It is not often – and I think I speak for all shooting men here – that one sees a fellow gun wearing a flared black leather miniskirt. It’s the sort of thing that debases the sport. Nobody minds how you dress in the privacy of your own home, but in the field it is considered bad form, a bit like not wearing a tie. And yet that is what I witnessed earlier this year. Only in this particular case the he was a she. She had twinned her skirt with a pair of black leather boots complemented by a tweed waistcoat backed in pink silk. What’s more, her shooting chums sported white jeans, tailored jackets and designer sunglasses. And if the lot of them looked as if they could have stepped off the set of a rustic Sex and the City, well, welcome to the rapidly changing world of the shoot – for the best part of the last two centuries a bastion of testosterone.
The first time I went shooting, for example, in the early 1980s, there were no women. Well, there was a woman in a headscarf who arranged lunch for us – a boys’ lunch of pie and mash and a few overcooked vegetables. On another occasion, a gun brought along a call girl – to the general disapproval of all – and there have been times when various girlfriends have been hanging about but have inevitably retired to the warmth of the lodge after a couple of drives. Otherwise, my experience of women in the shooting field can be counted on the fingers of a mitten. Shooting has, for the most part, always been a clubbable, if expensive, hobby for blokes who like standing around in muddy fields going bang and talking about guns, cars and business.
Or rather it was. Change is afoot. Among the increasing number of women taking up the sport is a rather conspicuous collection, most of whom work in the City, who have joined together to shoot as well as to shop and to lunch (and, it would appear, to meet the occasional man). They call themselves the Covert Girls, and I encountered them at the Hilldrop Farm simulated game shoot in Wiltshire on a glorious summer’s day.
The first thing that struck me was the cars. The black Range Rovers so often associated with shooting were this time interspersed with a handful of top-of-the-range Minis. I saw at least one personalised number plate. A dozen well-dressed women in full make-up were tucking into bacon butties with a clutch of gamekeepers on hand to serve them. My host and the organiser of the Covert Girls, Claire Zambuni, had not yet arrived. She had been the last to bed at the previous night’s wild party at The Bear Hotel in Hungerford and subsequently blamed one too many tequila shots for her tardiness.
When she finally swung into the car park she fizzed like an Alka-Seltzer. Her energy was infectious and the women clustered around her before she led them to the first drive where they took their pegs. Most of them seemed very comfortable with their guns – some of which were the best shotguns money can buy – and as clay after clay was atomised in the sky above, it was clear that, far from posturing as Annie Oakleys in mascara, they were, to a woman, very accomplished shots.
The Covert Girls is an offshoot (so to speak) of The Shooting Society, which was started by Zambuni for her London club, Home House, eight years ago. Her idea was to create “unusual and sociable events within the shooting sector” and to that end she arranged corporate and individuals’ shooting days that would also include, for example, dinners at exclusive restaurants or visits, on the shooting ground, from top London retailers. Through that society, Zambuni, who has a background in marketing, sponsorship and events, realised that many women liked the idea of shooting but that most had no idea how to go about it.
“My aim was to make women feel more comfortable in taking up the sport by offering all-female game days at some of the UK’s best shooting estates,” she said. “Many women who would like to shoot are embarrassed to try it because they think it is an all-male club and they have no idea about the manners and mores of the sport.”
Zambuni, who shoots with a Holland & Holland sporting 12 bore, is now considered one of the best shots in the country, and is the perfect example of a woman who had no previous history of the sport. In fact, she was, she says, “an anti-hunting, vegetarian, arty liberal”. That was until 10 years ago when she was given a lesson (the Green Feathers Course for Novice Lady Shooters) at the Holland & Holland shooting school in Northwood, Middlesex, and subsequently underwent a Damascene conversion. Since then she has lived and breathed guns and ammunition, and is now, she says, “taking responsibility for what she eats”. She is a member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, a chairman of the London social committee of the BASC (British Association of Shooting), as well as the brand ambassador for the new Barbour ladies Sporting range and Jeep’s new Grand Cherokee, among others.
Last year she founded the Covert Girls club to attract greater numbers of women to the sport and, more importantly, to make it fun for them. Members, who pay £250 a year and receive a club pin, a branded gilet, invitations to exclusive events, discounts from retailers and BASC membership, must abide by the five Covert Girl rules, which are: never keep your lipstick in your cartridge pocket; poach each other’s birds mercilessly, but never each other’s men; always acquire and shoot weapons that are beyond one’s financial means; support fellow Covert Girls at all times; and, finally, all loaders must be male, “hot”, extremely attentive and know how to dress in white tie.
I would never classify myself as hot – although the weather was very hot on the day in mention – and I don’t own white-tie attire, but I am male and I can load a gun, so I spent the morning helping one or two of the women turn their shooters into Gatling guns.
“This beats going for a walk,” said London-based management consultant Kiko Thiel as she broke her gun in half for me to slip in a pair of 12-bore cartridges. “Why do I shoot? Well, I find concentrating on the clays meditative. It’s a chance to meet fun people – and I love getting the better of a man when I shoot.”
Then there is Nicole Escue, who works for a big US commercial bank in London and has been shooting for five years. She loves the sport and says it is good for business. “It’s the new golf,” she said. “Sometimes I am the only woman on a shoot, but it doesn’t matter. It is not the other male guns that ever trouble me, but the keepers. They are usually the most stand-offish but once they see you can shoot they become your biggest fans.”
Meanwhile, Aurélie Lauduique, a senior compliance officer for one of Europe’s leading hedge funds, declared: “We may not know what sort of choke a gun has” – and for the record, I’ve been shooting for 30 years and have no idea how they work – “but we do know what sort of jacket somebody is wearing.”
The chatting came to a halt when the chap from Cordings – “home for country clothing since 1839” – arrived. The Piccadilly shop, now co-owned by rock star Eric Clapton, has produced a Covert Girls’ waistcoat and the women decided to model it between drives. Conversations about clays and traps gave way to serious discussions about the right tweed and what a shame it was that there were no full-length mirrors in the windswept field.
After the second drive, they repaired for some elevenses consisting of a glass of Pimm’s and a homemade flapjack (not for the Covert Girls the usual male fare of Cup-a-Soup and Penguin chocolate biscuit). It was a lengthy break and there was only time for one more crack at the clays before lunch (salads and white wine, naturally, though cake is on offer too).
“The thing about shooting with the Covert Girls,” said Zambuni as she picked away at a piece of chocolate cake, “is that although we take it seriously, we’re not competitive with each other in the way that men are when they shoot. We do not criticise bad shots or worry that we have missed a bird. The good shots shoot with the novice shots and it works perfectly well.
“Shooting has been an aggressively male sport for years, mostly because of tradition and prejudice. Now women are breaking into its ranks, and the Covert Girls, as a syndicate of women, are in the vanguard.”
And I can see no reason why they shouldn’t become major players and, conceivably, begin to dominate the sport. And if they do, I for one know at least a few men who would happily relinquish their place in the shooting line to load for a woman wearing a leather miniskirt.