How George Digweed Learned to Shoot


Written by George Digweed

February 22, 2024

Like many of you, I started shooting as a boy, beginning with an air rifle and graduating later to a .410.  My mentor – and I guess, the only one I ever had – was my grandfather, a keen shot who liked to shoot rabbits, pigeons, and pheasants and was a crack shot at down the line, our version of American trap.  He tutored me in safety and introduced me to the sport that’s been my life.

After that, I have pretty much worked out everything on my own. I never had formal coaching, and surely never paid anyone to stand behind my shoulder and tell me to “give it a little more lead” or to swing faster. Instead, I relied on what I believe to this day to be a highly effective, potentially more successful way of learning: Self-teaching by observation.

What do I mean by that? Instead of consciously thinking about how to get my barrels in front of a target, I watched others do it. In those days there were several people who were better than me, and I made it my practice to go to the tournaments where they’d compete. I’d even skip a local match that I possibly could have one to go somewhere else and watch the likes of AJ “Smoker” Smith or Philip Fussell and how they went about breaking clays.

There were others: John Wells, Duncan Lawton, John Bidwell, Brian Hebditch, and Barry Simpson all were having great success internationally around the time I got going in the early and mid-1980s. I can’t tell you how much I picked up just by following that lot around courses all over the country. Being a Brit was a big advantage, as we had lots of great shooters and the country is small enough that I could shoot against them every week. In the United States, your top shooters may compete against each other only five or six times a year.

Even before I started specializing in sporting I had a fair bit of success in skeet, winning the Home Internationals for my first big championship. I still believe skeet is a good grounding for sporting shooters, as every target you see in skeet will pop up eventually on a sporting layout. Winning the Home Internationals put a cap on my goals for that sport, and that made my decision to concentrate on sporting easy.

I got such a buzz out of shooting sporting, and the atmosphere was fantastic. You could do three or four sporting shoots in a day, whereas if you shot skeet, it was an all-day commitment.

We’d try to get to as many shoots as we could on a given Sunday. That gave a reasonable chance to win some decent money, and we also would see huge variations in target presentations. At times we would have to plan our trek like a military operation, because the gas stations weren’t open. You started with a full tank in the morning and had to make sure you didn’t run out before you got home!

This all added up to about 1,500 competition targets a month from March through September, and I would try to go to matches where I knew the best were going to be. First, I wanted to see where I was in the general scheme of things, and second, I wanted to watch the best. Those shoots had so much talent in the field, it was as if you were shooting one of your NSCA regionals. Besides all the great shooters I have mentioned, there are probably 20 or more that I left out.

What did I pick up from them? In those days, most of the top shooters — the likes of Barry Simpson, Duncan Lawton, or AJ Smith — came to the targets from behind.  That solidified my confidence that starting behind the bird and swinging through it was a good idea, and I still rely on that technique 95 percent of the time today.

I also watched how they viewed the targets, and how they got themselves ready to call for the bird. Some were very happy-go-lucky and naturally talented. Others had to work at it. All of this was very interesting and played a part in my career going forward, even if I’m not certain we knew too much about the mental game and shooting in the subconscious in those days.

But perhaps the biggest moment in my early career came in 1987, when I went to the French professional championships. It not only was my first international competition; it was my first time out of the country.

There were 64 competitors, and we all put up a fair sum of money to enter. We went head-to-head with each other until finally there were only two shooters left, fighting for a very handsome purse.

In the first round I drew Pascal Delaroche, who had won the World FITASC the year before. In those days, I was Joe Nobody, having never competed on that level. And the French decided they would handicap the field, giving me a two-target head start on Delaroche before we even started shooting. The format was 20-bird shoot-offs, best two out of three.

To make a long story short, I shot 20×20 on the first round and 19×20 on the second. With my two-bird handicap, Delaroche couldn’t beat me even if he had shot two straights. So I knocked the world champion out in the first round.

That was a light bulb moment. I knew I could compete against a world champion, albeit with a two-bird head start. So I started shooting in France and Belgium, competing with and against some of the best European shooters. Once again, I got to watch and learn.

I’m firmly convinced that this is absolutely the best way to learn how to shoot, through observation and experimentation. Yet I’ll also concede that it’s not for everybody. As I was getting started in sporting, I was shooting more targets under competitive pressure in three months than most shooters today might shoot in a year. I built up a great deal of experience in a relatively short time.

Plus, sporting was generally more casual then. Some of the shoots were 50 or 60 birds, set up only for a day in a farmer’s hayfield. Today, with most competitions being held at formal grounds, the costs are higher and the 100-bird events take longer. I highly doubt that I could shoot 400 targets on a Sunday today, and to be completely candid I don’t think I would want to.

Today’s shooters have more and better coaching than ever, both in the US and the UK.  Those instructors can help you shorten your initial learning curve immensely and get you started with the proper fundamentals. There’s no doubt that you’ll gain knowledge – but you won’t gain competitive experience until you do it on your own.

Once you’re on your way I’d recommend that you at least try to do some of what I did – compete as much as possible, and try to learn from what you see.  A coach can help you understand what works well for many people, but I’m a firm believer that you ultimately are the best judge of what works best for you.

My success is in no small part a result of developing my ability to shoot subconsciously through competitive experience. Too much coaching may ultimately be a detriment, keeping you too aware and concerned about the process.



This article is adapted from 28-time world champion George Digweed’s videos on shooting, available at


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