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Following my review of John Kings book 'Game Shooting from Scratch', I was lucky enough to get invited to go and watch a game-day – as a guest of John – I haven't shot ANY game before – so as I went through the day I took some notes, and some pictures to record what happened to this first time Game Shooter.
Meeting point was a small hotel near Hungerford in Berkshire, and the shoot took place on a nearby estate of about 2000 acres. After a warm welcome and introductions from the Guns, we were fortified with an excellent breakfast of local bacon and scrambled eggs washed down with coffee or tea. Then, a briefing by our Shoot Captain - John King followed and the ceremonial drawing of pegs. John has been running a sweepstake throughout the season to collect money for Help for Heroes, and there was plenty of banter as everyone put their stakes in and guessed on the bag for the day, with bonus points for partridges and vermin in amongst the points for pheasant. John and his Guns can be proud of the donation of well over £1000 raised for charity over this season.
The whole routine of the shoot unfolded exactly as described in Johns book, from the briefing, through to the drives there was a sense of discipline and grace about the day. It was clear that there were lots of people working behind the scenes to make everything a success and to provide great sport for the Guns.
There were 9 Guns for the day, plus the Shoot Captain, and myself as an observer and shortly after breakfast we headed off in vehicles for the first of four drives. As we mustered for vehicles, we met Bruce the Head Gamekeeper for the day who was already stressed about sunshine and the direction of some drives. I shared a lift with a businessman from North Carolina who had flown in especially for the day and some extra special Anglo-American banter!
The first drive of the day was in a valley between two fairly dense copses with Guns spread out strategically between the two treelines. After a short wait for beaters to finish blanking out an area of woodland and cover crops, birds started flying high and fast across the opening. I stood and watched pegs 1 to 3, observing some great shooting on some fairly high pheasants. In amongst the pheasants there were a few partridges and one jay. The team of beaters seemed efficient and quiet and flushed birds in three or four distinct waves, not too many birds at once – but steady, and the Guns commented on the quality of the birds being sent up. I watched carefully to see how sporting everything was, the Guns were clearly only interested in taking birds that were high above their guns and gave them a sense of challenge, low birds were ignored throughout the day and I could see Gunsbeing selective and respectful about the shots they took.
We had a short journey to the second drive of the day, a much wider field on the side of a hill, with the Guns standing just beyond the treeline looking up the gradient. I stood well behind the line with one of the picker-ups, Mark Westall, and his team of three black Labradors. This was amazing to watch for someone on their first time at a game shoot, and I highly recommend it. Each dog was super-alert, ears pricked for any birds dropping and Mark was quick to send the dogs off for any runners or pricked birds. Being in the treeline, I couldn't see many of the shots fired, but once again everyoneseemed happy with the quality and quantity of the birds.
It seems to me that a good shoot revolves around three things; great birds, good banter and excellent food. So when we stopped for elevenses of organic homemade soup, sausage rolls, cake and a sloe gin or two for the non-drivers, it was no surprise to me that the conversation was all about the qualityof the birds and the success of the Guns.
Shortly afterwards, it was onto the third drive. Guns were lined up across the side of a field, with beaters working in from distance through a copse across a small lane. I was introduced to Calum - a businessman with guests on the day and asked to work as his loader. He was working behind one end of the main line, and I quickly learned how fast I needed to be loading. There were plenty of high birds, right on their tails at about 30/40 yards by my estimation. Calums Perazzi was working overtime, and he bought down some excellent birds. I soon learnt that the secret for loading for me was to always have three cartridges in your hands, so if you need to load just one, then you have another pair ready for action. Fast and furious indeed!
After the third drive we went back to the hotel for an excellent lunch and a review of the morning. The hotel prepared a massive meal of sausages and mash with onion gravy, hearty stuff to thaw out any cold bones and prepare the Guns for the final drive of the day. Once again, there was a lot of banteraround the table, with reviews of the morning drives and some fun feedback about peoples shooting. We revisited the sweepstake and everyone chipped in a small amount again to try and estimate the bag for the last drive.
Following Lunch - it was off for the fourth and final drive of the day. My host gave me a surprise and asked me to swap places with Calum, he would load for me and I would shoot! I had no gun with me, so I used his Perazzi, 32 inch barrels, full choke, and he loaded the 32g 5's for me. We were back atthe first location, but facing the other way, I had peg 4 right in the middle of the line in what looked like a pretty favourable position. I have to confess to being really nervous, I was worried that my shooting wouldn't do this amazing location justice, and that I might make a fool of myself, but I had nothing but encouragement from the rest of the Guns.
We had a long wait, but down the line a few high birds started coming across. After about 10 or 15 minutes of holding what felt like a fencepost compared to my Beretta 686, I had the first bird over my peg and my heart raced a little as I raised my gun to it. Missed it once behind, but caught it cleanly with the second barrel. The nerves soon settled, and then the fun started, I shot about 30 or 40 cartridges (maybe more) and bagged over a dozen pheasants and a partridge, including a lovely left and right directly over my right shoulder that I can still picture now.
At one point, I thought I'd breached etiquette by shooting a bird high above the next peg, but my fellow shooter just congratulated me on a great shot and got on with it. Throughout the drive, I recalled some of what John had written in his book about technique for driven birds. I really felt that Iwanted to give this beautiful location and these fantastic birds some respect so I concentrated hard on locking the gun into my cheek, pushing through the birds and taking clean shots. It definitely worked, I was surprised how the learnings came flooding back and I didn't feel out of place at all. I even found myself recalling advice given to me by John in coaching sessions that made a huge difference as I was raising my gun.
After much back slapping and reviewing of the drives and the day, everyone headed back to the pub for coffee and tea before departure. We had people taking flights back to Europe and the US in the next days, and quite a few driving some distance. I was nowhere near guessing the correct bag for the day – which I think was in the mid 300's, but I was happy to have contributed to a decent charity pot and had great fun in the process.
I have to be honest, I was really hesitant about getting involved, I had never shot game before and I was worried that my shooting wouldn't do it justice, but with good coaching and some decent technique much can be achieved. I have to say that Calum was very gracious with praise and very kind to let me get involved. John King, the Shoot Captain and all my fellow Guns were excellent fun, very generous with advice and conversation, and willing to let a newbie get involved. I'm convinced I'd like to do it again, I'll keep watching for opportunities to get involved next season. In the meantime, I'll keep reading Johns books for insight into both Game and Clay shooting.
One thing is for sure, I can see why Game Shooters get hooked!
With thanks to Matt Rutherford