When the specialist craftsman responsible for a crucial piece of her equipment died during the coronavirus pandemic in Italy last year, skeet shooter Ganemat Sekhon made the radical attempt to shoehorn a bit of local Indian ingenuity to the high-end European hand craftsmanship on her weapon. What began as an innovative quick fix, has now paid off, with Sekhon using her modified gun to become the first Indian woman skeet shooter to medal in an ISSF World Cup -- winning bronze in New Delhi on Sunday.
A high-end Olympic shotgun is like a fine precision instrument, and the name Valeriano Sabatti is nearly as synonymous to skeet shooters as Stradivarius is to violinists. Sabatti was a maker of customised gunstocks, the wedge shaped wooden bit at the end of the gun to which the barrel, action, and firing mechanism are attached. The stock allows the shooter not just to brace the gun, but also serves both as a critical element in sighting and aiming with stability by being held against the user's shoulder when pulling the trigger.
A host of the world's best skeet shooters -- including Olympic champion Ennio Falco, and medalists like Nasser Al-Attiyah, Tore Brovold and Danka Bartekova -- used Sabatti stocks. They'd flock to his workshop just down the road from the Beretta factory in the town of Gardone Val Trompia, northern Italy, spending close to a thousand euros for a single wooden stock.
It almost seems like sacrilege to suggest that the culture, precision and pedigree of Italian gun stock craftsmanship could be supplemented by Indian furniture makers who usually turned out chairs and tables. That though, is exactly the story behind the gun that Sekhon carried in the Karni Singh Range in New Delhi.
Sekhon, 20, uses a Sabatti stock too. But if you look closely at the end of that richly grained coffee-coloured walnut hand carved in Lombardy, you'd notice an extension -- just a few millimetres across -- made of a contrasting dark Indian hardwood snug fitted last year on a factory floor in Chandigarh.
That addition is one made out of necessity. Like every shooter, Sekhon needs to have her stock changed periodically. That's because the way the gun stock rests on the shooter's shoulder changes not just due to regular wear and tear but also due to changes in the shooter's build. "A gun stock is a very personal bit of equipment. It has to be custom made to each shooter. It is something that is unique to the build, height, weight and even facial structure of each user," national coach Mansher Singh says.
This is particularly true for Sekhon, who started shooting at 15 and now at 19, is still growing. "In the lockdown last year, I grew a little. Because of that my gun suddenly wasn't long enough to sit comfortably on my shoulder," she says. With no stock maker of the international standard available in India, the solution for Sekhon would be to travel to Italy and book an appointment with Sabatti, whom she had been working with since 2018. He'd take precise measurements down to the fraction of the millimetre and create the perfect gun stock to fit onto her gun.
There was just the one problem. Sabatti was already diagnosed with cancer when the coronavirus pandemic struck Italy. He died on April 19 that year. "A lot of shooters who had known he was ailing had even gone to Italy previously and had got several gun stocks made for their weapons. We couldn't go to Italy because of the pandemic and anyway Mr. Sabatti had already passed away," says Amrinder Sekhon, Ganemat's father.
With travel out of India restricted, there was no option of getting an alternate stock made. And even if they could head out, the process of switching stock makers is a tedious one. It wasn't just Ganemat who was facing this issue. None of the other Indian shotgun shooters have been able to change their gun stocks over the past year.
Mairaj Khan and Angad Bajwa, who have already won Olympic quotas for the Tokyo Games, had competed in the ISSF World Cup in Cairo with unchanged pieces in February this year and performed indifferently -- a result that NRAI chief Raninder Singh had blamed on the fact that they had been unable to make the required changes to their weapons. The two are now looking to travel to Italy to procure new stocks.
But there was an alternative. Amrinder Sekhon owned a factory that designs and manufactures furniture. In the past, he -- on Ganemat's request -- would have tradesmen make etchings of Mockingjays -- the bird from the Hunger Games movie -- on the gun stock. "I thought of making a little extension as well," he says.
An extension that might change the balance of the gun and end up ruining an expensive stock was of course a more challenging task than the simple previous etchings, but Amrinder thought it could be done. "We add a bit, then shave off a little. We made a lot of options for her. Then we'd try it out and we kept trying until we got it just right. It was a learning experience for me too. I think it was interesting for my workers too. They are always really excited to do something that is different from what they usually do. They were always telling me ki inka pehle karna hai (we want to work on her requirement first )," says Amrinder.
Although it was a stop-gap measure, there's little doubt it has worked. At the selection trials for the World Cup in January this year, she shot a career high 120/125 with her modified stock. At the main event itself, Ganemat recorded a score of 117/125 in the qualifying rounds -- the best she's ever shot in an international event, placing her in second place overall. In the final, Sekhon was in second place with three shooters left in the competition but, competing in her first World Cup final saw her nerves get to her in her final series, as she dropped four of her last ten shots.
It's still a remarkable achievement for Sekhon, who already holds the record of being the only Indian woman shotgun shooter to medal at a junior World Cup. Ranked 84th in the world, she already knew she had no chance of qualifying for the Olympics. Her only target for this year had been the New Delhi World Cup, which she's more than met.
At a time where her more seasoned colleagues in the Indian men's team have been struggling with their equipment, Sekhon's innovation has come in for praise from her coaches. "Not a lot of shooters might have tried out what she did. She's shown a lot of industriousness to make that change," says Mansher.
Sekhon's not planning to push her luck much further though. She plans to get a proper stock fixed the next time she gets the chance to spend an extended period of time for either a national camp or competition in Italy. Her father thinks the same way. He doesn't plan to give up his day business in the furniture trade just yet. "I'm not planning to be the next Sabatti. I just made a little extension for my daughter," he says.