You need to keep both eyes open when using a shotgun, discovers Simon Horsford as he tries out the shooting simulator at Wadswick Country Store in Corsham and takes aim at imaginary pheasants, grouse and wild boar
I tracked the wild boar with my rifle as it emerged from the bushes in the German countryside. It was around 60 metres away and I had to be accurate because the last thing I wanted was to get on the wrong side of an angry 200kg boar. I pulled the trigger and the boar went down – a perfect shot, despite no bullet being fired.
‘Shoot, train, play’ is the catchline for the shooting simulator at Wadswick Country Store, near Corsham, which, since it opened two and a half years ago, has been the place to go, not only to hone your skills with a shotgun or rifle, or to get in some practice before the shooting season, but also as a fun venue where groups as various as stag, hen or birthday parties and family groups and corporate bonding outings can tackle a variety of shooting disciplines from clays, tin cans and balloons to pheasant, grouse, mallard, moose, and, yes, wild boar.
“Think of it in terms of DRS (the technology-based system used to help umpires with their decision-making in cricket) or VAR (football’s equivalent) for shooting,” says Dan Scull, who runs the simulator. “You shoot and we see what’s going on via simple mathematics and a digital camera showing how you look over the gun and how you mount [the gun]. Every single move you make is recorded and transferred to the screen in front of you and shown in real-time or re-played back.” So you immediately see how accurate you are.
Made in Sweden, it’s certainly very clever with a high-tech camera sensor (no laser light is used), attached to the barrel of the shooter’s gun, which registers gun movements, firing direction and trigger-pull timing with high precision. The system also offers up a variety of locations and landscapes. Poppy Clifford, manager of Wadswick’s gunroom, says the advantage of their simulator – there are only three in the country – is that, uniquely, it offers two screens, one six metres wide, so you can shoot from right to left or vice versa, and another set at 45 degrees to simulate incoming overhead birds. “It’s a very good entry point to learning to shoot,” adds Poppy.
My only experience of firing a gun before my visit to the simulator was shooting clays while doing a story on sport shooter Peter Wilson after his victory in the double trap final at the 2012 Olympics. He gave me a lesson and praised my efforts in hitting virtually all the clays. The simulator was a different story. Dan took me through the basics and handed me a Caesar Guerini Temio Light shotgun, reminding me that what makes the weapon lethal is not the gun itself, but the person holding it. Of course, in this instance, we aren’t using cartridges, anyway. Dan is ex-army and knows his stuff. We begin as the screen brings up a snowy field of rape in Germany and I am after a pheasant. “Aim and relax,” says Dan as he tells me to follow a line through the bird and shoot. I miss. I’ve instinctively closed one eye (“keep both open when using a shotgun”, he reminds me) and also flinched at the thought of the recoil, even though there is none. We try again and Dan shows me on the screen where I shot and traces the jagged movement of my gun. “You’ve drawn a bunny rabbit,” he laughs. In more basic terminology, he says, it’s about “bum, belly, beak, bang.” Eventually, I get it and register a couple of kills.
“Shooting game on here is similar to shooting in the field,” says Poppy, “other than the fact that there is no recoil, but how the bird gets faster, deviates and moves [can be replicated here].”
I wonder if it is better than shooting clays and Dan, unsurprisingly, agrees: “When you first go clay shooting, you may get 10 clays, you get hit in the shoulder and banged in the face (by the recoil) and have no idea what you’ve hit, or how, or why. If you then come here you can have 250 clays in an hour and not have that fear of being hit by the recoil.” Dan can also tell you immediately where you are going wrong – or right.
For that reason also, the simulator is also becoming increasingly popular with women and families. Both Dan and Poppy point to the fact that more women have also taken up the sport – and are going pheasant shooting – since the 2012 Olympics watching Peter Wilson and, more recently, the exploits of skeet shooter Amber Hill. Dan says gun manufacturers have also been quick to adjust to the market with three leading gun-makers bringing out new guns for women (the shape of the stock is the main difference) from around £1,500.
But back to the screen. Next up we are in the highlands of southern France and grouse shooting. These appear more elusive than the pheasant and I miss a few. “Stop overthinking,” says Dan as I eventually bag a couple. I then switch to a rifle, the Swedish-made, bolt-action Tikka T3 Lite with a hunting scope with a red-dot sight to improve accuracy. We start on some targets and I do well before shooting down five balloons in a given time. Then we move on to that wild boar in Germany. I miss a few before getting my range and accuracy and the satisfaction of seeing it roll over after the right shot.
The one aspect missing from the simulator would seem to be the adrenaline buzz of being out in the wild, but as Poppy points outs “this is the closest we have got to being on the ‘peg’ and watching that first bird being flushed out.” And Dan adds: “It’s about adrenaline, yes, but not a blood-thirst. It’s the knowledge that you have done as much training as possible so that when that bird comes down, it is not pricked [wounded] and is an instant kill. It’s about giving the bird more respect.”
This takes our conservation on to issues ranging from land management by the National Trust (and its effect on ground birds) to game conservancy – a subject close to Dan’s heart as he is also a bushcraft instructor and he keeps wild boar – and how game consumption has gone up in recent years. “We rear probably 18-million pheasants in the UK …and the majority stays here so what’s reared here, stays here. We are also now importing boar because demand is so high.” Dan also points out that game meat is leaner [than other meats] and organic, “the only hurdle [to people eating game] is Bambi,” he jokes, “the anthropomorphism, Disneyfication of animals.”
For some added fun – should you need it – Dan can also set up a “rapid target acquisition” scenario where you shoot a range of targets (tin cans) in a limited time span.
In the store’s swish café, I meet Alex Barton, who runs the gun room, and whose family have been arable farming here for more than half a century and launched the initial store in 1990. He explains they initially sold animal foodstuffs, but it has grown over the years to include its country store with its well-established equestrian and shooting supplies, such as clothing and boots. The gun room (“a good complementary offering”) and the simulator followed while the new-look café opened this year.
Barton also believes that the shop benefits from the fact that because people are ‘time poor’ these days they want to make the day a bit more of an occasion so they can have breakfast or lunch as well as going shopping. Another advantage is that items such as riding boots or helmets should also be fitted properly, he says, and you can do that on-site “which gives people more confidence than buying them online.”
Barton has a beautiful range of guns for sale in the gun room by leading manufacturers such as Beretta and Browning and Blaser. “Probably more than half the time people are trading a gun in, so that’s a challenge. Our guns go up to around £20,000, but most sell at around £1,500.” Unlike most gun shops, the one at Wadswick is open seven days a week and the simulator adds another dimension. “It works in three ways: first for coaching, then for the ‘play’ element and, thirdly, it’s also brilliant for trying out a gun before buying one,” adds Barton.
Ultimately, via the clothing and the gun room and the simulator, the aim is to drive footfall and they certainly have a huge range of clientele, “from someone down the road buying chicken feed to those people buying shotguns.” Future plans include the possibility of a wellness centre at the site, although there won’t be a farm shop – there is an abundance of them in the area anyway. The restaurant does serve game, however, when in season – pheasant was recently on the menu.
What’s happening at Wadswick is an indication of the diversification farmers are having to consider these days and with the gun shop, the simulator and the new café, they appear to be hitting the right targets.