Saucer-shaped missiles made of pitch and pulverised limestone fly out of a hole in the ground at 100 mph and Ed Ling raises his custom-made Italian shotgun and, on a good day, will hit them virtually every time.
So will his wife Abbey, his dad Steve and his young brother Theo, because they are the most successful family in the history of UK big-time clay pigeon shooting.
Ed, at 33 the current world champion and bronze medal winner at the Rio Olympics, is already aiming for gold at Tokyo in 2020 as part of an ambition to win everything the sport can offer.
So it’s a surprise to hear him say: “There’s more to life than clay pigeon shooting” and to admit that his first thought after receiving his Rio medal was getting back to the family’s Somerset farm to help with the harvest.
“Of course shooting is massively important – I’ve been doing it since I was 12 – but the farm pays the bills and when you’ve spent the year looking after the crops you want to be there for the harvest,” he said.
Ed holds a world record for shooting 200 clays out of 200 in his specialist discipline, something never done before or since.
It won him the European championship. Abbey is a five times ladies champion and a current British record-holder.
Steve, father of the family, was a British champion, Olympic coach and is still winning vintage events.
But it’s 16-year-old Theo who is currently the object of particular media attention as the youngestever winner of an under-21 world championship and a European medallist.
His eyes are also on the 2020 Olympics – and, of course, beating his brother. “It’s the family dream for us all to qualify for Tokyo,” Ed says. “To go to the Olympics with all of us – my wife, younger brother and myself and dad. How good would that be?”
There are over 20 disciplines in clay pigeon shooting – formally known as Inanimate Bird Shooting – although most can be grouped under the main headings of sporting, skeet and trap. Olympic trap shooting, and its variation Universal Trench, are where you will find the Lings.
Clays are fired from 15 concealed traps and the unexpected heights, speeds and angles make this the ultimate shooting challenge. Although sports shooting is a multi-million pound industry even the top clay shooters are still basically amateur and as British number one, Ed still works full-time on the farm and funds his own training and competition expenses.
“Ed started shooting clays when he was 12,” Steve remembers. “We had this old trap on the farm. One Sunday I put two or three clays up in the air and told him what to do. I could see straight away that he could be something special. He got into the England team at only 13 and became a county champion.
“He’s probably the only shooter to have won junior, European and world titles. He competed in the Athens Olympics when he was only 21 and was very unlucky not to win a medal in London in 2012. We were thrilled when he was third time lucky in Rio.”
Starting young seems to be the key to clay shooting success and Abbey was shooting for England little more than a year after taking up the sport. Recently she was in the team which won GB its first gold at the world championships. Theo was only eight when he first picked up a gun.
“My dad just said: ‘Have a go and see what you think of it’.”
He was 13 when he made the national team and in 2015 qualified to compete with 21 year olds. Now he’s the youngest-ever under-21 world champion. Steve can see that Theo’s catching up: “At the European championships he beat Ed in the first 50 – he got 50 and Ed shot 49.
Ed eventually beat him but he really had to pull his finger out. “It’s great when we go shooting as a family. In one recent event, Theo won the juniors, Ed got the overall high gun and I won the veterans. If we’d taken Abbey she would probably have won the ladies.”
Steve believes that in the UK the sport doesn’t get the publicity and recognition it deserves partly because of the governmental attitude to firearms.
In Italy, the mecca of clay pigeon shooting, things are very different.
“Italy is the top shooting country and the best guns are made there. We are very short of shooting grounds but in Italy nearly every village has one – in one area there are about 20 shooting grounds and ten gun factories. Go there for a competition and you’re shooting in front of hundreds of people.”
Top shooters have tailor-made guns – the very best could cost you £50,000.
Shooting clays, you fire at where you’re looking above the gun. You don’t sight it like a rifle. As Steve explains: “A competition gun has to have the right stock and be the right height and be set up to fire where you’re looking.
“Most people want a gun to shoot about 60 per cent above the point of aim. Ed’s gun, at 30 yards, would probably shoot a metre above the point of aim. He’s always wanted a gun that shoots high, but it’s a personal thing. It’s purely hand-to-eye co-ordination – you’re using a subconscious part of the brain.
“When you’re stood on that line, even after years of experience, you’re still fighting the little demons in your head. You can’t think about the clays you’ve shot or the ones you’ve got to shoot. Most important of all, don’t think about the ones you’ve missed.”