Shooting a gun is like being prime minister – anyone with an overwhelming urge to do it should be given least opportunity. I’m the ideal candidate, because the idea of being near guns fills me with apprehension. I don’t know if they should exist. But you can’t try clay pigeon shooting without the shooting, or you would simply be looking at trees; that’s why I currently have my cheek pressed against the smooth comb of a 12-gauge Browning shotgun. I’ve worn a tweed coat to blend in – a mistake, as everyone else is wearing gilets and waxed jackets. I look like an ethnic Doctor Who trying to infiltrate the Countryside Alliance.
“Nobody minds if you’re a bad shot. Everybody minds if you’re not safe,” says Robbie Wilson, my instructor at Bisley Sporting Group in Surrey. He instructs me on how to carry a shotgun: broken, over the arm and pointing down. He shows me where to rest my trigger finger. I hadn’t realised how heavy guns are; I couldn’t hold this aloft for 10 seconds, let alone pick out a moving target. I try a 20-gauge – the smaller bore much lighter, albeit at the cost of the bigger gun’s stability. “People used to call the 20-gauge a ladies’ gun, but that’s completely incorrect,” Wilson says, trying to assuage a norm of masculine pride he has wrongly assumed I possess. Definitely this one, I say.
We take it to the clays – a phrase I just made up, but believe could develop real traction. Clay pigeons do not look like pigeons, and aren’t made of clay. They’re pitch and chalk, flinty Frisbees stacked in traps like Pringles. We start at a clearing in the woods. Above us, a majestic bird of prey spirals. “Don’t hit that,” Wilson advises. “It’s a £20,000 fine.” I don’t want to be in any situation where killing a buzzard is a possibility, even if it’s in the “avoid” column. Move smoothly through the target, don’t hold your breath, I think. Fifty yards away, a dark spot suddenly flies straight up into the sky. I raise the barrel, pull the trigger and am hit with a sound of 115 decibels (outside my ear defenders), plus a forceful recoil to the face. The little shadow shatters in the sky. “What a shot!” exclaims Wilson.
The odds of hitting it, first time, seem astronomical. Maybe the clay is rigged? Enthusiastic Wilson reminds me slightly of the character Tom Wambsgans from the TV show Succession. Maybe this is all a show. I reclaim my grip on reality only once I miss the second clay, then the third. Wilson goes over the basics again, then sets off a different trap. This time, the clay arcs in a dramatic parabola, from the opposite direction. I raise my gun and nail it. Hmm. A fascinating phenomenon unfolds. At every new stand, in an unfamiliar environment, facing the unknown, I hit the clay first time. Without exception. This first shot begins to feels nailed on, underwritten by some higher power. Thereafter, I miss time and time again. This flies in the face of the progress principle. What’s going on?
Shooting is pure instinct, Wilson explains – it works when our brains aren’t involved. (To be precise, hand-eye coordination is a function of the cerebellum, part of the hindbrain.) Having no advance information, or processing time, is the reason I’m Deadpooling the hell out of this. Once I know roughly where the clay will fly, at what speed, my brain can’t help but model an outcome. Unfortunately, having rationality in the driver’s seat causes one to lose reactive speed and visual information. I would have to practise a lot to get back to beginner’s luck. So this is shooting’s real aim: an empty mind, the same as eastern meditation. Only better, because instead of deep self-knowledge you get a mid-air explosion.
I love the variety of the hour-long session. Clays mimic the flight of teal, pigeons and pheasants. They decelerate, change angle, hug the treeline. Some are fired 200ft in the air; others, such as the ‘“bolting rabbit” burst out of the bushes at ground level. Wilson takes me to a grouse butt, a low-sided structure that looks like a relic of trench warfare. I’m shocked by a sky-borne side-plate flying directly over my head. “Take the shot early,” Wilson advises me, “as the falling fragments can be razor sharp. And don’t shoot to your right,” he adds, indicating where my photographer, Graeme, is standing. I start to sweat. I don’t want to kill a photographer. What must the fine be on that? (For his part, Graeme is a war reporter and unconcerned by a townie holding a ladies gun, dressed as Rupert the Bear.)
I take the clay out. I clip the next attempt too, which counts. Can I finish on a high? I empty my mind, becoming nothing, which is worryingly easy. The clay flies. I squeeze. The shadow firework display that follows is immensely thrilling. Oh god, I’m a natural. I may dislike guns, but I absolutely love shooting them. Is this a tenable position? Am I having an identity crisis? I must be an IT desk, because I had no troubleshooting. Gun control, yes. Pun control, never.
Is there a DIY alternative?
I really, really hope not.
Never bored. 3/5
This article was amended on 18 and 19 October 2021 to correct the gauge sizes of Rhik’s guns, and clarify that Robbie Wilson is an instructor at Bisley, not the owner of the company.