40 years of Sporting Gun
Mike George takes a look back at the history of Sporting Gun.
One of the best things about being a specialist writer is that you avoid the tedious general journalistic merry-go-round of braying politicians, idiots with crackpot axes to grind, and self-centred so-called “celebrities,” and get to talk to real people.
What’s more, work is fun – and that’s why I’ve tried to make my living by writing about countryside sports for more than 50 years. It’s great to enjoy a day’s shooting or fishing and call it “essential research”.
Now let me take you back to the year 1977…
That was the year publishing group Emap decided to launch a shooting magazine, to compliment its successful angling titles. But it had one problem: it didn’t have an editor in mind. Then some bright spark said: “Oh, Mike knows all about shooting” – and that’s how I got the job.
To prepare the first issue I was given two months off from my position as technical editor of Angling Times. It was a frighteningly short timescale in which to launch a magazine.
My main problem was that, in truth, “knows all about shooting” was the over-statement of the century, and would still be a gross exaggeration today. Certainly I’d been involved in the shooting sports, as well as angling, since I was in my teens, but I was at that time primarily a competitive rifle shooter who occasionally took a winter trip to the Wash marshes, or enjoyed a day’s pigeon or clay shooting with some pals who lent me a shotgun.
The only way to make sense of this daunting task was to employ a basic, oldfashioned principle of good journalism: if you don’t fully understand a subject, then speak to someone who does.
That approach wasn’t my idea – it had been taught to me when I was a 17-year-old trainee reporter. It’s been the philosophy of every editor Sporting Gun has ever had, which is why nowadays every issue contains advice by around 20 experts on subjects as diverse as coaching, gundogs and veterinary matters, legal problems, gun tests, ferrets, stalking, pigeon shooting, pest control, wildfowling, and much more.
There were many people who helped me with that first issue, something which proved to me just how generous shooting enthusiasts are when it comes to sharing knowledge.
The first issue
One of the first people I approached was Fred Buller, the proprietor of the gun and fishing tackle shop Chubbs of Edgware. Fred was an accomplished gun maker as well as an angling expert, and I went to see him on the advice of angling legend Dick Walker. With help from Fred, and Peterborough gunsmiths Gallyon and
Sons, I was able to put together an article advising on the purchase of a first gun, and it says much about the shotgun fashions of the age in that we picked an AYA Yeoman side-by-side rather than an O/U. The gun cost £130 new.
Closer to my Lincolnshire home, I found much-respected wildfowler Alf Halgarth,
who passed on some very sound advice on safety on the marshes. Another group of shooters, including expert Jim Miller, helped with an article on pigeon shooting, while I penned a report on the first clay shooting competition Sporting Gun attended – the European Championships at Blandford and Dorset Gun Club.
The event was dominated by shooters from the Soviet Union, and I couldn’t have guessed then that, in 1989, two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, I was to accept an invitation to shoot on the ranges built for the Moscow Olympics of 1980.
For that first issue I got considerable help on the writing side from my colleague Melvyn Bagnall, who, among other tasks, visited two gun clubs to write profiles on how they were organised, contrasting a big club with a small one. And we also ran an article on prospects for the coming game season.
I think my favourite piece in the whole magazine concerned a 21-gun salute to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, using the old punt guns from the Lincolnshire washes. It took place in the village of Cowbit, only three miles from my home, and was organised by my rifleshooting friend Ray Tyrrell. Covering the event allowed me to have a fascinating conversation with Ray’s father, Edgar, who was a former punt gunner.
The magazine came out on time and sold well, but when I was asked if I would like to edit the publication on a permanent basis, I declined. In retrospect it was a silly decision, but it was influenced by the company’s announcement that it would cease publication unless it was profitable after six months. I suggested that Melvyn should take over. He was prepared to take the risk, so the magazine’s early success was really down to him.
However, things have a way of repeating themselves, and in the middle 1980s, having launched the magazine Target Gun (for competitive pistol and rifle shooters) I jumped at the chance to join the then editor, Robin Scott, as his assistant. I quit Target Gun because the Emap sold it to an extremely small publishing house, and it turned out to be a wise decision in the long term because Target Gun eventually folded due to panic changes to firearms law following the Dunblane atrocity.
I continued as Robin’s in-office assistant until 1995, when I moved to Scotland and became the magazine’s freelance technical editor. Now, at the ripe old age of 76, I’m still writing technical articles – and still having fun.
One of the early highlights in the 1980s was interviewing the clay shooting champions of the day, and getting to know some of them very well. I remember an article I did with George Digweed when he first came to prominence as an English Skeet champion, and admiring the shooting of Stuart Clarke, the most stylish shooter I have ever observed.
I also wanted to do a series of articles on the qualifications shooters could seek, and I thought the best way of doing the research was to attempt to gain the qualifications myself. And that’s how, in April 1988, I became a CPSA-qualified club safety officer.
Then, in 1991, I did the BASC Proficiency Award Scheme course, thanks to my good friend Stewart Ogden who was a Sporting Gun contributor at the time. And it was Stewart who instructed me on the BASC Pest and Predator course, the certificate for which I hung on my office wall during the six years I was editor of our local newspaper, the Banffshire Journal, in parallel with my freelance Sporting Gun role. If anyone asked what it was, I was able to tell them I didn’t have a diploma in anything, but I was a qualified rat catcher.
In terms of personal satisfaction, I had a great time. For instance, I did all of the new and second-hand gun tests and cartridge tests at one time, and I reckon I must have shot around 200 different guns, and possibly more different cartridges from .410 to 10-bore.
Most tasks have given me huge pleasure, and I only got really annoyed once, and expressed my disgust in print. It was when I attended a BASC Wildfowl Conference some time in the 1980s, and learned that the Association had accepted the need for anti-lead shot legislation and was making plans without consulting the membership. I thought this was high-handed, and I still do, but this article is not a place for shooting politics. It is to record the great times I have had, thanks to Sporting Gun, since that first issue in 1977.
Sporting Gun is now published by the Time Inc. UK group, in the distinguished company of Britain’s finest shooting and countryside magazines: Shooting Times, The Field, and Shooting Gazette.
Jubilee celebrations The 21-gun salute to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee was organised by Mike’s friend Ray Tyrrell (inset)
Expert advice Mike George had help from gunsmiths Gallyon and Sons
Back again Mike George returned to Sporting Gun in the 1980s as Robin’s assistant
Sporting Gun’s first issue was published in July 1977