My target shooting career -
from small beginnings to an Olympic Medal and beyond.
Having been asked to do something for the Museum I am delighted to do so as an example of what can happen if you find something that you are a bit good at, or like doing, and give it a bit of a push. I really mean giving it your all at least for quite a time! You have no idea of where it might take you. This applies not only to a sport but equally to any hobby, interest or activity.
At Huntley I was fascinated by the imitation metal barrelled drill rifles that were stored in racks in one side of the gym. Apparently we used these in Cadets though I do not remember doing so. All I remember was that we were not supposed to take them out of the racks to point at the possums in the roof. I was interested in rifle shooting and during the holidays had regular practice sessions with a neighbour’s son under our fathers’ tutelage.
I went to Nelson College where shooting was an important sport and by winning the Junior Championship in 1948, realised it was something that I could do better than most of my peers. I can remember quite specifically walking down the hill after this win and deciding that I was going to push it. Even then I spent a lot of time thinking about it, something that has been a big part of my training regime ever since.
The following two years I won the Senior Championship, the first while still an Intermediate. In doing so I beat the Head Prefect who thought he was a great shot. He found a way of getting even exercising rights that I am sure head prefects no longer have!
In preparation to emigrate to Scotland to go into the family woollen manufacturing business, I did a short course at Massey College. I shot small-bore with them at the Turitea Valley club and found myself at the N.Z. Universities Winter Tournament in Dunedin. Having never shot a “possible” before, I shot six in succession to finish top shot for NZ.
In 1965 I learnt of the existence of the British Sporting Rifle Club. This inspired me because I did think that lying down on a cold Drill Hall floor and shooting at little dots I could hardly see was a bit boring. The British Sporting Rifle Club shot at moving targets from a standing position with telescopic sights. The only trouble was they were at Bisley in the south of England. It is considered by most of the world as the centre of target shooting but it was 680 miles away from Keith where I lived in the North of Scotland.
At that time they were trying to get a team together to represent Great Britain in the Running Boar event at the forthcoming World Shooting Championships in Germany. The trouble was that in order to represent G.B. one had to do an international qualifying score in official trials. The participants had got stuck about 20% below this level. I visited Bisley and saw something of the event in which the figure of a wild boar crosses a 10 metre gap, 50 metres away in either 5 or 2½ seconds. The “bull” was 50mm in diameter.
I went home and constructed a miniature version so I could practise in my garage. The target was drawn from side to side on a track by alternatively placing or removing a weight on a length of cord that went across the gap round a pulley and at right angles up the side wall to where I shot from. A knot on the cord picked up the target trolley after a suitable delay to allow the shooter to get ready. The speed was controlled by the centrifugal governor you could find in an old fashioned 78 rpm HMV gramophone player. Beautifully made affairs with three brass weights limited by a speed control lever. You would probably be hard pushed to find one now with the famous logo of a dog listening to His Master’s Voice in the megaphone, except in a museum.
I mention this detail to illustrate the point that though there are often so many reasons that may make a project very difficult, if you really can be bothered to put in the effort, you never know where it might get you. I set about regular drying firing practice sessions, clicking at the target with by rifle, as I learnt this new skill. It could be likened to hours and hours swinging a golf club but never with a real ball. I thought my estimated scores were improving to the required level. This proved to be correct when I attended a trial at Bisley in March 1966 and shot the first two qualifying scores and so found myself in Germany representing Great Britain later in the year.
At the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968 it was announced that Running Boar was to be included for first time in the Munich games in four year’s time. Having won the British Championship that year I thought that if I could just stay top of the pile for four years I could maybe get to the Games, an exciting prospect. It did though require a bit more initiative and enterprise because rifle manufacturers were only making rifles in a style that suited prone shooting and I had distinct ideas as to how the stock should be made for moving target shooting. Though possessed with no inherent wood working skill I set about making my stock from an old beech log and did so with some success. The skill in stock making is what we call “inletting”; making the inside surfaces where the wood touches the metal of the action an absolutely perfect fit. This is so that they react together consistently during the recoil of each shot. When testing the accuracy of my new rifle I was pleased to be able to put five shots through the same hole at 50 metres, something that few rifles will do. Though I used this rifle at the 1970 World Championship, with the approach of the 1972 Olympics the rifle manufacturers were starting to make the sort of rifles we wanted.
As I was still top of the UK pile my selection for one of the two GB places for Munich was fairly assured. An important occasion for me was at a European Championship in East Germany in 1971. I used to make a practice of getting close to and learning from the top competitors. The extent of camaraderie and mutual helpfulness there is among international competitors might surprise many. After a particularly good farewell banquet I found myself not by accident sitting on the floor in a hallway beside the World Champion, a Swede, and the Russian Silver medallist. With loosened tongues they were discussing their plans for the following year in preparation for the Olympic Gold Medal that one of them would surely win. They would in effect be full time professional athletes for that year. I thought – what a sentence – what a commitment – how many hours? – how many shots would that be? But then I thought - they are still only human - two arms, two legs etc. One was Swedish forester who I never though to be very bright – the other a very cultured chess and piano playing physicist but whose whole university career was rearranged around his shooting schedule.
I decide that for one year I would give it my all and make it the most important thing in my life – after a wife, four children and a full time job that is! I was able to devote more or less the whole of one of the week-end days and several hours on two or three early mornings or evenings. Only about 20% of this time would be actually spent with a rifle in my hands and perhaps only 5% actually shooting live ammunition. When asked when I did my training I once answered “In the bath”! This was not completely facetious because I have always believed that really deep and meaningful thinking about all the aspects of what ever it is that one wants to do at a high level – what might happen and how one would deal with it – is a fundamental part to the necessary preparation for delivering that. But overriding that is my “watch word” as far as competitive sport is concerned – “Think about the performance – forget about the results”. Only you can affect the former – only others can determine the latter.
As it was I arrived at Munich confident that I had done all I could in preparation but without actually having produced a big score in training during the year. In adrenalin sports it is common for Personal Best Performance to be done in big competitions. You could clear a five bar gate with a bull behind you that would otherwise seem impossible! But shooting is the antithesis of that and one has to work against adrenalin flow. However all the work came together and I broke my British record by quite some margin to come third after several of the favourites had collapsed under the weight of expectation. But it says something of my attitude that, though winning the medal was nice, I could not get it off my neck quickly enough to get the score engraved around the rim! The score meant everything to me. It was the World Record 12 months before. The fact that only two people scored more on the day was not of my making. Of course in time the score means nothing and the medal means everything and lasts for ever!
Although I have never been motivated to put in the same effort again, the lessons and techniques I learnt have stood me in good stead for the rest of my shooting career. Though no longer competitive at an International level I have continued to win a fair share of British Championships well into my late seventies.
If you really work at some specialisation, in what ever field of recreation or hobby, you never know where it might lead you. Give it a go! And I wish you luck which you will also need a bit of.
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