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Auto delight

Shooting is as much at the whims of fashion as so many other aspects of our lives. The stampede for better camouflage and illuminated reticles in scopes are two examples. Some fashions are useful and stick around — others are transient. However, one fashion that has never really taken hold in the British Isles is the Continental and American passion for semi-automatic shotguns.

Aside from fowling, and clay and woodpigeon shooting, the semi-auto has always been viewed with contempt almost as if it were the work of the devil. I remember a big gameshooter telling me that in the old days of Africa the local gun bearers would sometimes flip up the iron sights on a double rifle to their maximum range in the mystical belief that it rendered the rifle more powerful. There is almost a similar attitude to autos. Accusations that they give the user an unfair advantage abound. In fairness, the main whinge is that, unlike a “broken” double-barrelled gun, you cannot tell that they are unloaded — certainly with an unaccustomed eye. Second, and erroneous, is the belief that the user can keep plugging away at a bird with several rounds. From my limited experience, if you have missed with the second round it is generally out of range for the third — though the third round is useful for a wounded bird. It is particularly useful for squirrels.

Semi-autos are cheap and absorb recoil but offer no advantage in firepower for driven shooting. Turning up with an auto is a bit like turning up to a funeral in jeans. Some of the animosity towards autos is genuine; some is outright snobbery.

As a youngster I got to shoot with all manner of beauties turned out by the English gun trade — my father was a prolific shooter and collector. However, he was a traditionalist, had no interest in semi-autos and remembers the days when even over-and-unders were widely frowned upon. So I was never let loose with a semi-auto and they remained, until recently, forbidden fruit.

The only auto I had ever really been interested in was the Browning Auto 5. It was the first successful semi-automatic design and its production spanned a century. As a child I had my own heroic intentions about ownership of an A5. Someone had told me that the whole barrel recoiled along with the bolt. This is true. It works on what is known as the long-recoil system and in my childhood brain I imagined it was a bit like one of those anti-aircraft guns I had seen in war films with my dad pumping away at kamikazes. Thoughts of purchasing an A5 ebbed and flowed quietly in my mind as the years passed.

So, one day on a northbound assignment, I stopped off at Westbury Shooting Supplies in Wiltshire for a peek. There on the shelf was a lovely 16-bore three-shot A5. There are apparently two models — the Sweet Sixteen and the bog-standard, which I bought. It cost just over £200 and had allegedly belonged to a famous Arab. I was drawn to it like a sailor to a siren and it departed in the boot of my car.

If you browse American websites, you’ll find that the A5 has legendary status. It is a real and important part of American shooting history. Comments such as “built like a tank”, “only needs cleaning in a generation” and “you are holding a piece of history” abound. On this side of the pond I have had less stirring observations, such as “What did you get that thing for?” and, irritatingly, “You know you’ll have to carry a bucket of spares around with you.”

When I had enquired about the choking in the shop, the scientific response was “I shoved my finger down the end and it felt tight” — a perfect analysis, in fact, but will my smaller-bore gun be suitable for steel after boring out the choke? With doom-mongers predicting a lead ban, is it a coincidence that the shooting press is full of advertisements for tough 12-bore semi-autos, which will soak up the recoil of powerful steel cartridges? Maybe the underdog is on the brink of having its day.

With the gun ready to roll, I now had to find a suitable cartridge. I have always found it quietly amusing that owners of smaller bores, drawn to them for their fast handling and “cuteness”, will then shove the heaviest load through them that they can buy “to make it shoot as far as a 12-bore”. In effect, you can end up with a featherweight gun that floats like a butterfly but stings like the proverbial bee. I wanted something relatively light and collected a slab of 250 rounds of 26.5g Eley Grand Prix to put the little gem through its paces.

So where to test this bit of shooting history? Michael Appleby at the Honeycombe shoot, near Sherborne in Dorset, runs organised roostshoots in February for a £10 fee. For your money you get access to thousands of acres and meet a load of like-minded people, and it is a great place for youngsters to cut their teeth with the adults. It is also an effective way of dealing with pigeon that are proving difficult to decoy on oilseed rape at that time of year. Here I encountered the first teething problems with the Browning. I found a spot in a dark, swampy wood with ivy-covered trees around me — a great spot. I put one blue round in the chamber, slid the bolt gently forwards — I don’t like letting it slam shut — and tried to load the magazine. I could not feed a round in. After a bit of bemused fiddling, I found that the button that releases the bolt must also be depressed to allow the magazine to be loaded. This is apparently a feature of the older models and, as far as I am concerned, a nuisance. The safety is also on the front of the trigger guard — fine once you are used to it. These features were not the end of the world, but they do demonstrate that, as mechanical things become more complex, the need to familiarise yourself with them fully is vital.

I managed to drop a pigeon with my first shot. A nice way to start but, still hung up on double-barrels, I failed several times to think about letting rip with the third round. I soon got over this but another foible emerged. I tried to fire the third shot and nothing happened — the bolt was locked back and the gun empty. Had I forgotten to put three in it?

I stoked it back up with three rounds, only for it to happen again a few shots later. This was mildly intriguing but mostly annoying. It seemed that my pride and joy was spitting a live round out on to the ground instead of feeding it into the chamber. It did not happen every time, though, and the gun was fast and effective. As the setting sun turned distant poplars to a burnished copper, I headed for home with 10 fat woodies and a happy heart.

If tinkering with ammo and the friction rings fails to solve the loading problem, it is a quirk I am willing to live with, because surely life without a bit of quirkiness is rather dull. The gun reminds me of student days, when I spent my time trying to keep beloved but ailing motorbikes ticking. I have grown to love the little gun — its recoil is negligible and, with its virtually unchanged styling, it’s as timeless today as in the old faded
photos of the American fowlers who clutched it decades ago. Will I take the gun on a driven shoot? Probably not. But it might be worth it just to annoy people.