I hold the title of family champion, clay pigeon shooting. I won the title when three-quarters of my family managed to be in same place for a few days – and we decided to spice up the holiday with a clay pigeon shoot. It was the first time I’d held a gun, and I haven’t held one since then, almost eight years ago.
So, when the friend of a friend (Hello Margo and Fran!) invited me to visit Blind Veterans UK’s acoustic shooting range to complete the Freyathlon shooting event, I jumped at the chance.
Blind Veterans UK is the charity for vision-impaired ex-Service men and women. Since 1915, the charity’s been providing practical and emotional support and services to Armed Forces and National Service veterans, regardless of when they served or how they lost their sight.
The charity provides a range of support and services in each of its three centres, and the one I visited, overlooking the English Channel outside Brighton, offers holidays, respite, training, residential and nursing care, social activities and recreational activities.
When I arrived at the centre, people were arriving for meetings and activities and Blind Veterans UK’s sports and recreation manager Louise gave me a quick tour, pointing out what was available that day, including cookery, computer skills, arts and crafts. In the gym, a couple of guide dogs were relaxing while their owners hefted weights or did laps in the swimming pool.
Louise introduced me to sports instructor Steve and we made our way to a room where he’d already set up the acoustic shooting range – at other times, people use the room to practice archery and bowls.
Target shooting is an adapted version of sighted shooting for people with visual impairments, and has two disciplines. In supported shooting, the rifle rests on a stand which takes its weight and provides some stability. In free-standing shooting, the weight of the rifle is supported by the shooter.
Steve showed me the equipment and explained how it worked: ‘At one end of the room there’s a bright light shining on a paper target. The centre of the target is white and each circle becomes larger and darker. On the rifle, there’s an adapted sight that works with your hearing not your sight, and it helps you aim towards the target. The adapted sight collects and measures the level of light reflected from the target, converting it into sound. As you get closer to the centre of the target, more light gets reflected into the adapted sight, and you’ll the sound you hear changes and becomes more high-pitched.’
I wasn’t going to need my glasses so I took them off, stood behind the table about 10m from the target, balanced the rifle on the tripod, and Steve loaded a pellet into the rifle. He explained that shooters with a visual impairment would be supported by a guide to load the gun and make sure they didn’t inadvertently shoot an opponent’s target.
He plugged in the loudspeakers and talked me through how to guide the rifle towards the centre of the target so I could hear how the sound changed. It started as a low, dull tone rising to high-pitched whine.
As soon as I thought I was on target I fired. And there was no recoil.
Then Steve reloaded a pellet and I went through the process again. After five shots I put the gun down and we walked down to the target to see how I’d done. Steve pointed out my shots were well grouped, I was surprised I’d hit the target. We set up a new target and went back to the table.
This time Steve suggested I use the headphones. I found I could concentrate more easily on the sound wearing headphones and my shooting became quicker. And, when we examined the target, my accuracy had also improved.
To give me the complete experience, Steve suggested free-standing shooting and we moved the table and tripod.
Without the support of the tripod I had to take the full weight of the rifle and, while balancing the rifle, make small adjustments to get on target. I quickly noticed how any movement, from one foot to the other, would throw me off target.
Even my breathing affected my ability to stay on target – if I held my breath, I’d just have to breath out, usually at a crucial moment, and I’d lose the target. So controlling my breathing became really important. And if I held the rifle too tightly, any adjustments were jerky and clumsy so I tried to relax and found that improved my ability to find, and stay on, the target.
The oddest thing was I realised it was easier for me to concentrate on the sound if I didn’t look directly at the target. What worked best for me was either closing my eyes or looking over the barrel and holding my head at right angles to the target.
It took me a while to realise just how much I was tuning into the rest of my body and using other senses to help me concentrate on the sound. But that’s what helped improve my accuracy and speed.
After two free-standing rounds we called it a day and examined my targets. There was a marked difference between the supported and free-standing rounds but Steve was impressed with my performance – for a first-timer.
As we packed the equipment away, we talked about the shooting and archery skills of some of the veterans and Steve explained how the veterans take part in postal shooting competitions across the country.
I wouldn’t want to compete against them.
Shooting. 12 April 2016
Blind Veterans UK