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Should airgunners give clay shooting a try?

Barn Door columnist Jim Old has taken up clay shooting. Does this mean he’s drifting away from airgunning? Quite the opposite, he says

clay shooting

It’s funny how things turn out. When I imagined life as an adult, I saw myself living in the countryside, driving a Volvo and married to a woman with long dark hair. Now I live in London, I’ve never owned a Volvo and my wife’s hair is curly blonde. I did get one prediction right. Part of my vision for the future was a cabinet full of different types of guns. So, a big tick for that particular life goal; the important one, you might say!


Are airguns the gateway?

My current ‘arsenal’ includes a Weihrauch HW95K springer, an Air Arms S400 and an Air Arms HFT 500, all in .177. These days amongst the air rifles you’ll find a Beretta Silver Pigeon 3 12 bore shotgun.  Airgunning is often described as a gateway to the wider world of shooting. There’s undoubtedly some truth to this, especially where youngsters are concerned. People can learn the basics with air rifles, crucially how to shoot safely, before progressing to guns with greater muzzle energy.

The question is, do you carry on airgunning once you’ve moved on to owning and using firearms? Some do and some don’t, whilst others circle back to where it all began. 

My airgunning club is full of older guys who’ve owned shotguns, rimfire and centrefire rifles in the past, but they’ve given them up for one reason or another, and returned to their airguns.

There may be a new type of gun in Jim’s household, but this one’s no cuckoo as the other three air rifles are staying right where they are


Looking around

For my part, when I began airgunning a few years ago, I didn’t start out with a plan to broaden my shooting onto other platforms. At the time, getting my wife to agree to giving house room to a single air rifle felt like a big achievement. I do most of my airgunning at the National Shooting Centre at Bisley in Surrey, half an hour’s drive from where I live. Bisley has a vast campus which is home to many shooting clubs, ranges of all sizes, elite-level training facilities, and even shops, bars and accommodation. It’s a Mecca for shooters from all over the globe. 

I have to drive past all of those clubhouses and facilities to reach the airgun range. At first, I barely noticed them as airgunning was all I cared about. But after a year or so, I started to look around and take notice of what else Bisley had to offer. 

Right in the middle of the campus is the National Clay Shooting Centre, built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. This is mostly geared towards the Olympic shotgun sports of skeet and trap. Across the road is Bisley Shooting Ground which offers simulated game shooting and tuition in English Sporting Clays (often described as ‘golf with shotguns’) in the beautiful surroundings of Cottesloe Heath.

I hadn’t used a shotgun since my twenties and I’d never had any formal tuition so more out of curiosity than anything else, I booked myself a lesson. On the day, it coincided with a massive storm, but shotgunning is an all-weather sport so we got on with it. 

The instructor was upbeat and encouraging. He also went easy on me, so I managed to hit most of the clays and walked away feeling like a champ. Completely hooked, I signed up for a series of further lessons and soon began the process of applying for a licence. That took a while so I’ll skip to January of this year when, clutching my freshly printed Shotgun Certificate, I journeyed all the way to Yorkshire to buy my first shotgun. Since then, I’ve been able to shoot on my own at a pay-and-play clay shooting ground at Bisley. My learning curve has been steep, but my scores are improving and now I’m starting to think about entering some low-key competitions. 


New skillset required for clay shooting

I’m no shooting expert, and others may disagree, but aside from very basic gun safety and muzzle-awareness, I can find no transferable skills between airgunning and shotgun shooting. A whole new technique has to be learned. 

I’ll start with one obvious difference; movement. As airgunners we’re generally concerned with a stationary target, be it a tin can, a benchrest card or a nut-scoffing squirrel. In clay shooting, we’re trying to hit something which is very much on the move. Airgun users are used to taking very deliberate aim, often closing one eye as they squint down a scope or over open sights. Shotgunning is all about keeping both eyes open and a hard focus on the flying clay. 

This is Jim’s Air Arms HFT 500 – it’s a beautiful rifle in terms of looks and performance, and check out that button trigger

The gun’s barrel should be barely noticeable in one’s peripheral vision. It stands to reason that as the target is moving, then the gun must also move. With that hard focus on the clay, we must rely on our brains to instinctively control our hands and thus the barrel of the shotgun. 

It’s easier and more intuitive than it sounds, but it’s still far removed from airgunning. Even now, I occasionally have to remind myself not to close an eye and peer down the rib, the long strip of metal that sits on top of my shotgun’s barrel. I should mention gun fit at this point. We know it’s useful to have an airgun that fits well and many modern air rifles have adjustability built into their stocks. In shotgun sports, it’s crucial. If the gun’s rib doesn’t align perfectly with your eye, then you’ll struggle to hit anything. My Beretta has a comb that can be adjusted for height and cast. After some trial and error, it now fits me perfectly.


Scratch that clay shooting itch

It may sound strange if you’ve never fired a shotgun, but I find that I get a very different emotional experience from using my airguns when compared with clay shooting. 

For me, the well-drilled practice of loading, aiming, firing and reloading my PCP air rifles is extremely relaxing, sometimes even meditative. I can lose a couple of chilled hours in this way, barely noticing the time pass. 

Shotgunning on the other hand scratches a totally different psychological itch. It’s a much more dynamic activity and I’m pretty sure it releases a very different cocktail of hormones into my bloodstream. You really have to channel some aggression into your shooting, especially if you want to hit more of the faster moving targets. 

Clay-busting is great for burning off a bit of frustration at the end of a tough week, but don’t expect it to calm you down.


Clay shooting and the cost of loading crisis

You don’t need a degree in economics to understand that financially speaking, airgunning and shotgunning are worlds apart. First the good news. The guns themselves are fairly comparable, price-wise. In fact, you can buy a perfectly decent shotgun for less than you’d spend on a good PCP air rifle. (Read our list here for the cheapest PCP air rifles).

Also on the positive side, you only need to buy a gun, something to carry it in, ear defenders and eye protection and you’re good to go. There are no scopes, bipods, chronographs, benchrest bags, etc to purchase. (Read here for our top picks for the best air rifle cases and best chronographs for airgunners). 

That’s where the good news ends. Ammunition costs are very different. 

clay shooting

While a shotgun can often be had for less money than an air rifle, Jim’s certainly noticing the difference in terms of cost of ammunition

When I first started my clay shooting lessons I researched how much cartridges would cost me. Back then, you could buy a thousand for around the £190 mark. Now I struggle to find any for less than £240. Let’s do the maths. Obviously, pellet costs have risen too, but at time of writing I can still buy a thousand QRS Streamlined pellets in .177 for £30.90. The last batch of a thousand 12g shells I bought cost £243. 3p per shot compares pretty favourably with 24p, especially when you have to add the cost of clays. These can be more than 30p a throw. (Worried about the cost of shooting? Read more here on how to get value for money)

Read here for our tests of the best budget clay shooting cartridges).


Can’t touch this

My wife had some objections to me buying a shotgun. One of her main concerns was that I’d quickly lose interest in my ‘expensive air rifles’ now that I had a new shooting hobby. (Read our list here for the best shotguns for clay shooting and our list of the best airguns around).  

But the opposite has happened. I’m more passionate about airgunning than ever before. Now that I’m over the first rush of shotgunning novelty, I’m using the Beretta somewhat less – partly to save money. 

These days I will often head to Bisley with just an airgun in the car boot. I’ve loved learning to shoot clays, but the sport has also boosted my appreciation of airgunning. It represents fantastic value for money. More importantly perhaps, it reaches the parts that other shooting sports can’t reach.

As much fun as Jim’s been having with his Beretta Silver Pigeon, rifles like his Air Arms S400 still put a huge smile on his face