Sharpening your shotgun shooting skills with Elizabeth Lanier Fennell
Elizabeth Fennell, founder of Girls Really into Shooting, takes aim. Images provided.
By Ford Walpole
Bird hunting, and indeed shotgun shooting in general, can be a spiritual experience. It gives you an opportunity to be outdoors, take in nature, even gaze upon the heavens; then the blast of the gun reminds you that you are alive. You derive a thrill, though everything happens so quickly. You breathe in the fleeting aroma of gunpowder from the spent shell as you live in the moment of connection with the target.
For the past two and a half years, Elizabeth Fennell has been the lead instructor at the Kiawah Island Sporting Club. Located on John’s Island, the 800-acre private facility is owned by Kiawah Island Club & Real Estate. The club boasts a number of attractions: grand live oaks, clubhouse, covered shelter, pellet gun range, 3D archery range, a ten-station sporting clays course, five-stand, skeet and expansive trails.
Only property owners of Kiawah may visit the club — except for guests who arrange private lessons with Elizabeth, who has worked as a shooting instructor for the past 12 years. She is National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA) Level III Instructor, one of only four women and only 87 individuals who hold that distinction.
Elizabeth smiles when acknowledging that no, she is not your typical shooting instructor. In the field, she is known for wearing scarves, boots and jewelry and exuding Southern feminine elegance, all while brandishing a firearm and unfazed by its blast.
Elizabeth Fennell tailors her shooting lessons to the individual — and she makes it look stylish! Image on right copyright Gabriela Domato.
Elizabeth discusses her passion for teaching: “I love to shoot, and I really enjoy teaching people to shoot. I don’t think my students are as excited as I am when they break targets! It is a wonderful feeling to be able to share this passion and watch others love it as well.
“I never feel like I am going to work,” she reflects about a day at the range. “I like for my lessons to be fun and relaxed. In reality, I believe we learn far better that way. Thinking less, enjoying more as you begin your journey in a new sport, and also as you grow in the sport. When I teach, I try not to fill their heads with minutia. I ask my students a lot of questions as we go to understand how they are perceiving the instruction. I listen, and then I know how to present the information based on how they learn.
“An important skill of any teacher is to see how students are processing and to find different ways to present the lesson. There is no cookie-cutter method. We all learn differently. You need to keep a lot of tools in your toolbox!”
Her students confirm her unique skill set. “I couldn’t ask for a better shooting instructor!” remarks Suzette Bussey. “Elizabeth is passionate about her sport, has a contagious, fun spirit and helps you become more proficient in a short time.”
Bussey’s husband, Ben, continues: “If you are a good shooter, Elizabeth will make you a great shooter. If you are a mediocre shooter like me, Elizabeth will keep you from embarrassing yourself on the course or in the field!”
Brad Kalota agrees: “Elizabeth is a blast to shoot with. She is a great shooting instructor. I am getting world-class coaching and having fun, too!”
“Elizabeth is a great teacher with a just-right, high-level combination of knowledge, experience and communication skills,” adds David Young. “When it comes to helping people get better at shooting sports and sporting clays in particular, we are fortunate to have her as a professional in the Charleston community!”
Elizabeth says of her move to Charleston, “I am a social butterfly! I’ve made a lot of friends down here, and my job with the Kiawah Island Club is the perfect fit for my style of instruction and a great place to share my love of this sport.” She lives on John’s Island and divides her time between here in the Lowcountry and her home in York County’s hamlet of Sharon, where her husband, Will, operates Fennell Shooting School.
Perhaps what makes Elizabeth such an empathetic instructor is her own unlikely entry into the sport. She recalls shooting at Fourth of July parties as a child. For her 14th birthday, her uncle gave her a 20-gauge shotgun “that kicked like a mule! When I told him how much it hurt, he insisted he could shoot it from his nose.” Elizabeth’s response: “Yeah, and it would break it, too!”
Though she earned an interior design degree from the University of Kentucky, Elizabeth is more comfortable outdoors. “I love tractors and zero-turn mowers!” she declares. “I grew up on the back of a horse. I loved camping, tennis, boating and volleyball, but shooting is the one hobby that has really stuck!”
When she was a housewife and mother in her late 30s, Elizabeth gave her former husband a gift of shooting lessons. She accompanied him on the initial shoot and ended up finishing his lessons, and she continued shooting. “I would pull up to the range and leave the Suburban running with a movie showing to entertain my children while I completed a one-hour lesson.” She took lessons on and off for the next couple of years.
After two years of shooting, Elizabeth accompanied her husband and his friends (she was the only wife who wanted to go) on a trip to Argentina. “That was a disaster!” She couldn’t hit many doves, the bird boys made fun of her and she came home very discouraged, so much so that she quit shooting for the next couple of years — until she received an invaluable lesson from David Judah at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia.
During the lesson, Judah instructed Elizabeth, “Do me a favor and shut your left eye.” At that point, she discovered that she was left-eye dominant, though she is right-handed.
It was an eye-opening experience: “No wonder I didn’t hit any birds in Argentina!” she realized. “Before I knew it, I started hitting targets!” After a successful hunting trip to Scotland, “I came back addicted! I got so into shooting that I just drove around with all my gear and ammo — just in case I got invited to shoot! ‘Have gun, will travel’ was my motto!”
She recalls the curious glances she once received at her son’s private school in Richmond. “The faculty and parents were certainly not used to seeing a mom rushing in late after quail hunting to pick up her son. Moms being late was not unusual, but one flying in wearing khaki pants, hunting boots and blaze orange was not the norm. Tennis attire, maybe, but hunting attire, hmmm!”
Fennell founded the G.R.I.T.S., which is an acronym for “Girls Really into Shooting.” The group began as an informal gathering of women who got together to shoot. “Five or six years ago, we started opening chapters,” she says. “I sponsor a chapter that shoots at the Kiawah Island Sporting Club. In G.R.I.T.S., we have two rules: You must be a girl, and we do not keep score — which takes the uneasiness out of it.
“Though I teach men, women and children, my big push has always been to get more women involved in the sport. You bring women, and you get families. As a woman, I have always felt very welcome in the shooting world. Generally, men and women shooters are really excited to see new shooters on a course,” Elizabeth notes.
“This isn’t a sport where you need to possess a lot of athletic ability,” she explains. “It is just you, the gun, and the target! I don’t really enjoy the competitive side of the sport, but I am an avid bird hunter.” Elizabeth has hunted across the United States, Europe and Argentina. This year will be the 11th annual ladies trip to Highland Hills Ranch in Oregon. In December, Elizabeth will take a line of lady guns to Wales for four days of driven shooting.
As a shooting instructor, Elizabeth is big on strong foundations. “A lot of people are introduced to the sport by well-intentioned people, but they start out with the wrong gear, and they have a bad experience. I want your first lesson with me to be about having a very positive experience! First lessons in particular are about gun safety, how to hold the gun correctly, proper stance and seeing the target, not the gun.
“A second lesson is even better, as people are less anxious and know what to expect,” Fennell continues. “Private lessons are great, because there is no audience, and the students aren’t as nervous. Typically, I start people with a 20-gauge over-under or a semiautomatic. You don’t want to battle the weight of the gun.
“It is just between you and that clay. It is very empowering in the fact that we realize we can do something we didn’t think we could, and that realization transcends into other aspects of your life! Shooting is very therapeutic. Shooting is stress relief, but mostly, shooting is just downright fun! If there is lead in the air, there is hope in the heart!” Elizabeth says with a smile.
To schedule your own private lesson with the renowned Elizabeth Lanier Fennell — who is sponsored by Krieghoff shotguns and Fiocchi ammunition — contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at email@example.com.