Move over Percy Stanbury, George Digweed is teaching the instructors at EJ Churchill to pass on his world-beating technique, and Clay Shooting’s James Marchington has the exclusive.
George, however, would describe himself as a countryman who goes clay shooting, which gives his insight into game shooting techniques a greater role.
At the beginning of 2018, George announced that he was joining the team at EJ Churchill as Global Shooting Ambassador. With Churchill hosting the CPSA World English Sporting Championships this summer, rather than competing George would be setting the targets.
That news was undoubtedly a factor in the competition selling out in double-quick time – shooters from far and wide wanted to take on the targets set by the best shooter the world has ever seen.
It proved to be a roaring success. The 2018 Worlds were hailed as the best Sporting competition ever held in the UK, and shooters at all levels were full of praise for George’s targets. But that was just the start of George’s association with EJ Churchill.
There’s more to come, and a key part of that is George teaching the ground’s instructors to pass on his unique shooting method – a method that he developed himself, and which has allowed him to become the best in the world.
I feel privileged to be invited to sit in on their first session. There’s a sense that this is a defining moment, the start of something big. The EJ Churchill team are excited about the day too. “We’re lucky to have George as our shooting ambassador,” says Julian Copeman, the shooting ground manager.
“Today is an important step. It’s all about making sure that we’re singing from the same hymn sheet – that if you come to EJ Churchill’s, you’ll get the same advice and tuition whoever takes you out, whether game or clay.”
A select group of ten instructors settles around the table in the clubhouse that a few weeks ago was ringing with the chatter of World Sporting competitors booking in. George begins by putting the day into perspective. “When I was starting, if you wanted to learn to shoot you went to a shooting school,” he says. “Nowadays, with the advent of freelance shooting coaches, you might go anywhere.”
Not everyone offering coaching is the same standard, he stresses. Lots of people will take your money and give you a ‘shooting lesson’, but that money is wasted if all they do is tell you where you missed. “With this year’s Worlds, we pulled off the best world championship this country has ever seen,” George states proudly.
“Now we’re going to do the same thing in coaching – we’re going to be a world-class coaching facility.”
He sets out his vision, which would see the team of coaches there teaching a unified method in the same way. Just as you might go to one shooting school and learn the Stanbury method, you could visit EJ Churchill and be taught their method. There will be no single ‘superstar’ coach; simply the ground’s own method of shooting, and way of teaching it.
As yet it has no name, but it occurs to me that it will inevitably come to be known as ‘The Digweed Method’ in the same way that we now talk of the Stanbury method or the Churchill method.
Currently, each shooting instructor teaches a slightly different technique, and has their own way of dealing with the problems they’ll typically encounter along the way. To illustrate, George asks each in turn to describe what they would do with a new shooter who has cross dominance – a right-hander with a left master eye.
The answers are broadly similar, using tape or a marker pen on a pair of clear shooting glasses. George is happy with that, but explains that there should be one way, the EJ Churchill way – which naturally he wants to be the best possible way.
He demonstrates his preferred technique for dealing with the problem. First of all the master eye check – how will the instructors do that? A card with a hole cut in it is the general consensus, and George agrees. And what about the problem master eye? George is not a fan of shooting one-eyed. Using both eyes allows you to judge speed and distance in a way that’s not possible with one eye shut.
Just try closing one eye and catching a ball, he says. We won’t be asking our clients to shut one eye, or blocking it out with a patch. Instead, we will block the one spot where the left eye might take over control, and no more.
Our stand-in ‘client’ mounts the (confirmed empty) gun and George squints carefully down the barrel before making a small black dot on the left lens of his glasses with a marker pen. He explains that the dot should be just big enough to block out the pupil, no more, and it must be placed precisely so it blocks the left eye’s view past the bead when the gun is mounted.
You don’t notice it when you’re shooting, and you get the benefit of both eyes as you focus on the target.
It’s an indication of the level of detail that George plans to go into – the EJ Churchill method of teaching shooting will specify everything right down to the size of a black dot on a pair of glasses. I get the feeling that before long, being coached at EJ Churchill is going to be precisely the same as being coached by George himself, which is of course the whole idea.
So far so good, but now George drops the bombshell. The Stanbury method taught by so many shooting instructors, with its emphasis on keeping the weight on the front foot, is flawed he says. The instructors around the table visibly sit up, hanging on George’s words.
This is a big deal. Some of them have been teaching a version of the Stanbury method for years, and follow it in their own shooting. Now they are going to have to learn a whole new way. Not only that, they must be able to teach it to the ground’s clients, in a standardised manner.
It’s unnerving for them, but they also realise that George is about to reveal the method that has won him multiple world championships and kept him at the top of the tree for decades, despite being, how shall we say, not your typical athletic build. “It’s all about technique,” he says. “Otherwise how could I shoot no clays at all for seven months of the year, then go straight back into it and shoot at world level? It’s got to be technique.”
George illustrates with an imaginary driven target – we find a beam in the ceiling and nominate that as the line of the bird. A volunteer is asked to stand ready to shoot our imaginary bird. “Okay, now swing the gun along that beam,” says George. “Keep going…”
Our volunteer arches his back, the gun comes off the line, and he starts to topple.
“See?” says George. “Now move your feet like this…” He rearranges the shooter into position almost side-on to the target, weight on both feet. Stanbury would not approve, especially when George directs him to transfer his weight onto the back foot as he swings, and thrust his left hip forward into the shot.
And yet… it works. The gun stays on line, the swing is steady and goes much further back without the shooter losing balance.
“It’s just not natural to lean forward and look up,” George says. “It doesn’t make sense. I never had a lesson in my life, but I studied the top shots as I was growing up – they all shot off the back foot, or at least transferred their weight to the back foot during the shot. That way your body works with you, and your shoulders remain square.”
There is more frantic scribbling as George swiftly moves on to the topic of lead – and once again his take is controversial. “It’s irrelevant,” he declares. “If your hand-eye coordination is right, lead is no longer relevant. You don’t look at your racket when you’re playing tennis, or your hand when you’re catching a ball.
“You shouldn’t be looking at the gun and measuring how far it is in front of the target. It’s all about gun speed. You swing through the target from behind and shoot as you pass the front edge. If a client misses four feet behind the target, it’s no good telling him to shoot four feet in front. That won’t help him once he’s left the shooting ground.
“The problem is he didn’t swing the gun fast enough. You can adjust that with the gun hold point, and where you place your hand on the fore-end.”
And there’s more – much more: “You need to look at a specific point on the target, not the target as a whole. Exactly where depends on the angle of the bird – it might be the front edge for instance. Start with the gun just out of the shoulder, and don’t move until the target is past the barrels – don’t go back to meet it.”
It’s been a lot to take in, and George wisely decides it’s time to go outside and put all this theory into practice. Left-handed shot Mike Self volunteers to be the first ‘pupil’ on a high driven target. George lets him shoot a couple in his normal way, then moves him into position according to what we’ve learned.
The instructors are still taking all this in as we move on to another layout, offering a wider variety of crossing targets. Again, George takes an unsuspecting volunteer and coaxes him into a position that feels all wrong – and again, it works. When the shooter misses a target behind or in front, George doesn’t mention lead. He adjusts foot position and hold point, and in no time the targets are breaking consistently.
Just to push the point home, George allows himself to be persuaded to try a few shots from the hip. One by one, he smashes all five targets with the first shot. If there was any doubt remaining in the instructors’ minds, it’s gone. George’s method works all right.
It will take time and a lot of work before they can absorb everything that George has to show them, and learn to teach it in a standardised, consistent way. But they’re excited about the idea, and determined to give it their best shot, as it were.
If they can make it work, I’m convinced they can make George’s dream a reality and create a world class coaching facility that will attract game and clay shooters alike, not just within the UK but from Europe and beyond, to learn the method that has taken George to the top and kept him there for four decades.
George Digweed was recently awarded The Lifetime Achievement Award at the Great British Shooting Awards. For more information on the awards and the winners, just click here.