Jonathan Manning has a go at clay pigeon shooting – and discovers it’s much harder than it looks…
Cyril William-Fisher at Mid Norfolk Shooting Ground
The first four clay pigeons – neither made of clay nor pigeon-shaped – shatter into shards then evaporate into clouds of dust. It seems as though hitting a moving disc target is actually a relatively straightforward exercise... The next six clays sail by unscathed, breaking only on impact with the ground. It turns out that hitting a moving target is not straightforward at all! Fortunately, I have a coach on hand to guide me through a practice session at Mid Norfolk Shooting Ground, as a phalanx of launchers fling projectiles past me.
Cyril William-Fisher has the air of someone who has seen and heard it all. No question catches him by surprise; no action prompts him even to raise an eyebrow. It’s hugely reassuring, especially when clay after clay serenely glides past the volley of shot I fire, landing like tiny UFOs in the grass.
The only lesson Cyril imparts sternly is about safety – shotguns are lethal weapons. I’m to break the gun (ie open the barrels at their hinge) whenever I carry it; and I’m never to peer down the end of the barrels or point them at anyone. These precautions sound like common sense but, later,
when adrenaline starts coursing through my veins, it’s easy to see how I might unthinkingly swing around in frustration or delight. I’m also wearing mandatory ear protectors and glasses to guard against all eventualities.
Truth be told, I have fired a shotgun before, albeit more than a quarter of a century ago. My first paid job in journalism was on a clay pigeon shooting magazine called Pull! – the command shouted by shooters when they want the next clay to be released.
I was never a successful shot back then, and Cyril suggests this may be down to my eye ‘dominance’. With clay pigeon or game shooting, the ideal is to keep both eyes open to maximise peripheral vision, but when hand and eye dominance don’t match, the eye peering down the barrel is not the eye taking aim. I’m right-handed, but a quick eye test reveals that my left eye is dominant.
(To check your eye dominance, keep both eyes open and point your right hand at a distant chimney pot. Now close your left eye. If your finger is still pointing at the chimney, you’re right-eye dominant. But if you only point at the chimney when your right eye is closed and left eye open,
you are left-eye dominant – this causes an issue if you’re right-handed.)
Cyril tells me the easiest solution is to shoot left-handed, but a lifetime of racket sports means I’m more comfortable letting my right side take control, and with no pirate eye patch to hand I simply close my left eye and shoot.
Birds, traps and ‘kills’
Jonathan straightens his left leg and leans forward a little
The shooting of live pigeons was outlawed more than a century ago, but the lingo of clay shooting still references the original form of the sport: clays are often referred to as ‘birds’; launchers are called ‘traps’; and a successful shot is a ‘kill’.
And if I don’t hold the gun properly, I’m going to ‘kill’ my shoulder. The recoil from a shotgun can be punishing if it’s not held correctly, so I pull the butt close in, rest my cheekbone on the wooden stock, and gaze along the top of the barrel as Cyril micro-adjusts the angle of my head.
He’s more concerned about my body position, telling me to point my feet towards where the clay will be when I pull the trigger, and encouraging me to lean forward like a tennis player about to serve – left leg straight, right heel slightly raised.
Then he loads a single cartridge into one of the barrels of the Beretta shotgun I’ve borrowed from the shooting ground, and presses a button on a giant remote control. I hear a spring release, and suddenly a four-inch disc of limestone and pitch flies towards me. As it stalls, high in the air, I pull the trigger, the clay bursts into a star, and I grin like a toddler on Christmas morning. Three more kills follow before we change trap, and the trajectory of the next clay changes completely.
The flights of the clays are designed to replicate different game birds – high pheasants; fast, low partridge and grouse; teal, with their apparently vertical take-off. It soon becomes apparent that the longer I have to think before pulling the trigger, the worse my accuracy. Shooting should be a fluid, instinctive movement, says Cyril – let the clay overtake the end of the barrels before smoothly swinging through its trajectory and shooting ahead of the target, not at it.
“Imagine the clay is a bird with a stick in its mouth and there’s a balloon at the far end of the stick,” says Cyril. “Aim at the balloon.”
The length of this imaginary stick varies depending on my distance to the launcher, and as soon as I have the hang of one set of targets, Cyril changes to the next trap, which propels clays at a different angle, creating a whole new challenge. It’s intoxicating; a visceral, real-world thrill that’s more engrossing than any computer game.
Before I know it, my one-hour session is over. I’ve lost count of how many shots I’ve fired but there’s still time for a quick tour of the 50-acre shooting ground, which boasts a pleasant clubhouse and well-stocked shop. Already I want to have another go – firing a shotgun can quickly become addictive.
Aim for Anglia
A 60-minute one-to-one coaching session at Mid Norfolk Shooting Ground costs £70 (or £100 for two people) – cartridges not included. Club members enjoy a 10% discount courtesy of the Great Savings Guide (camc.com/greatsavingsguide).
Stay: Norfolk Broads Club Campsite