An icy wind was blowing flurries of sleet into my face from the North Sea, and through the snow-laden, overcast sky, dawn was slow in bringing daylight to the lonely saltings around me. Out of the thin, grey light, to seaward a small party of duck came low and fast with the wind beneath their tails, following the deep creek towards the sea wall. Despite the cold and cramped conditions, the gun swung easily to my shoulder, and as the duck flared on seeing my movements, one toppled out of the ragged sky to fall in a cascade of wet mud opposite my hide, sliding several feet until it came to a standstill.
I didn?t get a chance for a second barrel but I wasn?t worried. Yet again my Bland had not let me down and the wigeon retrieved by my muddy spaniel lay in the hide beside me. As a fowling piece that had recently come into my possession, while I reloaded the right barrel, I idly wondered which foreshores the gun had previously visited, and who had used it in the past.
In the late-1950s and early-1960s, the inside back cover of Shooting Times always carried a half-page advertisment for gunmakers Thomas Bland & Sons, and this often featured its classic wildfowling gun, the Brent. Far beyond the pocket of a young teenager?s paper round earnings, I was nevertheless determined to own a Brent at some time in my life. A few years ago I treated myself. I bought my Brent secondhand from a gunshop in a post-Game Fair sale in 2002.
It was unusual as it had two sets of barrels ? the standard 30in wildfowling barrels with 3in chambers, and a second set of 28in game barrels, made by Wiseman of Birmingham for 2½in cartridges. As with all my guns, I duly designed and made a case for the Bland and its two sets of barrels, so that it would be protected in transit to any of our shooting venues. I used a small photograph of this case to illustrate my article on how to set about making a simple gun case (How to make your own gun case, 27 July).
I should have realised that readers of Shooting Times are sharp-eyed and quick to spot minute details in the magazine?s illustrations. No sooner had the photograph appeared in print, when the following issue contained a letter from Frank Bretherton (Finding an old friend, 3 August) identifying the gun as the one he bought new from Bland in 1956, and for which he had a second set of barrels made a year later.
I was absolutely delighted. Though not as historic a shotgun as my 8- or 10-bore guns, here was the provenance of my Bland at first hand from its original owner. I lost no time in contacting him, begging any recollections or photographs of the gun being used. Frank replied with a wonderful flood of vivid memories of true fowling adventures, The gun was delivered to me by Royal Mail and the next day I was off to Lytham Marsh. I got myself tucked down into the stone training wall on the river Ribble at low water, with duck decoys out. I had a good morning?s flight (four wigeon and two pintail), when I heard the geese coming off Southport sands on the opposite side of the river.
A small skein flew up-river and I started to call them; they changed direction and headed towards me ? the end bird flying over me and I downed it with the first barrel. I didn?t fire a second barrel, as the rest of the skein were well out over the river by this time, and the tide was well on the turn so there was not a lot of time to retrieve the goose and bring in the string of duck decoys and be off. What a day to remember.
Frank fitted the game barrels to the gun when roughshooting and shooting driven grouse on the Lancashire and Yorkshire moors. Like the original owner, who had the foresight to have a set of game barrels made, I have appreciated the versatility this gives me. Though a classic wildfowling gun, with the shorter barrels it is equally effective when decoying pigeon and for general roughshooting. My syndicate has one venue where we walk-up a stretch of riverbank that has adjacent ponds and stream carriers frequented by duck and Canada geese. Then we turn to a block of woodland that is one of our better pheasant and woodcock coverts.
A simple barrel-swap converts the Bland from a fowling piece into a game gun, and a change from unleaded to lead ammunition completes the transformation. More than 20 years on from the original purchase, Frank changed his Scottish goose venue to the Montrose Basin and recounted to me that, the first time the Bland went to Montrose Basin was in the late-1970s, and we stayed with my friend Kenny. Monday morning, Kenny suggested for our first time on the Basin to try in front of the wigeon hide on the edge of the marsh, as the tide would be coming in and I would not be able to get on the sands until later in the week. I took his advice and sure enough I was in the right spot. As shooting started, a single goose came from the back of the sea wall, not 20 yards up, but a good 35 yards out, and the Bland had its first goose off the Basin.
It added two more to the bag that morning and accounted for many more duck and geese over the following years. Frank, a true wildfowler, relates many more accounts of grim conditions and exciting adventures below the sea wall when he owned the gun but, in 1999, he reluctantly sold it to a trade stand at the CLA Game Fair. With the introduction of the non-toxic law for wildfowling, he was told, quite incorrectly, that he could not use these lead substitute cartridges in an English gun. Thus, it was three years from the time Frank sold the Bland to the gun coming to me, and in those years it had passed between at least
three gun dealers. I assume that it had not been purchased by any third party in that time, but perhaps another ST reader will prove me wrong.
Looking back through my gamebook, over the past four years, the Bland Brent has been the most frequently used of all my guns. It has seen action on The Wash, the Solway, and on the Severn Estuary, but its voice is most frequently heard in the deep winter twilight on the Somerset Levels. Against the background bubbling and whistling of wigeon packs, and as the frost slowly crackles its way around the floodwater margins, I can now look at this classic English wildfowling gun resting on my knees without needing to speculate about its history and past adventures. It?s just amazing what happens when a photograph is published in Shooting Times.