After two days of shooting flying saucers out of the sky with buckshot, the veteran champion and the young challenger sat together waiting for the final, jackpot round. The challenger was tight-lipped. The champion was eating a ham sandwich.

"You can't think about the pressure," said Wayne Mayes, a Tennessee sharpshooter who has won six skeet shooting world championships in the last nine years. "You take 'em one target at a time."

Mayes had already shattered 299 of the 300 clay targets he aimed at during last weekend's skeet shooting competition at the National Capital Gun Club in Darnestown. Using three different gauge shotguns, in wind and pouring rain, the 39-year-old Mayes lived up to his reputation as a marksman capable of shooting the fuzz off a peach. But that was only good enough for second place.

His challenger, 26-year-old Mike Wooten, was perfect. Now, with just 100 more clay targets between himself, a world record and $1,400 in prize money, Wooten was looking out a window at the rain and trying to feel infallible.

"After a while, this whole thing gets to be a mental game," said Wooten, another Tennessean who talks as slow and deliberately as he shoots. "In this game you can't make up a mistake."

There were 123 shooters from 13 states at the weekend's skeet competition, all of them aiming at perfection. For 12 hours Saturday and another 12 on Sunday, they fired enough buckshot into the air above Seneca Creek to kill every bird in Maryland.

From the first week in April until the world championships in August, there is at least one top-flight skeet shooting competition somewhere in the United States. At least a dozen deadeyes make them all.

"This is just like the professional golf tour," said Al Magyar, a competitor from Detroit. "Except only four or five guys win enough money to pay expenses. Everybody else goes in the hole."

Magyar is among the best in the country and one of the few who can make money at the game. No one gets close to being rich from the sport, said the owner of a machine shop in the Motor City, but times being what they are, every dollar is welcome.

"We used to make auto parts when they still made autos," joked Magyar on Sunday. "Now we just paint our machinery and clean the floor a lot."

Skeet is a relatively recent derivative of trap shooting, which has its origins in 19th Century England. Commoners, barred from the nobility's hunting preserves, formed something called the Top Hats shooting club in 1832.

Members of the club would release live birds from under their toppers, then grab guns and fire at the fleeing birds. Fine feathered targets were later replaced by glass balls and clay saucers.

Americans invented skeet shooting in 1910. It was called Round the Clock because the contestants move to eight different firing stations around a semicircle. There are American and international versions of skeet. Both differ from trap shooting. And all of them involving shooting moving targets with shotguns.

"The thing about this sport is you cannot make a mistake," says Jay Dee Williams, a 78-year-old Washingtonian who competed in skeet shoots for 40 years. "It's not that you have 10 really hard shots. You've got 400 easy ones. But you have to make them all."

Williams is a retired shooter. He sits now at a table near the shooting range playing cards with a few other old-timers. From their vantage point, they see the good ones come and go, set records and crack under the pressure.

At this competition, about half the contestants were from out of state. The rest of the field was made up of local shooters who had paid $28 entry fees per event to take on the country's best.

"At this level of competition, you almost have to be perfect," said Mike Barnett, a medical student at the University of Maryland. "Miss once and it's all over."

Sitting with Barnett was Jim Kelly from Philadelphia. In each of the first two rounds he hit 99 of 100 clay targets. At a local competition that would be good enough for prize money. This time, it was reason to despair.

"Do you want to see the slash marks on my wrists?" said Kelly, holding up his arms for inspection.

While Kelly talked, Mayes and Wooten went outside for their final round of shooting. Moving from spot to spot around the semicircle, they broke targets that flew first from left to right across their field of vision, then right to left and finally from both sides at once. After 25 shots Wooten was still perfect.

But five clay pigeons later, on a relatively easy shot, a clay bird survived. It was the only target Wooten would miss, but it was enough to drop him into a five-way tie for first place and necessitate a shootoff.

When the smoke had cleared, Todd Bender of Texas had won the overall title. Wooten was second and Mayes, the defending champion, was a disappointed fourth.

"Maybe I'm not as fired up as I used to be," said Mayes. "There will come a time when I'll start not winning anything at all. There will certainly come a time."