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Behind the striped veil of OURC: What rifling’s really like.

I have received my full share of facial expressions when I mention that I do rifle shooting, including surprise, fascination, and of course an element of concern. I have learnt to expect the question “But what are you shooting?”. I answer “no, we do not shoot living animals or humans, and no, it is not clay-pigeon.” We are currently half-way through the smallbore season, in which we use .22 calibre rifles, shooting unmoving black dots on pieces of card, 25 yards away. The smallbore category can be shot up to 100 metres. The fullbore category, up to 1200. Larger rifles, larger ammunition, and shot outside in our somewhat dubious British summers. 

Oxford University Rifle Club (OURC) was founded in August 1859 and the first varsity match was shot in 1862. Last year the club took some massive steps forwards, especially impressive after the challenges of COVID-19. I was selected for the smallbore Blues team in my first year at Oxford, having already shot before university, and managed to achieve my Half Blue award at the Heslop varsity match. I was one of four to get their Half Blue that day, and two more joined us with the Chancellors and Humphrey fullbore varsities a few months later. Oxford won the Chancellors match with our team of eight, as well as the Bentata varsity, consisting of a team of the first four women. This win was the first since 2016 and the first double varsity win in over twenty years. Coupled with our work alongside This Girl Can and developing OURC’s accessibility for visually impaired shooters, these accomplishments led us to win the Sports Club of the Year 2022-23. To shed some light on our world, from socials to stereotypes, I will delve into life within OURC. 

Shooting typically consists of lying in a prone position on the ground, with the rifle resting on your left hand and lodged into your right shoulder (vice-versa for left-handers). To support this position, the shooter wears a specific jacket and a sling which attaches to the rifle, allowing their left arm to relax in position and not physically hold it up. If the sling is not sitting in the right place whilst shooting, you can tell by how your hand turns quite a lovely shade of purple due to a lack of blood. Similarly, if the left elbow is not placed correctly below the rifle, or if the sling is too loose, the rifle will sink to the left or right. Even your heartbeat will affect your scores. A 1 mm movement of the athlete in position can cause a loss of two points at 25 yards. One determined fresher this year said: “In principle, it seems easy. But there is always something which makes it go wrong”.

The goal? To hit as close to the middle of the black dot as possible, ten times in a row. A shot in the middle without breaking the line is ten points. To achieve a maximum score of 100 is extremely impressive and rare to see, even amongst the Blues team. To score a Full Blue score, you must shoot two of these cards and achieve 195 or over in a varsity match (that is an average of 97.5 per card) and do the equivalent in fullbore a few months later. When asked about his series of magnificent scores which led to his full blue award, James Oakland, our only current Full Blue member in OURC, said “I’d like to say: ‘ah I’m the best, I’ve got a full blue’ and be so smug about it. But I got lucky, you know, 197 in the Heslop that year. I’ve never shot that well since. I’ve never shot that well before. I got lucky to get it.” 

Yet when you consider that he was making himself shoot around fifteen times per week, ‘luck’ cannot have been the most important factor in his scores. He would “wake up each morning and spend twenty minutes of mindfulness, just sort of relaxing. The other thing a lot of people do is when they go out for their runs, that’s when they’re picturing themselves shooting, because that’s when your heart rate is at an elevated position which is what it’s going to be whilst shooting, and that’s what you need to be focusing on… That’s easy to do – if you can be bothered.” In my own ten years of shooting, the self-discipline required to get consistently high scores is the most difficult part of the sport. A clear head is something which athletes from all sports will say, but the irony of this sport is that you must also retain a low heart rate. 

When training from day to day, I have also found that it’s hard to know when to stop. Despite the physical strains on the body seeming minimal during a shoot, it takes a lot out of the athlete. The more you shoot, the more your muscles become tired.

Another thing that comes with this sport are certain preconceptions and stereotypes. In her efforts to take the club to the next level, Asia put it perfectly that “shooting can have negative connotations with the words ‘shoot’ and ‘gun’, and that really doesn’t reflect what we do. It’s actually a very relaxed sport, and I wanted people to see that and to see the character of OURC”. She highlights the importance of showing “how much fun we all have, what a lovely cohesive group of people it is” through posting on social media. Posting about socials, dinners, and successes have brought our family of alumni and students even closer together. 

Someone last year said to me that she wanted to join OURC but was scared because she thought shooting was a man’s sport. This stereotype does exist, and the predominance of men in older generations of the community is clear. However, this is certainly no longer the case. Seonaid Macintosh and Katie Gleeson, GB smallbore shots, are using social media to change this stereotype and share the sport with younger generations of shooters.. Last year, OURC worked alongside This Girl Can, a campaign started in 2015 aimed at increasing inclusion for women within sport. Asia, now in her second year as President of OURC, spoke to me about her experiences as a woman: “I started shooting because someone told me that I’d never hit the target because I was a girl. I proved them wrong and pin-holed three shots to a tin can.” Now, half of the committee of OURC, and half of the first team are women. 

When OURC won the Bentata varsity last year, I remember seeing Asia welling up out of sheer pride for the club’s achievements. She adds about the Chancellors match: “to have that moment when the winner was announced, I don’t know if you remember, but I had a million people shaking me and screaming, and I just… I hadn’t taken my shooting jacket off for about an hour, I was so stunned at the result.” 

Aiming to experience more moments like these this year, everyone at OURC is training extremely hard to be at their best and shoe those tabs in the upcoming varsities. New equipment, made possible by several amazing Oxford alumni contributions, and new faces in the club mean that OURC will continue to flourish for many years to come. Perhaps even a few readers will now want to be part of that future and give the sport a try next academic year. 

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