Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Friday, 2 January 2015
Boxing Day Shoot
It's been a few years since I last fired a shotgun, but every time Boxing Day comes around, I think about how I used to.
Most people who use guns as part of their work - gamekeepers, farmers, etc. - get around to learning almost on their own, often beginning with a little help from their parents, whose only concern is that they don't spoil the day on their first outing by shooting themselves - or worse - another close family member. The rest of us either rely on the kindness of strangers, or the avarice of expensive teachers.
I was taught by a bunch of competitive old men whose primary interest was shooting old, black-powder muzzel-loading guns. Being competitive, they also had many other types of gun which are easier to use and score higher hit-rates on average, and I have recently heard that they now allow any sort of gun at all - including 9-shot, semi-automatic killing-machines for those who really need to break as many clays as possible.
With a group like this, you turn up on a chilly Sunday morning - usually with a hangover - and get introduced to the 20 or so members who are there, and the first thing that strikes you is that they all seem to be in fancy dress, with leather gaiters, tweed waistcoats and hats, Dubarry boots, antique leather accoutrements and anything else which makes them look like extras from a period TV drama.
They comprise of all walks of life to many different degrees of success, but there is one thing that brings them all together - the desire to dress up like extras from a period TV drama. The richest of them was an absolute dead-ringer for Alistair Sim playing Scrooge, and he was also the meanest. I have seldom met a meaner man.
The induction process is pretty safety-heavy as nobody wants to clean up after something goes wrong, so you are placed in the firing position with your back to the others, then given a run-down which essentially comprises of 'try not to shoot anyone'. Then off you go.
Most people start off all wrong, which is just what they like and expect. The novice puts the gun about an inch away from their shoulder, leans backwards with both feet together, keeps their head up, waves the gun around and pulls the trigger, sending him/herself staggering backwards into the person standing behind waiting to catch them, and bruising their shoulder badly. Most people come away from their first shoot with a dark blue shoulder and a compensating sense of exhilaration that they have survived the experience.
Then the old men move in.
If you are right-handed, they inform you, then you must place your left foot forward and keep most of you weight on it so that you right one sits rather camply on its inside edge behind you. You must lean forward as if you are going to bayonet the clay, despite that it is flying past about 70 yards away, and you press your cheek against the stock so that your predominant eye (most people have a right one) sees clearly down the length of the barrel, being aware - but not obsessed with - the little speck of brass on its top end.
To begin with, they allow you to place the gun firmly into your shoulder before the clay has even been loosed, but as you improve, you must hold the gun at waist level, bringing it up to position only when you first see the clay. Anything else is 'unsporting', by which they mean that you would not spend all day in a field waiting for a bird to fly over with the gun pressed into your shoulder - it would tire you out in three minutes.
Then there is the tricky business of actually hitting something, which is not as easy at it might seem to an onlooker. The biggest mental hurdle is that you do not point the gun straight at the target which is shooting past - or away, or up, or down, or right to left, or left to right - but you aim a little in front - or behind, or above, or below - to stand any chance of hitting it at all. It took me a whole year to get to grips with this, and I ended up as an average shot.
There are all sorts of other paradoxes to be mentally overcome which become more evident with experience too - the strange fact that a slow bird is far more difficult to hit than a fast one, and that the more time you have to think about a shot, the more chance you have of missing.
One of the last things I did before leaving this club was to instigate a .410 trophy, the numbers being .410ths of an inch of the bore - the only American measurement in sporting guns. That is me above, presenting the silver cup to a winner.
These little things are like pop-guns, but are deceptively deadly, having a mussel-velocity greater than 12 bores. Bearing this in mind, I brought one up to the field one Sunday, and began to shoot distant clays with it. To the incredulity of most of the others, I could pick off a high clay at 100 yards, making a noise which could hardly be heard. Pretty soon, they all bought one.
.410s are so light that they are easily swung through the air, and the biggest problem with them is maintaining accuracy. I told you how competitive these old men are, though. For the past few years, my silver cup has been won by someone who straps a piece of lead to the bottom of his .410 to slow it down. That's what I call unsporting.
Once in a while, a 'natural' turns up and starts hitting everything as soon as he picks up a gun for the first time. The old men hate this.
They start to gather round the newcomer, giving him helpful hints about posture and holding the gun, criticising him about the way he is 'ambushing' the clay by waiting for it to arrive in his sight-line rather than swinging the gun through and catching it up, how he is unsportingly holding the gun to his shoulder and all manner of traits which he must rid himself of if he is to become a respected member of the club. Pretty soon, he is missing everything and complains bitterly about it.
"But at least you are missing in style!" one of them will say with a satisfied smirk on his face.