A traditional side-by-side shotgun is bored with open and choke barrels, to be fired in that order by front and back triggers respectively. Ever wondered why? Once, most shooting was walked-up ? you took your first shot at a bird close by and the next when it had flown further away. Nobody has ever thought to change it in this era of almost universal driven shooting, when the opposite configuration is needed. Imaginative makers built a gun known as a grouse gun, which fired the choke barrel first, but they are scarce.
The popularity of spaniels sprang from roughshooting, for it was the ideal dog; not designed for sitting patiently at a peg, but for hunting and flushing. The same is true of many hunting, pointing and retrieving breeds. Michael Brander wrote a fine book, The Rough Shooter?s Dog, devoted exclusively to the subject.
When I started out, our sport was nearly all roughshooting. Driven shoots were the preserve of the aristocracy and the closest we got was the annual get-together when the farmers assembled after Christmas, pooled their land and drove it for the few pheasants and partridges that had survived the roughshooters. Shooting rights were worth little, for this was the bottle- of-whisky era, when a smallholder would let you shoot his half-dozen fields in return for a bottle of VAT 69 at Christmas and the odd brace of birds. Where rent was charged, a shilling an acre was about right. In our village, nobody minded much if you strayed into sugar beet where you had no right to be, for there was little enough to shoot and what harm did it do?
Too often, perhaps, I have regaled readers with boyhood tales of trampingthrough the endless fens in winter, shooting what we saw and coming home at dusk weary, but with a bag of mixed game. A dog was useful. I had an ill-trained yellow Labrador and he and I covered many a mile, with him loping by the back wheel of my bike to and from the wild acres. Sometimes, from afar, came a distant shot and you could make out a tiny human figure also worshipping Diana, goddess of hunting. On the Ouse washes, shooting was free and we stood by willow stubs at dusk awaiting the flighting wigeon. What a way to learn!
As a student, I was befriended by a local bank manager who took pity on a young shooter far from home. He too had a bottle-of-whisky shoot by the river Soar. We planned each trip well in advance and on the big day, always a Saturday, he drove us down to the small farm where I was proud to open, with the sacred key, the gate to paradise. With his son and two lively springers, we marched up and down the rough hedges. A rabbit might pop out and, rarely, a pheasant sprang chortling. Sometimes we attempted to drive a small covey of partridges, an enormously complicated manoeuvre, with two bellying in behind the far hedge and one sent to flush the birds. It hardly ever went the right way, but when they did ? what joy! At dusk we hid by the river, for one or two mallard usually dropped in.
A loss to the sport
To this day some such shoots survive, but they are painfully few. In remotest Wales and Scotland there are woodcock shoots where groups of pals and dogs plod about in the old way, but the picture is now vastly changed. I wonder how many older readers would have started shooting at all if it were not for the roughshoot? We were as likely to fly to Mars as shoot on a driven day, apart from the farmers? bash, but what a good way for us to learn and to teach our sons and daughters. It was infectious to see the eager lad with borrowed gun and a few precious cartridges, nervous of getting it wrong and ultra-safety conscious, joining the elders and learning about dog work, wind direction, how birds fl ushed, where they preferred to go and why. Hawks, owls, kingfishers, grebes, water rails and all sorts of protected creatures were discovered and learned about. Those boys became men versed in the sport, a credit to any shoot and an example to those less fortunate.
What happened? Driven shooting, suddenly, became available to all. Cheap, sound, imported guns flooded the market, so there was an alternative to unaffordable Best English or cheap Belgian. We learned how to rear gamebirds in our spare time. We became a little wealthier, while the social revolution meant that driven shooting was no longer exclusive to the toffs. Farmers combined six excellent roughshoots into one indifferent driven shoot, shot over maybe half a dozen times a year and left alone for the rest of it. The many weekends we used to go out for a few for the pot, have some fun and initiated our children into the sport were no more. The six fields that had been our sporting world since Grandad?s day were now sucked into the maw of the driven shoot, to be walked over, maybe twice a year, by a flanker with a white flag. All our sport was lost.
I see this as a thoroughly retrograde step. The countryside with no room for a roughshoot is a poor sort of place, the rich diversity is lost, the grass roots of the sport are forgotten. The modern boy is presented with a 20-bore and stands at a peg. He knows not a jay as it flits by, nor sees the questing snout of a cocker as the bird is flushed, and is oblivious to the fine shooting of the man two down the line. He has not the grounding. It is like buying a child a violin and putting him in the front rank of the Royal Philharmonic.
I sense a slight backlash. Times being hard, the obscene price of pheasants ? to shoot only one can cost as much as a forerib of beef ? has sparked a flicker of a revival. Instead of offering 300 tame pheasants kicked out of an oak wood at the same price as a cottage in Lancashire, discerning Guns now are taking days with the keeper. They walk the woods, carry their bags, take lunch alfresco, shoot 50 head and love every minute for a fraction of the cost. Some grand shoots that run such days on the side tell me that they are the first to be booked. Snipe and woodcock shooting, and pigeon decoying are several of the minor branches of the sport that are now attracting interest, and long may it be so. To shoot nothing but driven is to live a life eating only one sort of food, and what a boring person it makes you. Our sport is rich and diverse, and a fully formed shooter should enjoy wigeon on the saltings, flighted pigeon, and a walk round with a dog and gun, with a driven shoot as the odd treat. The small day is cheaper on birds, their food and management, cheap on manpower, easy on the environment and outstanding value for money ? and, unless you are greedy, just as much fun.
Most importantly, it makes room for a youngster to have a chance at sport without a millionaire parent, and that gets my vote. What?s more, the gun left you by your grandfather, which fires the open barrel first, enjoys a new lease of life doing that for which it was designed.