I've had an interest in guns all my life.
But it was only in the last year, having settled into the roles of landowner, home owner and card-carrying member of the naughty forties, that I've been able to indulge that interest fully, and devote regular time to shooting.
I've been shooting at least a few times a week for about six months now, and I've made a few observations that I hope can help others who are new to airgunning navigate the twisting, turning path of this exhilarating (and sometimes exasperating) sport.
1: It's (mostly) not worth buying cheap guns.
After starting out wanting a PCP rifle, I decided to take the cautious route, and got into target shooting and small-game hunting with a Stoeger ATAC S2 in 5.5mm.
I didn't read any impartial reviews by owners. I bought the gun new for three compelling reasons: A) It came recommended by Richard, a good friend who's since become my hunting partner and who had the same gun in 4.5mm, B) I liked the looks and detailing, and C) it cost me R2 995 brand new, plus couriering and two tins of pellets.
The gun fit me nicely, came standard with a good scope, and was friendly to use.
It was also the most terrible gun I've ever owned. The standard trigger was heavy as anything with too much creep, the recoil could sting your cheek if you didn't hold the gun just right, and accuracy was a foreign concept. It wouldn't group consistently no matter what pellets I used, what improvements I made to my basic shooting technique, or how well I read distances and wind.
Richard had exactly the same problems. Both of us sold our Stoegers within two weeks of each other. Richard did a lot of reading of impartial reviews, and replaced his Stoeger with a Gamo CFX / Hawke 3-9x40 combo. (His current pigeon count with the gun is about 50, and I downed my first two birds with the same gun.)
I went the PCP route and bought a modified Artemis M10 from Wimpie Swart.
Knowing what I now know about springers, I wouldn't have touched the Stoeger. I would have saved up a bit more, and bought something like a second-hand Weihrauch HW77. But that's how it goes: when you're new to shooting, you still think it's possible to get something for nothing. Richard paid less for the Gamo than I did for my Stoeger, and it's an excellent gun for the price. But in my limited experience, a gun like the Gamo is the exception, not the rule.
If you're inexperienced, a bad gun can lead you down blind alleys that are hard to get out of. With the Stoeger, I found myself doubting and second-guessing every move I made:
What the hell am I doing wrong?
Is it the gun?
Is it me?
Or is it both?
Too much of that could lead you to go "Fokitol!" and not pick up the gun again.
2: If your shooting style and/or chosen specialty is ambitious, it pays to buy a gun that's capable of rising to meet your ambitions.
Me, I love the feeling of putting a pellet on top of a 50c-size target at 50 yards. That's also a skill I can leverage for hunting. It's not something I can (yet) repeat on a constant basis, but that doesn't stop me trying!
But I've also learned the hard way that the gun you're using has to be capable of doing what you're asking it to do.
You're not going to win an HFT competition using an AirForce Condor. Chances are, you're competing against people with the same skill levels as you, who have brought along S510s and HW100s. That's like turning up to run the Two Oceans wearing Wellingtons, when everyone else is wearing lightweight running shoes.
3: Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.
I've heard people confuse eye relief with parallax, all the while not knowing what either one really is.
There's a lot of BS floating around in some sectors, and some people will say anything with a tone of authority just to sound knowledgeable.
But there are also people who spread misinformation - with the best intentions in the world! - because they don't know any better and haven't bothered to verify their own information.
You have been warned.
We live in a world where too many 'facts' are made up on the spot. If you're not sure of something, do your own research and cross-check between sources. There are resources on the internet that can help you with just about any problem you have (or think you have). When I searched for 'basic shooting techniques', Google rewarded me with the BFTA Technical skills manual.
4: Experienced friends who know more than you do are worth more than gold.
I was lucky enough to have Richard as a neighbour when I bought my farm outside De Rust. He's been shooting air rifles for 17 years, and sometimes, his skill with a rifle and as a small-game hunter is so daunting that I feel a little intimidated.
But I've discovered that it's important to be able to push past that feeling. You have to remember that most people with more experience don't want to lord it over you - in fact, they'll usually do anything they can to help.
The best mentor you can find is the one who has realised that the more everybody knows, the more everybody benefits.
Kahlil Gibran said it best:
I am ignorant of absolute truth. But I am humble before my ignorance, and therein lies my honour and reward.
5: Don't buy a second-hand rifle scope unless you know its history.
One thing they don't tell you when you first start shooting is how horribly a lot of rifle scopes have been abused.
I've come across one that was so badly shagged that I could get clear focus on either the target or the reticle - but not both. Firing the rifle (it was a springer), the sight picture suddenly came into focus. Needless to say, I didn't hit a barn door with that rifle.
The scope looked perfectly okay from the outside. The owner intended to sell it at Cash Crusaders.
If you're buying from them, what do you know about rifle scopes?
Know what you're looking at, inspect it carefully, and make up your own mind. There are good reasons why second-hand scopes don't come with money-back guarantees.
6: Professional reviewers are the biggest liars in recorded history.
Never believe a manufacturer's hype. And know that if any product review sounds canned, it probably is canned. Professional reviewers make a large part of their living by, bluntly, being well paid to lie.
Instead of relying on reviews that are obviously biased toward the manufacturer:
- Read as many product reviews from paying customers as you can find. Someone who's forked over his hard-earned for a gun, a scope or pellets has no stake in keeping the manufacturer happy. If something is wrong with it, he won't be shy to tell you what's wrong, chapter and verse.
- If you can, try out the product for yourself. This is especially important for guns. If a R12 000 rifle sprays shots because the stock doesn't fit you, it's best to find that out before you buy.
7: Good shooters aren't born. They're made.
One of the most valuable (and encouraging) lessons I've learned is that there is almost never such a thing as a natural marksman. The men and women with the highest competition scores (and bag counts) are usually the ones who put in the most shooting time day after day, year after year.
Experience makes the difference. And the only way you get experience is through practice.
I'm reminded of the journalist who made a throwaway remark to Gary Player that he was lucky to have won a championship. "Yes", retorted Player. "And the more I practice, the luckier I get!"