Shooting stars but no cigars

Andy Martin examines a sporting world marginalised by the mythology of guns

Whenever I hear the word "gun" I reach for my culture. So at a clay-pigeon shooting championship - the English Open Double Rise - held at the Cambridge Gun Club in Pidley, I naturally expected to run into a collection of Lady Chatterley's lovers bearing well-hung phallic symbols. And I found Mo, if not Mellors.

Mo Chapman is a gamekeeper, an agricultural fitter and a previous English Double Rise champion. Clay pigeons are dead ducks when Mo loads his lead. He regularly "kills" all 100 targets. Foxes, stoats and weasels found in his sights have a similarly short life expectancy: "I've shot over 50 foxes in two years and I've only had to shoot two of them twice. I never trap anything. They don't suffer."

But Mo, who fits the mythology of men-with-shotguns, is the exception. "People get the impression we like to kill things," he said, "but 99 per cent of the people here never kill anything."

Some countries - Portugal, Mexico, the United States - still shoot live pigeons but over here we stick to frisbees flung from catapults. And a shooter is as liable to be in computers, or insurance or the motor trade as in gamekeeping.

This is also one sport in which women compete on a par with men. Their only disadvantage is having to put up with the "Annie Oakley" tag. Angela Brook is the British Open champion, has hit the cover of Broken Clays, and put me in mind of Jane Russell in Paleface.

There's a widespread paranoia about shooting. "We're not gun-toting maniacs," Alison Bate, who shoots for England, assured me. "You don't get any Rambo types here."

Clay-pigeon shooters are civil, law-abiding citizens, who lock their guns away in steel cabinets bolted to the wall and have no desire to turn Tunbridge Wells into Tombstone, but they suffer from a highly mythical, melodramatic public image.

If it is not D H Lawrence and gamekeepers, then it is Hollywood and cops and robbers - combined with real incidents. Several competitors complained of how the Hungerford massacre of 1987 had rebounded on them.

Terry Humphreys, a plumber and 1994 world champion in "Down-the-line", pointed out that "you don't get anyone calling for football to be banned just because of Eric Cantona. But one idiot with a gun and suddenly there are calls for banning the sport."

Richard Gray, who is a truck driver five days of the week, protested that politicians and police "target the legimate shooters because they can't catch the criminals. They tighten regulations and push up the price of licences, but what they seem to forget is that the villains don't bother with licences. People think you're going to be a killer, but to us a gun is no different to a tennis racket for a tennis player or a cue for a snooker player."

Chapman reckons shooting could be as popular as golf or fishing if they could "get rid of the image problem," but they are a marginal group (the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association has 20,000 members). They get poor media coverage; and they carry on shooting in far-away places, well out of earshot. Wilobe Farm, headquarters of the Cambridge Gun Club, lies within John Major's Huntingdon constituency, but it seems as cut off as can be in England, without telephone lines or running water (except for traditional fenland irrigation).

A sense of injustice is rife among shooters. But what grates most is the impossibility, even right at the top, of turning pro. The best anyone at the English Open could hope for was to cover expenses. Terry Humphreys took home £1,000 for winning the world championship, with a perfect score of 300 over three days.

Some of the shooters were lucky enough to have sponsors. Brook qualifies for all the Theakstones beer she can drink; A T White, Lincoln, Ltd keep Gray in cartridges. And Humphreys, the world champion, gets £23 off every £123-worth of cartridges and a free service from Chandlers on his Isuzu car.

It is obviously not the money that keeps them shooting. They say the sport is addictive. Gray talked me into shooting on the "sporting" round. "Pointing" a shotgun had a completely different feel to aiming a rifle at a fixed target.

This is an intuitive sport, where you have got to "lead" the 60mph bird and let the force be with you. Put your sights on it and you've missed. As I squeezed the trigger, I could sense the old Neolithic hunter-gatherer in me stirring again, as if I were shooting arrows at a passing mammoth.

David Reeve won the English Open, scoring 220 out of a maximum 250 in windy conditions; my score was 22 kills out of 50.

ENGLISH OPEN DOUBLE RISE (Cambridge): D Reeve 220 out of 250 max. AA Class: P Cockle. A Class: C Patrick. B Class: M Doughty. C Class: A Bate.

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