The Essex Masters is one of the highlights of the British shooting calendar. Masterminded by the Essex Gun Company in conjunction with John Dyson, it is a non-registered event allowing everyone to shoot regardless of affiliations to sanctioned shooting bodies. 200 targets, £75 entry and a staggering £28,000 prize fund; what’s not to like?Having decided to drive down South the night prior to shooting, I picked up shooting friend Ian en-route and we had a good run down to our Travelodge approximately half an hour away from Hepworth Hall Shooting Ground. An early arrival permitted enough time to socialise in the bar and after a few night caps we retired to our rooms in the hope of waking up fresh for the challenge of the Black and Red courses at the 2014 Essex Masters.

The ground was straightforward enough to find and the entrance endorsed with a large “Essex Gun Masters” banner. Parking was in one of the fields and as always the on-site staff were amiable and polite clearly indicating where they would like you to park up. The main entrance/exit route was paved with plastic grids to alleviate any risk of the car park becoming boggy if the weather turned. The forecast for us was decidedly pleasant; sunny with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees.

The registration area was in the top corner of the main marque and the talents of Phil and Marie from nearby Barrow Heath Shooting Ground had been enlisted with Marie assisting Rose Dyson with booking shooters in and Phil tasked with ensuring that squads went out on time. Essex Gun had a couple of tents with products ranging from Pilla glasses, to clothing from Musto and the range of cartridges from title sponsor Gamebore. They also had their gun trailer exhibiting the latest offerings from Caesar Guerini. Frock, Stock and Barrel were also in attendance offering custom moulded CENS ear protection and promoting their simulated game shooting days.

All booked in we loaded up our cartridge bags and readied ourselves for the first stand of the Black course. A couple of delayed shooter in the squad prior to us meant that our 10:30am squad started 15 minutes early so having introduced ourselves to the rest of the squad, a friendly group of regulars at Southdown, it was down to business.

Each course consisted of thirteen stands; twelve of which comprised of four pairs with the thirteenth featuring four single targets with the shooter afforded the luxury of “full use of gun” at each of the targets, to complete the 100 target remit. John Dyson has a reputation for setting enjoyable yet testing targets. Both courses delivered as each and every one of the twenty six stands was well thought-out with seemingly straightforward presentations requiring a little more thought than initially expected.

Target wise the diversity was excellent with everything from close crossers to big booming battues emerging out of treelines on offer. Several stands were enhanced by features such as hay bales, fencing panels of cut outs in the hedge line to alter the timing of when the shooter could see, and shoot, the targets, further testing their skills levels.

To say I started my assault on the Black course badly would be an understatement. Whether it was the after effects of the night before, over analysing everything, trying too hard or a combination of everything I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that I was significantly below par dropping over twenty targets between stands 2 and 7 meaning that I was going to have to regroup and rethink my approach if I wanted to salvage anything close to a half-respectable score.

Fortunately for my sanity the voice of reason, Henry Hopking, was in the vicinity and had been subjected to the spectacle of me shooting at least three of the aforementioned stands. Confirming my failing attempt he put forward some suggestions as to how I could climb out of the proverbial hole that I’d managed to dig myself into and begin to resurrect my score. The main frustration that I was encountering was the fact that although everything felt right set up wise and looked right, it clearly wasn’t.

With renewed confidence I started afresh, keen to put into practice the changed plan of approach and gradually began to shoot more towards the level that I had become accustomed to. In stark contrast to the start of my round, I dropped 6 targets over the final six stands to finish on an underwhelming 68 for the course. Shooting badly sucks. Shooting badly with no apparent cause sucks more, so at the very least I was thankful to finish the round with a little clarity over what had occurred and salvaged a little self respect by finishing significantly better than I began.

Never have I looked forward to a chicken salad baguette more! The break of approximately 45 minutes between rounds gave me a chance to veg out and relax completely clearing my mind of the previous 13 stands. Catering on site was good quality and reasonably priced with hot and cold food and drinks readily available. A slice of carrot cake ensured that I met my calorie quota for the day and I felt a renewed keenness to shoot the Red course that afternoon.

The red course featured slightly more diversity in terms of topography with a handful of early stands shot over water bringing some additional urgency into the equation when deciding which target of the pair to shoot first. Another well structured course saw a good mixture of on-report and simultaneous pairs determine the pressure remainder constant throughout the shoot, yet it never once felt relentless or daunting until the final stand when you knew that the targets were set to test even the very best!

From the very first stand of the Red course I felt like a different shooter; calmer, more confident and more instinctive in my approach. My shooting became smoother and more assured transforming the dodgy chipped kills of the morning round into hanging dust clouds. One highlight of the Red course for me was shooting stand 8 a good on report pair of a pacey quartering away blaze target and an equally quick right to left I was straight up until the final pair. I missed the final target for a 7 and the scorer gasped unable to mask her disappointment; I thanked her smiled and moved on.

Aside from the obvious difference in score, I felt an enhanced connected with the targets throughout the second round, enabling me to recognise errors in my set up and implement the necessary corrections. I simply did not have that ability earlier on and suffered because of it. Improving at shooting is a long-term project for me. I am realistic enough to appreciate that advancements in knowledge do not immediately translate into rocketing scores but the underlying intake of knowledge will be beneficial in the future enabling my shooting to develop further.

My scores are indicators of how well I applied myself on the day. As a measure of how I shot the course they are my harshest critic and highlight any weaknesses to my shooting.  I know that I shot the first half of the Black course below par but equally I know that I shot the second half, and the Red course as a whole, to my ability. Had I applied myself better I could have shot better than normal for longer than normal and really built a score; not doing that makes me want to do that even more next time I shoot.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2014 Essex Masters. It was well run, superb value for money and tested my ability. Leading after Day 1 was George Digweed MBE on a sterling 189. Will that be beaten? Personally I think that there is a mid 19o’s score out there for someone on form and with the weather looking steady and the majority of the top shots still to compete the competition is wide open. The Essex Masters runs  through to Sunday 12th April. To anyone still to shoot it; best of luck and I hope that you have a great time!

A gallery of photos from the event: