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Shooting with blackpowder – an unforgettable experience

Shooting with blackpowder provides a dramatic light show and the drives can take up to an hour, allowing you to drink in every smoky moment, says Jonathan M McGee

As November came to an end, I was lucky enough to be returning to Lockton in the North Yorkshire Moors to join a team of blackpowder and muzzle-loading fanatics. Driven shooting with blackpowder has always been on my wish list — this was going be my fifth year shooting on this day and it has played a huge part in shaping the way I feel about driven shooting. I guess the reason I first became drawn to shooting with blackpowder was the light show. Shooting with blackpowder is akin to battling a Jedi with a lightsabre, a real, dramatic dragon’s-breath flame that licks out, chasing whatever is in its path. 

We were lucky the weather had finally started to turn cooler. With plenty of leaves on the trees it had still felt like early October but the most recent cold snap had persuaded a few of the more wild pheasants to head back into the woods. 



If you’ve never been to this part of the world, it’s definitely worth a visit. The North Yorkshire Moors are, for me, the epicentre of shooting in the UK, with such diversity in terrain as you’ll ever need. Lockton is only 30 minutes east from Scarborough and west from Helmsley and a perfect location for any visit. 

Early on the morning of Saturday, 19 November, I drove from my home in Leeds to join my digital business partner and birthday boy Simon Lockyer and his partner Collette. Simon has been my shooting buddy for a number of years and brings a high level of healthy competitiveness and extremely dry wit. 

After an exceptional coffee and hearty full English at the Lockton Tea Rooms & Gallery, we headed off to get ready for the day. It was easier for Simon and I as neither of us own a hammergun nor load our own blackpowder cartridges. Luckily, my friend and the shoot captain, Dave Coutts, was on hand to lend a gun and a range of cartridges for our day. 

The day’s artillery would include Dave’s own bar-in-wood Purdey hammergun with stunning damascus barrels completed in August 1885. It is a beautiful piece of history and perfect for the day’s adventures. 

Shooting with blackpowder

Jonathan McGee is loaned a Purdey bar-in-wood hammergun for the day


Slowly, slowly

Shooting with blackpowder isn’t like a normal driven day. Our host Dave explained this while we picked pegs earlier that morning. Slowly, slowly. On a normal shoot day the challenge is to get all the birds from a drive over the Gun line, who will hopefully shoot a few. If a big flush comes, modern guns have ejectors and reloading at the breech is pretty speedy. Loading a non-ejecting hammergun isn’t too time-consuming as the cartridges are already made and the only additional effort is the cocking back the hammers.

A muzzle-loader is a different story. Once a muzzle-loader is fired you must add your powder, force down the wad, add the 1oz (28g) of pellets and seal with an end cap. Even after all this the gun isn’t live, it needs percussion caps to force the controlled expulsion of pellets. 

Shooting with blackpowder

Ian Ireton goes through the ritual with a muzzle-loader on Whinns

It’s obvious to the trained eye when a drive is starting — that first flush of pigeons in the distance and echoing cries of the beaters. With the line of beaters pushing almost level to me on peg seven, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the first birds flushed and I would be able to take my first shot. I missed, with both cartridges.



A wonderful cock bird broke cover from the base of the woods. Moving fast in the wind, it sailed high over my right shoulder. I overcompensated, giving it too much lead twice, resulting in a clean miss. This was better than pricking the bird but is always a knock to the confidence. Simon saw everything and I knew a friendly heckle was seconds away. 

Three or four shots later and success — Simon and I had our first birds in the bag and the day was already unforgettable. The speed of these days and the slow pace of the beaters really allows you to drink in every sound, every shot and every smoky scent.

Shooting with blackpowder

Erik Aaron swings through a pheasant on the Christmas Trees drive

Back in the Gun bus, talk turned to cartridges. Being a relative novice when it comes to blackpowder, it was incredible to chat to the experts, some of whom had 40 years’ experience of home-loading. My main question was why you’d favour one powder over another. Many years ago, blackpowder was the only propellant available and these propellants were often said to be very slow, with much longer barrels required to give the powders time to burn and build pressure to force out the shot. These older propellants were also mixed to suit specific styles of shooting or types of quarry; slow burning for heavier loads, for example. 

With three new sets of cartridges, each with different powders, in my pocket, I was hoping it would be a busy one. And drive two didn’t disappoint. Facing a long strip of old woodland riddled with brambles, I could hear the beaters had made a start. Almost as soon as I pulled back the hammers, the first bird rose and fell in a plume of fire and smoke. It took a while to realise the birds had come down, as a stubborn wind was forcing the main body of smoke right back at me. One bird down, one shot. Ten shots later the drive was over and without cartridge counting — a pet hate — I’d guess I killed two birds for 12 shots. Not a terrible performance but it goes to show how easy it is to miss without concentration. 

Shooting with blackpowder

Les Wilson with a Thomas Wild from 1888 — a pinfire that can also be used as a centrefire action


Bag size

After a quick break for a well-earned pie and a chat, it was back out for drive three. It was already 1pm at this stage, with each drive taking over an hour. This pace was a wonderful change; most driven shoots can be pressured to meet a bag size so shooting can be fast and furious at times. On days of shooting with blackpowder, the emphasis is
on the day in the field. I can’t recall the bag size even being mentioned. 

The third drive was the Honey Pot. Our beaters for the day — most of whom are Lockton syndicate members — walked the woods up to a flushing point at the top of a hill that’s at the centre of the shoot. The Guns lined out in a semicircle around the base of the wood, covering all possible flightpaths. Having shot the Honey Pot a few times, I know it can produce some wonderfully challenging birds, especially when shot with slow-burning blackpowder and 28g of No 6. 

Shooting with blackpowder

Richard Harker Brown takes on a bird on the Honey Pot drive

I was pegged at the start of the line, almost back-gunning, but it did give a great view as the drive unfolded. On this windless day at the end of November, it was incredible to see pheasants breaking from woodland and maintaining a true 40- to 50-yard height crossing a valley. The only thing better is seeing the jubilation from all the team when that special one was brought down. 

With the light starting to fade, a select team of Guns was recruited for a special mission. The four of us who volunteered were tasked as walking Guns to join part of the beating team as they headed off to blank-in a wood, pushing the birds into the final drive. The walk was around half a mile. We got to the end of the wood and the beating team headed uphill to line out. Almost immediately the birds start funnelling out downhill, high and fast over our heads. 

This shouldn’t happen; the birds should walk slowly through the woods to the final flushing point, but they didn’t want to. The shooting was intense, with the four walking Guns taking aim every few steps. It was arguably the best shooting of the day, with some seriously high and fast pheasants brought down. With our cartridge supplies running low, we arrived at the end of the woods and lined out for the proper drive. Three shots later and that was the end ofmy day. 

I can’t recall when bag sizes or shot counts stopped being relevant to me, but I had six birds to take home and another marvellous memory for the gamebook. Slow and steady always wins the race when game shooting and blackpowder is as slow as you can get.