Sim shooting: even better than the real thing?
With game days rising out of the reach of many, has simulated game finally come of age? James Simon investigates some unreal fun.
Most readers will be acutely aware that the unholy trinity of Covid, Brexit and bird flu has cast a perfect storm over game shooting, dragging the availability of days down while pushing costs up. For decades there has, of course, been an alternative, but sim shooting has often been considered a poor substitute for the real thing. Cheap ’n’ cheerful but rarely very satisfying. (Read more on the cost of game shooting.)
Until now, that is. With the game industry in such a woeful state, there’s never been a better time for sim shooting to shine, to reconsider the dubious appeal of gigantic bags and strive for quality and authenticity instead. (Read this guide to simulated game shooting in the UK.)
Sim shooting – “it really is just like a game shoot”
Few appreciate this better than Andy Brown, owner of Cotswold Fieldsports. “The biggest compliment I get,” recalls Andy, “is when experienced game shots and gamekeepers come up to me at the end of a day and remark: ‘It really is just like a game shoot.’ Some start the day a little cynical but almost everyone is won over by the end. The other phrase I hear a lot is: ‘I forgot it was a sim day.’ Wonderful!”
Andy organises regular shoots on local land at the gloriously beautiful Grove Farm, Cold Aston, which lies just south-west of Cotswold honeypot Bourton-on-the-Water. He’ll also travel any reasonable distance with his team to set up bespoke shoots on farms and estates looking for diversification income.
“This winter we’ve operated a few sim shoots on estates that, due to the current circumstances, have been unable to run their usual game days. We use eco clays and insist on eco cartridges, so there’s no danger to livestock.”
No huge bags
Andy favours quality over quantity, which means he doesn’t market his sim shooting with the promise of huge bags. (Read more on big bags in shooting .)
“With 16 Guns, anything over a 3,000 bag and you’re just wasting clays,” says Andy emphatically. “In my experience, it’s physically impossible for Guns to shoot anything above that kind of number. They’ll be knackered and simply won’t make it through the day. The Guns may start the day bristling with excitement, but that enthusiasm will soon wane as fatigue quickly sets in. It’s not just a question of cartridges, it’s a question of stamina.”
Andy’s solution is to get back to basics, shunning any temptation to up the numbers just because it’s possible, instead closely imitating how a real game shoot pans out.
“Instead of endless clay after clay, I introduce a pause every so often, just as there would be on a game shoot,” says Andy. “On many other sim drives, the traps will be automatically launching 300 clays non-stop. We don’t do that.”
All of Andy’s traps are manned, which enables him to manage the flow of each drive, like a conductor leading an orchestra, his radio in place of a baton.
“I’m coordinating our Bowman traps,” confirms Andy. “I’ve got a person on each, which means I can make every drive as easy, or as difficult, as it needs to be at the touch of a radio button. Of course, it takes more manpower, yet a manned set-up provides so much more control and diversity.”
Individual to a group
Andy’s sim days are tailored to a group’s specific requirements, with the most popular option being two mixed bag drives (90mm ‘partridge’ and 110mm ‘pheasant’), followed by a walked-up drive with a final mixed bag drive ending the day.
“With a typical trailer set-up, or perhaps a hi-lift, automatic traps will be throwing stagnant clays after about six goes on each,” says Andy. “You’re going to know where the clays are coming from, just like you do on a clay ground. The challenge with real game is that you don’t know what path it’s going to take, and where it flew from a second ago bears no relationship to where it’s going to fly from next.
“I can imitate that unpredictability by getting on the radio and calling ‘fire full arc right’ or ‘fire full arc left’ and so on. We can mix in what’s known as a peacock, which is impossible on an automatic trap. We fire one down the middle, then a little bit left, a little bit right, a little bit more left, a little bit more right and so on. Because each trap is never in the same place, the clays remain unpredictable.
“For example, I can get on the radio and ask the trappers to ‘fire a high peacock, a low peacock, give me a partridge, give me some high rising pheasants’. I’m seeing what the Guns see and can change it. If it’s too hard for the Guns then I can bring it down a touch. If it’s too easy then I can bring it up. I can set the speed up on the traps, I can set it down. There are so many adjustments that we can make to cater for all manner of abilities.” (Read this article on getting around a clay ground in a wheelchair.))
Andy’s walked-up drives are particularly popular, either as a third drive on a sim game day or as an integral part of a walked-up day.
“Most Shots find walked-up drives both challenging and rewarding,” says Andy. “You don’t fire at as many clays but it’s more fun, especially with a team of Guns who know each other because it provides the opportunity for more banter.
“With 16 Guns I organise eight people to shoot the walk-up, leaving the other eight to supervise them. Safety is paramount and strict rules are enforced to make sure the Guns are always safe. We’ve never had any problem – in fact, our walked-up days are tailored to get inexperienced walking Guns walking with a gun.”
Value for money
There’s no getting away from it, booking a sim day is substantially cheaper than the real thing. “If you come to us at Cold Aston, we have a few different packages,” says Andy. “The most expensive is £180, with full hospitality, which is elevenses and a pub meal. Or if you want to forgo the pub meal but include elevenses then the cost is from £160, rising to £170 with a snack-based meal such as a bowl of chips.”
“We currently deliver silver and gold packages,” says Richard. “Silver is a smaller day with four drives and half hospitality at £195, whereas gold is five drives and full hospitality, which includes a chef who follows you around to serve elevenses. The cost is £225.”
The real difference between sim shooting and game? “It’s easy to regulate the number of birds,” says Richard, “which means the atmosphere is more easy going. For example, it’s not a problem if you hit your neighbour’s clay – in fact, with some groups we encourage it. Clothing etiquette is more relaxed, especially on warm days, and there’s always ample opportunity to socialise.”
Andy adds: “We can stop in a moment if there is a problem, such as a gun malfunction or the wind changing, knowing that the birds are guaranteed to start coming again. On a game shoot, once they’re gone, they’re gone.
“The biggest difference, though, is that birds speed up and clays slow down!”