Lessons learned with Ben Cartwright

Ben Cartwright reflects on what he’s learned in his year as a novice shooter.

Looking back on my journey as a novice shooter, the words of the late blues guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, struck a chord: “Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It’s the way you pick, and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or the guitar you use.” 

It’s tempting to blame the gun for my shortcomings as a shooter, but I have to be brutally honest – it’s all down to me. I’m glad I shot so many different guns before purchasing my Caesar Guerini Summit.

The process enabled me to learn which guns suit me and which don’t. I prefer an adjustable comb, a rifle-like grip with a good amount of palm swell and an English style fore-end.

Having distracted myself with the fun of buying a gun, it put the focus back on the human element to look for improvements in my shooting.

The eyes have it

They say hindsight is always 20/20. It’s blindingly obvious to me now, but I wish I’d realised earlier how critical it is to have optimal eyesight – or visual acuity as the recently married Ed Lyons calls it. My first year was a roller coaster of trial and error with different spectacles. 

Things only really progressed after I went to see Ed. It made a huge difference seeing an optometrist who is a shooter himself. The consultation was a lot of money up front, but it has been worth every penny.

Ben wishes he’d been to a vision specialist sooner

The aftercare I’ve received from Ed has been outstanding. I wish I had moved ahead earlier and quicker with trying to wring the most out of my deteriorating eyes. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan had a significant head start on me. He started playing guitar at fourteen and was known to practise at home, before a show, after a show – pretty much all the time. He could play hard, fast, slow and gentle, with great precision. Through dedication and practice he had developed a huge arsenal of techniques. 

Ten thousand shells

In 1993, a Professor Ericsson proposed a theory that a person can become an expert after 10,000 hours of practice. For that, substitute 10,000 cartridges.

Finding the right gun was fun, but only the beginning

Ok I know it’s not the same thing, but I would have to practise for 10 hours a week for the next 20 years – and I’m on the wrong side of fifty. And yes, I know a Trap shooter would laugh in the face of a measly 10,000 shells but at least it gives me an idea of where I am in the scale of things.

Early on, I would get out to practise as often as I could. I thought that if I shot 150 then I would surely improve. As I went through the inevitable peaks and troughs I realised it’s the quality of the practice that counts. This year I’ve taken a much more disciplined approach to practice. I even keep a brief log of each session. 

I was told a story about a chap who approached George Digweed asking if he would coach him. George asked him what his personal best score in Skeet was. “Twenty-two” came the reply. “Well,” said George. “When you can straight a round of Skeet come back to see me”. 

A coach in time

On reflection, I think my search for a coach was well timed. At the end of my first year, I was plateauing. I needed an experienced coach, who was genuinely interested in me as a person, and who understood what I wanted to achieve – and could get me there. But did I need a world champion? No, not really. 

Ben can no longer call himself a novice, but he acknowledges there’s a lot still to learn

The search for a coach led me to Gareth Butler at Hereford and Worcester Shooting Ground. After an initial assessment he made it quite clear that in order to progress I needed to nail the basics. 

I was crestfallen at the time, thinking he was going to teach me more sophisticated and nuanced techniques of the top shots. He brought me down to earth and explained that 90% of shooting well is being able to execute the basics, flawlessly and consistently

Now that I’m in my second year of clay shooting I can’t call myself a novice any more. But having developed a passion for breaking clays I’ve tried to encourage others into the sport. I’ve taken several people for taster rounds – two of them loved it and are now novice guns themselves.

One of them, Michael, is my old boss. I now talk with him and see him far more now than I ever did when I worked for him. In fact, he loves the sport so much I think I’ve created a monster. I’m dreading the day I meet his wife – I’m sure she’s going to tear a few strips off me!

What’s next?

I wanted to get to B class this year. I won’t achieve that goal due to all the travelling I did in the summer – but I am on the road to it. Winter may be upon us, but as long as I’ve fuelled up beforehand with a bacon roll and a mug of tea, I’ll be out there as much as possible to practise and compete.

Ben’s shooting journey has taken him to grounds around the UK and beyond

I said in my very first column that I didn’t want to come across as ‘that guy’. You know, the one with all the opinions and supposed knowledge. As a novice I was in no position to advise or opine.

But given this column’s light-hearted attempts to draw parallels between a blues legend and clay shooting, I will sign off with a recommendation. If you want to listen to a masterclass in blues guitar, then check out Stevie Ray Vaughan’s cover of the Hendrix classic, ‘Little Wing’

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