Clay pigeon shooting : The seven-clay adventurist

Keith Elliott meets the clay pigeon champion who is the biggest draw in Dorset
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The Independent Online
IF THREE times world clay pigeon shooting champion, John Bidwell, invites you round for supper, take a very careful look at what is on your plate. Whether it's cabbage or melon, tomatoes or even eggs, there's every chance that you'll find a few shotgun pellets among the Hollandaise.

To find out why, you need to understand that there are two sides to this bucolic, cheerful man. One is Bidwell the champion, on display today in the Embassy English Clay Pigeon Championships. Those watching the finals at Dorchester, Dorset, will see the 50-year-old Suffolk sporting club owner focused and studious, determined to retain the title he won last year.

Yet at the self-same location a few days earlier, Bidwell the hotshot showman was strutting his stuff. Shooting from the hip with a pump-action shotgun, he looked like an off-duty cop from Miami Vice. Then it was time for the real trick stuff, shattering clays with the gun behind his back, popping an individual balloon out of a bunch and even fragmenting fruit and veg. Throw 'em in the air, fast as you like, and Bidwell brings them to earth in bite-size granules (though he was a bit sloppy with the eggs).

He even took time out to break a fairly obscure world record, shattering seven clays fired simultaneously. It was an extraordinary sight: black discs whizzing in all directions as if the top has been sliced off a giant wasp's nest. But in under four seconds, Bidwell had wiped out the lot. "I think that will take some beating," he said. "I know a couple of Americans have done six, but I think it's the first time anyone has officially shot seven clays at the same time. And if someone equals it, I'll just have a go for eight."

The Clay Pigeon Shooting Association considered whether Bidwell's circus act should be stopped. Didn't give the right image, you know. Now the governing body for clay shooters, with 20,000 members and 700 clubs, admits that his ambassadorial skills have proved vital to the sport. Clay shooters whack away at airborne targets of pitch and chalk, but they too have felt the chill wind of Dunblane, Hungerford and the growing list of tragic American teenagers.

Emilio Ordu'a, the CPSA director, said indignantly: "We have even had members turned down for a shotgun licence because they have been convicted of traffic offences like speeding. We don't shoot live animals. This is purely a competitive sport." It has been going since 1893, when the Inanimate Bird Shooting Association held its first championship at Wimbledon Park, south London.

Even Bidwell had a tough time getting permission to use a pump-action shotgun. "The police asked me why I needed a gun that could fire seven shots. I pointed out that it was pretty difficult to do shows and shoot seven clays at a time with a gun capable of only two shots." Now he travels all over the world performing, doing about 60 shows a year. "I've had as many as 7,000 watching and in Sweden, I packed in 2,500 people three times a day." Amazingly, his trick shooting has not affected his ability to beat the world's best in competition, though at 49 he was the oldest man to win the title.

Not bad for a Suffolk lad who started out doing crash repairs. "I was about 22 when I went to my first clay shoot. It was at a little flower show in Suffolk and I won it. Someone told me afterwards, 'You should take this up: you could be quite good at it'." He became more than quite good. Within two years, he was in the English team. In 1978, he made the Great Britain team. He hasn't been out of the side since and has represented the country more than 40 times. World champion in 1988, he also won in 1995 and 1996, has been second three times and holds three bronze medals.

Bidwell is country-boy canny about explaining his success. "The best way is to read my book," he said. But there is a fair bit of science behind his accuracy. "I studied a lot of shooters, and spent a lot of time on my own, making notes and experimenting with different ideas."

As shooting became a larger part of his life, he left behind the battered Minis and started his own shooting school. He wrote a book, Move, Mount, Shoot, now in its fifth reprint. He has starred in several "How to..." videos and has another book on the stocks. In between, he bought a 100-acre wedge of land near Lowestoft and built a gun club and golf course himself. His two daughters and wife work there.

He still enjoys his shooting, though he practises very little. (He has only fired about 400 rounds this year.) "I suppose I should practise more," he admitted, in the sort of voice that said, "but I"m not going to." Corporate days occupy much of his time and he is often asked to perform some trick shots. "I never do, though." Julienne your own vegetables, buster.

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