Simon Reinhold believes walking is better than being on a peg but thinks the advent of the back-gun is regrettable for several reasons
I have a confession: wandering with the beaters is one of my favourite places to be on a game shoot. I say that even as a member of the gun trade who, when asked to go with the beaters, invariably ends up with a performance review committee of customers past and present scrutinising my every miss. It is at times like these that the ability to turn electric ear defenders off and mute the inevitable abuse is a godsend.
Yet filling the role of walking Gun remains an opportunity to remember the early days of my game shooting. My father would be asked by some kindly host
to “bring along the boy if he’s free, he can walk all day”. But it’s not only the memories of my youth. Being a walking Gun heightens your awareness of the surroundings.
You are not relying simply on a steady stream of pheasants driven from one covert to the next. You must listen as well as think. All of it is bound up in the anticipation of one or two clever cock birds knowing the danger and making a bid for safety, curling back over the wood. This is particularly the case in January, when their seasoned wits are put to full use until they run out of road and break out the side or come back over the beaters.
These are the birds I treasure and, as a young man, bringing one crashing through the canopy to the acclaim of the beaters was a special triumph.
I also have an admission to make: I loathe being asked to be a back-gun. Having a procession of pheasants land dead on arrival at your feet — that’s if the Gun in front is competent — is not a memorable experience. Worse still, if the Gun is only half-competent and is wounding them, the responsibility falls on you to tidy up after them.
When we are asked to form up as two ranks of Guns it is, from an onlooker’s point of view, difficult to argue it as fair chase. It is down to the individual to retain their self-control and try to make the best of a difficult situation by choosing a few good ones and not to get frustrated by what is happening in front of them.
There are also different definitions of what a back-gun is. When I discussed it with a highly experienced Shot on a Norfolk cock day recently, he said: “A back-gun to me stands in the wood as the birds break back, not as an executioner behind peg four.”
This same Gun, as a former gamekeeper himself, pointed out the precarious modern nature of some keepering positions. For some, time is not a luxury they have and they are only as good as the previous season. Keepers who have the luxury of employers with foresight will be able to adjust drives over years so that birds break evenly across the line and back-guns become redundant. The short-termism of some aspects of modern game shooting can mean contracts are short and adjustment over years is not an option for many.
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Is the demise of the walking Gun and the rise of the back-gun a symptom of the shift from pastime to industry in the world of game shooting? Are keepers and shoot hosts too afraid to ask if someone would like to have a walk with the beaters?
There are safety aspects to be considered. Too often, I have seen back-guns reload and close their guns, bringing them up right through the body of the Gun in front. This ‘muzzle sweeping’ makes me wince every time I see it and it is an avoidable issue. Sadly, many Guns are not even aware they are doing it.
Being a walking Gun is not without safety concerns either. Not only must your senses be tuned to try to outwit wily birds, but you must be aware of the moving players in your vicinity. Teams of beaters advance through the drive and not always in a straight line — to the consternation of keepers — and you must be aware of the fluidity of the situation.
Your judgement comes into play more so than on a peg. If you feel you need to move ahead or be wider to cut off birds trying to break back, you have the freedom to do so — far more so than as a back-gun behind the line, when using your wits seems to be frowned upon.
As a user of hammerguns, I received some comments recently as a walking Gun. It seemed my critic was uneasy about me walking over uneven ground with hammers cocked. As I pointed out to him, the hammers on his sidelock ejector are cocked, too, only he couldn’t see that.
I suspect, though, that this unease is born out of the not-unreasonable concern that some people, these days, haven’t learned how to be a safe Shot. It used to be that you spent years learning, taught by your father or a keeper. It’s wonderful that the sport is more accessible these days but just because you can afford to shoot 20 days a year, it doesn’t mean you’re going to do it safely.
Most right-thinking Guns enjoy meeting and chatting to everybody involved in a shoot day. Not only are you shooting as part of a team in the line, but this is only one of several other teams involved in putting on the day — beaters, pickers-up, gamekeepers and those providing sustenance and libation. For some shoot managers, it might seem easier to corral the Guns in a Gun bus between drives, restricting their access solely to ‘front of house’, but do we lose an enjoyable aspect of the day in the process?
One shoot manager lamented to me that, in the age of Covid-19 and spiralling insurance costs for Gun buses, it was no longer viable to insure transportation, which meant Guns having to use their own vehicles.
For some, it may be that increasing isolation is sadly inevitable on what should be a social occasion.
It remains the case, though, that when you’re a walking Gun, you get to speak to everyone. Of course, it goes without saying that while you’ll get high pheasants on peg four, when you’re walking the shooting will be varied. You’ll get a few birds breaking back, a few that clatter up from your feet, and you just might bag that woodcock that none of the standing Guns were going to see. To my mind, you can tell a proper Shot because they’ll volunteer to walk.