Ironing out your faults
Marcus Janssen visited Bisley Shooting Ground where shooting manager John Heagren put his technique under the microscope.
A lot of game Shots seem to have their own little routines they go through before a drive begins. Incessant fiddling with ear defenders, zipping up jackets to the chin (irrespective of the weather), rolling up sleeves three times, ensuring that each coat pocket contains exactly 20 red cartridges, stretching of neck muscles like a boxer about to go into the ring, kicking up earth like an agitated bull and the wiggling of toes. All of this, apparently, helps one to get into the zone, ready to slay high Devon pheasants like Digweed. But with the first flush, all composure goes out the window and everything becomes a frantic rush, a blur of cartridges furiously rammed into chambers, wildly swinging barrels and the footwork of a drunk in a yoga class.
But, as I was reliably informed recently, no amount of superstitious ritual will help you to consistently bring down high pheasants or downwind grouse if you don't have the right technique. Consistency is key. But, as with most sports, consistency is the holy grail, the most difficult thing in all of shooting to achieve. Why is it that out of 10 identical clays, we can perhaps hit seven, or even eight on a good day? But the two or three targets that evade us are no different to the seven or eight we just smoked. Equally, we've all experienced the frustration of the wheels coming off during a great drive – you have been on form all day when, mysteriously, it is as if the shot has been removed from your cartridges and even the easiest of birds float by without so much as a ruffled tail feather. Of course, there is no mystery to it – it's all down to technique and, as I recently discovered, there is a lot you can do to stack the odds more heavily in your favour.
I suspect that I am not dissimilar to a lot of game Shots in the UK in that my shooting style and technique is largely self-taught through years of trial and error. Sculpted and tweaked by unqualified but well-meaning family members, fellow game Shots, keepers, know-it-alls and school friends who, in hindsight, probably weren't John Bidwell's proteges, my technique is invariably riddled with bad habits that prevent me from progressing from Joe Average to Joe Nickerson. And so, as I arrived at Bisley Shooting Ground for a lesson with shooting manager John Heagren, the man who recently beat 19 of the UK's top clay and game Shots to win the Stratstone Super 7 Challenge, I was prepared to swallow my pride. “You can be as ruthless as you like,” I told him.
As John and I made our way to the first stand where he would start to assess my technique on a few easy, straight, driven clays, he said something that really struck a chord with me. “Most game Shots rely 80 per cent on talent and 20 per cent on technique. But in order to be really consistent, you must reverse those percentages. Not only will you be more consistent, but suddenly shooting will seem a lot easier, and you will feel like you have a lot more time on your hands.” We all know that really good game Shots always appear to have all the time in the world, irrespective of how hot a drive becomes. He certainly had my full attention.
It took no more than a dozen clays – a few straight driven and a few to my left and right – for John to form his prognosis. “You can hit them alright,” he said, to my delight, “but you are making life very difficult for yourself. I would say you are about typical – no shortage of ability but somewhat lacking in technique.” Honestly, I was a little surprised. I hadn't yet missed a clay and, if the truth be told, I was kind of expecting him to tell me that I ought to start training for the Olympics. “You are doing quite a lot right,” he conceded, “but, equally, you are doing a lot wrong.”
Feet, feet, feet
We all know the theory – we've read it in books and magazines, we've heard it in the gunbus, around the dinner table and at elevenses, we've watched the instructional DVDs and we could recite, word for word, everything Simon Ward has ever written about footwork – but we have no idea if we're actually doing it right because we've never seen ourselves shoot. This is precisely the reason why we all ought to have more lessons with qualified professionals.
The first thing that John pointed out to me is that good footwork requires a bit of preparation before the drive even gets under way. “First of all, assess where the birds are likely to come from, where you are going to address them and, crucially, the window in which you plan to shoot them. That shot window is extremely important.
“When you see the bird and have assessed its line, you will already know where you are going to take the shot, so move your feet into the correct position straight away, before mounting the gun.” This is easier said than done, especially if you have been doing it wrongly for over 20 years. As soon as I started to move my feet, my hands and shoulders automatically swivelled round too. Instead, John wanted my shoulders to remain facing the target until I had mounted the gun. “So many experienced game shooters do this,” he observed. “They step into the shot, simultaneously moving their feet, shoulders and hands. This is incorrect. As a result, particularly on crossers, they end up ‘rainbowing', or craning their whole upper body, which results in a miss underneath.”
It took a few attempts to get it right, but as soon as I did, the results were astounding. Straight away, my swing felt more natural, more fluid and less strained and it was clear that the hits were much more positive. “On clays, a hit is a hit,” said John. “But we must remember that on game, we need more than just the odd pellet to bring down our quarry.” This is something worth considering when you are shooting clays as your warm-up for the coming game season.
On crossers, especially to the right (to the left for a left-handed Shot), the temptation is often to mount onto the bird as soon as you see it, consequently forgetting to move your feet. As a result, your torso becomes twisted as you force the swing round and end up 'rainbowing'. This usually results in a miss underneath
The simple solution is to move your feet into the correct position before you mount the gun. Straight away, your posture will improve and your swing will feel more natural and fluid. Focussing on your feet may feel unnatural to start off with, but with enough practice, it will become second nature
The other thing that struck me was how far round John wanted me to move my feet, particularly on a crosser to my right. It wasn't the distance I was moving my feet but the direction they would end up facing. “Move your right foot first, and then your left foot,” he said. It felt as though I was almost turning my back on the trap, but by the time I had mounted my gun, my swing felt natural and far more comfortable. This was a change that required very little effort on my part, but one that made a noticeable difference. “When the wheels come off,” added John, “it is always because of something you are doing incorrectly. But if you get your technique right, the likelihood of this happening will be reduced substantially.” Superfood for thought.
Because the shooter's feet have remained stationary, their hips are square to the target, making a smooth swing impossible. Not only will poor footwork result in inconsistent shooting, but the resulting posture can even lead to injury
With your feet in the correct position, your hips and shoulders will be less square to the target, making the mount and swing a lot smoother. Not only will this feel more comfortable, it will improve your consistency
Using your arms
“The other thing you are doing wrong on straight driven targets,” continued John, “is you're flexing your back too much and not using your arms enough.” Again, this surprised me. John then placed his hand against my back and told me not to bend backwards at all until he had removed his hand from my back. Suddenly I was forced to follow the line of the clay up to a certain point by using my arms and hands only. Again, I was amazed at how this prevented me from lifting my head from the stock later on, on high driven targets, a mistake we so often see Guns making on driven shoots. I had no idea that I did it too!
Small mistakes, big effect
Within an hour, John had highlighted – and corrected – several flaws in my shooting technique that I would never have been able to identify myself. They were all relatively small mistakes I was making, bad habits I have picked up over the years but never addressed, but what really struck me was the immediate effect that John's corrections had on my posture and, hence, comfort. For instance, ever since I started using an over-under about three years ago, I have often ended up with a bruised cheek resulting, I had assumed, from the over-under's higher comb. But as soon as John corrected my footwork on right-hand crossers, the perceived recoil was noticeably reduced. “Is that even possible?” I asked, somewhat dubiously. “Of course it is,” he said. “You are no longer rainbowing over to your right as you force your swing round. That rainbowing or craning was resulting in your cheekbone being pressed down onto the stock.” So simple.
It's all too easy to get into a comfort zone, to rest on your laurels because you are satisfied with the way that you shoot. But we should all be striving to be the best Shots possible. If we are going to shoot game, we have a responsibility to take it seriously out of respect for our quarry. Sure, we can't all be George Digweeds, but we can all up our game, and the best way to do that is to have a professional instructor like John assess your technique. As Boughton headkeeper Graham Osbourne points out on page 59, if Olympic gold medallist Peter Wilson still has lessons, then the rest of us should be doing the same!