Is a loader's life for you? Richard Gray explains what is involved on a modern commercial shoot

The loader standing by his master, deftly handing him a loaded gun while swiftly reloading the empty one, as the birds pour over in a never-ending stream, is probably the picture that will come to mind when talking of loaders on a shoot day.

What is the role of the loader in the 21st century?

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. But what is the role of the loader in the 21st century? Does he have a role or is he a relic from a bygone age?

He most certainly does have a place but it has changed. No longer is he subservient; he is probably a highly experienced Shot in his own right. Many will also have shot clays at international level, as well as being qualified in safety and coaching. 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 protocol.

Only a fortunate few will be employed full-time in such a position for the entire season, but some of us will get the opportunity on our free days to fulfil this role, 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.

Loaders should be smartly dressed

It’s a fallacy that double guns are only used on huge days; many are used on smaller formal days, and by smaller I mean between 150 and 300 birds. This is the average on most commercial shoots. The subject of larger bags can be contentious but shooting makes a huge contribution to the rural economy, and birds on the ground at the end of a shoot day safeguards rural jobs. Whether you shoot five 100-bird days or one 500-bird day, it matters little to the pheasant or the partridge but can be make or break for the shoot, so bigger days make economic sense.

Loaders on a shoot

Loaders should be smartly dressed and wear a tie

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.

The loader’s day starts when you arrive at the shoot. You will be smartly dressed and wearing a tie. On the bigger estates, your Gun’s guns will be in the gunroom, where you will find his guncase labelled with your name and his. You will take them out and put them together, taking great care to check for any scratches or damage that may be laid at your door later. If you have 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.

cartridge bag

Take your own generously sized cartridge bag

The next step is to meet your allotted Gun, probably at the morning briefing. It is important that you listen in to this briefing because you must know the rules for the day and the Gun, in his excitement, may forget. You must know his number. You must also know what can and cannot be shot.

Quick off the mark

If the Guns are travelling in a shoot bus, then you will follow in a 4×4. When you arrive at the first drive, you have to be fairly quick off the mark and be at his side the moment he gets out of the bus. This is no time for filling your cartridge bag or pulling your 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, you should quickly ascertain if he is right- or left-handed before taking a gun from its slip. Let him see you look down the barrels before handing it to him, along with two cartridges. He is now ready to shoot. You should then get the other gun out and load it. With the cartridge bag open and two cartridges between your fingers, you will be ready.

After his first few shots, you will know how good a shot he is and if he is safe.  If he lacks experience, you may need just to keep one eye on his field of fire and offer a little guidance, but not instructions. If the Gun is a regular double-gunner and birds are plentiful, you will be too busy to take too much notice of his skill.

When the whistle is blown to signal the end of the drive, unload and put your gun away before taking his. At this point, he may wander off to talk to his fellow Guns while you gather up the fired cases into a carrier bag or leave them to be collected as instructed. On arrival back at your transport, immediately refill your 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. This one-day tutorial covers all the basics and includes a DVD to take with you. I have done the course and found it invaluable.

To get your first gig you could put an advert in Shooting Times or put your profile on a shooting website. But the only sure-fire method is to 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. Good luck!