Holland & Holland’s Green and Silver Feathers courses have introduced many lady guns to game shooting – and helped to improve technique, as Alexandra Henton discovers
Holland & Holland have been introducing lady guns to shooting for years with their Green and Silver Feathers courses. Alexandra Henton discovers how expert instruction is crucial to improving technique.
For more on ladies shooting, read our Sporting Dianas column, where seriously sporting ladies write about their lives and offer advice and encouragement. Serena Williams shares her sporting journey from Pony Club pistol-shooting to gold-medal boar days. Sport is a family affair for Lady Melissa Percy and Lucie Boedts-Kuehnle, founder of the Ladies Macnab Club, explains why the Macnab became her sporting obsession.
It gets to a certain point at which rubbing along starts to become a little bit tiresome. I’ve never had this problem on a horse, would never dream of heading out onto the hunting field without riding every day (as near as dammit) for the three months prior to tally ho. Even my casting gets the odd look in away from the water. But season in and season out I had become the sort of gun who enjoys shooting, has some wonderful opportunities and great craic but is lingering on a plateau in performance. Felling the occasional streaking crosser garners an admiring glance but then the incoming “sitter” makes its winged way through unscathed. It had become a sporting version of snakes and ladders with far more serpents on the board than there should have been.
In this situation, when a little, some or even quite a bit of knowledge has got one so far but no further, I was left wondering about the next step to take in order to heft myself out of the shooting badlands of too little, not often, too many instructors and too much conflicting advice. The answer came in the form of feathers.
Holland & Holland has been running the Green Feathers course since 1995, when it started a ladies shooting course in conjunction with Harpers & Queen to encourage more girls into game shooting. “We identified the need for a shooting course for ladies as there were no alternatives,” says Steve Denny, director at Holland & Holland’s Shooting Grounds. “In the first year more than 200 ladies took part. All shot game and the game day at the end of the course took place at Holland & Holland’s shoot in Devon. It wasn’t until about 2010 that other grounds started catching up with us.”
So if the Feathers course was the blueprint for getting girls game ready, I was keen to experience just what effect it might have on some average shooting. The Green Feathers course is for the shooting novice and there are about 50 ladies coming through it every year. “It is very much instruction based,” explains Denny. “On the Feathers course you will get a thorough grounding in basic technique. This isn’t a have-a-go session. In the first three hours you will learn more than some people know who have been shooting for five years.” This emphasis on early technical stuff, eye dominance, familiarisation and everything that comes before the first shot is key. “The shooting is not the major part,” he confirms.
For £295, the Green Feathers course offers three hours of instruction (50 clays) with a Holland & Holland (H&H) expert (or three two-hour sessions if you shoot with a friend) and then an invitation to the Feathers competition at the end of the course. The four highest-placed shots are then offered a place on a game day, to be taken later that season. Most usefully during the course you can also book extra discounted lessons to hone those newfound skills. The Silver Feathers course, for those who have shot before, follows the same pattern, with 75 clays per lesson and a more testing course at the end. The winner and runner-up of the final day’s competition join the Green Feathers high scorers in the line on the game day. Both courses run from January to the end of April, with an additional Silver course running from July to the end of August.
“We have lots of good equipment,” says Denny. “We use Beretta guns, scaled down for ladies, and have more than 40 different 20-bores in all different stock lengths, as well as 28- and 12-bores, all in side-by-side or over-and-under. The guns are also numbered, so once the gun suits and fits it can be used every time.” Over the past 22 years, 1,700 ladies have passed through the H&H Feathers course and some have gone on to shoot exceptionally well, including Alexandra Skeggs, who now shoots sporting and Olympic skeet for Britain; she saw the Feathers course and signed up when shooting with a group of friends.
There is a real desire to get ladies shooting well at H&H, and the Silver Feathers proved a wealth of expert guidance and useful information. Shooting round with Chris Bird, chief instructor, was eye opening and our lengthy discussions on eye dominance and the latest thinking, the sensible advice and calm encouragement, were refreshing. After a driven grouse invitation turned to a walked-up one at late notice, Bird had me padding the mown lawn by the grouse traps in pouring rain but his instruction resulted in my first-ever grouse being half of a right-and-left. One just wishes an H&H instructor at one’s shoulder in the field would come as standard. While the instruction takes place one (or two) to one, which is vital to start to master the sport, or right poor technique, the conviviality comes at the competition day.
On the last day of the course, Feathers ladies gather, shoot round in teams, their competitive edge to the fore, and then catch up over something delicious for lunch. Most are based in and around London and all were a treat to talk to and a fun gang to shoot round with. Some had experience, others shot only clays and some had been doing the Feathers course for several years.
Lisa MacDougall came to the Silver Feathers course after shooting regularly at Bisley; she won with a score of 53. “I’m not from a shooting background,” she admits. “I spent years trying to learn to play golf properly but ended up as nothing more than a long-distance hockey player, I just couldn’t get the ball off the ground. I bought my then-husband a shooting lesson as a present, went with him, had a go and hit a few clays. And thought, ‘Wow! I could do this’.” MacDougall has never shot game, “I am a total, complete and utter novice when it comes to game knowledge, although I have tried a simulated day before.” H&H encourages ladies who haven’t shot game to bring someone with them, or hire an instructor for the day.
Karen Griffiths won the Green Feathers course with an impressive score of 42 and then went on to impress over the Silver Feathers course in the summer, having held a gun for the first time in February. “I completed my first Feathers course as an introduction to shooting, to learn more about it and see if it was something I wanted to pursue,” she says. “To my utter surprise, I won it. I learnt so much from completing the course and met some really lovely people, I signed up for the Silver Feathers course as soon as I could. I was hooked.” Griffiths has since shot on a Femmes Fatales day and has now applied for her own shotgun certificate. “I’m really looking forward to the game day and excited to (hopefully) shoot something, too, but also a little nervous as it is my first ever one and don’t want to make a complete fool of myself,” she confides.
“We want to give ladies a thorough grounding so they are ready to go on and shoot more, whether that be at a Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club event or a local ground,” adds Denny.
“The best part of the course is by far the competition day at the end – such a fantastic way to meet a wonderful mix of ladies with a common interest, spend the day away from the office and let loose on the flurry shoot once the competition part is over,” says Samantha Mair, who works in the City and had been taking lessons on and off for a year. “I grew up in Devon, so used to shoot occasionally with family or friends, but after I started university I didn’t pick up a shotgun again until last year.” Mair had a blast as we shot round the competition course, although rued starting off on the Silver Feathers course, particularly with a day’s game shooting to compete for.
After lunch everyone had the chance to shoot a flurry and practise on the rifle range. “Trying out the H&H rifle ranges was an unexpected treat at the end of the day,” she says. “I really enjoy shooting round the H&H ground. The only thing it lacks is a café on site – a lady still has to eat.”
Sarah Bolter was in agreement about the competition day. “It is something I would not have done if it wasn’t for the course and it was a fantastic day out. It was great to meet lots of fellow lady shooters and put the skills I learned in my lessons to the test.” Bolter shot well and I was again impressed by just how much grounding and confidence three lessons can give a gun. “I go clay-pigeon shooting with friends a few times a year and borrow their guns as I don’t have my own. Now I plan on applying for my licence so I can purchase my own gun and shoot more often.”
More signs of the keen shot were found in Claire Davis, who shot round the Silver Feathers course twice and took the runner-up spot both times, the last to Irina Alekseeva. Both shot 53. “I had read about the Silver Feathers course but hadn’t followed it. Soon afterwards I shot a simulated game day at Sandringham with a group of ladies, one of whom was Dawn Fields. I admired her shooting technique, which was put down to the lessons at H&H. Although I shot well I found myself lacking the technique and that is what prompted me to take the course.” Davis started shooting two years ago on a Femmes Fatales day at sporting clays. “I was hooked almost immediately. My father had taught us to shoot as children using small-calibre rifles and air rifles. It felt wrong in the beginning to continue moving the gun while aiming at the ‘target’ and some days, if I allow myself to over think, it reverts back to feeling alien,” she admits. “I wish I had known about it when I first held a gun and had been taught properly from the beginning.”
Davis echoes my point. With a shotgun in hand it can sometimes feel as though there are far too many ways to miss. Proper instruction is paramount. Fun days shooting round with the husband (although, to be frank, these often degenerate into bad-tempered sparring days) are no substitute for real expertise. Whether you sign up for the Feathers course, or pick up a gun closer to home, get the groundwork right and the rest will follow. As for me, my Pauline moment came after three lessons in a week. Suddenly everything was shot when it should have been and it all started to feel natural. As Aesop would finish: the wise gun practises often and doesn’t expect to become an expert after a handful of days in the field.
The next Feathers course at Holland & Holland begins in February 2018. To apply, call 01923 825349 or go to hollandandholland.com/shooting-grounds