Laura Strachan sat down with the mighty Ben Husthwaite to ask all those questions you wish you could…
Ben Husthwaite is an enigma. He is the most talked-about shooter in the country. He is shrouded in gossip and controversy, and is loved and loathed in equal measure. In fact, he was the first shooter I was ever warned to stay away from. But does he deserve his label as the ‘bad boy of shooting’? Does he even care? I met up with Ben at a Caffè Nero close to Clay Shooting headquarters. He was already waiting when I arrived, sipping a cold drink, and rose as soon as he saw me. I had forgotten just how tall he was. He wouldn’t let me pay for a drink: “I can’t let a lady pay – my dad would kill me”. But the pleasantries soon faded. He told me the interview won’t go the way I want it to: “I tell it how it is – I don’t care. It’s dangerous interviewing me”. I don’t tell him that that’s what I was hoping for.
Ben started shooting when he was seven. His dad, Malcolm – a man he admires above all others – took him to the shooting line at a game fair. Ben was keen and showed talent. Money was scarce growing up, and to give him the funds to shoot, Ben started working three days a week at Kibworth Shooting Ground, a ground his father would later buy when he became successful. Ben’s first gun was a Miroku bought from Martin Doughty. By the age of 14, he was coaching other shooters. As a child, he idolised AJ Smith and even wrote in to Jim’ll Fix It, asking to be able to shoot with him: “Obviously now I’m glad I never heard back!”
I ask him about the coaching he received starting out, assuming Malcolm taught him to shoot. He laughs: “I didn’t have any lessons off my dad. He’s awful!” In fact, his shooting technique came from Mickey Rouse and Stuart Clarke taking him under their wing. He took aspects of each of their styles, and amalgamated them into his own form, which is what he now teaches to others. His list of achievements would suggest that it works.
Most shooters get ‘the bug’.They crave shooting when they’ve been away from it for a while, but not Ben: “I could never shoot again and it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t love shooting – I love winning.” This seems odd – he doesn’t keep any of his silverware. “I have loads of rugby trophies, but there are no shooting trophies in my house. I don’t need to be reminded of how good I am. I just want to progress and be better.”They are all given away – to scout groups, junior rugby clubs, and of course, his mum and dad.
Rugby is Ben’s first love, and has always taken precedence over his shooting, with Ben missing many British Opens because they clash with rugby season.
The support of his sponsors is one of the things that means the most to Ben, and like most top shots, he takes it very seriously. It is 23 years since Krieghoff and Gamebore first took him on, and he has never wavered in his loyalty: “I like to think that the status quo is balanced – I give as much as I receive. I drove the Gamebore van to Budapest for them. When I go to Ulm, Dieter Krieghoff treats me like family.” Why those particular companies? “I would be using Krieghoff and Gamebore even if I weren’t sponsored by them. Gamebore might manufacture the best shells on the market, but in terms of support, they are leaders by a considerable amount. With Krieghoff, the relationship is really important – if something goes wrong, it needs sorting really quickly, and they’re great about that.”
It’s the same with the all Ben’s sponsored kit, whether it’s Briley chokes, Pilla glasses, Musto clothing or his hearing protection: “I use the new Vario electronics.They’re the best.” The newest sponsor backing Ben is Bentley.This deal was struck at a rugby match and initially involved Ben getting a Bentley of his choice to ferry him to each event he attended; it has now developed into the 12-month use of a custom Continental, with Bentley’s CEO coming to support Ben at the British Open.
“I wish I’d done half the things they say I’ve done – it just makes me laugh.” Ben famously does not get on with other top shooters. There are many anecdotes bandied about shooting grounds (several by Ben himself) about mind games, back-stabbing, and general poor sportsmanship. He has a great deal of respect for Richard Faulds, but as far as some other rivals are concerned, his remarks are not complimentary – “They can go f*** themselves…” I can’t help but wonder how this atmosphere affects his shooting. “I feed off it. I cultivate it.” He continues: “Most of my Twitter followers follow me because they don’t like me. But there is no such thing as bad publicity.” There was particular ill feeling surrounding a court case that is currently adjourned, relating to a rugby-ground incident. Ben says rivals have tried to use this to undermine him, but it has done nothing but spur him on to a greater level of competitiveness. “They have unleashed the beast. They brought it on themselves.”
I have to gear myself up for this one. Ben is being open and cooperative, but it is not a pleasant subject to broach: “Ben, you know that your name is connected with cheating? A lot.” “I don’t see it as cheating. If I know the rules and the other guy doesn’t, that’s not cheating.” He says he manipulates the loopholes and doesn’t break the rules – no birds, retaking targets. It is hard to argue with the theory, however ethically grey the area. But that is not the only point of criticism. I vaguely mumble the words “referee intimidation”, expecting this to be a step too far for the accommodating Ben. Instead, he continues in his open, tell-all attitude: “It’s shooters that complain. I don’t see how you can intimidate a referee. No ref has ever complained about me.”
Ben is well known for his tattoos – most famously the ornate script “Successful due to fear of failure”. More recently, he has been sporting longer hair and an impressive beard. But has his look hampered him in his shooting career – a sport known, particularly in former years, for its conservative dress codes. “I remember being asked to cover up and put some proper shoes on before photos on a podium once. F*** off! It’s the shooting that matters.” As it happens, Ben lost a close friend at sea last year, and by growing the beard, and now the hair, he has raised thousands to support his friend’s children.
Being the coach to high-profile clients has its upsides. A student of his engineered one of the most meaningful moments of Ben’s life. Knowing that he had a great reverence for a particular athlete, they arranged an introduction: “Usain Bolt just picked up the phone and rang me. There are not many people I look up to, but he is definitely one of them. He asked if I’d like to go up to his house – I was like, er, yes! I was speechless.” This initial encounter turned into a friendship as the two sportsmen share a similar approach to life and sport: “People think I’m bad, but Usain is wild! That man is out of control.” Ben will be going to watch Usain compete in his final event in London.
One of Ben’s closest friends is England flanker James Haskell. But it didn’t start out that way: “We were at a Musto sponsorship photoshoot together. I was nobody and he was a big-name rugby player, but he was an hour late. When he turned up I told him that’s not on – my time is as valuable as yours.” Later, they met up while drinking and found that they had a huge amount in common. They’ve been mates ever since.
“I am the best sporting coach. If you want to shoot sporting well, you have to come to me.“ Well, that’s pretty unambiguous. Can he back up the claim? “I’ve been there and done it as a Senior and a Junior. I have experience of shooting at every level… I have experience of living at every level. I can teach a builder; I can teach the CEO of Lloyds – and I do. It’s about being able to engage with everybody.” I ask him who he’s most proud of. “All of them! Obviously Inna Alexandrov just performed brilliantly at the Fitasc Worlds, Rebecka Bergkvist before that… Kate Brown is the best lady shooter that ever lived.”I’m noticing a pattern here, and I’m aware of another aspect of Ben’s reputation – “Any male names I can drop in, Ben?” He laughs: “Um, yeah, let me think… yeah. Joshua Brown. He’s doing really well. I sponsor him. His father passed away so I don’t charge him for lessons. Also Brian DuQuesnay, he’s like a second dad to me.” No, I’m not asking him any more about the girls!