It’s a misty afternoon in Northumberland and I’m standing in a quiet field 10 minutes North of Morpeth. There are two of us: me and Paul Henderson. Paul is a manager at Bywell Shooting Ground and my teacher for the day. This is the first time I’ve ever held a gun.
He gives me a lightweight skeet vest to wear over my jacket (it has deep pockets for the cartridges), ear defenders and a pair of safety goggles. I put them on and stand on a peg (shooting language for a small square slab of concrete from where you fire). Paul stands behind me with his finger on a button that triggers the release of the clay pigeons.
‘Pull!’ I say, with confidence.
He presses the button. I see nothing in the sky. I do nothing. I look at Paul.
‘Missed it,’ he says.
This could be a long afternoon. My day started with a tour of Bywell, which is a working farm in Felton (they grow crops), as well as the host of international shooting events and practice sessions for experts (and inept amateurs like me).
‘We started shooting at Bywell in 1980,’ explains the farm’s owner, Susan Henry, as she shows me around. ‘The shooting club my husband went to disbanded and they needed somewhere to shoot so he set up a little clay pigeon trap here.’
A caravan was the clubhouse back then, but today a huge former cattle shed has been converted to make members and visitors comfortable. Next door to that is a large shop selling everything from the latest shooting gear and guns to new lines of seasonal country garments. Susan takes me into the gun room. It’s impressive.
New shotguns line all four walls, with prices ascending as you make your way clockwise around the space. ‘It’s a bit like cars,’ explains Susan. ‘People like the different makes. A person who drives an expensive car will probably want an equally expensive gun on their arm. You’re paying for the balance, the good wood, the engraving and the brand.’
Peter Wilson, who won Gold for Great Britain in the Men’s Double Trap shooting at London 2012, bought the gun he used at the Olympics here. The most expensive are £125,000. Susan explains why they’re often bought in pairs, ‘Grouse shooters tend to have pairs of guns, because it’s so expensive to go on those shoots. They would hate to get to the top of a moor and have their gun breakdown. Also, the grouse are coming so fast, a loader will be on hand to load a second gun while the first gun is being fired.’
As well as hosting regular county competitions, Bywell host four major championships a year, with up to 500 competitors arriving over the course of a weekend and thousands more coming to spectate. In 2004 Bywell even hosted the biennial World Clay Pigeon Shooting Championships, the clay pigeon equivalent of the World Cup Finals. It was the first time the event had been held in England since 1948, and Bywell witnessed a world first as Northern Irishman Hendy Hume hit all 300 targets over the three-day competition, posting a world record Susan doubts will ever be matched.
I’m unlikely to threaten Hume’s record today, having failed to spot the first clay and fired the gun zero times. Paul steps in to offer some advice. He tells me to point my left foot in the direction I intend to shoot and rotate my upper body towards the trap. He also addresses my tracking issue by teaching me the pick up point. This is where I’ll first spot the clay, lock onto its flight with the barrel, follow it, fire and hit it (hopefully).
With my stance sorted, I look and point the shotgun slightly ahead of where the clays are being projected from. He presses the button. I’m actually able to see the clays this time and I track them – progress. I fire. I miss. I need more advice. Paul likens the technique to taking a photograph of a moving object. ‘You don’t stop the camera as soon as you’ve taken it, because it will run off, and all you’ll capture is the tail of something. You click and keep moving the camera, it’s exactly the same with a gun.’
I quickly get better at tracking (it’s like they’ve slowed down). I’m also comfortable with the noise and kickback of the gun, which is not as loud or strong as I’d anticipated. It’s surprisingly hard work though – the gun weighs eight pounds and I’m constantly rotating my shoulders to follow the flying targets. After an embarrassing number of missed clays, something happens.
‘There you are, right in the heart!’ says Paul.
My first kill. I feel a dose of pride. I like this. I want more. We try shooting from different angles. The kill count mounts. Paul advises on where to aim. It’s working. ‘Stay with it, track it smoothly, move in front of it six inches then fire. Hit! You can shoot them all day now. Keep it going.’ Every hit brings a new buzz, every miss reminds me of the frustration that caused me to give up golf, and, like golf, shooting shoves all other thoughts away while you focus. Also like golf, it brings infuriating lows and buzzing highs.
After 30 clays from four positions I move up to heavier rounds: a 12-bore, Beretta Silver Pigeon shotgun with 30-inch barrels. The barrels are over and under rather than side by side. After every shot I break the gun open and cartridge shells fly out. I load a new one in, pretending I’m the Terminator, and prepare for the next shot. The new cartridges weigh 28g – 7g more than the type I started with, which means a stronger kickback from the gun.
Just as I get a feel for the range, flight and angle from a certain peg, Paul moves me on to the next one to keep things challenging. My favourite trap is directly in front of me. It fires the clays straight into the air meaning I have to track them vertically, rather than on a horizontal plane of movement. You need to pull the trigger just as the clay reaches its highest point. It’s easier than horizontal tracking. The pigeons don’t stand a chance.
‘These are for the Bywell World Championships,’ whispers Paul as I insert the final two cartridges. ‘This is where you’ve got to take a deep breath. Just imagine the whole crowd is behind you there, hushed. Remember all your training.’
‘Pull!’ I say.
Bang goes the gun. Smash goes the clay. I reload. Pull. Bang. Smash. I’m Bywell World Champion. My inner Schwarzenegger lights a cigar and strolls off into the misty sunset.
Living North’s Scorecard
Failed to see: 1
Bywell Shooting Ground, Bywell Farm, Felton, Northumberland NE65 9QQ
01670 787827 www.bywellshootingground.co.uk
I Want a Shotgun
You want your own shotgun? Bywell Shooting Ground’s Gun Room Manager Paul Henderson explains the procedure
‘It’s perfectly legal to have a shotgun in your house but handguns are completely illegal in this country. The only people who can have handguns are those who use them for humane dispatch, such as a vet.
There’s quite a rigorous process to follow before you’re allowed to purchase a shotgun. The application asks for GP records and two references who can confirm you’re not a danger to the public. You submit those and, provided the authority is happy with them, you’re then invited for a police interview.
The police check your records and make sure there have been no incidents that might affect your capability to hold a licence. They will also check your medical records to make sure you have no mental health issues.
The police also check the cabinet you’ll be keeping the gun in – you must have an approved cabinet that is bolted to a solid brick or stonewall to ensure it can’t be stolen.Once the checks have been made and are successful they’ll grant a certificate that will give you authorisation to purchase shotguns and ammunition.’