Shooters reckon they are there to be shot at. Not only by a trigger-happy Government, whose domestic gun laws have made shooters pariahs with pistols, but by critics who deem the sport politically incorrect and its practitioners the biggest bunch of outlaws since Jesse James and Billy The Kid were on the rampage.
Yet measured in international medals, shooting has been one of the most successful British sports. Whether it will remain so remains in the balance. "It has always been an uphill struggle in terms of popularity," says the current Olympic champion Richard Faulds. "But if you took someone off the street who has never shot before and gave them a chance to do so on a practice range, I defy them to say they didn't enjoy it. The trouble is, those who don't like things in life tend to make more noise than the ones who do."
Since the 1996 massacre at Dunblane, and the ensuing restriction on handguns, Britain has struggled to stay on target with the rest of the world. Of the five marksmen - and one marks-woman - who will be going to Athens, only one will be taking aim with a rifle; the rest, like Faulds, splinter clay pigeons. No pistol shooters have qualified because they they have not attained the required standard since the handgun ban effectively curtailed their practice opportunities in the UK.
Nonetheless, it is, according to team leader John Leighton-Dyson, "the most successful and professional group of shooters we have ever assembled for an Olympics". He describes the 27-year-old Faulds as "the jewel in the crown", and surely with good reason, for the defending double-trap champion seems in crackshot form at the moment. He reckons to have scored 50 straight hits in practice - the equivalent of snooker's 147 break - a dozen times this year. In his previous 10 years of shooting he had managed only five altogether.
"Mind you," he warns, "doing it in training is one thing. You can be the best practice shot in the world, but it's different when it counts, when the pressure is on."
Never was that pressure for Hampshire's Faulds more intense than in Sydney four years ago, where he went into a shoot-off with his great rival Russell Marks, of Australia. "Russell went first, and missed his second shot [competitors have to hit two clays in this event]. Then I missed with my second and my heart sank. I thought, 'No way is he going to miss again', because at the time it was like David Beckham missing two penalties in a row.
"Well, we know now that this can happen, and it did then with Russell."
Faulds got the call to firearms as a 10-year-old when his father, Bruce, himself a shooter, bought him a few lessons. By 13 he was shooting for Britain. Pending regulations are likely to raise the age limit for any type of gun sport to 17. "A great shame," says Faulds. "It could drastically curtail the intake of youngsters into shooting."
He admits he was never much of a sports fan at school, and on his final report his PE teacher wrote: "bad hand-eye co-ordination". "I don't think he's ever lived that down," says Faulds.
In the pre-Olympic year Faulds won a profusion of medals, including World Cup and European Championship team gold and individual bronze, and English, British and UK titles, but lost form in the World Championships in Nicosia last September, failing to qualify for the final. He is still unable to explain why. He took a few months off, forgot about it and is hitting those birds again as the build-up to Athens reaches its climax.
Clay-pigeon shooting used to be one of those do-it-yourself activities, but now Faulds and the others (Sarah Gibbins, Ian Peel, trap silver medallist in Sydney, Edward Ling, Richard Brickell and rifle shooter Michael Babb) have a back-up team of psychologists, medicos and coaches, thanks to the funding which they have earned despite Westminster's disapproval of the sport. It seems a sort of shotgun wedding.
Gibbins, 33, the team's only female shooter, who competes in the single-shot Olympic trap, sings to herself the Queen rock anthem "We are the champions" while waiting for the command "Pull!". Faulds prefers to keep his mind blank. "It becomes more of a mental game after a point. It's in the head and between the ears."
To the uninitiated, double-trap shooting, with its monotonous pop, pop, can seem a tad boring. Surprisingly, Faulds agrees. So what gives him a kick? "Winning a gold medal. Of the three disciplines [double trap, Olympic trap and skeet] it is probably the most tedious. But it works for me."
Sydney brought him temporary fame buy not much fortune, he says. Shooting is unlikely to make anyone a big shot. "Unfortunately this is the wrong sport to make millions out of, which seems a pity, because at the end of the day my gold medal is no different to Audley Harrison's. I suppose it is because the public perception of the sport doesn't allow it to be socially acceptable. Even so, it has changed my life."
Curiously though, he is the only one of Britain's 11 Sydney winners never to have been asked on to A Question of Sport. More a question of the BBC being PC, maybe.Reuse content