Staring down the shotgun barrel

While the Indian shotgun team came back from Lahati with nothing but hurt pride, less than 10 days later, the pistol and rifle team returned from Rio with five gold, two silver and two bronze, and two Tokyo Olympics quota places.
Representative Image.(PTI)
Representative Image.(PTI)
Updated on Nov 04, 2019 10:57 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByAjai Masand & Navneet Singh

In August, the two shooting World Cups—one for shotgun in Lahati, Finland, and the other for pistol and rifle at Rio, Brazil—offered a perfect portrait of the state of the sport in India. While the Indian shotgun team came back from Lahati with nothing but hurt pride, less than 10 days later, the pistol and rifle team returned from Rio with five gold, two silver and two bronze, and two Tokyo Olympics quota places.

This was a breakthrough year for India’s rifle and pistol shooters—they dominated each of the four pistol/rifle World Cups of the season, leaving powerhouses like China and Russia behind for the first time, set new world records, topped the global rankings and clinched nine Olympic quotas. In the same time, the Indian shotgun team found themselves without a single medal or Olympic quota.

Their last hope of bagging at least one measly Olympic quota now solely — and sorely—rests on the Asian Championships at Doha starting on Tuesday.

How did shotgun, the discipline which kick-started India’s prolific interest in shooting back in 2004 when double trap marksman Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won India’s first individual Olympics silver, lose its aim?

There is a Crisis

“Yes, there is a crisis. We don’t have the depth of talent in shotgun compared to pistol and rifle,” says Mansher Singh, the national shotgun coach and one of the best trap shooters India has produced. “It’s primarily because of poor infrastructure, non-availability of equipment and the very high cost factor involved in training.”

Unlike rifle and pistol, shotgun is a spectator-friendly sport—the targets fly in the air, the marksman’s gun responds with a reverberating crack, and it is clear from the plume of debris that a bullet has hit its target. How well do you remember that image of Rathore in his wraparound sunglasses, blowing at the smoke from the barrell of his gun?

Yet, interest in the sport has dwindled.

“This is the result of fewer youngsters coming into shotgun. The ratio of youngsters coming into pistol/rifle and shotgun is extremely disproportionate; I would say probably 1:10, if not more,” says Mansher.

The main reason, he says, is simple economics.

“You can fire an air pellet for less than a rupee (in rifle/pistol). The electronic targets can be used for years,” he says. “All these factors favour air (weapons). The result is more youngsters coming in, which ensures very high levels of competition at every level.”

A hole in the pocket

Fire a shotgun, and the costs go up by upto a hundred times: The two cartridges (that a marksman needs per target) costs around 90. A clay target is priced at R8 per piece. Together, that works out to roughly Rs100 per target. Multiply that with 100-150 shots a day—the average practice session—and the budget hits Rs15,000 a day or R4.5 lakh a month.

There is another prohibitive reason for shotgun’s failure to attract more shooters—air rifles and pistols can be bought simply off the rack; the shotgun is not made in India, and has to be imported. But there’s a catch—you can’t import a gun unless you have reached a certain level of proficiency in the sport already, that is, you are an established, competitive shooter. Which means, if you are a young shooter interested in the sport, you simply can’t get a gun.

tough for newcomers

Brijbhan Singh, a former trap shooter and coach who shot alongside the legendary Dr Karni Singh of Bikaner, says, “Importing a shotgun is difficult for newcomers. The pool that we have in shotgun right now basically comprises of shooters whose parents were — or are —shotgun exponents.”

Shagun Chowdhary, one of India’s top women’s shotgun shooters, says, not having a decent talent pool makes it virtually impossible for the second rung and juniors to displace the seniors. “There is stagnation at the top; the battle for the top-three slots is among a small group of half a dozen shooters, sometimes less. There is no one to challenge them, surprise them,” says Chowdhary, who is looking forward to the Asian Championships to secure an Olympic quota, her second after 2012 London.

Rifle and pistol built steadily on the breakthrough successes of shooters like Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang; shooting ranges proliferated, and a bunch of top shooters, including Narang, took to coaching and opened academies. None of that happened with shotgun.

Not enough coaches

“So many homebred pistol/rifle shooters have become coaches and are working wonders, but in shotgun, there are only two, me and Anwer Sultan,” says Mansher, the 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist. “Two shotgun coaches for the Indian shotgun programme is a bit too thin.”

Chowdhary, who is nearing two decades of competitive shooting, rues this absence of good coaching.

“I kept following the wrong technique all these years,” Chowdhary says. “What I thought was good was actually faulty. I realised it quite late. Now I have a new coach and his methods make me feel guilty…I’ve wasted so many years since I started out in 2000!

“With no proper coaching system at the grassroots, we base our technique on trial and error but that doesn’t iron out the flaws, we carry them forward to the senior level.”

Ankur Mittal, the current world champion in double trap, says lack of infrastructure adds to shotguns woes.

infrastructure issues

“Whatever few ranges we have, they are also not properly maintained. There has to be a collective effort from all the stakeholders to raise the bar and provide a healthy environment,” he says.

Chowdhary agrees, saying Italy’s shotgun legacy was not built in a day.

“With multiple small ranges, friendly competitions are a common feature there,” she says. “There are small ranges in every town and city, which gives an opportunity to everyone, spectators included, to try their hand at, and enjoy, clay pigeon shooting.”

With only three ranges in Northern India — Delhi, Jaipur and Patiala — having shotgun facilities, it’s impossible to build that club culture, which is mushrooming in pistol/rifle with hundreds of 10m ranges spread across towns, and even villages in India.

Yet, with the rare elite shooter like Mittal coming up against the odds, there were hopes that double trap (DT) could still be India’s best hope at global competitions. That target flew away when DT was removed from the 2020 Games curriculum.

Double Trap and trap

Mittal, one of the best DT exponents in the world, has been left “devising” ways to move to trap, but so far, it has proved difficult. The transition is challenging and he is currently out of the national squad, training with 2004 Athens Olympics champion Ahmed Al Maktoum in the UAE. His next target is the national championships in November.

Mansher says DT and trap are worlds apart. “Had DT been part of the Olympic curriculum, we would certainly have had an Olympic quota,” he says. “We’ve won medals at all levels in DT; now with DT out of the Olympic curriculum, juniors are finding it tough to transit to trap, while the seniors have lost a lot of ground.”

To move from double trap to trap involves not just a change in equipment, but a fundamental shift in technique.

In DT, one can anticipate the target trajectory and direction. In trap, where a computer-controlled machine throws out 10 left moving, 10 right moving and 5 straight targets in a randomized sequence for each shooter, things are far less predictable.

“You have to unlearn DT to learn trap,” Mittal says.

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