Thinking about becoming a loader on a commercial shoot? Richard Gray explains what is involved.
What exactly are the requirements of a loader on a shoot? To sum up, the perfect loader should stand by, expertly handling the Shot a loaded gun while swiftly reloading the empty one, as overhead the birds soar over in a never-ending stream. The loader should make the whole action flow seamlessly so that the Gun can focus on the bird. (Do beaters, loaders and pickers-up get paid fairly?)
But is a loader on a shoot still necessary today?
We have all seen the sepia-tinted photographs of Edwardian shooting days when the aristocracy would shoot huge bags, sometimes using three guns and two loaders, such was the need to maintain a constant rate of fire. So is a loader on a shoot a relic of the past? Or a useful part of today’s shooting line-up?
The role of a loader has changed
Today’s loaders are anything but subservient – in fact they may well be more experienced shooters than the Gun they are assisting. Many loaders are international clayshooters and have coaching and safety qualifications. Indeed, having a loader present can be an additional safety factor for shoot captains dealing with novice or foreign Guns not used to driven game and shooting protocol. (Take a look at our advice on shooting etiquette.)
Only a few loaders will be employed full-time in such a role for the whole season. However the rest of us may get the opportunity to work as loaders on free days, particularly on the larger prestigious estates that cater for overseas clients for whom the services of a loader is still seen as part of the great British sporting tradition.
It’s not the case that double guns are only used on huge days; many are used on smaller formal days, with between 150 and 300 birds.
Having experienced loaders on board also increases the effectiveness of a Gun line in getting a bag — in other words, it allows a keeper to drive fewer birds to achieve the required bag, which is an important factor for pressurised commercial shoots.
A day in the life of a loader
The loader’s day starts on arrival at the shoot. Loaders should be smartly dressed and wear a tie. On the bigger estates, the Gun’s guns will be in the gunroom, where the loader will find his guncase labelled with the shooter’s name and the loaders.
The loader takes the guns out and puts them together, taking great care to check for any scratches or damage. If there are snap caps, check the ejectors and generally make sure that they are sound and ready to use. I take my own gunslips because often the guest does not have any with him, and I bring my own huge cartridge bag. In addition, I take a kit to clean the guns at the end of the day. (Read our list of the best gunslips here.)
Meeting the Gun
The next step is to meet the allotted Gun, probably at the morning briefing. It is important that the loader listens in to this briefing because he or she must know the rules for the day and the Gun, in his excitement, may forget. The loader must know his number and what can and cannot be shot.
Quick off the mark
If the Guns are travelling in a shoot bus, then the loader will follow in a 4×4. On arrival at the first drive, be fairly quick off the mark and be at the Gun’s side the moment he gets out of the bus. It is not the time for filling a cartridge bag or pulling boots on.
When I take my Gun to his peg, I use the time to get acquainted and ask if he has done any double-gunning this season, as I need to know how much experience he has. On many occasions it may be his first time, in which case he may well be nervous. In that situation you must take the lead and talk him through the process. If, on the other hand, he is a regular double-gunner, you have to bow to his experience and combine it with yours.
At the peg
At the peg, the loader should quickly ascertain if the Gun is right- or left-handed before taking a gun from its slip. A loader should let the Gun see him looking down the barrels before handing the gun to him, along with two cartridges. He is now ready to shoot. Get the other gun out and load it. With the cartridge bag open and two cartridges between the loader’s fingers all is ready.
After the Gun’s first few shots, a loader will know how good a shot he is and if he is safe. If he lacks experience, loaders may need just to keep one eye on his field of fire and offer a little guidance, but not instructions.
When the whistle is blown to signal the end of the drive, unload and put your gun away before taking his. At this point, the Gun may wander off to talk to his fellow Guns while the loader gathers up the fired cases into a carrier bag or leaves them to be collected as instructed. On arrival back at transport, immediately refill the cartridge bag for the next drive. And repeat…
A loader’s do’s and don’ts
- Do arrive in good time
- Don’t give advice unless asked
- Do always wear a tie
- Don’t get flustered
- Do be polite and accommodating
- Don’t smoke or use bad language
- Do clean his guns at the end of the day
How to become a loader
First, it is important to be a member of a shooting organisation so that you have public liability insurance. But do check the fine print to make sure it covers you when working on an estate as a loader for a Gun.
Get some instruction from someone who loads or double-guns or go on a loader’s course run by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.
To get your first loading job visit a big shoot or two and talk to the headkeeper. He books the loaders, so he needs to meet you face to face. Be honest about your lack of practical loading experience but tell him about your shooting experience.
Be polite but confident — your Gun will not know about your lack of experience. Hopefully everything will go well and your Gun will have a great day and slip you a generous tip. So do not be daunted, get out and have a go.
Other thoughts on loading at a shoot
- Being a shotgun loader can become a rewarding pastime. Groups of Guns and their loaders often travel far and wide, giving a loader the opportunity to visit high quality game shoots which they would not normally ever see.
- Loaders become trusted companions and the banter between a long-standing group of Guns and loaders is always very entertaining.
- Rather than double gun, many pheasant shooters prefer to use just one gun because “doubling up” requires them to put in more effort. Simply opening the gun, ejecting the spent cartridges and presenting it for reloading is an easier option.
- A loader who is “stuffing” can keep his Gun more rapidly loaded on a continuing basis through a pheasant drive, compared to the slower, but more traditional double gun process.
- Pheasants tend to appear during a drive in a significant stream of numbers, rather than in coveys or packs. With this type of presentation there is no gap in the requirement to have a loaded gun and stuffing is much more effective for the Gun who is willing to lower his gun and offer it for reloading.
- It might take a little more effort, but a Gun and loader operating in complete harmony with a matched pair of shotguns is a honed art form, especially when a game drive hits its peak.