Focus, concentration and nerves –how to shoot your best in a grouse butt.
Driven grouse shooting is often referred to as the ultimate in game shooting and for good reason – the challenge and excitement are second to none. We all want to perform to the best of our ability and we need to practise. The Royal Berkshire Shooting School (RBSS), after their recent acquisition by James Purdey & Sons, has established an area of the school dedicated to grouse shooting – ‘The Purdey Grouse Moor’. As well as a butt specifically for allowing practice of the ‘back bird’ and shooting behind the line, they have added a fantastic new raised grouse butt with hidden traps. This gives you the option to shoot down on low quartering birds, low crossing birds and quartering incomers. Combined with the J&B grouse sequence, this covers all the bases, giving all of the angles you are likely to encounter on the moor. You are going to be shooting down into the heather and you should prepare for that.
Not that many moors present grouse where you have them against a sky background. Some of the Scottish moors with their topography will show some high grouse and a lot of different angles – but that same topography also means you will sometimes be shooting below your feet. But for traditional grouse shooting, where the birds have been driven towards Guns in butts, and those Guns have a reasonably good horizon, the angles that RBSS have designed in their new layout are fantastic.
It is a great training facility for getting people used to shooting into the ground, which is unfamiliar for many, and for experienced Shots to practise shooting low out in front and quartering birds going away – in effect the back bird. Together with the J&B grouse sequence, all scenarios you find on the moor are covered. Each of the shooting areas has a different horizon, reflecting what you find on different moors.
Many people struggle to control their anxiety when game shooting, grouse shooting in particular. The ability to practise with a game shooting coach at facilities with targets designed by experienced grouse Shots is the first step in controlling that anxiety. It is also useful to have a prep routine before the drive gets underway. If you are shooting with two guns and a loader, it makes sense to engage early on in the day if you’ve not met the loader before. More than likely, they will be local to the area and may well know the moor and the drives. Ask him or her where they think the grouse will appear. If you are new to grouse shooting you can get their advice on siting your butt sticks. If you are experienced, you should do that yourself. If you are in the end three butts your butt sticks should take into account where the flankers are.
Use the time to assess your horizon too. Perhaps you’ve got rising ground in front and falling ground behind, try to think about what those grouse are going to look like when they come over the ridge out in front. Start visualising what’s going to happen before it happens. Often you can have anywhere between 15 minutes to half an hour before the birds will appear. Use this time to get yourself settled in with your loader. Have a few practice exchanges with empty guns to get into a safe rhythm with them. Remember to always put the safety catch back onto ‘safe’ as you are passing the gun. This preparation before the start reduces the chances of someone taking a dangerous shot which of course is key. No one enjoys themselves in the company of an unsafe Shot.
This gentle warm-up also helps you deal with any nerves. If you take time to prepare before the adrenaline starts flowing when grouse start hurtling at you, sometimes in the teeth of a gale, you can get a handle on the excitement.
Once you’ve assessed your surroundings and built the rapport with your loader your anxiety will naturally reduce. You are less likely to be surprised, and your preparation will translate into success. Good game shooting is about confidence. Confidence is fostered by covering all the bases.
You’ve taken the time to go to the shooting range to train, your gun fits, and you’ve got the right ammunition for the job.
Grouse shooting is extremely exciting in part because of the potential for danger. You’ve got to keep your wits about you at all times. Not just with your own actions – you must also be aware of your neighbours’. There is nothing to stop you from keeping a conversation going with your loader when there is nothing happening, but you mustn’t turn your back on the drive. Otherwise, before you blink, your loader has a look of horror on their face as there’s a covey grouse coming down your throat. By the time you turn around, they are on you and it’s too late. If you put yourself in that situation, that in itself can create anxiety and it can set the tone for the day.
Focus is important, but it makes no sense to burn yourself out in the first half an hour on top of any adrenaline and anxiety you might be feeling. Once you have prepared, gentle breathing techniques can help reduce anxiety and maintain focus without it being at too high a level for too long. Breathe in through the nose, hold it, and then blow it out through the mouth. It lowers your blood pressure and heart rate and keeps you calm. It also gives the mind something on which to maintain a level of focus without it wandering into negative thoughts.
The fear of failure can be like stage fright in a grouse butt. It is a natural tendency for people to worry about what their neighbours think of them and their shooting performance. You may have heard sports psychologist talk about staying in the moment. Focusing on what happened the drive before is not helpful. Part of learning to stay in the moment is learning your own character and how you react to situations. If you know you have a tendency to focus on the negatives, you can allow for that and let yourself come back to the task in hand.
As the drive builds it is natural for adrenaline to build and for your breathing to get shallow and more rapid. A combination of adrenaline, anxiety and hyperventilating can end up clouding your vision and your judgement. Two things you don’t want, both from a safety point of view and being able to pick out dark grouse against a dark heather background. Keeping hydrated is crucial for good vision too, having a skinfull the night before a day’s grouse shooting will dehydrate you and undo a lot of your preparation.
You must also learn to manage your own expectations. The key to that is realising that your own expectations are solely personal to you and other people’s expectations are not relevant. You should never feel pressured by others or feel like you have to perform for the loader. As long as you handle the gun safely with the loader and shoot safely with no risky shots you are going to have a great day. Keep it personal to you. If you shoot a few nice birds or shoot consistently people will notice, but that should not be the focus. If you have prepared, your gun will speak for you. You often find those who have a tendency to crow about their performance on one drive will have the wheels fall off in the next. The moral of that story is easy to see. Stay humble, shoot safely and remember how privileged you are.