Bryce explains how a professional instructor ensures a beginner’s vital first shot is an extremely pleasant experience
Do you remember the very first time you fired a gun? What was the experience like? Since you’re reading this magazine, and presumably a shooter, you probably enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to do it again and again.
Not everyone is so lucky though. Some people come away from their first shot bruised, hurt, and with ears ringing, swearing they’ll never go near a gun again.
Giving someone their first taste of shooting is a big responsibility, and one we take very seriously at Honesberie, the ground where I work. We have hundreds of complete beginners at the ground every year, many of them on stag parties or corporate events, and I can honestly say that I haven’t seen a single one have a bad experience.
Of course not everyone is instantly bitten by the bug and wants to take up shooting. Many are happy to have ticked off the experience on their list, and move on to the next thing.
But at least they were safe and comfortable, and hopefully go away with a better understanding of our sport, even if it’s not for them. Things can go badly wrong when an enthusiastic amateur shooter, with the best intentions, offers to give someone a go.
They’ll head off to a field somewhere with their usual gun and cartridges, perhaps a thumpy 12-bore, and stick a tin can on a fencepost with a cheery “There you go, line up the bead and fire!”
The poor newbie tenses up against the expected recoil, screws up their eyes and pulls the trigger. They’re unlikely to enjoy the experience! That’s a million miles from the way we do things at the shooting ground. I like beginners to come as a group, or at least a couple, as that helps to create a more relaxed atmosphere.
Over a cup of tea in the lodge, they get a brief introductory talk about the safety rules and how a gun works. As an instructor, I go out of my way to project a calm, confident manner.
I make a conscious effort not to allow any nervousness in the group to rub off on me and affect my own mood. The beginners need to feel confident they’re in safe hands. If their instructor seems nervous about letting them fire the gun, how will they feel?
As we walk out to the first stand, I’m encouraging positive chatter and an atmosphere of eager anticipation. Nevertheless my mind is busy assessing each pupil, and running through my checklist.
I’m keenly aware that I am solely responsible for everyone’s safety and comfort, so behind the cheery banter I have to be on the ball throughout, keeping total control of the guns and ammo, and making sure that everyone – me included – is properly fitted with the necessary eye and ear protection before a cartridge goes near the breech.
As each person steps up for their turn, I reassure, encourage and cajole as necessary, depending on their personality and mood. I’ve already selected the right gun and cartridge to suit them – we always use special light recoiling training loads for these sessions, but it’s important the gun is a good fit, and a weight that the pupil can handle.
With a diverse group, that can mean bringing out two or three guns and different cartridges so I’ve got the right combination for everyone. I need to make sure the pupil is standing correctly, and has the gun properly mounted in their shoulder, cheek resting lightly on the comb, with a good grip with the hands on the stock, so they can absorb the recoil comfortably.
I’ll support the gun with one hand, giving me control over the gun as well as helping them hold it, and place my other hand behind their shoulder to help counter the recoil. A quick double check that everyone has their hearing protection on, and we’re ready to go.
The target is always a moving clay, never a static target. That way the shooter’s focus is on the target, not on the gun and anticipation of the recoil. They may hit or miss – I really don’t care at this stage.
What I’m looking for is that wide-eyed smile that says “Wow, that was fun!” I make sure to give positive encouragement, while immediately taking control of the gun – safety is the last thing on the pupil’s mind at this point, and they can easily turn to their mates to crow about their success without realising the gun is swinging dangerously towards the group.
Of course smashing some clays is an important part of the beginner’s experience, so we do our utmost to ensure everyone breaks a few targets during the session. I like to vary the targets a little, while keeping them readily hittable. Some people quickly find their natural hand-eye coordination and are soon breaking clay after clay.
Others struggle to bring it all together, but there are tricks I can use, such as adjusting their hold point, to help them hit a few and feel that thrill of satisfaction.
For the instructor it’s a lot to think about, while maintaining an outward air of upbeat positivity and confidence. When the session is over, the guns are all back in their slips and ammo in the bag, you breathe a silent sigh of relief and allow yourself to relax slightly.
I wouldn’t miss it for anything though – it’s a real privilege to be entrusted with giving someone their very first shooting experience, and you get a great buzz from seeing them come away bursting with excitement.
This is only a brief overview but I hope it has shown you that there’s a lot more to someone’s first shot than you might realise, and it really isn’t something the well-meaning shooter should attempt themselves.
Being a competent, experienced shot doesn’t mean you’re qualified to introduce a beginner, and you could end up putting them off shooting for good. If you want to encourage your friends to shoot, that’s great – get a small group together and book a have-a-go session at a shooting ground, where you can relax in the knowledge they’re in safe hands.