A sport that's prone to misconception
AS I prepare to leave the office, notepad in hand, to travel to meet with members of Broadclyst Rifle Club, I am also carrying a number of preconceived notions.
Many concern the sport itself. I suppose it to be incredibly noisy and doubtless painful as the cinematic recoil of the rifle butt sends near-paralysing shockwaves through my shoulder.
The second concerns the people I am soon to meet.
Membership of a rifle club would, one imagined, entail being dressed from head to toe in camouflage gear in a remote location, male and over 30, and generally suspicious of outsiders.
I can only apologise for this, as nothing could be further from the truth.
Sure, I get lost on may way to the club's home which is unmarked behind a secure steel door off the beaten track in the village near Exeter but, once inside, the welcome is warm and membership almost as diverse as possible.
"We have 24 full members," says Paul Dunn, the club's honorary secretary: "And that's men, women, girls and boys."
The clubhouse is leased from the National Trust for the princely sum of £5 a year.
Paul explains: "They've been very good to us. When Wimpey tried to buy the site in the 1980s they helped protect the club and the new estate had to form around us."
Club president Gerry Cole adds: "We've been here for 120 years ('Well, you have Gerry,' is the rehearsed and good-natured chorus from fellow members).
"Boys who were going off to fight in the Boer War were taught how to shoot here."
There's been a number of developments since then – a new armoury for example – but the principle remains the same.
Pistol shooting is no longer permitted following the handgun ban in the wake of the Dunblane massacre, but prone and sporting .22 rifle shooting is allowed on the 25-yard small-bore range.
"Our membership has always been relatively stable," said Paul. "Some members leave, new ones come in. But the handgun ban is probably the decision that had the most significant impact on our club.
"We lost a lot of members to that and, although I appreciate why it had to happen, I still feel it went beyond what was needed and it was a case of a small rogue element doing a lot of damage to the majority of responsible gun owners – and this included receiving compensation which was a fraction of the value of the pistols which had to be handed over."
But this highlights an important area for the club – safety.
"Anyone who wants to join is under probation for six months," said Paul. "This means they will not be allowed on the range by themselves for six months while we assess if they are capable and suitable to be allowed to shoot alone.
"That said, this is an extremely safe sport and we take every precaution."
The club takes part in county competitions and in postal competitions against other clubs in Devon where the targets are sent off for scoring by an outside marker against others in the same league.
There are 10 targets with a maximum score of 100.
With the consent of the police, my first efforts do not trouble the bull but they do, at the very least, all find the correct target in neat groups.
"That's very good," says Paul, "That's what you are looking for the first time – consistency. Greater accuracy comes with practice and adjustments of the rifle scope."
Prone shooting, I am using a .22 Anschutz match rifle (for those interested), and it involves lying on the ground in the prone position to fire at a target. While we are wearing ear protectors, there is no deafening crack and there is no bone-shattering recoil.
Pete Watts, club treasurer, said: "This is not a sport that suits a gung-ho, action attitude. It's incredibly controlled and precise.
"It's a very individual sport, and you strive to make progress and improve. You have to be relaxed, dedicated, and patient."
With a straight back following the line of the rifle, I am instructed to slow my breathing, and press the trigger after pausing during exhaling. Paul can check if I'm doing this correctly relatively easily as, on this February night, my breath is creating wisps of fog.
"Ah yes," says Paul. "The heating is pretty much background only – you'll need a jumper in winter."
He adds: "We have all the equipment here to help you get started but, if you are taking it seriously, most members invest in their own rifles. You can get a decent one second-hand for £150 but you could spend up to £10,000 if you so wished.
"And it's not all about competition here. Most members enjoy the social side but the fascination for most will always lie in the challenge in improving your shooting ability."
Members range in age from 14 to 80 plus.
Club nights are Tuesdays for prone shooting and Thursdays for sporting.
Training can be arranged at other times and visitors are welcome but by prior arrangement only.
Applications for membership of the club are made to the secretary and considered by a club committee on a weekly basis. Children under 18 must be accompanied by a responsible adult.
Group tuition is made available through guest evenings that require prior notification to the police.
For more information, visit www.broadclystrifleclub.org.uk or call Paul on 01392 873609.
Next week the Echo's attention will turn to swimming. If you are part of a club that would like to feature in the Echo, call 01392 442241.