In the first of a new series exploiting innovation and new ways of having fun with guns, Clay Shooting’s James Simon tries out a simulated game shoot and reports on the phenomenon.
Simulated game shoots are, as the name suggests, shoots organised to replicate a driven game shoot, but using clays rather than live quarry. Ideal either for clay shooters thinking of trying game out, or rusty game hunters who want a bit of practice before going on the real thing. And even if the thought of shooting a bird is just not for you, don’t dismiss simulated game—chances are you’ll have a great time.
Richard Jones, owner of the Dovey Valley Shooting Ground, organises simulated days on the neighbouring Brynmelin Estate, which lies in spectacular countryside on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. “The estate has been in my family for 105 years,” says Richard.
“My grandfather, Hugh Jones, pioneered clay shooting back in the late 70s, with lots of lads in the middle of nowhere firing traps in all directions. He was a keen game shooter, who wanted to explore how the sport could be developed.”
The emphasis of the simulated game days is very much on having a great day out. Hospitality is really important, so there’ll be frequent breaks for copious amounts of food and drink. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea—you may not be able to eat the ‘birds’ but you certainly won’t go home hungry.
“We run our days exactly as you would a quality game day,” confirms Richard. “We fill you full of champagne and fine food, and make you feel special. It’s very close to the real thing but more affordable.”
These breaks, and the relaxed nature of the drives, provide ample opportunity to socialise, whether that’s catching up with the friends you arrived with or meeting new ones. The whole point is to get away from it all and enjoy a day of non-competitive shooting over stunning countryside.
Lie of the land
Most simulated days are located on private estates, like Brynmelin, that also host driven game shoots in the winter. Often, the same drives will be used. Shooting over the same ground in the summer provides an amazing opportunity for game shots readying themselves for the real thing in the autumn. It also enables the rest of us to experience simply glorious countryside that we wouldn’t ordinarily see.
“Not all simulated shoots are year-round but we’re fortunate to have enough space on the estate to continue right through the winter,” Richard explains.
“There’s about 15 drives over 400 acres, so when the game season starts we just move the simulated days to different drives on another part of the estate. We can manage anything from teams of six right up to teams of 20. Most of our drives are six pegs but we can peg out up to 12 on some. We usually double up, so that shots are loading for one another, which gives us 12 clients on a six peg drive.”
Grins, not wins
Many of us succumb to the mental pressure that every clay inflicts as it springs from the trap. On a simulated game day the only competition is for the widest grin. There’s no score-card, no queue of shots waiting to rob you of your lead, and no disastrous early stand to ruin your score.
“As a competitive clay shot, I recognise the pressure of having to hit every single clay,” confides Huw Stevens, director of Barbury Shooting School.
“This is different, a bit of a laugh in a safe, fun environment.” Huw organises simulated days on four estates not too far from his ground on the Marlborough Downs, but he and his team will travel further afield too for private commissions.
“We’re lucky that all four locations round here have some excellent terrain, so we can throw some pretty high clays. Usually we put on four traditional drives plus a fun team flurry, which people love. We try to make sure we have a grouse drive on each day too, because people find those very exciting.
“It’s a great day out in beautiful surroundings that appeals to the leisure shot looking for laughs as much as the game shot aiming to practice.”
West London Shooting School instructor Mark Heath agrees. “The beauty of a simulated day is the lack of pressure,” says Mark. “There will be plenty of birds, and a good variety too. So, whatever you are struggling with at the ground—fast crossers, or high birds perhaps—a simulated day gives you the opportunity to relax, and to slow down. Nobody’s keeping score so it doesn’t matter if you miss a few or let some go.”
Mark and the West London team run simulated days at Great Tew, a remarkably pretty estate in the rolling hills of the North Cotswolds, and at the Glympton Estate, which is a few miles south, near Woodstock. “Glympton has the most lavish shooting lodge,” says Mark, “which helps to make the day even more exceptional.”
Of course, the finer things in life come at a price, but while nobody will claim a simulated day is cheap, they are a far less expensive option than a driven game day on the same estate. The guaranteed availability of ‘birds’—expect to shoot between 200 and 500—makes them good value too.
Sadly, in the spring and early summer, many simulated game days had to be cancelled due to Covid. However by mid-summer most were running again. At the time of writing, many of the summer-only providers are trying to extend their days well into the autumn. EJ Churchill are running simulated game days at both their West Wycombe Estate and their new ground at Swinton in Yorkshire, with dates going on well into November.
Thimbleby Shooting Ground operates simulated days on the impossibly picturesque, 3,000 acre expanse of Thimbleby Estate, which borders the North York Moors. “We’re blessed with such varied terrain here,” says senior instructor and shoot ground manager Phil Thompson.
“We can offer simulated grouse shooting over real grouse moors, and simulated pheasants in the deep wooded valleys. Because there’s no commercial driven shoot this season we’re extending our simulated days until the end of autumn.”
“We did our first few days at West Woodhay in July,” says Jonathan Irby, managing director at Royal Berkshire Shooting School. “And, because of the challenges of the pandemic, we changed the format slightly. We did three drives, and then returned to the estate’s Lodge. Everybody tucked into a marvellous, individually packaged picnic, before heading out for the final two drives.
“We’re very sensible about social distancing, so much so that unless shots are in family groups, they have to load for themselves. That’s about the only inconvenience, and people have been wonderful at following the rules.”
Jonathan sums up the appeal of simulated days perfectly. “If you love shooting on new ground, in beautiful settings, where you can experience truly interesting targets, then a simulated game day provides a huge amount of fun.”
Top tips for a great day
Mark Heath, instructor at West London Shooting School, shares his tips on how to ensure you enjoy a cracking day out.
- Listen to the safety officer. It’s unlikely there will be cages at the pegs so, even in the heat of the moment, make sure safety is your first concern.
- Use light loads, 21g or 24g with 7 or 8 shot is fine. Fibre wads only. You are going to be firing a lot of cartridges, so don’t let a sore shoulder ruin your day.
- A modern O/U is probably a better bet than side-by-side because, with the throughput of shells and the summer heat, your barrels are going to get hot. Take a glove if you bring a side-by-side.
- Dress for the weather. There’s no requirement for tweeds, especially if it’s a hot day.
- Poaching—pinching your neighbour’s clays—is a big no-no on a driven game shoot, but all part of the fun on a simulated day. Give as good as you get!
Relax and enjoy yourself!