Like many shooters, I was thrilled when Peter Wilson, ‘Pigeon Pete’ to his friends, won the Double Trap gold at the Olympics in 2012.
It was a tremendous personal achievement, and it helps the sport of shooting generally if a British athlete can achieve success on the world stage. We couldn’t ask for a better ambassador for shooting: Peter comes across as a genial, likeable, sensible and dedicated young man, the opposite of the image the antis would like to portray.
I’m sure many shooters also became engrossed in watching the other sports, from swimming and rowing to athletics and cycling. Perhaps, like me, you saw lessons in many of these sports that we can apply to our everyday lives, fox shooting included.
One comment that really struck a chord with me was not about shooting at all, but cycling. There was much debate about the technology behind Britain’s success in the cycling events – did we have a secret weapon? Perhaps the Brits’ bicycles had special wheels that gave them an advantage, or high-tech suits to reduce wind resistance. The media was desperate to find out, but when they got their interview the truth was even more revealing.
There was no secret weapon – just a determination to work at every tiny thing that could deliver even the smallest improvement. Refining the helmet shape in a wind tunnel might give you a fraction of a second’s advantage; adjusting the seat height to give the legs the best possible leverage is another fraction of a second. Then there’s perfecting the athletes’ diets to maximise stamina and power – and even a campaign of thorough hand-washing in the training camp to reduce the risk of a stomach upset.
Taken individually, each of those things might seem too tiny to worry about, but added together they could make a difference of as much as a second. That’s a lot of effort for just one second, but a second can be the difference between winning and losing, and that makes all the effort worthwhile.
Now apply that way of thinking to your fox shooting. You could put in a lot of time practising your shooting at different ranges, and from a variety of positions and rests; you could spend more on your scope to give slightly better performance in low light; you could experiment with different brands of ammo, or even load your own, to achieve the best possible accuracy.
All of this time, effort and expense might mean you can shoot slightly smaller groups, or get an accurate shot away a fraction of a second faster. It won’t do much for your social life, and will probably cause more than a little friction with your partner too.
Is it worth it? That depends on your point of view, because sooner or later it will mean shooting a fox that would otherwise have got away. Only you know whether that makes it worthwhile. If you were aiming for an Olympic gold medal, the choice might be easier, but it takes a special kind of person to apply that level of dedication to fox shooting.
That’s one lesson we can take from the Olympics, but there are others. Here’s one for the kit junkies, the sort of people who are constantly tweaking their gun and ammo in a search for the ultimate in accuracy. If you watched the rifle shooting events at the Olympics, you’ll have seen that many of the rifles were virtually identical, and most competitors were using the same ammo too. If you could test each of the guns on the line, you wouldn’t find a bad one among them – every one is capable of putting round after round through the same hole in the target. Yet some competitors shot 10 after 10 to build a perfect score, while others dropped a pointhere and a point there, and failed to make it to the final.
It’s obvious really, but we forget too easily that the kit is just part of the equation. Once you’ve got a gun that fits and ammo that can shoot accurately, you need to put in the practice with that combination so that shooting with it becomes second nature. If you’re constantly chopping and changing in search of perfection, you never get the chance to develop the level of understanding so you know exactly how your bullet flies. I have been shooting with the same brand and bullet in .223 since 1986. Just the other night I saw six foxes and dealt with them at 108,157,174, 236, 254 and 263 yards.
Now for the gun. One of the Olympic rifle shooters at London 2012 was competing with a Soviet-era rifle and ammunition, while everyone around him was using modern, high-tech kit.
Asked why he doggedly stuck to his antiquated gear, he replied, “I have a new rifle back at home but when you are getting ready for the Olympic Games it is too late to change anything.” What he was saying was that he had used the old gun so often it fitted like a glove and could be used without conscious thought. His name was Sergei Martynov, and he won the 50-metre rifle prone event.
Not long after the Olympics, a friend who shoots a .22LR visited me. He had read an article in one of the shooting magazines that said you shouldn’t take longer-distance shots with a rimfire. “That’s true for most people,” he said, “but I’m going to carry on regardless.”
He bought his .22 rifle years ago for £150, settled on a brand of ammo that worked well in it, and has shot nothing else ever since. He has some natural ability too, and the combination means that he can hit just about anything up to 150 yards – I know it’s true because I have watched him do it.
In his case, the definition of a long shot is stretched far beyond what would be long for most people because of his skill and familiarity with the gun and ammunition – and, another attribute to long use, an uncanny ability to judge range accurately.
In the modern world, people often expect to be able to splash out a load of cash and get instant results, but as any Olympic athlete will tell you, buying the best gear is just the start. There is no substitute for practice, application and dedication.
I remember one competitor in the days of practical pistol shooting who, after winning a world championship in South Africa, swapped guns with one of the other shooters for a bit of informal fun. He noticed that the other chap was shooting tighter groups than he could with his own gun. Not being the sort to let it pass, he went back to basics and practised shooting slowly to improve his groups, then gradually built his speed back up again. “After 15,000 rounds I was shooting as fast as before – but tighter groups,” he said. Although he had won, he was thinking of next year’s competition.
Not many fox shooters are that dedicated – in fact, you’d be a little bit bonkers if you were – but it’s an insight into what it means to take your shooting to the Olympic level. Come to that, you may even decide to take up one of the Olympic shooting disciplines: Pete has done it, so can you. Robert Bucknell