Learn in a day: clay-pigeon shooting

Zoe Williams discovers the joy of shooting – as long as she remembers to release the safety catch

Words by Zoe Williams

Photography by Roderick Mills

Tobias Gorn is an expert in shooting, the authentication of fine wines, and cigars. His epitaph, if pushed for space, would simply read, ‘Life’s finer things.’ Strolling with him around the EJ Churchill shooting ground near the town of West Wycombe in the south of England, I find it briefly impossible to imagine anything more clement. It’s beautiful. The air is alive with the exciting smell of ammunition, and I have my own gun. For a minute, I’m even considering taking it up as a fitness pursuit: the gun is quite heavy, and there is a fair amount of walking involved, from the grouse butts to the high tower. But then I realise that I’d just end up with one really strong shoulder. Oh, and if all went well, much faster reactions. But that doesn’t give you a six-pack. 

We’re clay shooting, naturally; if these were real birds, the spectacle of me failing to kill them would be prohibitively wasteful. The discs, emulating grouse, arc high and fast across a grey English sky, disappearing skittishly into the trees as I studiously miss each one by three feet. The trick is to aim slightly ahead of where you can see the disc, to adjust for – I don’t know – the speed of light, maybe? That is a lot easier said than done. Not because it doesn’t work; it does. On the one occasion I manage it, there it is, a palpable hit, the most satisfying feeling, like confetti made of pottery. It’s just incredibly hard to persuade your fingers and brain to aim not at The Thing but at the space around The Thing. I feel sure a philosopher would be able to solve this, but a shooting instructor’s infinite patience, in the face of what must look like a maddening failure to heed basic commands, is enjoyable too.

Grouse – did I mention this? – are quite hard. Harder still, though, is the Olympic skeet, a semi-circle where discs fire at you from all directions, high, low, sideways, straight into the sun like cunning enemies in a Boy’s Own adventure. It is more fun to watch Tobias than it is to try. There is a lot of process involved in loading a gun and shooting it. You have to remember to take the safety off, not to point it at people – almost as if these things were dangerous. Once you know a tiny amount, to watch an expert doing it all unthinkingly looks as graceful as a very macho ballet.

We turned, finally, to rabbits, and these little critters are much easier. They roll across the ground, still exceedingly fast but more predictable. A minuscule amount of success gave me a huge surge of bloodlust, feelings of authentic violence against the whole of clay rabbit-kind, as if I’d caught them eating my clay lettuces.

The paraphernalia is almost as engrossing as the pursuit. In the gun room, exquisite pairs worth more than a one-bed flat rested serenely. The rules of keeping a gun at home are so stringent – you must have a proper cupboard slot for each – that even an enthusiast will run out of space before he (or she) runs out of appetite, so the guys are constantly swapping and selling things to each other, like a conker market for grown-ups. And perhaps because shooting is squarely rooted in the aristocracy, where they don’t have to do much drudge work elsewhere, they absolutely fetishise the cleaning. ‘You get this grease on your white shirt, you can forget your white shirt,’ Tobias says with such great authority that I actually manage to concentrate on what I’m doing.

Like choux pastry or the Eurovision song contest, I doubt I will ever be anything but a novice at this game. But I’ve come alive to its charm.