At the speed of sight

If you’ve ever shot clay pigeons you’ll know that because they’re moving, and some distance away from you, you have to shoot not where they are, but where they’re going to be. If you haven’t then given the hysteria around shooting I’d better explain that a clay pigeon is a flat disc of er, clay, thrown into the air by a launching machine. It’s supposed to be similar to shooting pigeons or pheasants or grouse but I’ve never had any interest in shooting anything living, so I don’t know. Clay pigeons don’t taste so good, I do know.

Back when the world was young I had a friend called Simon. He was an Old Etonian to whomlife hadn’t been altogether kind; I met him when we both worked, if that’s not too strong a word for it, taking people out to lunch in London and trying to get them to buy market research reports of varying degrees of antiquity. He had a fairly dreadful girlfriend about whom possibly more but as the poet said, the past is a different country and they do things differently there. She certainly did, anyway. Simon, my girlfriend at the time and I decided one day that we’d all appreciate a day at a country show, so after about two hours of driving that’s where we ended-up. It wasn’t the Royal Show and I can’t exactly remember where it was, other than Aylesbury and keep on going for at least an hour. I remember it was a blisteringly hot day and I’d been forbidden to buy anything after I’d come back from the Badminton Horse Trials with white moleskin jeans and WM Williams jodphur boots on my credit card. Both of which would have been fine if I’d been tying kangaroos down, or waiting for my billy to boil, but living in Kings Langley such opportunities were rare. Although I did find a white wallaby within walking distance, somewhat to my surprise.

Simon and I both shot. Him because an ancestor once held William the Conqueror’s horse for ten minutes and got given half of Oundle or somewhere as thanks and that’s what you pretty much have to do with a country seat; me because I’d learned how to shoot at a school that most definitely wasn’t Eton and I was good enough at it to win my Marksman badge at Bisley at the age of fifteen and a couple of cups and things for clay pigeon shooting. Back then I had an old but nice Aya Number 4, a light side-by-side 12-bore which was a good working farm gun if not very smart, and a Winchester Super Trap, which was a heavy, nicely-made American over and under specifically built for shooting clay pigeons.

I didn’t have either of them with me that day, although back then people took their own shotguns to country shows to compete in clay pigeon events, either for the prizes, to swank about in the pub afterwards or again, because back then, that’s what you did in the countryside.

To be clear, competition shooting is nothing to do with killing anything except clays or pieces of paper. It’s about competing, in something that has an immediate result, which is what I like and liked about it, then and now. You hit the target or you don’t, and try as you might, 95% of the time you’ve got nobody to blame except yourself if you don’t. It’s about control, calculation and calmness, almost like a Zen thing and on those perfect days, when you’re balanced and centred and it’s going right you don’t need to see the target to know you hit it exactly where you wanted to. You can sense it. You feel it. And somehow the feeling is almost always right.

Simon and I weren’t looking for a fight, or a challenge, nor anything else, but while we were looking at the laser shoot some farm boys heard our accents, which back then were a bit full-on Lots Road Bray, yah? As we, and most of the girls we were interested in used to say far too often, even on holiday in France, where they assumed I was German.

Rarely! SAY funny, yah?

Rarely funny or not, the farm boys quite reasonably assumed that city boys with that sort of voice might talk a good game but probably couldn’t shoot as well as them. So we all had to find out.

Simon and I were one team, the two farm boys on the other. We didn’t put money on it, but it was probably the most seriously competitive shooting I’ve ever been involved in, Bisley included. It wasn’t about money, because there wasn’t any involved. It was more being thought to be rubbish at something I knew I wasn’t rubbish at. Whether or not that was a family hangover I’m not getting into here, but I think it was the same for Simon too. The five years leading up to that had given him a bit of a kicking too.

Challenge accepted, the thing was these were laser shotguns. Real shotguns, but they weren’t firing cartridges. When you pulled the trigger nothing came out of the barrel except a laserbeam. Whether the clays were normal clays or not I don’t know, but a buzzer sounded to show if you’d hit the clay with the laserbeam or not. An instant result. And that was pretty much the acclimatisation problem too. Laser beams are just light. Light travels at 983,571,056 feet per second. Ask Einstein. Pellets in Number 7 shot, a normal clay pigeon load, travel at 1,200 feet per second. I’d say you can see the difference, but you can’t. At about 100 feet away and 50 or 60 feet in the air a high clay crossing right to left would need maybe the width of two imaginary fingers to the right, between the muzzle and the clay. You have add some lead, (no, not as in Led Zeppelin, lead, as in the blind leading the blind, although hopefully not with shotguns) which means shoot where the clay is going to be, not where it is. The cluster of shot is going to take some time, albeit fractions of a second, to get to where the clay is and by the time it does, it isn’t. With light, no lead. The virtual shot is travelling at the speed of light. You still have to swing the gun onto the target and follow it. You still have to judge the clay’s trajectory. You still have to anticipate where it’s going to be. But no lead.

It was a long challenge. There were never more than two clays in it. We lead, then the farm boys did, then we got it back, then it was level. I think in the end we won, Simon and I, but not by more than one clay out of fifty. Every one of the four of us had learned something by the time we all shook hands. Shooting teaches you about yourself. It certainly teaches you about patience and self-control, anticipation and precision and planning.

Simon died over ten years ago. I wish he hadn’t.

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