Holly Foster, January 2009

Target rifle shooting is not the most likely of sports for a 13 year old girl to become involved in. But while most of my contemporaries were eagerly discussing who would make the first XI hockey or captain the first XV, twice a week I trotted off to the shed-like building tucked away in an insignificant corner of the school grounds and spent the afternoon firing a gun.

Although, to be truthful, my interest in shooting began more as a wonderful way of getting out of playing more conventional games in freezing Norfolk winds, I was lucky enough to be encouraged in the sport by the then shooting master at my school, the charismatic Nigel Ball. Like all beginners I started on a .22 rifle lent to me by the school, firing at a target 25 yards away and as I became familiar with the techniques and terms of the sport, it became clear that my then extremely small stature (see visual evidence of this below) was no disadvantage to doing well.

Nigel Ball was keen to let his cadets experience full-bore shooting as early as possible in their careers, and to that end my first experience with a 7.62 rifle was aged 13 at a (compulsory, if you wanted to remain part of the club) cold, wet and windy Easter camp at Bisley. I returned to school with a badly bruised shoulder (there being no jackets small enough to fit me in the club at that time – though one was shortly thereafter manufactured), but thoroughly exhilarated. When, aged 14, I was chosen as part of the school team which toured Trinidad and Jamaica, it became obvious that this was the sport for me. Firing a Jamaican police rifle requires two people to keep me upright!

Getting started in the UK, a country with extremely strict firearms laws, there are three main routes into the sport of target rifle shooting. Firstly, youngsters often start via the local ACF (Army Cadet Force) or ATC (Air Training Corps). All British counties have such a cadet force, which are youth organizations for 13 to 18 year olds, supported by the Ministry of Defence but not run as recruiting agencies, though a proportion of their members do go on to a military career.

As well as learning field craft, first aid and taking part in adventure training and community projects, a cadet also has the chance to take part in skill at arms and shooting. This is probably the most accessible way in to the sport for the majority. However, probably more enter via the second method.

The second route is through a school and this, as I described above, was my own route. Although many schools in the UK have a CCF (Combined Cadet Force) with the same aims as the ACF and ATC there are some (mainly independent) schools that have a great tradition as ‘shooting schools’. These include such well-known names as Epsom College, RGS Guildford, Uppingham, Dollar Academy, Wellington and my own school, Gresham’s, and a number of others. These schools are lucky enough to have their own .22 ranges and a dedicated shooting master or mistress to encourage as many pupils as possible to take part. Some parents obviously choose to send their children to such a school knowing its reputation, but others like me simply decide, once there, to have a go at something they would never otherwise have the chance to try and find they are hooked.

The final method is through family connection. After all, shooting is not much of a spectator sport, and there’s little else to do after watching your father (or mother for that matter) compete at Bisley than to have a go yourself and with expert personal tuition thrown in for free. The fact that there are 2 Lothians in this team shows the success of this method.

In any event, however one starts in the sport, all roads lead to Bisley and inevitably to the annual Imperial Meeting in July where, firstly at the Schools’ Meeting in which cadets from all over the country take part and then in the main competitions, those who have found they have a liking, hopefully allied with a talent, for the sport, meet and get to know each other over the course of their school careers. They are also assisted by the very worthwhile ‘uncles and aunts’ scheme whereby a more experienced senior shooter volunteers to mentor a cadet during the year and particularly during the Imperial Meeting, helping them with technique, equipment and general advice.

Probably the culmination of a cadet shooter’s ambition is to be chosen to be a member of the UK Athelings team which travels to Canada every summer to shoot against international opposition.

After school problems for the U25

It is when you turn 19 and leave school that the difficulties with being an under 25 shooter can start. While still at school or a member of a local cadet squad, your rifle and equipment, from jacket to cleaning rods are generally provided for you, as is your accommodation and keep at Bisley, but on leaving you suddenly find yourself having to purchase a lot of very expensive kit and pay out hefty travel and accommodation bills. Even if you are so lucky as to get to the top of the caravan waiting list, the annual rent is still a problem. This is when a lot of very promising young shooters leave the sport, they simply cannot afford it on the basis of a student loan or a first job.

The fact that there are only 161 under 25 NRA members out of a total membership of 6000 reflects these difficulties, although the NRA hope that this number will substantially increase when their new cadet handbook is up and running and it becomes easier and cheaper to join.

Fortunately some recent innovations like the Bun Hill club have been set up (founded 1999) to try and ease the passage of young people who want to continue with the sport by providing cheap accommodation and facilitating the purchase of affordable equipment.

The NRA, most universities that have shooting clubs, and other organisations do their best by reducing or subsidising competition entry fees and club membership dues for under 25s but despite this shooting remains an expensive sport. 

The other difficulty of course is the time aspect. Because of the strict rules surrounding the sport, it is not something that can be easily practised on an evening in the park, though smallbore and Scatt are both useful. There are a number of local ranges around the country where practice and competitions are held, but the majority of major competitions require a trip to Bisley (which is a long way for those at Scottish universities for instance) and a whole weekend’s commitment – not always easy to fit in.

Still, enough people do survive the difficulties to make up a thriving Under 25s club which fields teams in most competitions while endeavouring to keep costs down and social life up. They also work hard on fundraising to help any under 25s with touring expenses abroad – with no official national support it can be an expensive business being picked to represent one’s country at target rifle shooting.

Added value

But to revert to my own perspective – Apart from the excitement of the shooting itself (how can I forget my first V Bull at 1000 yards or finally getting through to Queens III?) I realise that I have gained other valuable transferable skills from the sport. As well as the usual lessons about winning and losing taught by sport in general, I have learned how to perform at a high level both as an individual and on a team basis. The fact that I have been competing with men and women of all ages on a level playing field since I was quite young, has taught me, I think, how to get on with a wide cross section of people.

International opportunities

I missed out on the Athelings but my trip to South Africa with the GB under 19s was one which cemented many friendships among our generation of shooters. Three of us from that team are excited to be returning to Bloemfontein in this 2009 senior team.

The selectors are very good at including some promising youngsters in every touring side and it is every young shooters dream to be chosen for a senior team. However, I remember how nervous I felt, aged 18, on realising that I would be shooting my first non-school/cadet team match for the NRA in the Channel Islands in the company of people us youngsters had seen from afar as almost god-like figures in the shooting world. Panic. Would I even hit the target, let alone acquit myself sufficiently to justify my selection?

The reality could not have been more different from my fears, everyone was so helpful, welcoming and friendly to a novice tourer and I soon realized what a great experience, both in the shooting and social sense, that being part of a tour could be.

As happens in shooting though, things don’t always go to plan and on winning my first cap for England in the National match 2007, I shot so badly that I thought that it was likely to be my last. So I was thrilled to be chosen as the youngest member of the senior England team to the USA last summer, a trip which turned out to be as memorable for the comments made on the upcoming US elections by some of our hosts, as for the spectacular helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and the contrariness of the winds at Raton. The learning curve was steep (Palma targets every match – aaargh) but I had nothing but encouragement from my team-mates – something that I know will also be the case on this tour to South Africa.

I hope one day to be able to do likewise and pass on some of the things I have learned to the next generation of Under 25 shooters. If asked by a younger shooter what it is like to tour with a senior side, I would say – “awesome”!