Call them 'lady Guns", they don't care: but what can shooting do to encourage more women to take up the sport, asks Eleanor Doughty
A Gun is a Gun is a Gun, isn’t it? If you’re out shooting on a game day, you are known as a Gun, end of.” So says Tracy Meston, senior coach at the Roxburghe Shooting School in the Scottish Borders, one of a growing number of women in the UK who shoot.
As other industries begin to look closely at their treatment of women — questioning gender pay gaps, inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment — some in the shooting community are wondering if it is time to do the same.
“The way that shooting is going, it’s going to end up being licensed,” says gamekeeper Jonathan Davis, who works on the Babworth estate in Nottinghamshire. “You can talk about biodiversity and sustainability all you like, but there needs to be equality throughout and that includes an equal number of male and female Guns on each of the drives.”
There are a variety of causes of growing perceived inequality in shooting. Jonathan blames social media in part. “I’m sick of seeing genuine comments from women who want a little bit of advice, then straight away there’s 150 men jumping in with their patronising comments,” he says. “I’m not some raving liberal, but there has to be equality within the game shooting industry.”
Others say the infamous helicopter-and-cigar City boy client days of shooting folklore are preventing women from wanting to join in. Says one Gun who is often tasked with taking clients out on driven days: “There has been a huge boom in male-only parties that end up with the most spectacular lousy, louche chat. It’s fun to be part of, but it would be a field day if it were to get out.”
Women really ought to be welcome on these days, he adds: “There is nothing quite like the refreshing presence of female Shots to keep you on your toes. It brings out the best in both sexes.” A keen grouse man adds: “Some of the girls I know go on these big shoots and they absolutely love it — they get lots of attention.”
Liam Stokes, head of shooting at the Countryside Alliance, urges critics to look upon commercialisation of the sport as a positive not negative idea. “When I first got involved in shooting about 14 years ago, it was a lot harder to go shooting than it is now,” he says. “You had to know the right people. If you want to go shooting now, you can find a day that suits what you can afford.” With more people shooting, more women are inevitably going to join in, he says. “Increasing the accessibility will increase the diversity in terms of women over time.”
Gender is irrelevant
Some women feel this debate is a little over-egged. Lady Violet Manners, the eldest of the 11th Duke of Rutland’s five children, grew up on the Belvoir Castle estate in Leicestershire. “We always had women shooting at home,” she says. “My experiences have generally been very positive. For the past four years I’ve just loaded, for men and women, but over the past year or so I’ve been shooting more and had an amazing couple of days on friends’ shoots, where there have been women in the line with their own guns.”
Gender is irrelevant, she says. “Shooting is such an accessible sport in the sense that it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, it’s down to co-ordination. I don’t think it’s hugely sexist in that sense.”
Fieldsports writer Kate Fensterstock agrees. “It’s not that [men] don’t like [women being in the field], but it’s not something they are used to and often they don’t know how to handle it. They want to be able to make you feel included but [some of them] are not quite there yet. Every day that I show up with a gun they assume that I’m beating or loading for someone, and then I [stand] next to them on the peg.”
Kate is pretty robust about the whole thing. “When you get a bunch of guys together doing something ‘manly’, they’re going to be men no matter what. I don’t think that’s limited to shooting, it has to do with how men are.”
Women shooters are getting out there
Despite the media prominence of big-bag days, where helicopters and cigars are inevitably involved, women shooters are still getting out there. According to the GunsOnPegs Census 2016, women shoot fewer days a year than men — nine compared with 14 — but their average bag size on a driven day is likely to be higher, at 155 compared with 135. The census found that female Guns are still in the extreme minority, making up only three per cent of the survey’s respondents.
Nevertheless, the number of women-only shooting environments is growing. Alongside the popular Chelsea Bun Club are the clay shooting club Femmes Fatales and Holland & Holland’s Green Feathers course, which launched in 1995. Tracy is all for more women getting involved but “a lot of the girls out there are getting involved with shooting as a bit of a fashion statement and I don’t believe in that; I think it gives us a bad reputation”.
While all-female environments offer new opportunities for women who fancy a go at shooting, they are not going to solve the problem overnight. “Girls are being given the opportunity to shoot, but only with each other,” says Kate. “The most important part of the process is making sure that girls will feel that they can shoot alongside the boys. That’s the biggest hurdle — they can feel confident with women, but they still won’t shoot with boys, and that isn’t going to change anything.”
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Encouraging women into shooting
There is still more to do to encourage more women to go into the shooting world, playing whatever part they like best. “A positive way to take women off peg-stand duty is to get them beating or doing something productive to feel like a part of the process, then they have their own role,” says Kate.
Liam Stokes turns the question of how to encourage more women into shooting around: “In the shooting magazines, the vast majority of photographs are of men but when you ask the shooting community to submit their pictures, as we do in our Love of Shooting campaign, 80 to 90 per cent of the entries are women.”
As for the terminology, “lady Gun” is beginning to sound dated. “It does annoy me because deep down I don’t think there should be a distinction,” says Kate. “At the same time, I encourage people not to read so far into it. We’re still at a stage with women in shooting that if that distinction has to be made, at least girls are involved.” Tracy adds that, with reference to the actual equipment, “a lot of people use the term ‘ladies’ gun’, but it’s simply a smaller bore”.
Lady Violet doesn’t take the term to heart. “I don’t think we should get too prissy about the title that we give ourselves,” she says. “There’s something incredibly refined and chic about being called a ‘lady Gun’. There’s nothing more glamorous than a woman standing on a peg with her own gun.”