Paul Quagliana visits Bisley to meet the National Rifle Association, learns some of the secrets of target shotgun shooting and burns a few calories in the process
I don’t know whether it is Bisley’s military associations, but it wouldn’t be the first time I have “enjoyed” some form of exercise when I have visited the place. I seem to recall, quite a long time ago, being offered something called the “Iron Arm” challenge – shooting 100 driven clays from a grouse butt, without stopping, on the Bisley clayground. In my 20-something youthful innocence and competitiveness, I eagerly responded to the gauntlet. It sounded easy, but the act of breaking and closing and firing a shotgun continuously stopped being fun about two-thirds of the way through.
Target shotgun shooting wasn’t to prove quite as bad as the grouse-based shotgun hell, but it did involve a certain amount of a runnin’ an’ a pumpin’.
For those of you who have never visited Bisley, it is worth a trip. It looks like a relic of the British colonial era that has been scooped up and dropped in Surrey and preserved. It is the UK’s national shooting centre but many people have never heard of it, or think it is purely used by the military.
It encompasses virtually all the target shooting disciplines known, yet you might think it was a closed shop to outsiders. Live quarry shooting and claypigeon shooting predominate in the UK so this is hardly surprising; there can sometimes seem a gulf between these and the world of target sports, too.
Bisley is home to the NRA, which was established in 1859 and has been present at Bisley since 1890. It wasn’t until I became involved in sporting journalism that I was even aware that Britain had an NRA, an association far quieter than its vocal American counterpart. The British NRA, founded 12 years before the American NRA, largely runs the ranges at Bisley.
Now NRA chief executive Andrew Mercer, a keen fisherman and countryman who assumed his role two years ago, is keen to take the role of the NRA beyond Bisley. Andrew said: “There is a colossal demand for full-bore rifle shooting and ranges. While we have world-famous facilities at Bisley, it is getting to the stage where we are turning shooters away. It is an enormously busy site, particularly at weekends when members shooting can easily top 1,000 per day, and we are probably the busiest range in Europe.”
Take your position
It is easy to see why the NRA has its hands full running Bisley alone. Andrew continued: “When I first came here, my impressions were ‘what an amazing place, what a mess, and how come I didn’t know it existed?’ My job now is to improve Bisley and above all make financial decisions that will benefit the site. Our task is to look at ranges both inside and outside of Bisley and how they can be run and improved. One of the reasons Bisley remains something of a secret is that, if we advertised, we would probably not be able to cope. Bisley is currently undergoing refurbishment.
People staying or visiting previously were used to poor facilities and that has got to change. I want Bisley to be beautiful as well as functional – it is the engine room of the NRA and we want to encourage shooting sports outside of it as well.”
It was time for me to enjoy the previously unknown pleasures of target shotgun shooting, which incorporates the use of birdshot, buckshot and solid slugs. Under the leadership of James Harris, the discipline rep for target shotgun, the NRA was running a taster day for 18 shooters so they could see what the sport entailed. There were seasoned target shotgunners present and others who were gameshooters keen to give it a try.
Target shotgun shooting isn’t new but it is only relatively recently that it has become an organised sport, having partly gained momentum in recent years because of the pistol ban in the UK. As discipline rep James Harris explained: “It is essentially shooting at a non-moving, artificial target from different shooting positions. It can be metal plates or paper targets.” With the ban implemented, some switched to target disciplines using pistol calibres in rifles. Others looked to developing target shotgun shooting. The Continent still largely allows pistol ownership, and although it is found in other countries, target shotgun is very much a UK thing.
Double-barrelled shotguns are about as simple as a firearm can get. But pumps and semi-autos require more knowledge. So being absolutely familiar with them is vital on so many levels.To be a serious contender at the sport you do need an FAC for a shotgun and solid slugs. For the likes of me and some of the others on the course, Section 2 shotguns with a maximum of three rounds that provided plenty of fun.
The day started with a classroom based look at the sport, the types of firearms used, and a discussion on safety and different types of ammunition. Then it was off to the Butt Zero range to put the theory into practice.
The constraints of shooting ranges may at first appear stifling for those used to roaming free with firearms on farmland and attending for the first time. But they are essential and the rules must be followed to the letter.
All hands to the pump
The assembled shooters were shown how to operate, load, unload and safely handle the firearms on the range under the watchful eyes of the instructors. James was overseeing the group I was in and, having received instruction, I was then put through a variety of exercises, beginning with shooting at metal plates from five yards. I was using a slick Benelli SuperNova pump, which can seem awkward at first if you are unfamiliar with pump-actions.
There followed examples of different ways of loading a pump or auto and shooting from different positions. Probably the hardest part for me was loading the gun and then swapping shoulders to shoot. If you are a right-hander and have ever tried throwing a stone southpaw-style you will know how hard it is. It is the same with a shotgun – it feels odd and awkward. Transferring the gun from the right to the left shoulder and avoiding lifting the head off the stock was a task in itself. Another exercise involved placing the gun on the ground, walking back a distance, and then running to pick it up, before loading and firing it. Buckshot shooting at paper targets followed, and it was interesting how varied the patterns were from different guns. Some were relatively tight and even, others were strung out vertically and erratic.
James explained that, in a competition, targets could be engaged from different positions and the course of fire could be as simple or complex as the imagination of the person putting it together. Target shotgun is about having fun while shooting. The shooter is moving and negotiating barricades, using different positions to shoot and revealing targets that could be hidden or activated via a different target. So a training day is designed to give the shooter a flavour of what competition shooting could be like.
With the day nearing its finale, the shooters were placed into teams of two competing against one another. This involved sprinting 30m with an empty chamber and safety catch applied. The first pair to knock down six metal targets – three each – in the shortest time were added to a league table. The heart was pounding after three sprints followed by some frantic pumping and reloading.
It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day in some excellent company – it’s always great to try a new sport and enjoy it. Apart from ammunition, target shotgun is not an especially expensive sport, with shotguns measured in the hundreds of pounds. It teaches fast target acquisition, familiarity with your firearm, discipline, and, above all, safe gun handling. I hope the sport grows – if you want to try it or learn more about it, contact the NRA.
A range of options
Ammunition: For targets shot with birdshot (No4 up to No7) buy the cheapest ammunition you can find. For slug shooting start homeloading as decent slug ammunition can be expensive. Homeloads can be around 15p each – quality shop- bought ammunition can be £1 per round.
Clothing: Wear layers of reasonably close-fitting upper garments that will reduce chances of snagging. Trousers with knee pads from a builders’ merchant will protect the knees for some of the shooting positions. Wear gloves until it is time to shoot, to keep your hands warm.
Safety glasses and hearing protection are essential.
Range bag: Buy a range bag or wheeled trolley to keep all your items together.
Cartridge belts: You can buy either an expensive specialised belt or line the belt with foam pipe lagging, which keeps the belt away from the body and makes the cartridges easier to grab in timed events.
Guns: James Harris said: “You can spend as much or as little as you want and still have fun, but a gun with a multichoke is preferable. We recommend not more than half choke, and particularly for buckshot an open choke can often give a better pattern.”