On-the-peg game shooting instruction
There is only so much you can learn at a shooting ground, says top game shooting instructor Simon Ward, who highlights the advantages of on-the-peg coaching for the game Shot.
Being a good game Shot is about so much more than just hand-eye co-ordination and good technique. Fieldcraft, knowledge of your quarry, attitude and mindset are all important pieces of the overall game shooting puzzle. Yes, it is important to learn the fundamentals of shooting, address gunfit, and polish your technique as much as possible with an instructor at a shooting ground before you head into the field, but becoming a really adept game Shot comes down to in-the-field experience and being able to read each situation and bird accordingly.
But getting to that point can be a long and frustrating process. We’ve all had those moments when you just don’t know what you are doing wrong, when you swear blind that you aren’t doing anything different to the previous drive when you were on song, and yet you are missing more than you should be. It can be disheartening, and by the end of the drive, your confidence is in tatters and what should have been a great drive turns into a frustrating one.
The truth of the matter is that the solution may be a simple one and that only a subtle change in technique is required. But being able to recognise that – and essentially self-diagnose one’s own faults – can be very difficult, particularly for the less experienced Shot. In these situations, having an instructor with you on the peg can be hugely advantageous.
But on-the-peg instruction is not about having someone tell you what to do, it is about having someone help you to learn how to do it for yourself. From an instructor’s point of view, it’s about getting your client to think about things, and giving them the confidence to adjust their technique accordingly with gentle encouragement. Ultimately, you want to teach them the method and technique required beforehand, and then give them the guidance in the field so that they have a back-up plan for when the wheels come off.
Imposing your will on someone is counterproductive; yes, they may see an immediate improvement, but they may not know why, or what they were doing wrong in the first place.
It is important that they are not self-conscious about you being there – this can lead to them trying too hard because they want to please you. So, a considered approach is key; if you over-coach, you can kill their confidence.
How it works
I tend to meet my clients on the morning of the shoot as the Guns arrive for coffee. Beforehand, we will have done some work together at a shooting ground. In addition to technique, we will have addressed gunfit, talked about choke, cartridges and loads for their chosen quarry, and I will already know their strengths and weaknesses and any concerns they may have. I will also know where they want to take their shooting – this may be their first grouse day, or they may be an experienced Shot wanting to take their shooting to the next level.
If it is a double gun day, I will always advise my client to hire a loader as it is almost impossible to load double guns and instruct at the same time. However, if it is a single gun day, I will be happy to stuff for them or let them load their own gun.
On the first drive, before it gets underway, I will first run through the safety aspects so that their mind is at ease. Even with experienced Shots, it is a good idea to remind them of the safety hazards, particularly on a grouse day. We will then talk about fieldcraft, timing spots, the wind direction, and how the birds are likely to react to the prevailing conditions. I will also pay attention to their mindset and demeanour and ensure that they are in the right frame of mind. For instance, if it is a grouse day, I will try to give them the confidence to be assertive and shoot with controlled aggression.
But, crucially, I will encourage them to think about things by asking them loaded questions such as what direction the wind is coming from and how this may affect the birds. This encourages them to make decisions for themselves and gives them a better understanding of what is going on.
Next, we will do some simulated shots, anticipating where the birds are going to come from, how their line may be affected by wind, and planning where they are best to take their shots. We will run through a few scenarios, and that will also give me a chance to watch their gun-handling skills. This is particularly important in a grouse butt where they will be in a confined space, and time will be of the essence. I will be looking for potential mistakes they might make once things get underway.
Once we have been through a few scenarios and I am happy that they are focused and confident, I will always ensure that they have a few minutes of silent calm to think about and digest everything we have been through. This quiet time is really important as it allows them to focus on what is about to happen.
Once the drive gets underway, unless something is glaringly obvious right from the outset, I will always let my client run and have a few shots. It is important to let them find their rhythm. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to in-the-field instruction, less is more. You must let the instinctive powers of hand-eye co-ordination take over. It’s about recognising what needs addressing and when. Rabbiting on in their ear between each shot can be very distracting and totally counterproductive – they need to be able to focus on the task in hand. If you nanny someone, not only will they be focussed on you rather than the birds, they will become totally reliant on you. They must be able to run, make a few mistakes and learn from them.
As the drive progresses, and only if I feel it is prudent, I might pick up on something they are repeatedly doing wrong. But timing is crucial – I will be careful to pick my moment because you can interrupt their rhythm and break their focus. At the end of the day, it isn’t just about highlighting their faults, but also recognising what they are doing right; their reason for missing may be very subtle, so you have to be tactical in your approach. So I tend to wait until there is a break in the drive before saying something.
And when I do, I will ask them why they think they are missing a particular bird – this encourages them to think for themselves. And more often than not, they will have some idea. For instance, they may be consistently missing crossers over one of their shoulders because they are simply not moving their feet. So, instead of pointing this out to them, I will try to remind them of what we covered at the shooting ground. I won’t tell them why or where they are missing, but gently guide them in the right direction, thus giving them the confidence to address things on their own.
At other times, I will simply demonstrate what they were doing at the end of the drive, and ask them to tell me what is wrong with my technique. Often, they will have a lightbulb moment and work it out on their own. It is this approach that teaches people to self-diagnose their own faults. This is particularly applicable to the experienced Gun who is striving to take their shooting to the next level.
Technique or mindset
I once accompanied a fairly experienced pheasant and partridge Shot on their first ever driven grouse day and, before the first drive got underway, I got him to mount his gun in front, as if addressing an incoming grouse. Straight away, I noticed that he was flat-footed and his posture was all wrong. But when I asked him to mount his gun beyond 45˚ – as you would for a driven pheasant or partridge – his posture and footwork were absolutely fine. So, before the drive got underway, I had to adjust his mount so that he was a lot more aggressive, with more weight on his front foot (i.e. nose over toes). I asked him to bring his heels a lot closer together and I tweaked his stance and head position. By the time the drive got underway, he looked a lot more comfortable and ready to attack the grouse in front. He killed seven grouse for 10 shots, and he was justifiably pleased.
Another client on a different occasion, however, required a completely different approach. With him, it wasn’t about technique, but attitude and mindset. He was an engineer with a mathematical brain, and he was particularly safety conscious. As a result, he was very meticulous and measured in his approach to shooting, which worked well for him on high pheasants, but for grouse he needed to be a lot more instinctive and aggressive, and engage much earlier than you would a high driven pheasant. So I had to address his attitude, not his method. I had to work really hard to get him fired up and focussed. I essentially gave him all of my timing and told him when to mount the gun, when to shoot, and when to move and react. It got the adrenaline going which was key, and he killed nine brace of grouse on the next drive.
Conversely, on driven pheasant days, I may have to do the opposite and get my client to slow down. If they suddenly get fired up and try to shoot too many birds, I will tell them to ignore the ones over their head and focus on what is coming, one bird at a time. If the red mist descends, and you start to rush your shots, you will find that your shot to kill ratio will suffer. Getting flustered is hugely counterproductive. Sometimes you just need to put the breaks on, take a few deep breaths and regroup. There may not be anything wrong with your technique, but you may simply need to calm down and refocus. But you have got to go through that – in time you will learn from your mistakes and past experiences in the field.
Would I benefit from on-the-peg instruction?
At the end of the day, there is only so much you can learn on clays, so on-the-peg coaching can really help you to take your shooting to the next level. I have clients of all experience levels and abilities, but they all have one thing in common – a desire to improve their shooting and take things to the next level. With intermediate to experienced Guns, it is all about improving consistency and fine-tuning their technique, method and mindset.