Keeping your eye in w/ Andy McLachlan

Loughborough Airgun Club puts on a great HFT event, using forty individual targets with two per lane

If you spend too much time practising one shooting discipline, then your skill set may suffer in others, as Andy McLachlan finds out to his cost.

Having spent the past couple of months concentrating upon improving my benchrest shooting, I have not spent any time keeping my HFT shooting skills up.

Like all things that we enjoy doing, once the basic skills have been learned, it is easy enough to in our case pick up the gun combination and try our best at an organised competition. As many competitors will be aware, however, just picking up your gun and expecting to shoot at your own normal standards is slim.

The main reason for failing to perform well again first time out, after even just a short break, is obvious – a lack of practice. Presuming that we haven’t changed either the gun, scope or settings, the outfit should perform just as well as it did the last time we entered an HFT competition.

I find that if I don’t shoot a decent competition course at least twice per month, my overall score will drop by approximately three or four points from my current low fifties average. That might not sound like a lot, but if you are a keen competition shot, losing so many points can affect your overall position in league tables.

So, if, like me, you need to practise continuously to avoid any drop in your performance, what are the things that you need to do to remain at the top of your own personal game? Well, the answer is perfectly obvious of course. You need to practise – a lot.

It is not sufficient to turn up at an indoor airgun club and shoot for hours at paper or knockdown targets, as once you have established a satisfactory zero and re-learned your holdover/under aim points for specific ranges, apart from maybe practising some positional shots, such as standing or kneeling (presuming that the range in question allows for this), all you do confirm what you already know – that your combination is shooting to point of aim.

This is why most, if not all, of the top shooters will be found outside at every opportunity, shooting at one course or other to hone their personal skill set. There is no substitute for getting out there and shooting targets set at unknown ranges and with varying degrees of wind at the individual peg.

Most of today’s shooters, arming themselves with a pre-charged pneumatic air rifle, will be capable of producing tiny groups on a target card at known ranges. That is all well and good, but the ability to hit what might be a tiny killzone on a knockdown target of indeterminate range while there is a gusting breeze blowing across your shooting position is an entirely different challenge.

Having the skills to accurately assess both range and wind deflection is what sorts out the top performers from the rest of us mere mortals. They achieve these considerable skills purely by spending time outside shooting in these conditions, often at as many different venues as possible to provide a variety of course settings and layouts.

If you are a club shooter using your club’s wooded outdoor range on a regular basis, unless you all decide to vary the shooting positions and re-distance your targets, you will very quickly learn the best way to drop most if not all of the targets.

You have then become a ‘one venue wonder’. Apart from the ability to assess any variance in prevailing wind shear, you really need to get out there and experience as many course venues as you can.

You may be quite happy that you are able to perform well at your own club, and that is perfectly fine. However, if you ever hope to score well on the national circuit, you will need to have gained the experience that can only be attained by shooting as many venues as you can manage, as regularly as possible.

This is a big commitment both of time and money, as it means you will have to travel to these venues, often incurring overnight costs into the equation as well. So that means a significant investment if you wish to stand any chance of becoming one of the few shots that regularly appear in the top league positions for many local and national HFT shooting series.

I recently reminded myself of how a lack of practice is likely to result in our shooting skills suffering. My son James and I had decided to travel the hundred-plus miles to Loughborough Airgun Club to attend one of their HFT club shoots.

This is in an interesting format that really appeals to me. Rather than the normal thirty-shot course and individual shooting pegs, the club has used forty individual targets, with two per lane. I have always felt that doubling up targets on an individual peg is far more interesting and less likely to lead to fatigue for older, younger or disabled shooters.

Anyway, the course itself was laid out in a relatively open area and did not include, unusually, any wooded sections that tend to be more protected from the wind.

Wind would be an unfair way of describing conditions on the day, as it was more of a breeze. In an open setting such as this, however, any breeze can and does still influence the flight of our pellets, with the necessary careful assessment at every peg.

Harrison Jones used his BSA for a creditable score of 49 – it’s great to see youngsters competing with Mum and Dad!

James and I shot along with Dan Gordon. Dan has only been on the HFT scene for a couple of years, but has certainly made a swift impact. He does not shoot the usual PCP, but has elected to use a springer – which he uses to great effect, I might add!

Not only is Dan a committed shooter, though, he is also a thinking shooter, who spends a great deal of time considering how the mechanical action and individual stock configuration are performing, and the many ways they might be modified to improve performance. The gun he used on the day was a TX200 with standard, but re-lubed internals.

No smaller pistons here! Dan was using a new gun stock on the TX action, which had been made to his size and specifications by Tilly’s Gun Stocks so that it fit him perfectly.

Changing any part of the balance when using a spring gun does take some re-learning though, as the muscle memory and specific hold are modified to allow best performance from the combination. This takes time!

James and I both used our Steyr 110 PCP and Leupold scope combinations. James spent the winter using his highly modified TX200, but has now changed back to the combination he knows best and has the most confidence in.

I was swiftly reminded that I hadn’t shot outside for a couple of months as I failed to drop the first couple of relatively straightforward targets. These were at medium range, and I would like to think would have fallen over if I had been practising.

I managed to land my pellets just outside the killzone on both targets, one being a ‘splitter’ that sometimes falls over, but this time didn’t. The reason for my scoring of two rather than the full four points was, in my honest opinion, due to not allowing for sufficient wind deflection.

If you practise outside regularly, judgements such as this tend to become second nature as your point of aim seems to find itself pointing in the most likely position without an apparent conscious thought registering. This is when the shooter is fully ‘in the zone’ and it’s a great place to be, particularly when all the targets fall over!

Dan quickly found his gun’s sweet spot, although he seemed to think that he was not managing some of his shot releases correctly, resulting in the odd one point instead of two on some targets – as was I, of course.

Considering that he was using a springer with a new stock in its first competition, I can only say that once he has fully adjusted himself to finding the perfect hold, he will be a force to be reckoned with.

In my opinion, the best HFT springer shooter in the UK at the present time is undoubtedly Steve Whiting, a man able on occasion to score highest on a competition day, not just amongst springers, but including PCPs as well. I would not be surprised to find that Dan is biting at Steve’s heels in the future!

As the course progressed on the day, it became obvious to me that I was indeed letting myself down with some poor rangefinding. This has always proved my undoing, as it once again caused some dropped points to be recorded.

Maybe if I had been practising recently this would at least have reduced my errors, allowing me to increase my score. Who knows? What I do know is that I intend to once again start attending higher numbers of HFT competitions as I cannot afford to allow my own levels of skill to deteriorate any further.

Incidentally, the top score on the day at Loughborough Airgun Club from the 49 attending shooters was Mick Dakin with a 78 ex 80. James managed a 75, me a mid-tabled 67, while Dan Gordon beat me by one on a 68 with his springer, the swine! 

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