It was a warm misty morning as I made my way down the drive into Palmetto Bluff. Truth be told, it was 71 degrees and just two days before Christmas, and the balmy temps were putting a little damper on my holiday spirit. My mission for the morning was to learn to shoot sporting clays, but as I headed to the Shooting Club I had already begun to panic, and for a few reasons.
My first concern was my hand-eye coordination. I am great at hitting things rolling toward me on the ground like soccer balls, kick balls and the like. Hitting a softball (or a wiffle, for that matter) at eye level has not been my forte. I had a brief flashback to high school physical education. Bases loaded. Two outs. I swing and I miss. Game over. And then my mind quickly fast-forwarded a decade and a half to my first shooting experience with “Big Jay,” the Director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy. “You see it, you see it?” he asked repeatedly, referring to the deer in the field. “No, no, no…” was my unfortunate reply. I held that darn gun on my shoulder for what felt like an hour before I could actually focus my eyes to see anything through the scope. I think it is safe to say I was Jay’s greatest disappointment. So I simultaneously began breathing exercises and reasoning with myself that today would be different — I would see something, and then eventually hit it.
The second reason for my trepidation was (and I know this sounds silly) my outfit. I wanted to look the part because I knew there would be a photographer (because I hired him), but didn’t want to seem like I was trying too hard. Of course, my boots were Aerosoles not Barbour, so in hindsight there probably was no need for worry about looking like I tried too hard. 70 degrees in boots and a quilted jacket also leaves the door wide open for profuse sweating, which was also (i.e. is always) a concern.
Finally, the fear of making a fool of myself as a result of the aforementioned issues, or for a million other potential reasons, ran through my head. As a little background it is important to note that I was coming off of a pretty embarrassing adventure from the day before and I needed some redemption. Long story short, my fear of heights got the best of me, and I spent an afternoon sitting on a log at sea level watching my friends enjoy Hilton Head’s aerial adventure course after I chickened out. Those same friends were joining me at the Shooting Club. Things could only get better.
So, as I bounded toward the Shooting Clubhouse (which, if you haven’t seen it, is absolute perfection smack dab in the middle of the hardwood bottom) I was met first by Lucy, daughter of Shooting Club Instructor Michael Perry, and of the four-legged, black Labrador persuasion. She peppered me with kisses, didn’t judge my cheap yet comfortable boots and was the perfect welcome wagon and stress-diffuser. Next I met Pete, also of the four-legged persuasion, a yellow lab belonging to Sarah Sanford.
After my fill of puppy love, I spotted Perry and quickly pulled him aside before my friends arrived to apprise him of my aerial adventure failure from the day before and put the pressure on that he really needed to make me look good. He briefly looked at me like I was crazy, but ever the Southern gentleman, he quickly recovered, nodded and said, “Of course,” and we were off.
Just being around guns can be cause for nerves. And for me it was. I was concerned with how to carry it. Was I going to have to load it? What if I break it? Alas, Perry started with the basics. As a third-generation hunting and fishing guide and with a NSCA Level II Certification, his training is in the focus and mental game of shooting, so it only natural that he start at the beginning, even for the seasoned shooter.
As we made our way via golf cart to the five-stand, my borrowed gun (a Beretta Silver Pigeon) resting on my shoulder, I silently gave myself a pep-talk. Before I knew it, we were standing beneath a stunning tree canopy, I was sliding on my eye protection, and Perry asked if I was ready.
His first lesson was about focus: “Our job security is teaching people how to focus. When you feel it in your bones that’s when you are shooting.” Well shoot, literally, because focusing on just one thing at a time is not my thing. I’m a multi-tasking kind of gal, but Perry didn’t wait for my nerves to settle in and instead began pulling targets just so I could follow them with my eyes, see how the fell, and attempt to spot the detail – alas, something to focus on.
Part yoga, part meditation, I actually enjoyed the mental focus that it took to see the grooves in the clay as it moved across the tree line. I absorbed the speed (or lack thereof) at which it moved, silently memorizing the rhythm of its flight.
I was anxious and missed my first two targets, but I quickly realized I also wasn’t listening to Perry. “Focus on the target, and let your hands follow,” he said. Frankly, that only made sense after I saw what I did incorrectly. If you consider the gun as an extension of your hands, and move your body (hands included) with the flight of the target, and pull the trigger, you will have success. And I did – target three was a direct hit (sorry for going all Top Gun on you), and my reaction was a somewhat embarrassing exclamation of “Boom!”
Perry didn’t let me go out a winner though. Instead he pushed me by multiple targets from different directions, challenging my brain to focus and then re-focus. In many sports speed is the key to your success, but I found that in shooting clays, taking your time and concentrating is the real art. Once you have mastered the art of trusting your eyes, and allowing your body to instinctually follow, you will be better prepared to react to speed or multiple targets. It is your focus that gets faster, not necessarily your trigger.
As I settled back into the golf cart and we made our way back through the maritime forest, I found peace as I reflected on the process of setting my stance, settling the gun on my shoulder, and sliding my cheek into place on the cool gun. The self-control to wait for the target, to watch it, and then time my reaction was exhilarating. The more patient I was, the more success I had. Taking the time to breathe was the most important lesson of all. Perhaps a metaphor for life in general.
Written by Courtney Hampson
Photography by Mark Staff