An absolute beginner’s guide to clay pigeon shooting: ‘Coffee drunk and dogs cuddled, it was time to begin’

Octavia Pollock had never so much as held a gun before she decided to try clay pigeon shooting — she headed down to the Cowdray Estate's Hownhall Shooting School to give it a go.

Hidden away in West Sussex is a shooting paradise. Down an unmarked lane just north of Midhurst are thoughtfully positioned stands, innumerable clays that emulate every type of game bird and unlimited homemade flapjacks, not to mention an assortment of top-class instructors. In February this year, Hownhall Shooting School, part of the Cowdray estate, was awarded Silver at the Great British Shooting Awards, an impressive achievement considering it was founded only two years ago by Simon O’Leary and Benita Wright.

I usually ride in winter, but the chance to try something new is never to be passed up — and the camaraderie (and great lunches) that go with shooting seem to make it a good candidate. Thus it was that I arrived at Hownhall alongside three chaps visiting to keep their eye in and a woman who extolled the joys of pigeon shooting as her hoodie-clad friend stroked Benita’s three black labradors. As with any country pursuit, all are welcome.

Coffee drunk and dogs cuddled, it was time to begin. I had the enviable treat of being taught by Simon himself, a giant bear of a man with piratical beard and twinkling eyes who exudes warmth and confidence — and instils confidence in his pupils. As Benita pointed out, he thinks only of his students, not of showing off his own considerable skills, and I relaxed immediately.

Octavia at Cowdray shooting lesson

No gun at first — instead, eyes. As is apparently not unusual among women, I am right-handed but left-eye dominant, so I was given a pair of yellow shades with a fetching embellishment of sticking plaster over the left pane. Not the most attractive style, but easier than closing one eye.

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Next, footwork. Just as a winner in tennis is never going to be struck from the back foot, so a clean shot is seldom made with your feet facing in the wrong direction. Falling over from when you fire because your back foot is wobbly is not a good look on the peg. Simon demonstrated the correct positioning (front foot at 1pm, back foot at 2pm, nose over front toe) and we were ready for the main feature.

Octavia at Cowdray shooting lesson - 2nd lesson, talking cartridges

I was to shoot with a classic 20-bore over-and-under Beretta, the gun of choice for many men and women these days. In the past, women were guided to the lighter 28-bore, but no one would dare suggest such a thing these days and we of the fairer sex are very happy with a 20.

The gun needs to become an extension of you, to which end correct mounting is essential, and Simon was assiduous in pointing out the tiny adjustments that ensured my cheekbone rested on the stock and my head was straight. We’re all familiar with the basic pose, but there is a lot think about and the slightest thing could make the difference between going home with a brace for supper or leaving hungry and chastened.

Looking down the barrel, ready for the call of ‘pull’ that released the clay, my eye was irresistibly drawn to the bead at its tip. It turns out, however, that this is merely for embellishment: the focus must be on the quarry. Basics in place, I finally experienced the intoxicating feeling of smashing a clay to smithereens. Let’s hope it wasn’t beginner’s luck!

Clay pigeon shooting lessons at Hownhall range from ‘have a go’ taster sessions to expert tuition — see more details at

shooting school at the Cowdray Estate

Hownhall, the shooting school at the Cowdray Estate