering freshman said, looking down at the tattered collectible and grazing his fingers across it.

Suddenly, Bo Pleasanton, one of Rennert’s teammates, snatched the hat out of Rennert’s hands. Pleasanton walked 15 feet and put the hat on the barrel of his shotgun. Despite Rennert’s pleas, Pleasanton, an 18-year-old UF forest resources and conservation freshman, pulled the trigger and ripped the hat in half. Pleasanton grinned and the rest of the group, except for Rennert, laughed.

Rennert sighed. Just another day at the shooting range.

The number of Americans using guns for recreation is on the rise, with 19 million citizens participating in target shooting last year, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation website.

The Gator Skeet, Trap and Sporting Club has seen this increase firsthand. There are 35 active members this semester, up from the 17 members in the club’s first semester last fall, after it was co-founded by Rennert.

Twelve club members compete, and of those, eight will travel to San Antonio, Texas, to compete in the Association of College Unions International’s 44th annual Intercollegiate Clay Target Championship from March 27 to April 1.

“It’s a fairly simple game to pick up, and the camaraderie among shooters is really welcoming,” Rennert said. “People are amazed that we’ll sit here and work with them just to promote the sport.”

Gator Skeet and Trap, the club where the team practices, is located at 5202 NE 46th Avenue. Club manager and team member Jake Kennedy said his business saw a 600 percent increase last year, with 2,000 new shooters. He said about 500 people go to the range each week to shoot.

“Predominately it’s the older generation,” the 21-year-old UF business junior said. “But starting back in September, it’s been more college-age people.”

Robert Crow, the director of the National Sporting Clays Association, said some people are learning about shooting sports from work.

“A lot of corporate charity events are using sporting clays as a different avenue to get out instead of doing multiple golf outings,” Crow said. “That has introduced people who would not normally go out to a gun range.”

Kennedy agreed. He said many on-campus organizations and Greek chapters have recently been holding charity events, social outings and family weekends at the range.

UCF sociology professor James Wright has extensively studied gun ownership. He said the number of U.S. gun owners usually hovers between 40 and 50 percent, and 70 percent of those cite recreation as a reason for owning.

He also said that in the mid-1980s, some scientists believed people with recreational guns could become violent. Wright said they believed the mere presence of a gun could make people trigger-happy, but he said the theory was disproved later in the 1980s by psychological research.

Rennert agreed that guns don’t make people violent, and he also said recreational shooting is safer than many contact sports.

“You’re more likely to get hurt playing golf,” Rennert said.

Rennert pulled his first trigger at 12, when his father took him on a Boy Scout trip. He didn’t know what to expect but found a natural ease aiming down the barrel.

“It felt right,” he said.

He got a competition shotgun at 14. In 2006, he won his first state trapshooting championship in the under-15 division.

Since then, he’s won four more trap titles and was named overall state trap champion in 2009.

“I get fairly aggravated if I don’t shoot 99 out of 100,” Rennert said.

The Gators team competes in trap and skeet shooting.

Trapshooting involves a clay target flying out of one of four bunkers in a specific order: one top and lower bunker on the left and right.

Skeet shooting is considered the most difficult shooting sport, Rennert said. Targets are ejected out of a small shack in the middle of the field and randomly thrown left, right or straight ahead.

Both games are typically scored out of 25; one point is awarded for each target hit.

The guns the team uses are not cheap. For a competition rifle, prices can vary from $1,000 to $20,000, with most costing about $4,000. Rennert’s gun cost $3,000, while Kennedy had the most expensive weapon of the group: a $5,000 shotgun. Guns for the recreational user can cost between $500 and $1,000, Kennedy said.

Amir Keshavarz, another team member, said although the sport can be expensive, the friendships he’s made more than make up for the cost.

“The sport is definitely cost-intensive,” Keshavarz said. “But the experiences you have and the people you meet makes it very addicting.”

Contact Shelby Webb at [email protected].

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