The Little White Hunter
Norm Lawler was already a keen hunter before he joined the newly formed Field & Game Association in 1958 and he would eventually turn his passion into a career underpinned by a creed of respect.
The Lawler family being raised in Footscray in the 1940s was large but young Norm was the only one of the eight boys to show an interest in guns and hunting.
It happened by chance when he was working on a building site aged 14. “I was introduced to the gun and shooting by a workmate,” he said. “Attached to his pushbike was a canvas bag and I asked, ‘What’s in the bag?’, and he replied, ‘a shotgun’.
Norm knew nothing about guns and even less about hunting. “He explained that after work he would cycle out the highway and upon reaching open country would hide the bike, load his gun and hunt for rabbits. He asked if I would like to go hunting with him and said he would teach me, an offer I readily accepted.”
In no time, Norm had his own gun and spent most days after work rabbit hunting and he soon met another chap with a car and English pointers who introduced him to quail. “For the next few years, rabbit and quail shooting was my life,” Norm said.
Norm calls those first five years his apprenticeship and he emerged with a simple set of rules ingrained: firearms safety is paramount, respect the land and the landowner because without them you have nothing, and respect the game, be it rabbit, ducks or quail. “As one old shooter said to me: ‘Even the ones you miss should give you the same satisfaction as the ones you put in your game bag.’
Pretty soon, the apprentice would meet the master, the legendary Fred Burns, who opened a gun shop in Footscray in the early 1950s.
To this day, Norm says he’s never seen a better shot than Burns, who introduced him to live bird trap shooting at the Victorian Gun Club in Brooklyn.
“Most live bird shooters, pigeons, sparrows and starling were also keen field shooters, so this started a busy lifestyle for me,” Norm said. “Competing at trap shooting and arranging field shooting, not only for myself but for others who offered me money to take them out for a day; how I ever found the time to work astounds me.”
On top of that, Norm helped out at the Fred Burns Shooting School.
Norm said the biggest disappointment Fred Burns suffered was being ruled out of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne along with Newton Thomas. “These two shooters were head and shoulders above any of our other competitors, but the Games Committee stated that both were professional and they could not compete with the amateurs,” Norm said. “The Melbourne Gun Club put on the Olympic Live Pigeon Championship after the games and guess who won it? Many Olympic shooters competed and all were most impressed with Fred’s talent. They even wanted to take him back to Europe on the circuit where he would make a lot of money, but Fred declined.”
In 1958, when Field & Game formed, Norm was regularly called on to take influential people out in the field, including Premier Sir Henry Bolte and the Governor of Victoria and the Association’s patron, Sir Rohan Delecombe. “The Werribee Plains were recognised as one of the finest game hunting areas in the country,” Norm said. >>
>> “After WWII we had a plague of rabbits, plenty of hares, quail in all paddocks that had suitable cover and the coastline, which had a tremendous amount of waterfowl, the Kakadu of Victoria.”
In the 1960s Norm recalls taking out two hunters per day for the duration of the quail season and every day, both guests got their bag. “I was getting phone calls from people every day wanting me to take them out and it got that busy that in the end I couldn’t go to work.”
Norm turned professional and was encouraged by Dr Ed Kosisky from Nilo Farm in the United States to start a private shooting club.
The first two members were honorary, Sir Henry and Sir Rohan, whose names helped open doors and the gates to properties suitable for hunting.
Four doctors, a mining CEO, three engineers, a wholesaler, a builder, a school master, a car salesman, an estate agent, a politician and three new arrivals from the United Kingdom were the first paying members. “We are talking $5000 a year or $100 per week, which back in 1968 was about the average wage,” Norm said.
The club established on 14 acres (5.6 ha) at Tarneit and offered duck and quail hunting, pheasants and rabbits as well as boarding for gundogs and training in shotgun skills.
The Bird Dog Shooting Club was able to pull a few strings and gained permission to shoot clay targets on Sundays. “Our first year was most successful,” Norm said. “All hunters reported full bags of quail and duck every time, although sometimes I had to help make up their bag if they weren’t shooting too well.”
A lot of the duck shooting was done at Barren Box near Griffith in NSW where the club rented a house right on the lake edge. It eventually came up for sale and the members chipped in to buy what they would christen the Barren Box Duck Shooting Lodge. “It was a fabulous place for game birds,” Norm said.
The club continued until 1978 when urban sprawl, loss of habitat and rabbit control began to have a serious impact on the availability of game.
Norm went back to real work, as the
ranger at the new Point Cook Coastal Park and a new residence in the original homestead, which came with the land acquired to create the park.
“A new life began, shifting into a place I have always loved, and still having the wetlands, grass paddocks for rabbit and quail and the coastline for fishing; it was too good to refuse.”
Norm describes his life as one immersed in the wonderful world of shooting.
“The first time I went out with that little fella with the gun strapped to his bike and shot a rabbit, I loved it,” he said.
Early in his career, Norm always wanted to be top gun, and most of the time he was successful but he stopped competition shooting when the use of live birds was banned.
His memory is long enough to recall shoots in every country town that would attract people from everywhere to compete, or wager on matches. “I remember one shooter who had lost GBP 4,800 went double or quits, a fortune in those days. “The bird was released and it was a worthy target, zooming all over the place; the shooter fired and won the bet.”
Another memorable bet involved his friend and mentor Fred Burns during the Melbourne Gun Club’s premier 21-bird event, in which shooters were eliminated after three misses.
Burns had missed two and Alf Hume, a cocky bookie, suggested he could write his own ticket. Burns never bet but he couldn’t resist the bait and backed himself: GBP 4 at 100/1. “Alf accepted the bet and Fred went out and shot the next 19 birds straight to win the event,” Norm said.
When Field & Game was being formed in Victoria, Norm didn’t hesitate to get involved. “I had a love of the outdoors, I respected the game we hunted, and I also appreciated the people who were associated with it,” he said. “The likes of Dr Hugh Martin and his son John, Stan Burford, Pop Sauer, Doug Hemingway and Des Thomas, I salute them all for creating something that is now established Australia-wide.”
Norm said he was contacted by Doug Hemingway a few weeks after the formation meeting with a request to take the Governor, Sir Rohan Delecombe, quail hunting. Several dates were suggested. “If it will help the VFGA, make it all three dates,” was Norm’s response.
A few weeks later, Premiere Henry Bolte, another keen hunter, joined the party. “Doug said it would be great to have the ear of the two top people in Victoria but it was really the start of a wonderful friendship with Doug, the Governor and the Premier,” Norm said.
Norm doesn’t get out hunting anymore but he watches developments with interest and has this advice for today’s hunters. “Number one, respect the environment because that is what attracts people; you must respect the game that lives there and the owner of the land you are on. “Know your game and practice a lot, although practice doesn’t help some people.” Above all, Norm said hunting was about the enjoyment and the subsistence, not the numbers in the bag. “It isn’t a numbers game,” he said.
“The first time I went out with that little fella with the gun strapped to his bike and shot a rabbit, I loved it,”
Norm Lawler at the farm he used to turn his hunting hobby into a business
Norm with Sir Rohan Delecombe
Norm Lawler at home in Williamstown
Norm posing for promotional photos taken for Winchester in the 1970s