The thought of having to intentionally kill something turns my stomach which is why I’ve never been tempted to try any form of game shooting. However I’ve always fancied having a go at shooting something inanimate, so when I spotted that clay pigeon shooting was available near our cottage on our recent holiday in the Lake District, I jumped at the chance.
I booked a beginners’ session as none of us had ever held a real gun before, let alone handled one loaded with live ammunition. I’m sure many of you country ladies and gents who have been shooting for years are perfectly comfortable around this sort of thing, but I was quaking in my boots, being in the presence of such lethal equipment for the first time.
I needn’t have worried. Our young instructor put us at our ease and explained all the safety aspects clearly, telling us how to handle the guns, how to stand, how to aim and all that sort of thing. He was very patient with us, but especially with me, the nervous ageing matriarch of the posse.
He explained how you should hold the butt of the gun firmly into the shoulder to minimise bruising caused by the kickback of the firing gun. I’ve never felt such trepidation as when I finally put my finger on the trigger and shouted ‘Pull!’. That first shot was quite an experience. The force of the bullet leaving the chamber threw me bodily backwards and an involuntary expletive escaped my lips. Needless to say, I missed that first clay, but quickly learned that you have to really get your stance right, weight forward on your front leg, feet firmly planted on the ground, cheek resting solidly on the stock (or comb as it is also known, which is the main ‘handle’ bit before the butt).
I soon got the hang of it and the more relaxed I became, the easier I found it. I say ‘easier’. I don’t mean I suddenly became a crack shot, rather I didn’t feel like I was going to fall over every time I fired. One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to is the noise. We had to wear ear defenders, but occasionally I forgot to put them them on, and when you are that close to a gun going off, it is almost deafening.
I did wonder why you have to shout ‘Pull’, but our tutor didn’t know, and thus the seed of a column was planted.
Back in the day, before clays were invented, there used to be pigeon shooting competitions where birds would be held on the ground in specially dug holes and kept in place by top hats. A piece of string was attached to the hat, held at other end by someone standing at a safe distance. The competitor would shout ‘Pull’ and the man with the string, known as the ‘trapper’, would give it a good yank, toppling the hat and releasing the bird. The first pigeon shooting club, called ‘The Old Hats’, was founded in North London in the 1800s.
By 1793, wooden traps were invented that were boxes with a sliding lids which were opened when the string was pulled, thus releasing the bird. By 1921, it was recognised that this was a cruel form of competition, and it was banned in England, although it is still an active sport in many other countries.
Here, the competition was able to continue with live pigeons being replaced by round clays, and special traps were designed to launch them into the air. Originally, they were very simple, casting the clay aloft by a spring mechanism activated manually. Over time, traps became ever more sophisticated and today they can discharge clays at different speeds, in different directions and heights and with different flight patterns designed to replicate the varied behaviours of diverse species of game, all activated by remote control from a safe distance. We tried one that was placed in a nearby oak to mimic the movement of a squirrel emerging from the base of a tree trunk and running across the ground.
For that one we got to try a pump action shotgun, which I found strangely exhilarating. Thankfully, for the safety of the nation, it is likely the last time I will ever handle one.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 29th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 27th July 2022