Diggory Hadoke wonders how we measure up?
Driven shooting has been an established sport in the British Isles since it was introduced by the mid-Victorians. The sport of shooting had previously been largely a matter of a gentleman walking-up game over his dogs. His firearm of choice was a muzzle-loading shotgun, until the advent of breechloading pinfires in the mid-1850s. This allowed guns to be loaded faster and the development of the shotgun continued apace for the next 50 years.
Centrefire, rebounding hammers, snap-actions, hammerless guns that cock automatically, self-openers, which require only one hand to open, automatic cartridge ejection, single triggers. Each development made it easier and faster to fire and reload a double-barrelled shotgun. When used as a pair, with a loader, the rate of continual fire is unsurpassed.
In tandem with the improvement of the shotgun came scientific and intensive game-rearing methods, producing large numbers of gamebirds. When properly organised, a line of beaters can push a steady flow of birds over a team of Guns and provide ideal placement for them to engage their quarry. A Victorian or Edwardian sportsman could, and often did, shoot a lot of birds, very quickly, on a top-quality shoot.
The popularity of driven shooting was given a huge boost by the passion for the sport ‘Bertie’, the future Edward VII, demonstrated. His social circle created a competitive hosting and shooting whirl. Polite, landed society followed his lead and soon every estate in the country was hosting driven shoots of more or less opulence. It became a staple of country life and has continued through lulls caused by war, social change or economic downturns.
Prowess with the gun has always been noted and often admired. It has always been competitive. The big Edwardian shooting estates competed for the biggest bags and the best Shots were invited to make sure a lot of birds were killed. Results were often reported in the newspapers.
Who were the best Shots of the day?
Today, things are a little more discreet but within shooting circles, top Shots are talked about and their claims and exploits discussed. Who are the best Shots of the day? Even this is difficult to assess dispassionately.
Our numerous shooting disciplines are much fragmented and specialised now. The best ZZ Shot is not the best Sporting Clays exponent, the Skeet champion may not make the top 20 at Olympic Trap. A man who regularly kills bags of 100 pigeon over decoys may struggle on high, driven pheasants and a top clay shooter may find the unpredictability of many game or wild bird shoots disorienting.
So who are the best game Shots of all time and are today’s exponents better, or not, than the ‘big Shots’ from the heyday of driven shooting?
The most famous exponents of driven shooting during its glory years were the aristocracy. They got the attention and had the time and means to shoot often and perfect their skills. In 1903, Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes named among its 12 best game Shots Lord de Grey (later 2nd Marquess of Ripon), Mr Rimington-Wilson, Lord Walsingham, Sir Harry Stonor, Maharaja Duleep Singh, Lord Carnarvon and HRH the Prince of Wales (later King George V).
It was always contentious. Rimington-Wilson was a brilliant driven grouse Shot but average on driven pheasants. There has always been scepticism over published lists of top 10 game Shots. To get in, you had to be known to those making the list and politics is never far from such decision-making.
Today, it would be impossible to create a line of the best eight game Shots in the country. You could create five or six lines of incredibly able sportsmen and marvel at their prowess, but to select a definitive list would be an exercise in futility.
But what of the general standard of shooting at the top of the sport today? Would a team comprising George Digweed, Richard Faulds, Mike Yardley, Chris Batha, Tom Payne, James Lambert, Sir Edward Dashwood and Phil Beasley compare favourably with de Grey, Walsingham, Stonor, Duleep Singh, George V, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, Lord Ashburton and Lord Wemyss?
The first thing to note perhaps is the change of emphasis in driven shooting. For the Edwardians, maximum death was the aim and prowess equated not only to accuracy but also speed. Selectivity was not of much importance. Duleep Singh made something of a signature spectacle of shooting the heads clean off passing pheasants. Even with full choke, that suggests the birds were not up to modern sporting standards, to say the very least.
A time-travelling, modern observer, watching a big Edwardian shoot, would be as disgusted by the proceedings as he would be taking in the worst excesses of today’s ‘city boy’ commercial shoots where Guns — let’s not call them sportsmen — of average-to-low ability put 500 slow, low pheasants in the bag by lunchtime. The organisation and aesthetic would be more genteel but the slaughter no less nauseating.
When initiating aspirants into driven shooting, I tell them a Gun makes his reputation as much by what he leaves as what he shoots. It would not be true to claim all today’s shooting men are more selective than yesterday’s, one reason I no longer book shoot days on commercial shoots with Guns I do not know.
What about today’s Shots?
However, the elite of the driven shooting scene today are on the whole a sporting and selective bunch and the modern ethos is focused more on quality than quantity, at least in theory. So, I would expect our modern team to display better sportsmanship in modern terms than our bag-fillers of the heyday.
Many of the top Edwardian shoots still exist today, so we can imagine our teams standing at the very same pegs at Warter Priory or Sandringham. However, the modern trend at the top end of the sport is for ever higher birds, which are on the outer edges of what our forefathers would have attempted, or considered, in their own way, sporting. That brings us back to the guns and ammunition.
Take a look at the guns used by Ripon, Walsingham and Duleep Singh (I have handled them all). They are sub-7lb 12-bores, in general, though they also had 16-bore and 20-bore guns, with 30in barrels and external hammers. Until 1900, most of these were made for, and used with, blackpowder cartridges, felt wads and over-shot cards. The modern 8lb over-and-under, loosing 46g of shot at 60-yard pheasants would be quite outside their experience or skill set.
Readers will see these avenues of comparison narrowing. Would our modern team shoot as fast and consistently accurately as the old-timers on their shoots and would the ancestors be able to adapt to ‘extreme’ pheasants and leave the 30-yard ‘low bird’ alone at Whitfield? Any sports trainer will tell you sportsmen are generally fit for what they do. A squash player might not be any good if you asked him to run a marathon and a rugby forward may begin to flag on a badminton court.
So it is with shooting. I see this in my own development. I spent several years shooting in South Africa every summer. Flighted pigeon and duck and walked-up gamebirds took up the entire day, every day for three weeks. By the second week, I was comfortably killing long-range birds with barely any effort or conscious thought, so attuned was I to the quarry and the situation.
Readjust However, returning to England and standing on a peg at a driven pheasant shoot, I had to readjust to the different characteristics of each bird, angle and speed. Had you seen me shooting in Africa, you would have been impressed. Watching me back in England, the wheels had come off.
So, change the circumstances and even the same shooter cannot compete against himself for a ranking, so how can we usefully compare different aces from shooting eras that are three or four generations apart? Different in guns, ammunition, ethos, training and etiquette?
My contention would be that the best Shots from any era would adapt to another, were they transported back, or forward, in time. Aptitude, hand-eye co-ordination, dedication and practice are the key ingredients to success.
The best Shots of the past had it and today’s Shots have it too. I think there would be little to choose between them.