I got it wrong

I used to shoot.  I’m not talking about an air rifle to deal with the rats that worried my chickens, nor even a shotgun to shoot clay pigeons. No. My deep, dark un-English secret was once not a secret and very English indeed.

Back in the Boer War that my great-grandfather went to, the British Army got comprehensively shot-up (not something you’ll see in The Sun or pretty much anywhere else) in large part due to the fact they couldn’t shoot for toffee. A man called Lord Roberts decided that TrueBrits ought to be able to shoot, so in the early 1900s pretty much every town in the country suddenly found itself with a Rifle Hall and some with an outside rifle range as well. Just look at an old Ordnance Survey map. You will be surprised.

A long time later, despite how old I am now, aged fourteen I went along every Thursday to Trowbridge Rifle Club. It was held in the local Territorial Army centre in a town where soldiers from Warminster School of Infantry were forbidden to wear uniform in the shops in case they were targetted by the IRA. There was a six-wheeler Saracen kept in a shed behind the TA centre and if you don’t know what that is then I am very pleased for you. Times change for the better. You could see it through the cracks in the doors.

We had a pub called The Saracen, too.

Thinking about it now, there was probably an armoury somewhere in the building, but we’d brought our own guns. I was about to say they were all .22 rifles, the best of them being the BSA Martini-action rifles directly descended from the ones that didn’t do much good at Rorkes Drift, but some people brought along much more exotic fayre, .22 target pistols and the odd chrome-plated .38. Neither of which they were allowed to shoot in the basement range, but that wasn’t the point. It was the lure of the things.  What wasn’t totemic was the discipline around guns, which wasn’t optional or in any way advisory. As a kid you always knew someone close would have been very prepared to knock you to the floor if you’d started arsing around with a gun, loaded or not. I’m not justifying any of this. It was a long time ago. It was the way things were there and then.

I went to Israel after I left school and some things happened where a gun would have been a useful social tool. Pretty much everyone else was carrying one, from the IDF guys with 9mm Lugers stuffed in their waistband to the little family I recall at a beach, where the child was just about able to walk, Mummy looked dark and slinky and utterly stunning and Daddy had a big pistol kept in a replica US Cavalry holster hanging from a belt thrown over his shoulder as they strolled with an ice-cream, the way Daddies there do. Or did then, anyway. I haven’t been back.

My first job out of university was teaching kids to shoot on a camp by a lake in Wisconsin, in a summer of guns, Chevrolets, pine trees and an Indiana cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. I’m not even making this stuff up. By that time I already had, quite legally, after a tussle with Wiltshire Constabulary, my own Model 28 Smith & Wesson. It was nominally a .357 Magnum, but the recoil was as hard on the hand as the cost was on my wallet, so I normally made my own .38 Special cartridges using a punch and a mould on the kitchen worktop in Bath.

When I got my first job in London I spent my first pay cheque on a government surplus 1911A1, a .45ACP semi-automatic. According to the serial numbers it had been built in 1944, but at two different plants, the frame in one and the slide in another. Word on the street or at least in the gunshops you could then find in London (Trafalgar Square, Edgware Road, New Cross, Totteridge and I think another two if I can remember right) these had been languishing in an Israeli armoury since 1948 before being dumped on the market nearly 40 years later.

Dumped was about the word. It took hundreds of pounds to turn my Colt into a decent competition pistol. The magazine well was bevelled out so the magazine would load more easily, the sights replaced, the hammer shaved down so it didn’t nip the web of your hand, the backstrap replaced so make the grip more gripable, the barrel replaced with a Barstow one worth the name, the slide stop and magazine button made bigger and easier to use, the recoil spring replaced and a special retainer installed for it to make it all work more smoothly, before the frame was matte chromed and the slide re-blued and rubber Pachmayer grips wrapped around it. On top of the £200 or so I paid for it as-was, I think it probably cost something like £600+ to customise it.

It was only ever used where it was allowed to be used, on a licenced range, in competition and as I’d done before and would again, I won a few shooting competitions. Somewhere there’s still a little pewter cup I’ve never thrown away.

And then one day Hungerford happened and I didn’t so much want to be around shooting and then Dunblane happened and the government took my guns away. The Smith & Wesson had been sold years before. So had the Mossberg pump-action shotgun that I can’t now fathom what ever possessed me to buy, but there were two injustices, at least, about taking my Colt.

I have very little idea why I had this stuff. Nor so much of it.

Firstly, the original compensation was an arbitrary £150. I appealed and finally got the money I’d spent on it. More galling was a letter I got from my MP when I wrote to him, which said the confiscation was essentially so that the government could be seen to be doing something. They didn’t see fit to do anything about some seriously dodgy policing that played a large part in both the Hungerford and Dunblane massacres, where in the latter the senior officer who over-ruled police who had met Hamilton recommended he should never get a Firearms Certificate and the fact he was in the same lodge as the senior officer who oddly retired on the grounds of ill-health shortly after the last cartridge case hit the floor was never mentioned much again.

Nor were the allegations that Michael Ryan at Hungerford had a history of complaints about his behaviour that would usually disbar him from ever getting a Firearms Certificate, which he also got practically by return of post rather than the months the police usually dragged it out for. Nor was the serious allegation that while he ended-up shot, Michael Ryan didn’t shoot himself at all, not least by an obliging press that didn’t seem to think the coroner’s photos of his body needed seeing any more than the judge thought they did.

I was annoyed. I thought it would make no difference to armed crime at all. I went wholly along with the whole mantra, that bad people do bad things. A gun is only a tool. People kill people. The only gun control you need is a sharp eye and a steady hand.

And then somehow, without even meaning to, I grew up. I was totally wrong. If you take guns away, sure, people can still get them. But somehow they can’t get enough of them easily enough to walk down the High Street shooting people, or they’d have to make more effort to do it, or they’d have to talk to people, or all kinds of real-life obstacles to killing kids in a classroom in a couple of minutes.

Take the guns away. Nobody needs a 30 round magazine on a rifle however many deer they put on the table. Hardly anyone came back from WW11 and bought a Garand so their family could eat. They’d seen what modern military weapons could do.

And so have we. And maybe that’s the issue. We’ve fetishised violence, from action movies to Presidents yelling about crusades to video and PC games where if we’re not peering up Lara Croft’s shorts we’re admiring the way she twirls her own brace of 45s. It’s dumb, it’s childish and it needs to stop. When I became a man I put away childish things. That included my guns.


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Shooting Times

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has apparently called for the de-criminalisation of handguns, to allow people to apply for a licence and own them legally. The way they did in the UK until 1996, when the government banned them after the Dunblane massacre. To be fair, they got close to it before, after the Hungerford shootings in 1988. It’s not as if it’s a Party political thing in the UK. Apart from at UKIP, where Farage has called the handgun ban ‘ludicrous.’

I have to declare an interest. I’m against people making up facts. I’m against gibberish. And I used to shoot. Legally. According to Keith Vaz, that means I encouraged the criminal use of firearms.

This is my true confession. I warn you, it’s pretty….dull.

From the age of 14 I went every Thursday night to the local Territorial Army centre, a big stone barrack block in the middle of Bythesea Road. Which was odd, as it’s an hour’s drive to the sea from there. There was a six-wheeled armoured personal carrier in a shed around the back of the building, which you could see through a gap in the wooden door that people might think an odd thing in a county town now, but we didn’t at the time, close to the Army training ranges on Salisbury Plain and the School of Infantry at Warminster, eight miles away.

A man called Lord Roberts probably had a lot to do with me shooting. Back at the time of the Boer War the British Army got severely mauled by rebel farmers in South Africa, who armed with German Mauser rifles had grand sport shooting British soldiers the same way they’d been shooting game on the veldt – accurately, quickly, from a long way off.


Lord Roberts had these drill halls built all over England. Judging by the smell of the kapok matts we still had most of the original equipment.

I used a BSA Martini-action rifle that belonged to the club, paid my subs and bought the single box of .22 bullets that lasted the evening, not to be taken off the premises, and put on my shooting jacket with the padded elbows and shoulders, adjusted the sling on the fore-end of the rifle so it ran tight, cinched around my left wrist and back around my left bicep to steady the weapon, then went onto the range when we were told it was clear, showed clear, opening the breech to prove there was nothing at all in the firing chamber, laid the weapon down and on the command Walk Forward we all trooped up the range to fix our targets to the wooden frames in front of the six feet of sand and railway sleepers that acted as the backstop.

When we’d done that we walked back to the firing point together and when we were told we could by the Range Officer, only then loaded a bullet into the single-shot rifles, closed the bolt and settled down to get our breathing right.

BSA Martini MkV.  Not exactly looking like a concealable terror weapon, is it?
BSA Martini MkV. Not exactly looking like a concealable terror weapon, is it?

Prone, you aim a rifle with your body, not your arms. Close your eyes, take a breath and when you breath out open them. See where the sights are. If they’re say, left and low then you move your feet to the left and back a little. Close your eyes, breath, open them and see where the sights are now. If you try to hold the gun on target with your hands you’ll almost certainly miss, because once you’ve pulled the trigger you’ll relax. The rifle will drift off to where your body pointed it in the fraction of a second between the cartridge firing and the bullet leaving the end of the barrel. And you’ll miss. With a target pistol it’s a lot more difficult, because you only use one hand and you’ve nothing to brace it on without a sling. Britain won the Olympic shooting event in 1960 in Tokyo. After 1996 the British Olympic team was unable to practice in the UK.

It doesn’t sound very irresponsible or criminal so far, does it? I’d say that if anything, it taught teenage boys self-control, because if they didn’t exercise any they missed the target and no amount of bravado can argue anything different. You missed. The end. If someone was shooting back at you, you’d be dead.

As a club we were ok, I suppose. It was a bit boring sometimes. The old blokes who knew a lot were mostly deaf, because they’d spent a lifetime shooting without the ear defenders we all wore. After about six months it wasn’t that great on the range, not because the mats had never been cleaned in the 70 years they’d been there but because in a pre-air-conditioning age the stench of fired nitro-cellulose and lead shavings in the air got a bit much, especially in summer before the butts were emptied and the sand taken away to be melted down to recover the scrap lead.

After that I went to Bisley and qualified as an adult Marksman at fifteen, then I took up pistol shooting at 20 and taught shooting on summer camp when I was 24. In 1996 the government decided everybody who shot legally should have their guns taken away from them and offered me £170 for a Colt 19911A1 I had spent over £400 customising to suit me. I wrote to the Home Office asking why. They wrote and said something had to be seen to be done.

What puzzles me is why the debate, such as it is, is even more infantile than usual in the UK.

Keith Vaz, the chair of the home affairs committee, said Britain has the toughest gun laws in the world and strong action had been needed following the “horrific tragedy” at Dunblaine.

He added: “The logical consequence of relaxing gun laws, as suggested by Mr Farage, is an increase in gun use which should be discouraged rather than encouraged. Any change could possibly act as a green light for an increase in criminality.

Which should be discouraged. Let’s leave this aside, notwithstanding that this opinion is being presented as a fact. The ‘fact’ that follows is nonsensical.

According to Keith Vaz, changing the law, making something legal which is not currently legal, could increase illegal acts. Exactly how isn’t clear. What is, is that Mr Vaz is reading off the same page of gibberish as Peter Squires, professor of criminology at Brighton University and a member of Association of Police Officer’s advisory group on the criminal use of fire arms, who said legalising handguns “…will generate a demand, it will generate illegal traffic around that demand – the problem with hand guns is that they are small and concealable and they are already the weapon of choice of gangs members and criminals.”

So just to be clear, making something legal will generate a demand for something that is illegal. This is the same logic that says that buying a car legally makes people want stolen cars, except car owners don’t have the police coming round to their house checking that their car is kept in a locked steel box bolted to the wall when it isn’t in use, nor demand that the petrol isn’t kept in it or in the same place except when you’re driving it. But who cares? Car killings are an acceptable part of life. They outnumber firearms deaths by a factor of N. There is never any serious call to ban cars for any reason at all.

But the logic still escapes me. The ACPO advisor says handguns are already the weapon of choice for gangs and criminals. Not would be. Are. And again ‘it will generate” is opinion presented as fact.

I’m not that happy I agree with something Nigel Farage says. About anything. But I don’t accept I contributed to gun culture, whatever that’s supposed to be outside the ravings of the Daily Mail. I don’t accept that I encouraged criminality when I cycled back from Bythesea Road and worried myself sick one week when I discovered a single .22 round left in the pocket of my shooting jacket. That was illegal. The rest of it wasn’t. And we didn’t talk rubbish about it.






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