Age is no barrier to good shooting and 71 year old Laurence Catlow is determined to join the Guns for as long as he is enjoying his sport, as he writes in Shooting Times
I can remember when I was young how, sometimes, looking at the Guns, I would wonder how the stiff-limbed, pot-bellied old buffers lined out in front of me, some of them propped up on shooting sticks, were capable of mounting and swinging their guns. And doing it, moreover, for the most part pretty efficiently. I wondered what is the age to stop shooting.
I now realise that those shooters, so ancient in appearance to my young eyes, were mostly men in their fifties and sixties and that only a few of them had reached or, like yours truly, passed their threescore years and 10. This, in turn, makes me wonder whether, on shooting days that now find me standing in a line of Guns, a young beater looks at me and finds it difficult to believe that so decrepit a human specimen is still capable of remaining upright through the course of a whole drive and even manages occasionally to lift up his gun and pull a decent pheasant down from the sky.
Young beaters are almost always respectful and polite, but if an exception to this general rule suggested to me that it was time to retire, I should immediately tell him to get lost. I should also tell him that, at the age of 71, I was hoping to keep going for at least another 10 years and that I had friends, some way into their eighties, who were still shooting regularly. I should then point out that there are several factors that might persuade or compel a man of a certain age to stop shooting and that age, though often implicated, is in itself not one of them.
Is there a right age to stop shooting?
Injury, illness or progressive infirmity might force a shooter to shoot no longer, most especially by undermining his ability to shoot safely. Though these issues are more likely to afflict those several decades past their prime, they are problems that can occur at any time of life.
One or two of my friends have chosen to stop shooting, not from any concern about safety but because they decided that the effort involved in sport with the gun was beginning to diminish the satisfaction they found in it. They wanted to finish while they were still enjoying it, before it became a burden rather than a pleasure.
Other friends have retired because they were finding they could no longer perform well enough to experience the sense of fulfilment that their sport had brought them in the past. Some of these have preserved their contact with shooting by joining the beating line.
I think age does tend to impair our efficiency as shooters. In my own case, there is no doubt that I shoot less consistently than in the past, though my form with the gun has always been more variable than it should have been. But I still find that the pleasure of the good days far outweighs the frustration of those days when hitting pheasants turns into an impossible dream.
I have no plans to put away my guns and if, on the whole, old shooters tend to shoot less accurately than they once did, I have several friends older than I who seem to shoot as well as, or even better than, in somewhat younger days.
One of them shot a fast, high pheasant while having a heart attack. He did not, of course, know this at the time, but when he did realise that his pain was something more serious than indigestion, he was rushed to hospital. A week later, fitted with a stent or two, he was standing once more in a line of Guns and in subsequent seasons it seems to me that he has acquitted himself consistently well.
Age by itself, anyway, is no barrier to shooting or shooting well. What many of us more or less decrepit shooters find is that our attitude to shooting has evolved over the years. In my thirties and forties it was, above all, the shooting that mattered. It still does, of course, but now other things matter as much. In my thirties and forties, for example, I preferred good company to bad, but occasionally I drove home from a day feeling happy and fulfilled because I had shot well and not much bothered that most of my fellow shooters had been loud-mouthed and uncouth. Such shooters do still unfortunately exist. These days, I choose to share my sport with those who share my views on how shooters should conduct themselves. I would rather shoot one pheasant among friends than 40 among uncongenial strangers.
I still love shooting, but there are many more days than in the past when I choose not to shoot, giving my gun to a friend and joining my other friends in the beating line.
At High Park, I no longer carry a gun on our little driven days. I work the dog and watch the unfolding drama and take pleasure in the (often impressive) shooting of my friends. As long as things go approximately to plan, a day of this sort brings me enormous satisfaction.
At the same time, I look forward to those informal January days when High Park turns into a rough shoot and when I turn back into a shooter, walking my ground with three or four friends and hoping that a few late-season pheasants will come my way.
I started my shooting life as a rough shooter and it is still the branch of our sport that I love best. I used to love flighting almost as much. I loved the slow fading of the day, I loved the thrilling pulse of unseen wings then the sight of those dark shapes planing down with cupped wings and with legs outstretched.
I still love it on the rare occasions when I am there to see and to hear, but I go flighting much less frequently than in the past. The problem is mainly one of timing, because flighting happens at the end of the day and, by day’s end, I prefer to be sitting indoors in a warm chair rather than sitting out there on a cold bucket beneath the winter sky.
Fairly often, on a morning when conditions look good for flighting, I tell myself that the deepening light will find me sitting expectantly on my bucket by one of my ponds. But when the light really is deepening, I am sitting by the fire and feeling determined to stay put. Flighting for me is, unfortunately, almost a thing of the past.
Something I do more of is shooting clays, partly because at Crabtree Shooting Ground, near Kendal, I find a relaxed and friendly atmosphere as well as an interesting and varied range of targets.
I shoot clays because it is good fun and it undoubtedly helps my performance with live quarry. Incidentally, I have met one or two shooters there who are older than I am and do not often miss. I also meet men who have retired from shooting game, but still enjoy a leisurely hour or two meeting friends, drinking coffee and busting a few clays.
In conclusion, I return to that issue of vital concern — safety. Unless death intervenes, this is what will determine beyond doubt when, at last, we are all too old for shooting.
I have every intention of continuing for as long as I am still enjoying it. I ought not to be enjoying it if physical decline ever means that I have become a risk to others by shooting in their company.
If and when this happens, I hope I have the honesty to acknowledge it and put away my guns. I also hope it is many years distant. And if, like me, you have been shooting for half a century or more, I hold out the same two hopes for you.