Ensure you’re invited back with our advice on peg etiquette, choosing the right gun and the joys of rough shooting.
Be a good guest
The days of the handwritten shooting invitation are, sadly, a thing of the past. Although the shooting world hasn’t quite been reduced to some of the grubbier forms of social media, most of my few invitations arrive by phone or email. When replying, be aware that this is a significant invitation that’s costing your host more than anything else they’ll ever ask you to, thus, a speedy response is of the essence.
Please don’t reply asking ‘who else is in the party’ or ‘how many cartridges will I need?’. In case of doubt over whether it’s double guns, you can always secrete a second gun in your car just in case. If it’s spotted, just utter ‘I never leave home without a spare’. Always be sure to take single gunslips, too – using one half of a double is frowned upon.
It’s also imperative to take a present and I mean a proper present. Ideally, the bag should have Purdey or Hermès on it, even if it’s only an ashtray. Permanent reminders of gratitude are always gratefully accepted.
If you’re on your own, your dog should be bombproof, with a lineage even longer than your own and no need of a lead. If, like the rest of us mere mortals, your beloved hound requires a semblance of control, please ensure it’s attached to a vision of such elegant pulchritude that all attention will be focused on the handler rather than Fido.
When it comes to your own etiquette, the long list of unforgivable sins includes being a greedy shot, poaching (whether birds or paramours), tucking into low and slow targets, using Snapchat during the drive and gluttony (of either solid or liquid kind). Always remember that placing a gun in someone’s hands provides an insight to their soul.
Make sure you’re fun to be around, don’t drop names (either human or shoots) and regularly tell your host that you haven’t had so much fun in ages. Don’t forget to tip the keeper (and loader, if it’s ritzy), but also leave ‘something for the house’. How much? It’s a thorny subject, yet best never to appear mean for the sake of a tenner or two.
Finally your ‘thank you’ should be swift, entertaining and not too short – at least two pages – and definitely not sent via email. There’s nothing worse than a letter that starts ‘I’m so sorry this is so late’. Send a generous bunch of flowers to your hostess, too. It goes down well and moves you up her list, which is often more important than his.
Choose the right gun
The first time I saw my grandad’s BSA side-by-side 12-bore, with its delicate, rose-scrolled engraving, I was fascinated by how this amalgamation of wood and steel could have been forged into an object of such beauty.
I’ve heard all the arguments why an over-and-under is more pointable and more shoot-
able than the classic side-by-side. With many guns clamouring to shoot ever-higher birds and bigger bags, it’s no surprise the over-and-under is in such demand, as it takes beefier loads and has less recoil. They might be a superior tool for smashing clay pigeons, but, in my book, when it comes to game shooting, they look out of place. The truth is that, although they’re made from the same materials, these two designs of shotgun are different animals, just like chalk and cheese. The side-by-side is elegant and aesthetically pleasing – whether it’s a working boxlock or a best sidelock – and possesses a grace that I just can’t see in an over-and-under.
I’ve shot with a side-by-side all my life and now sport an old Webley and Scott 12-bore, which seems to do the business. On the few occasions I’ve shot with an over-and-under, it’s felt cumbersome and unrefined. And when I’m loading, I have a feeling of dread when a gunslip is unzipped to reveal a pair of stiff over-and-unders, their rat-trap breeches waiting to catch my fingers, added to the prospect of an impatient gun getting in a grump when the lower cartridge case fails to eject cleanly, spoiling their rhythm. At the end of the day, stripping down and cleaning an over-and-under as opposed to a side-by-side is like comparing the finest burlesque dancer to a tribute Gypsy Rose Lee act at the Clinton Arms in Trent Bridge.
I can’t see ‘ups and downs’ ever replacing the revered ‘right and left’ at woodcock or being chalked up on the board in the smoking room at Holkham after a battue at Scar-borough Clump – past Lord Leicesters would be revolving in their graves.
The only over-and-under that comes anywhere near the finesse and balance of a side-by-side is the McKay Brown round-action over-and-under, which combines early Boss and Woodward technology with a Dickson round action. Despite this, however, I firmly believe over-and-unders should stay on clay grounds along with baseball caps.
The joys of rough shooting
Last winter, I found myself engulfed by a savage sleet storm halfway up a mountain in Scotland. ‘I’d rather be here than potting driven pheasants in Hampshire,’ grinned my sodden companion, as his dog retrieved the second woodcock of the day in a howling gale. Me, too.
The best rough shoots demand sharp reactions, extreme hardiness and an intimate knowledge of your quarry and the wild landscape it inhabits. Some grand shoots no longer allow your canine best friend to join the party, but the opposite applies to outside days – if you own a good working dog and are unafraid of wading through waist-high briars that others fear to trample, the invites will pour in like widgeon under a full moon.
Deprived of fattening corn, the truculent pheasant is rarely tempted to explore such unforgiving lands. Instead, expect rabbits, snipe, woodcock and wildfowl. If you’re lucky, wily cock grouse, English partridge and elusive blackgame may also be on the menu. Most are harder to kill going away low and fast than coming forward to a line of guns, especially the breathtakingly beautiful woodcock and jinking snipe. Such shooting demands quick reactions and constant vigilance, which, combined with strenuous exercise, fieldcraft and teamwork, adds a glowing camaraderie to the day.
Sit-down lunches with claret, casserole and pudding don’t work here – sandwiches and a swig of tea won’t weigh you down, blunt your senses or delay the all-important sport.
The dress is different, too. The dainty leather gloves I spotted beneath the tanned arms of a paying gun last season have no place on the hill or bog. Neoprene fingerless mittens are just the thing, along with waterproof coats and trousers designed to turn thorns and conceal the wearer. Best to carry a light gun for, on some sporting forays, you may only fire as many shots as miles that you walk.
Woodpigeon can buck the trend; we’ve all made huge bags of grey marauders over decoys, but you must still know your quarry intimately to succeed.
And when it’s all over, it isn’t. With the sun low in the sky and shadows smoothing over broken ground, it’s time to take up station beside a sheet of glinting water and wait for duck to come swooshing in – eerie shapes preceded by unseen whining wingbeats. Wild and windy nights are best and, sometimes, there will be no duck at all. That’s the best and most exciting feature of all rough shooting: the glorious uncertainty of the chase.