Head coach Percy Stanbury (left) and head trapper watch, as author tries new Perazzi skeet gun for the first time.
A visit to the West London Shooting Grounds, Britain's leading shooting school, reveals a clay pigeon layout unknown to American shooters - one which simulates the flight of every common game bird. Jack Lewis asked me another of his unanswerable questions: "How do those Limey shooting coaches make people who can't shoot, shoot?" - "Dunno”, I replied, an unoriginal reply which I recall using before, when he asked me how to say something new about gun safety.
I was going back to the old country and he reckoned I might as well do something useful to pay for my tea and crumpets.
When I embarked on this assignment, I really felt it was doomed to failure. As a shooting coach myself, I am well aware of the impossibility of laying down a formula to insure instant success for each individual. It was a typical English morn - mist being cleared by the wind and replaced by steady drizzling rain that looked set for the day - as I made the ten-minute journey from London airport to the West London Shooting Grounds. Richmond Watson, the owner, greeted me in front of the world's largest shot shell heap. The heap, started in 1949, contains approximately 10,000,000 shell hulls and increases annually by about half a million - contributed by 5,000 clients averaging one hundred shells each.
Like a lot of other things, including knotting the old school tie, the British built in an added difficulty!
Percy Stanbury is undoubtedly the world's best known shooting coach, apart from being the winner of countless national championships for every form of clay and live pigeon shooting. A slim, sprightly seventy-five years young, he doesn't seem to have changed an atom in the fifteen years I have known him. Stanbury trained himself as a youngster by shooting wasps with a .410! Back in 1927, he started a shooting school in his native Devonshire, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a shotgun instructor, teaching RAF gunners and pilots the principle of leading moving targets.
After the war he joined the staff of the West London Shooting Grounds. One of his more recent feats, to test his own skill, was to kill five wood pigeons with five shots from an automatic and the last bird had to be dead before the first hit the ground. The wood pigeon is the most difficult of all winged game, yet Stanbury achieved this quite unbelievable feat no less than three times in three days - in front of witnesses. With him standing behind them, shooters describe their shooting as being "radar controlled."
I asked him what was the secret of teaching people to shoot, what was the formula. I also asked Michael and David Rose. They started as trap boys years ago. Now David is head trapper and Michael one of the four coaches. I asked Richmond Watson, who coaches occasionally and whose father founded the grounds back in 1901. Funny thing; they all replied: "Dunno."
So I pressed Stanbury to tell me something. All he could say was that each person had to be handled differently, even to the extent that he prefers not to take two people on a lesson at the same time. If he does, he politely insists that one does not listen to what he says to the other, as the way to explain something to one person, may very well confuse another.
Gun fitting is done in room equipped with try-gun, which can be adjusted to fit shooter. Cost is $3000 each.
The foundation of England's reputation for good shooting, which is given the utmost stress at the school, is good gun fit. They contend that a gun should fit as perfectly as a well tailored suit. If a suit doesn't fit, you just look bad. If a gun doesn't fit, not only do you look bad, but you'll have the devil's own time trying to hit anything. The majority of American shooters are obliged to adapt themselves to a series of mass-produced guns built for "Mr. five-foot ten-inches, forty-ish and just a mite over-weight" - what market research has shown to be the largest common denominator of the gun-buying public. This condemns the short guys to carrying a lot of excess weight on their left hands and not being able to get their heads down properly on the stock; and the tall guys either to bloodying their noses on their thumbs or placing the thumb on the other side of the grip, weakening the all-important right- hand grip on the stock.
The English take out most of this risk element by employing a device called a try-gun. This is an operational gun with a special stock built up from several sections of wood, linked by metal joints. This allows the stock to be adjusted for length of pull, cast off or on, drop and pitch; the principle dimensions governing a comfortable and practical gun fit.
Length of pull determines a somewhat loose combination of roughly what point your head will contact the stock lengthways and that your arms, when holding the gun, will neither be stretched nor cramped. Cast off (on for left-handed shooters) determines how much the stock must be bent to the right to allow the eye to line up behind the rib of the gun. This applies especially to a double, for with a straight stock on this gun, your eye would line up behind the left barrel. Drop determines at what point your head will touch the stock in the vertical plane - or put another way, how much of the rib you will see when the stock is brought up to the face. Note that the face is not brought down to the stock.
Partridge fires at the pattern plate to determine correct fit of the gun.
Pitch, as such, is not a measurement recognized by the English gun trade. Instead, they give three measurements of length of pull: from the trigger (front trigger on a double trigger gun) to the center of the butt, say 14-1/2 inches; from trigger to heel, (the end of the top or comb of the stock), about 14-3/8 inches, and from trigger to toe (the end of the underside of the stock), say 14-3/4 inches. These are more or less the standard differences in the measurement from the trigger to the center of the butt, i.e.: plus one-eighth inch at the heel and plus one-quarter inch at the toe. The combined result of these three measurements determines the sloping angle of the butt, which in America is called pitch. The amount of pitch is calculated by placing the butt flat on the floor with the rib at the action touching a truly perpendicular wall, then measuring the distance from the end of the barrels to the wall. The above measurements give the average English gun about two inches of down pitch. Up or negative pitch would be if the barrels touched the wall before the action - and that gun would need some immediate surgery! The average American field or skeet factory gun has around 2-1/2 inches of down pitch and trap guns around one inch.
Altering the pitch has some effect on determining the point of impact of a gun - providing the shoulder against which the gun is placed remains at exactly the same angle. Herein lies the greatest imponderable - does that shoulder remain in exactly the same position or does the flexible human body merely adapt around the alteration, and negate it? An almost unanswerable question. A great deal too much down pitch will produce a tendency to shoot low; too little, to shoot high. Hence trap guns having less down pitch than skeet guns, as they always are required to shoot high. A flat-chested man needs less down pitch than a barrel chested type to keep the gun comfortably in position in his shoulder. A long toe will give less down pitch; a short toe, more down pitch.
The foundation of England's reputation for good shooting, which is given the utmost stress at the school, is good gun fit.
Several of their try-guns were made years ago by Charlie Brown, who was known as young Nimrod and, while Annie Oakley was over with Buffalo Bill's circus, he once challenged her to a shooting match and beat her. To replace one of his try-guns today, would set them back a cool $3,000.
Once the try-gun has been approximately fitted to the client in the gun room, he goes outside and fires a series of shots at the pattern plate to show up any fault in gun fit such as consistently shooting high or left - the latter caused by a stock with insufficient cast. Adjustments are made on the spot till a correct point of aim is achieved, when the gun is mounted and fired instantly. This is the most important factor in English gun fitting. The gun must be an extension of your eye/arm, so that when you look at an object with the gun in your shoulder, you know that the gun is looking and therefore shooting at the same spot.
In other words, the gun is adapted to the peculiarities of each man, instead of each man being required to adapt himself to a standard gun and, when hunting, losing valuable time in the process.
Author illustrates what happens when stock has no cast off and is too high in comb: Eye lines up high and over the left barrel, disturbing sighting.
Now the client will start shooting his first clays and another matter will be given great attention. Far more important than how good or bad a shot, a man is, are his safe gun handling and shooting manners. These points will be most carefully watched and corrective advice given where necessary.
The first target is a simple going away bird with the shooter standing next to the trap. This enables the instructor to verify the results of the pattern plate by seeing if the client is hitting consistently in the center or whether further adjustments must be made to the try-gun. The final correct measurements are given to the gunmaker to apply to a new gun or to a second-hand gun requiring alteration.
The rest of the grounds are laid out to simulate not only every species of game bird found in the British Isles, but as many of the differing rural conditions under which they will be encountered. This layout also serves as the locale for the annual British Sporting Championship. This championship, over a hundred targets on seven widely differing stands, unites clay busters, hunters and gamekeepers. It is probably the most challenging form of clay busting, as it is so varied and demands all-around shooting skill.
In this English championship, one may not use a load heavier than 1-1/8 ounces, which is quite sufficient, as the normal shells used for lessons on the grounds contain only 15/16th of an ounce and definitely will break any target on the course. With the light loads, English shooters use light guns. The average field gun weighing between 6-1/4 and 6-3/4 pounds. Why carry extra and unnecessary weight? Incidentally, it has been proved by many that every target on the course is killable with wide open skeet bores.
The whole competition is shot under gun-down and silent-rise conditions to parallel real hunting conditions. This means the gun is off the shoulder and you may not mount it first to your shoulder and "address the target." When you are ready, you may signify this to the puller, who will release the targets - in his own time. Naturally, this holds true for all instruction and practice on the grounds, too.
Pattern slightly to the left of the imitation bird on pattern plate shows stock has an insufficient cast off.
Start on pseudo rabbits: These thick-edged discs roll and bounce along the ground and aren't too difficult - until one executes a leap that no rabbit could and becomes airborne. If they're really flying.
Pheasants: This is the low tower, which at seventy feet is a little higher than the average sixty-foot high duck tower here. Singles, then pairs are thrown upwards from the tower, which is concealed behind a dense screen of foliage, so that you don't see the targets till they appear suddenly. Without any warning, they are almost directly above you or to either side 30 to 35 yards up. It's most satisfying when you can pulverize a pair with two shots fired the referee will call, "No bird!" I tried "No rabbit!" but it didn't sound right! These are shot at between 30 and 35 yards and telltale clouds of dust kicked up by shot behind them are proof positive of what so many shooters refuse to believe - nearly all misses on all shots are behind and below.
In walk up, you walk down a ride surrounded by scrub, bushes and trees on either side. Some thirty traps are concealed, set to throw singles and doubles, across and away from you; some are near you, others from farther away; some high, some low and none when you expect them. The trappers see to that, for the release wires run back into the ride and the boys walk behind you. When they can catch you with your wrong foot forward, that's when a pair of rising teal will rocket up into the sky from under your feet. It takes a steady shot not to panic completely and jerk two shots off, but to complete another pace, so you are shooting correctly with your weight on the forward left foot and smoothly swing onto the climbing clays. Shots at this stand will vary from about 15 to 40 yards and from the easy to some real testers - with an equal mixture for everyone.
This layout is probably the most challenging form of clay busting, as it is so varied and demands all-around shooting skill.
Partridges: First singles, at which you are allowed two shots, then pairs are "driven" over a low belt of trees to cross the gun at 30 to 35 yards. They're not the hardest of targets, but on this particular visit, I couldn't hit them. For game shooters wishing to practice on this stand, simulated coveys can be driven over from several towers concealed in the woods as fast as it is possible to get them off.
In pigeons, one stands alongside a wood, looking upwards, straining to catch the first glimpse of a target, thrown from behind. It hurtles through the top branches of the trees - just like a pigeon flighting in to roost, except that this one isn't going to drop in!
You get a chance, a brief moment, to fire when it clears the edge of the wood in front of you - some forty yards away. As if that isn't bad enough, on the report of your gun, another clay is released from that spot and flies straight out of the wood, offering you a crossing shot at a good forty-five yards. This realistically simulates the pigeon, already settled in to roost, that is disturbed and flies away when your first shot rings out. It’s one of the toughest stands on the course and a real challenge to the rough shooter.
Driven grouse: Standing in a typical grouse butt, the first bird is launched directly at you at little more than head height and it's almost a case of eliminate or splat! On the report of the gun, a second bird is released behind you and to one side. By the time you have swung around into the correct foot position, the wily clay grouse is 35 to 40 yards away and still going strong, for like all the targets on this course, they travel 70 to 75 yards - fifty percent farther and faster than an American trap target!
The rocketing pheasant stand at the English shooting club rises 120 feet. David Rose, head trapper, nears top of tower, while others discuss height.
Rocketing pheasant: With sadistic glee and deliberate malice aforethought, I have saved till last the dreaded high tower - that great destroyer of many up-till-this-stand-near-perfect scores. This monster looms threateningly a full 120 feet above mere mortals. Strong men visibly wilt when confronted with this ego crusher. It is possible to fire at one of these flying aspirins, unshoulder your gun in disgust - only to see the clay disintegrate waaaay up there! Countless shooters have come away with a neat zero marked on their score cards.
Expert clay busters change guns and screw in double extra full choke attachments; experienced game shooters will swear they're quite unkillable. Yet I've seen a fifteen-year-old, not hampered by adult fears and worries, calmly smash them with a .410! People become livid with anger as they maintain they were "ten yards in front!", when you know they were way behind. You suggest they try a lead of "double." In their fury, they swing way through the bird, can hardly wait to turn round and tell you what a damned fool you are. Then their disbelieving mouths drop open, as the clay breaks open like a firework rocket.
The clays again are thrown upwards from the tower in singles, then pairs. Some are over you, some unpredictably to either side and are killed - or missed - at between 40 and 50 yards. These ranges are well within the capability of the shotgun, especially when the whole underside of the clay and not just its edge is presented to the shot pattern.
The West London Shooting Grounds have been at their present site, ten miles from the center of London, since 1932.
I vividly remember this stand from the 1961 British Sporting Championship, which had a then record entry of 238 guns. I had tied with three other competitors for the runner-up spot with 89/100. We were two targets behind the winner, Joe Wheater, the current European champion who had just placed fifth in the Rome Olympics. Only two years before, I had shot the course for the first time and distinguished myself by coming 158 out of 164 with a dashing 47/100! Now I was the youngest competitor in A class, up against three experienced men: the Duke of Bedford's gamekeeper, an American Air Force major and an English International team member.
The shoot-off was on pairs from the 120-foot tower and the order of shooting determined by the order of your entry in the competition. I was last, so had the dubious pleasure of knowing what I had to beat. I have no idea what the shoot-off scores were, I can't even remember shooting - my heart was pounding so loud, I don't think I could hear the gun go off. But the adrenalin must have been pumping in the right direction, for that silver embroidered runner-up patch is one of my most valued shooting trophies.
The tower also played a part in the history of World War II, when the shooting grounds were disguised to look like nearby Northolt airdrome. This key fighter station, in turn, was made to look like agricultural land. Stukas dive-bombed the tower and scored a direct hit on one leg. They only succeeded in momentarily raising the twenty-five-ton concrete block buried under each leg, before it settled back into the earth. However, the steel frame was slightly buckled and the tower still has a list to this day.
During practice and lessons, the tower also can serve to give a graphic demonstration of the importance of leading a target. They throw one target followed in a direct line by another; many is the man who has fired at the first and killed the second! But how many have fired at the lead goose or duck in formation and seen the third or fourth bird back drop? Standing well back from the tower, gives another lesson. A shot which defeats many is the bird seen approaching from a great distance. We start making mental calculations in anticipation and frequently poke at it and miss, because we tried to work out the shot instead of relying on our far superior instinctive reflexes. The trick is to look down until the bird will be within range, then look up and fire immediately with instinct rather than deliberation.
Richard Watson, owner of West London Shooting Grounds, Partridge in front of record heap composed of more than 10,000,000 expended hulls.
The West London Shooting Grounds have been at their present site, ten miles from the center of London, since 1932. Except for Holland & Holland and Boss, who have their own grounds, they are used by every other London gunmaker, for both shotguns and rifle testing and fitting - names like Purdey, Churchill, Rigby, Cogswell & Harrison, Atkin Grant & Lang and Thomas Bland.
King George V, the Duke of Windsor, George VI, Prince Philip and many other members of the royal family have been there to brush up their shooting. Society and show business have also been well represented with such names as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Bernard Baruch, the maharaja of Cooch Behar, Peter Sellers, the Astors, Carola Mandel, George Peppard and H. J. Heinz. However, the clientele runs the whole gamut of the social scale and on one occasion, King George VI was followed by a local grocer, who had just won $100 at the races!
The grounds are open all year, six days a week, with four instructors ready to help you with any problem you have. If it's a special bird you have trouble with, they will duplicate it and work it out with you. If you're on your way to the grouse moors in Scotland and want to harden up your shooting muscles and coordinate your hand and eye; if you want to buy a new gun or fit a second-hand one; if you're just starting or been at it for years, they will accommodate your requirements.
The same people who will spend long, arduous hours practicing to perfect their tennis or golf, would never think of practicing shooting to become good at it. But the same rules apply to any field of human achievement in sport. The most important factor in successful shooting is also the subtlest and most elusive - timing. I advocate just sufficient practice to insure it is functioning correctly, but no more. Excessive practice can make a shooter go stale and, even more important, lose his competitive edge by conditioning the mind to: "It doesn't matter missing that one, it's only practice."
This article was written by Derek Partridge and originally published in Gun World, June 1969 issue. Republished with permission.