Camouflage gear is de rigueur at the Southern Counties Shooting Range in Dorset. The car park is over-run by Land Rovers, while there’s enough firepower in the clubhouse to launch a small military campaign. It’s not difficult to spot Peter Wilson, the Olympic clay pigeon shooting champion. Standing 6ft 5in tall, he sprouts high above the rest and has a boyish smile on his face. He’s searching his pockets for a faded red baseball cap, last worn when he struck gold for Britain at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich.
Wilson, 26, has driven the short distance from his parents’ farm to this windy ridge to give me a clay pigeon shooting class. During the six-month build up to the Olympic Games, he blasted an incredible 50,000 clays, often spending up to six hours a day on the range, in all weathers, wearing full-body Lycra to keep warm. Today it’s bright sunshine and people are about, but because Wilson practises in his own reserved part of the range, only the FT’s photographer will witness my first attempt to hit a 4in clay disc as it flies across the sky at pigeon-like speed.
My shooting experience extends to a couple of corporate days missing everything in sight. Wilson has provided me with a semi-automatic Benelli, a lightweight, low-powered gun that is less likely to knock me backwards with a thumping recoil. Before I begin, though, Wilson explains his shooting philosophy.
“It’s all about being patient and attentive. The trick is to keep both eyes open, pull the butt of the gun tight in to your shoulder, almost under the chin, and then just follow the clay as it flies in to your line of sight. Remember, if you fire at the clay you will miss it. You need to be aiming about a metre ahead – so you are shooting where the clay is going, not where it has been.”
Guns make me nervous and as I lift the Benelli to my shoulder, Wilson stands behind and gets me to relax my arms. “You have to imagine the gun is an extension of your body, and don’t be afraid,” he says. “During the Olympic final I was ahead of my nearest rival when I missed two clays. I had allowed myself to start to believe that I could win gold and I had to pull myself together pretty fast. I ended up with a score of 188 out of a possible 200 hits. Nerves get to every shooter at some point but I could so easily have missed again. I finished just two shots clear of Hakan Dahlby, from Sweden.”
The ear defenders gripping my head are giving the moment a slightly surreal quality. I feel removed from the action, lost in my own silent world, until Wilson shouts “Pull!” A bright orange disc is catapulted into the sky from somewhere in the distance and it’s heading right over the top of us. I know I have to wait for the clay to come into my line of sight. It’s travelling much faster than I expected and just as it reaches maximum height, I pull the trigger and wait for the bang.
Although I started by focusing firmly on the target, the power of the blast makes me momentarily shut my eyes. So when I open them again, Wilson is patting me on the back and pointing at the shattered clay as it drops to the ground. “Some people feel they have to shut one eye when they shoot but you lose depth perception, which is crucial for firing at a moving target,” he explained.
My confidence grows as, time and time again, I hit the clays fired towards me. It seems I can’t miss, so when the photographer tries his hand and misses repeatedly, I start to think that maybe I have a talent for this. What I’ve forgotten is that Wilson didn’t win a gold medal for hitting single targets, he won it in the double trap class. This is much tougher because two targets are released simultaneously and the shooter can only take one shot at each target.
“It’s made harder by the fact that I have to stand 16 yards behind the release trap and the clays are moving away from me, getting smaller all the time,” says Wilson. “At the Olympics, there were six of us in the final, firing one after another, for 100 rounds. It’s hard to keep your concentration in that situation, especially when there are 4,500 people in the stands and the world watching on television.”
Back at the family farmhouse, near Sherborne, Wilson says that growing up on a farm meant that shooting was always part of his life: “Dad and I would head out to bag some pigeons for tea when I was younger, but we often returned empty-handed.” But, says Wilson, he was very lucky to shoot his way to the top. He was almost run over by his father Charles’s tractor as a child, and later he came very close to breaking his neck, in a freak snowboarding accident in Val d’Isère, when he was 14.
“I damaged the nerves in my left shoulder and a series of operations meant it was in bandages for six months. Somebody suggested I carry on shooting with my arm in a sling and it worked. I just became obsessed with shooting because it was a sport I could enjoy despite my injury.”
After leaving school – he boarded at Millfield – he started a design course at Bournemouth University but dropped out after a year when he discovered double trap shooting. “Within six months of trying it for the first time, I won the European Junior Championships and was offered sponsorship from UK Sport to take it up more seriously. From that point on I didn’t look back and won every major event, despite being much younger than most of the other competitors.”
His good fortune continued when he met former Olympic shooting champion Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Hasher al-Maktoum. The pair became good friends after meeting at the Beijing Olympics and Sheikh Ahmed, a member of Dubai’s ruling family, offered to coach Wilson for free. “We call Ahmed my ‘Dubai Dad’. He may live 7,000 miles away but there’s no doubt that I couldn’t have won this gold medal without his help.”
Wilson hopes to make a career out of demonstration shoots and sponsorship but his eyes are already on a second gold, at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “I can’t believe that I have been able to make a career out of the sport I love. Some people say that my height gives me an unfair advantage when I am shooting, which is rubbish. Anybody can be a crack shot but it takes time and dedication, as well as a little bit of luck.”