My first memories of rabbit shooting were in the 1940s in Surrey, on an estate that had not been properly keepered or shot since 1939. It abounded in grey squirrels, magpies, jays, pigeon but above all, rabbits by the hundreds.
One day, while I was wandering about in the woods with my catapult, I heard
voices and gunshots nearby and spotted a party of Guns shooting rabbits. I attached myself at the back of the group and was handed a box of ferrets as we swept along the wood sides through gorse and chalk heathland. It was magic: shouting, ferrets down holes and rabbits hurtling out, guns banging, rabbits rolling over, some kicking, and, on reflection, a seemingly total lack of organisation, all guns closed and loaded and, even more exciting for a small boy, potentially dangerous.
More than 60 years ago, that was how they did it. Nobody seemed to worry, they simply enjoyed themselves. It was the first time I had ever seen an over-and-under shotgun, which then was unusual and which must have been expensive as this was before mass production. The user, as I remember, was a florid-faced young man who became increasingly enraged as every shot he fired missed. All this was accompanied by a flurry of oaths and his final explosion: Tell your bloody uncle that his bloody gun is bloody useless! Plus ça change!
All this left a truly lasting impression on a young mind.
Countrymen had enjoyed a long tradition of shooting rabbits. Sadly, this is a practice much reduced today. A variety of guns were used, especially the .410 when ferreting. Perhaps less effective at hitting a bird in the air, they could knock over rabbits with efficiency, which was useful in an age when, for many, rabbit was the only meat available or affordable. To watch, the shooting was reactive and instinctive. No smart shooting lessons here, just a fast mount somewhere in the shoulder or upper arm and bang, another dead rabbit. They had a good idea of where the gun shot and compensated for aberrations by the gun or on their part.
Put safety above all else
So what about shooting ground game today using fitted guns, suitable chokes and ideal cartridges? If you are on an organised shoot in a party of Guns, shooting rabbits and hares is potentially dangerous, so my first piece of advice to anyone venturing out with a shotgun after ground game is to concentrate above all on safety. It is because of this that on many gameshoots the instructions from the shoot captain include the mandatory order: No ground game. The inbuilt caveat here is that the shot pattern is not dispersed into the air as with bird shooting but along the ground.
Shooting along a line of Guns is totally taboo, as is a shot where another person might be in danger from ricochet. The same goes for shooting through a hedge, especially on a hare shoot dont even think of doing it. Never shoot where you cant see and if in doubt, leave it out. Be alert, too, for any danger that might come from another persons gun, not only your own. Always be aware of where your muzzles are pointing and swinging. When climbing banks or crossing obstacles, unload your gun and keep it broken.
Shooting crossing game
Guns accustomed to shooting on the wing will often find that hares seem slow. In fact, they are very fast, rangy and powerful animals with a terrific turn of speed, hence distance and speed are often misjudged. Try giving a crossing target a little longer lead and swing than you think necessary. As for range, try pacing out 25 to 30 yards and setting down a marker to check the distance. My advice is to shoot your ground game within this range and use both barrels if necessary.
A somewhat different stance is needed plus a variation in technique to be effective. Always place your weight over the front foot. Start your mount with the muzzles below the target. You really need to alter the balance of your gun to make it more muzzle-heavy. Relaxing your left hand and shortening your usual grip on the fore-end by a couple of inches or so will help to keep the muzzles down.
Practise this several times in a dry run in order to feel a slightly different, yet highly advantageous, gun balance. This will certainly help to stack the odds in your favour by using a now muzzle-heavy gun. Push the gun out towards the quarry and mount firmly into the cheek. Keep your head down and lean into the shot. Any swing comes from the waist and ankles.
For an approaching shot, slide your muzzles below the target and shoot at its front feet. Shooting a hare going away is not something that I would recommend, but if it is safe and within 25 yards or so, swing up to the tips of its ears. Safety lapses are much more dangerous on a game, your muzzles must always be above head height, but with ground game they will be below the other Guns heads, bodies and legs. Ideally, a hare should be taken broadside on in front of the Gun. Never shoot across the line and check behind for the positions of beaters and dog handlers.
Give thought to your choice of cartridges and remember the maxim that a good big un always beats a good little un, so pick the most effective load for the job. At one time, the only cartridges in general use for shooting rabbits were 1¹⁄6oz of No 5s and very effective they were and still are. Modern over-and-unders are chambered for 70mm cartridges. So, for hares I always recommend 1¹⁄8oz of No 5s or No 4s. If you have multi-chokes, tighten them up a notch or two. Barrels choked to a half and three-quarter make sense.
Other points to consider
What to wear and carry? The best idea when walking is to travel light and well-shod. Leave gun slips, extra clothing and other clobber behind. Lastly, unless you enjoy learning the hard way, remember that only a novice shoots a hare early on. If you dont believe me, try carrying a 6lb, 3ft-long hare in one hand and a gun in the other across fields and assorted obstacles for a mile or more. Be assured, you will never forget it.
For tuition, contact Sam Grice, tel 07850 876826 or visit www.longacresshooting.com. To buy his book Ahead of the Game, tel 01780 762550.