Joe Neville MBE
British Shooting's Olympic Skeet coach Joe Neville MBE talks about his incredible shooting career, his role at this year's Olympic Games and, above all, his lifelong love of game shooting.
How did you get into shooting?
I am now 72 and have been obsessed with shooting since I was about five years old. I grew up on a dairy farm near Matlock in Derbyshire and got into shooting through my maternal grandfather who was a gamekeeper. But my main game shooting mentor was a local chap by the name of Archie Hill who was a real countryman. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot. At first he allowed me to carry a little moling spade – my weapon of choice at the time! – but that was soon replaced by a gun.
And how did you get into competitive shooting?
I started shooting 50-bird clay competitions at local game fairs, country shows and ploughing matches when I was in my teens. But because they were often re-entry shoots, some guys would keep going until they were at the top of the leaderboard. This was disheartening for me as I couldn’t afford to keep re-entering and would have to watch my name slide down from the top of the scoreboard.
So when did you take it up in a serious way?
I really started to take it seriously when I was in my early 20s. In 1966, Clarence Wilson devised the CPSA method of coaching – he had a shooting school near Stockport and I used to go there once a month to shoot the Sporting layout – and he thought I had some talent and encouraged me to try my hand at Olympic Skeet, as it was to be a new discipline at the Olympic Games. It was he who pointed me in the right direction and really set me on the path that led to the Olympic Games.
Tell us about your path to the Olympics
From an early age, I wanted to shoot at the Olympics and Olympic Skeet was the discipline that was most accessible. You just needed a couple of traps, not a lot of ground, and you could build your own range fairly easily; so that’s what I did.
I started in 1967 and made it into the England team in ’68 for a home international against America. The following year I shot in an international competition in Moscow, and in 1970, I went to the World Championships in Arizona and tied for the silver medal with a score of 196/200. Yevgeni Petrov won Gold that year with a score of 200-straight. I then went on to compete at the Munich Olympics in 1972, shooting a score of 194 and coming fourth overall. Three other competitors shot 195 and went into the shoot-off for Gold, Silver and Bronze. I then went on to win Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1974, 1978 and 1986. (Joe also shot an incredible 200-straight when launching a new Eley cartridge in the ’80s).
When I think back about it now, I just used to turn up and shoot. We didn’t have any coaches back then, so I was largely self-taught. I probably didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and I certainly wish I knew then what I know now.
When do you think you were at your best?
I don’t think I ever reached my full potential as I simply didn’t have the technical knowledge or a coach who could get the best out of me.
It was very different back then. I actually think I shot my best in the mid to late ’80s when I was doing a lot of coaching and really thinking about the finer nuances of technique and the psychology of it. But I had stopped competing by then.
Why did you stop competing when you did?
I more or less stopped shooting competitively in 1986 after the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, but I hadn’t shot much since 1980 after the disappointment of not being able to go to the 1980 Olympics (Joe was in the GB team, but 65 countries including Great Britain boycotted due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979). I had prepared well for those Games and felt that I had a good chance of winning a medal. Needless to say, I was bitterly disappointed.
So how did you get into coaching?
I had set up my own shooting ground here on the farm in the early ’80s, and by 1986 I was so busy with coaching and instructing that I decided to stop farming altogether and turn shooting into my full-time job. And that’s what I have done ever since.
What does it take to win at the very top?
Obviously you need the natural ability and technique, but if we are talking about the difference between Gold and Silver, it all comes down to absolute self-confidence. Any element of doubt can be crippling and ruin your chances. If you look at all the very best sportsmen and women in any field, they have one thing in common – an absolute belief that they are the best.
What is unique about our sport is that in order to win, you have to step into the starting blocks 75 times (for ladies) or 125 times (for men), and each time you have to have absolute focus and concentration. One blip and it could be the difference between making the final and going home early. There’s no stepping back and saying: “Sorry, I’m not ready”. You’ve got to be able to switch it on and maintain it.
How do you prepare for the pressure that comes with big competitions?
You need to know how you will feel in that environment, and that comes from experience. You also need to know what frame of mind you need to be in to perform at your very best, and how to ensure you are in that place when it matters. Everyone is different, but I believe that a pinch of nerves helps to keep you focussed.
Photograph: British Shooting
What does your role as Amber Hill’s Olympic Skeet coach entail?
My coaching technique is to watch a person shoot to find out what works best for them, and then ensure they don’t deviate from that. Amber is obviously naturally very talented, and she has a technique that works well for her, so more than anything, I am there to observe her and look for any slight changes in her mindset and/or technique. Consistency is the most difficult thing to achieve, so I’m there to ensure that she doesn’t change anything and to put her back on course if she does. It’s about saying the right thing at the right time.
I have been involved with the coaching of the Olympic Skeet and Trap teams since 1988 and I have come to realise that the coach has the potential to be the most dangerous person on the shooting range, because if you say the wrong thing at the wrong moment, it can have a disastrous effect. So you’ve really got to think before you speak. Or better still, don’t speak at all, because, at the end of the day, by the time your shooters get to the competition, they should be completely prepared and ready to compete. You’re just there to support them and reassure them.
Is game shooting still a big part of your life?
Yes, very much so. I am first and foremost a game Shot, and I still run two syndicate pheasant shoots here near home (Ashford Hall and Lathkill Dale) and probably shoot between 30 and 40 days per season all over the UK. I have been a syndicate member at Lathkill Dale for 45 years and shooting tenant there for 20 years now.
Do you have a favourite shoot?
That is a difficult question to answer because it all depends on the day, but I do particularly love shooting grouse at Gunnerside. And I also really love traditional hedgerow partridges.
What in your opinion are the key ingredients for a good day’s shooting?
For me, it isn’t about the shooting itself – the bag is immaterial – what really matters is who you shoot with. It’s all about spending time doing the thing you love in the company of people who share the same values as you.
What guns do you shoot game with?
Mainly Beretta and Browning 12 bore over-unders, but I have always maintained that the best game Shots shoot with side-by-sides.
Who would you rank as the best game Shot out there?
Again, that is a difficult one to answer because some Shots are very good at certain disciplines but are not brilliant at others. For instance, you get very good pheasant Shots who don’t shoot a lot of grouse and vice versa. But Phil Burtt is a truly exceptional Shot at all disciplines. You think you can really shoot until you stand next to Phil. And he shoots with a side-by-side. I also used to load for the late Major Guy Knight, who was probably the finest game Shot I have ever come across.
What does it take to become a really good game Shot?
The truth is that the majority of the very best Shots have been doing it all their lives. It takes years of practice to become really good at anything and shooting is no different. Yes, the best Shots almost certainly have a natural ability and excellent hand-eye co-ordination, but it is second nature to them because they have been doing it for so long. And they understand things that newcomers to the sport don’t. Remember, it isn’t just about shooting ability – fieldcraft is a big part of it and knowing how the birds will behave and fly in all conditions and knowing how to respond to that are key. Reading the line of a bird and judging range are things that can’t be taught – they are learnt through experience and lots of practise.
And what are the most common mistakes people make?
Inconsistent gunmount and not enough focus on footwork. Consistency of mount is crucial; your eye is the back-sight, so it must be perfectly aligned with the rib every single time. It is about taking the timing off the bird and knowing when to take the shot – and that will vary from person to person. Some people like to take their birds early, while others prefer to wait until they are at their nearest point. It’s horses for courses, there’s no one-size-fits-all method, but what is key, is to take the shot in the middle of your swing – not at the beginning, and not at the end. I always say that the most important thing is the start of the shot and the finish – they are the parts that you can control. The bit in between, the actual shot which is largely instinctive, will take care of itself.
What are your pet hates in game shooting?
The dreaded duck drive. I won’t shoot ducks on a driven game day, mainly because I just don’t think that steel is effective enough for them. And to be honest, I don’t like shooting reared ducks – flighting wild ducks at night is a different thing altogether, but driving ducks over Guns on a pheasant day just isn’t my thing.
I also have an issue with extreme-range pheasants. I just don’t believe that, beyond 50–55 yards, any cartridge in any gun, regardless of choke or barrel-length, performs well enough to consistently kill pheasants. Beyond 50–55 yards, you get pattern failure, and therefore, in order to kill birds, you have to rely on luck. And in game shooting, I don’t think luck should play a major part. The art of shooting is in killing the bird outright with consistency. When a bird gets above a certain height, you lose the relationship and connection between you and the bird, and you lose the feel for the bird – at that point it becomes guesswork. And when people ask me if I think they should buy a set of 32" barrels, I tell them that they would be better off standing two inches further uphill!