Spring is upon us and it will soon be a perfect time to sign up with an instructor, but some are better than others, says Tom Payne
In these strange times while we’re all still in lockdown, some of you may have found yourselves thinking about how to improve your shooting, as and when we can get back to some sort of normality.
This is a subject that infuriates the proper professionals. It is a topic that the late Ed Watson — Dr Watson, Shooting Gazette — was very vocal about and rightly so.
For many people looking to improve their shooting — or those starting to learn to shoot — it is very easy to have the wool pulled over your eyes, be misguided and throw away your money.
Finding decent shooting instructors isn’t always easy. It has become all too easy for any chancer to pay some money and attend one of the various instructing courses offered by the shooting organisations. On passing this five-minute wonder, they then consider themselves fully qualified know-it-alls in whichever discipline they choose.
They can then parade around shooting grounds or country fairs, taking people’s money for what is often horrendous advice — or, even worse, they start talking absolute nonsense on social media. It’s incredibly frustrating to the true professionals who have made their careers teaching people to shoot and passing on their own skills with a gun, having learned their trade from top shooting instructors and/or the top shooting schools.
Whichever route you choose with your shooting, it is absolutely essential that you have lessons with an instructor who is known and specialises in the discipline you are hoping to improve in. Naturally, in many cases, they will be a recognised Shot as well.
There are a handful of very accomplished clay Shots, whether it’s through representing their country or having achieved accolades in winning major world championships. These are the correct people for the job on the clay front. If you wish to improve your Sporting shooting or FITASC, for example, having lessons with instructors or coaches who can really help you achieve your goals on an individual basis is money well spent.
These coaches know how to win. They know the techniques through facing thousands of different clays and they also know how to deal with the all-important mental side of shooting at competition level. They have experience that has been gained through dedication, and investing in this level of coaching is certainly worth the money.
Game shooting is entirely different. And for those Shots who want to improve their technique, a specialist instructor is key. You are looking for someone who understands the species of feathered game you are going to be shooting — or want to improve in — and who is not only a well-known instructor but also a recognised Shot in your chosen discipline. If you are going to be shooting grouse, for example, standing in a weak attempt at a simulated grouse butt, shooting at what can only be described as a poorly simulated driven partridge, is not going to get you ready for the king of gamebirds. You need an instructor who is an experienced grouse Shot, who has travelled and seen various moors and situations and weather conditions, and knows all the aspects of grouse shooting that are part of the experience.
This is the same for pheasant, partridge, duck or any walked-up sport or wild game. Being able to discuss with the right person your skills and fieldcraft on a day, and how birds can vary in flight depending on topography and weather, is so important. Being taught all aspects of a day and not merely safe and competent shooting is an absolute must. A top instructor should be able to take you from the shooting ground and into the field, watching and helping you to put into practice your hard work from the classroom.
The best game shooting instructors will spend valuable time in the field with clients. This is a very important aspect for anyone looking to develop their game shooting. Being able to hone skills, style and technique at the shooting school is critical but being able to implement them on a day, be it on the peg or — even better, in the pigeon hide — is key.
Top instructors will take that client from the classroom and make sure that they are able to implement the hard work they have put in during the close season on the real thing. A day’s shooting is very different from a lesson. There are so many more factors to really focus on to make sure your client shoots to the best of their ability: fieldcraft on a day, controlling nerves, mental calmness, safety, cartridge selection, clothing and more.
The best coaches are the full package and can make sure your efforts in lessons pay off in the field. It’s no good spending money on lessons if you can’t put what you’ve learned into practice.
It is a fact that some of the best game Shots learn their craft in the pigeon hide. I would suggest that some of the most important coaching happens where there are pigeon that need controlling too. Far from the stress and formality of a driven day, a busy afternoon in the hide allows you and your coach to focus on your shooting, from every angle.
A good instructor looks at each client as an individual, with individual goals and abilities. He or she should be able to bring out the best in someone while not only improving their style, technique and ability, but also knowledge and confidence.
Sometimes having a lesson can be nerve-racking but you should never feel uncomfortable, nervous or belittled. It should be a fun experience working on your shooting ability, and a top shooting instructor will enjoy watching you improve. In return, you will maximise and enjoy your days in the field with or without your instructor.
Learning to shoot or improve your shooting requires a trusting relationship between instructor and client. It is really important that you click on a personal level with your instructor.
As a professional game shooting instructor and gunfitter, I consider privacy absolutely essential. As the 21st century seems to be about ever-increasing egos, it is important that the client is not subjected to over-exposure through social media. You should never feel at risk of appearing on a film or in a picture that may end up online. Even if you are more than happy for a film to be used to explain and demonstrate technique, it should not be plastered all over the internet, even if it is with the client’s consent. This is unprofessional and, in my view, unnecessary.
As is the case with most things, you really do get what you pay for in terms of time, experience and expertise. You wouldn’t pay £100 for a Big Mac, but you may consider spending that kind of money if your meal is being cooked by Gordon Ramsay or Michel Roux. There aren’t many genuinely top instructors in their particular fields so they come at a cost. It’s rather like buying a cheap pair of shoes: pay cheap, pay twice. A top instructor will instil sound style and technique, a structure to your shooting and get you going in the right direction and keep you improving.
If you go for a suspiciously cheap instructor, in the long run you will end up having to source a top professional to sort out the mess that has been made of your shooting.
There are some instructors/coaches who are very good who may be a bit cheaper but are part-time or at a smaller ground. This highlights the importance of doing your research. There are diamonds in unlikely places out there, but they are hard to find.
Normal costs for a private instructor will be between £75 to £150 an hour, plus the costs of clays and cartridges. You will normally find that top instructors/coaches will actually do sessions instead of on the hour like most shooting schools. Sessions tend to be more relaxed with there being no strict time constraints.
Doing your research will also prevent you from getting ripped off. You don’t want to overpay for a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Gunfit is so important and there is a difference between being told that your gun fits by a self-styled ‘expert’ or actually having it looked at by a professional. Not all top instructors fit guns, but they will be able to guide you in the right direction. Again, this is something to bear in mind when looking for that instructor to take you in the right direction and I always say that the better you get, the more you’ll enjoy your shooting.
It is really important that you, as the client, who is so valuable to our game and clay shooting, takes the correct advice if you want to improve. In turn, you can then set a great example in the field or at the shooting ground for future generations, new Shots and the general public.