Ye Olde English Shotgunners
They Left Behind A Treasure Of Written WISDOM.
Some of the greatest treasures in the world of shotgunning literature are the works of 19th century English sportsmen. Historically, the 19th century was a remarkable period. The shotgun entered the century as a flintlock, mutated into a percussion lock and finally evolved into the side-by-side breechloader we know today.
Hunting also took place on a grand scale with bag limits quite beyond modern comprehension. Fortunately, the records and observations on shotguns, shotgunning, game and field ethics by the sporting gentry of the day were uniquely precise, and the literary legacy they left behind is as entertaining and informative today as it was 150 years ago.
A number of classics, still available in reprint form, stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. My selections include the 2-volume Badminton Library series authored by Lord Walsingham and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey titled Shooting: Field and Covert (1889) and Shooting: Moor and Marsh, Captain Lacy’s The Modern Shooter (1842) and Colonel Peter Hawker’s Instructions to Young Sportsmen (10 editions, 1814-1854), as well as Hawker’s remarkable 2-volume diary which details his daily hunting and fishing adventures over a period of 50 years. The following are just a taste of the typical excerpts from Shooting: Field and Covert.
(The great party hunts of the 1800’s were driven hunts. Lord Walsingham and Payne-Gallwey explain why.)
“It is now-a-days generally admitted among those who really know what shooting is, and should be, that driving is the neatest, most skillful and most satisfactory way of killing winged game and that it, above all, gives the birds a chance; for an indifferent shot will not bring them down, and, what is more to the point, will not wound them, as he would be sure to do were they flushed under his nose to fly slowly away.”
(And a tinge of snobbery)
“Shooting partridges over dogs is very pleasant for men who only care for seeing their pointers work, and ignore the skill of shooting. If partridges lie so close that pointers can be successfully used in finding them, they afford such simple shots that there is little skill required in killing them. The perfection of shooting demands that the game shall spring up wild and so offer a test of true aiming.”
(Managing the drive)
“A good manager should make it his business to know throughout the day who is and who is not getting a fair or an excessive share of the shooting, and should adjust the balance as nearly as he can … A man must keep his eyes open as much as possible in all directions when shooting is going on. There is no small danger of pheasants falling upon the heads of those who do not keep a good look-out.”
(Sportsmen kept meticulous notes on how many shots they fired, the game taken and the ratio of hits to misses. The amount of game taken by individuals and groups was enormous)
“The largest bag of grouse ever made in a day by one shooter was on the Blubberhouse Moor in 1872, when, on August 27, Lord Walsingham killed 842 birds.
“The late Lord Malmesbury kept a journal of his sporting life, even to the quantity of powder and shot he used, the game he killed each day, the time he was out, the distance he walked and the weather.
“From 1798 to 1840, the total figures were: Shots: 54,987; Killed: 38,221; Missed: 16,766; Days out: 3,645.”
Lord Malmesbury walked “a distance of 36,200 miles” and fired away “750 pounds; 4 tons of shot.”
Driven hunts for partridge and pheasants from the
1889 edition of Shooting: Field and Covert.
(The skilled sportsman)
“To a true sporting shooter it is not the amount of game he kills, but the way he kills it; and it is a certain fact that those men who get the very best shooting England can afford take more delight in dropping dead a long or difficult shot that in accounting for a hundred easy ones, which would not be the case if they cared only for the quantity of game they bagged.”
(Hint to beginners)
“It is better to fire a yard too far ahead of a bird flying, or of ground game running, than to fire an inch too far in its rear. In the former case the shot may meet the mark, in the latter it never can. In the former, if it does count a hit it means one in a vital part, the head; in the latter it means a wound in the extremities.
“The endeavor of every shooter should be to strike his game chiefly in the head and neck. This is to be easily done with winged game by practice, as well as with hare and rabbits.”
(Gun safety for the novice)
“More accidents happen by following the game with the gun than by than any other means. If in a flurry when game rises, the young gunner is apt to think only of the game; his one absorbing idea is to kill it. In such a case his eyes and mind lose touch of everything near him save himself, his gun, and the object he means, if possible, to bring down. Round goes his gun as he follows the bird or animal for he cannot be expected to be a quick shot; he sees nothing else, he does not know he is covering with his weapon half a dozen friends and beaters, to say nothing of dogs… he will never become a neat and skillful shot unless he learns to drop his game the moment the gun comes to his shoulder. The only possible exception to this rule is when pheasants are passing straight and high overhead.”
(Managing a hammer gun)
“A young shooter when expecting game should not carry his gun at half-cock… as a rule it is a dangerous habit to cock a gun when game is rising, and has caused many an accident.
“A gun is perfectly safe when carried full-cock if it is not pointed dangerously, and there is no chance of a slip or fall; a careful shooter never points a gun loaded, or unloaded, so that it can injure, or even risk injury to anything but the game he seeks.”
“Hot disputes often rage in the shooting papers amongst the advocates of 16-bores, 12-bores and 20-bores, even 28-bores being strongly recommended by some.”
“Many sportsmen advise 20-bore guns—28-bores need not be discussed, as anyone who has experimented with them knows they are foolish toys… it is ridiculous to maintain that they will hold their own with a larger bore.”
“There is no doubt that the ordinary 12-bore is the most suitable and deadly gun the game-shooter can have. A gun weighing 6-3/4 pounds, that fires 3 drs. of powder and an ounce to 1-1/8 oz. of shot is surely all that can be desired.”
(Shot size depends upon the skill of the shooter)
“For grouse, pheasants, wildfowl and ground game No. 5 is unequalled at all times. The shooter who uses No. 5 and No. 6 on alternate days throughout the season will undoubtedly kill his game much cleaner and farther with the former than with the latter, provided he be a good shot. On the other hand, an average shot would certainly find he succeeded much better with No. 6 than with No. 5.”
“Quit reading all those old, dusty tomes,” says Steamer the dog. “Let’s go hunting!”
“In ancient firearms the barrels were made of iron… but the plain iron was never suitable for any but heavy barrels. About 1800 an improvement was effected by using old horseshoe nails, which, by reason of their good metal (Swedish iron) and having been well hammered in construction and in use, were elastic and tough. The nails were welded together into a thin, tapering bar, and in that form twisted round a metal rod, the thicker part of the bar forming the breech. These barrels were beautifully turned out by Joseph Manton…”
“At the end of the day the barrels should be rubbed through with turpentine, which removes the leading. To keep a gun clean when laid by and not daily inspected: Cover the barrels, outside, with an equal mixture of best paraffin oil and refined neatsfoot oil; stop up the barrels with corks or wads, and place inside each a quarter of a pint of the same mixture, shaking it well up and down the interior. Then pour it back again into a bottle for further use.”
(Finally, the ultimate Nemesis—the poacher)
“His restless, suspicious leer, hollow eyes, alehouse face, and his stooping shambling gait proclaim him at once—not to mention his clothes. Even they tell his trade: the knee-worn trousers, bloodstained and wide-pocketed coat, with often bits of spare snaring wire coiled around the buttons… He drinks and sleeps by day like a great fat cat, and like the cat (who, by the way, is as big a poacher as himself) prowls by night.”
A few remarks about the other books I mentioned. Colonel Hawker’s Instructions to Young Sportsmen, which went though 10 editions from 1814 to 1854, was probably the most popular guide to firearms and general hunting in its day. It’s a good read even today.
Hawker’s diaries in two volumes are a window into the man’s daily pursuit of fowl, fish, game and life in general. It’s remarkable how much time he actually spent afield and on the water, but after you’ve plowed through the 366 pages of Volume 1, his daily diary, however well written, wears pretty thin. Volume 2 is still sitting unread in my bookcase.
Captain Lacy’s The Modern Shooter is more of a gun crank’s book full of period muzzleloading lore and the management of shotguns, rifles and punt guns in the pursuit of a variety of game. All of these 19th century treasures turn up on www.abebooks.com. Happy reading!
By Holt Bodinson