Adam Smith reflects on the lack of etiquette shown by the odd oafish shooter who is happy to pinch his neighbour’s birds and debates what exactly constitutes ‘sporting range’
What constitutes ‘shooting range’?
As a recent guest on a typical smallish shoot, where birds on the wing are counted in ones and twos rather than scores, the Gun on the next peg loudly, and perhaps just a little too frequently, laid claim to each and every bird flying roughly in his direction.
“Mine!” he’d yell, establishing exclusive ownership of bird and airspace, and fiercely damning the eyes of anyone so boorish as to deny him first dibs. It was an individual sort of approach to correct behaviour in the field and one which seemed to work on other Guns during the day, since many denied themselves a shot or two for the sake of peace and quiet.
When drawn as his neighbour, I was able on two occasions to drop ‘his’ bird after he’d missed with both barrels – which was a bonus, but one which still earned a glare. Perhaps he believed that, having been missed, the bird had established the moral right to fly on, unimpeded and unscathed. Maybe he had a point.
Anyway, in my experience he is an oddity. Not a particularly offensive one, just a bit quaint and apparently unaware of displaying his own greed, although compared to some others I have met he was almost saintly. Now, I know I’m getting on and am increasingly unable to suffer fools gladly – a common and predictable attribute of the elderly and one which can only get worse – but I’ve nursed an entrenched attitude to lane discipline since long before the grey hair and wrinkles arrived. Ever since I first started game shooting, in fact.
It’s really not rocket science. Birds coming straight at you are unquestionably yours to hit or miss as ability allows. Birds slightly to one side of you are most probably yours, and you can drop or salute to your heart’s content, but not be too offended if your neighbour tries his luck. If there’s any element of doubt and he has a vestige of sportsmanship, he’ll let you shoot first anyway. Birds definitely off to the side could well be as much yours as theirs and both should be able to shoot without creating tension or offence.
Where politeness can affect the issue is when each waits for the other to shoot – by which time the bird is usually out of range anyway – although this could be applauded as conservation in action and should not be criticised. That’s about it, see? No more complicated than conkers.
Where the aggro starts is when Guns to either side of you start blazing away at a bird that is unequivocally yours. It’s annoying, it’s unnecessary and it’s ungentlemanly (apologies for the turn of phrase, ladies, but it’s mostly blokes that do this anyway). Should said bird thump to the ground close to your feet – a situation that once happened to me eight times on one drive and still brings a red mist to mind – then, the way I look at it, you’re entirely within your
rights to express your severe disapproval by hurling clods of mud and spent cartridge cases at the greedy lout to your left or right.
But of course we don’t, do we? No, we fume within and very probably shoot increasingly badly, as the consequences of thoughtlessness and a lack of sportsmanship spoil the day.
To be fair, it’s not always the Gun’s fault. There are factors which can increase the problem – like pegging too close. On some drives it’s unavoidable without back-gunning (which is almost always the better option), but a simple rule I always tried to use was that pegs could comfortably be 60 to 70 yards apart. With the accepted effective shotgun range of 40 yards, a bird flying midway between would still make a sporting shot for either Gun.
Anything less than this, favouring one or the other, made the choice an obvious one – provided, of course, they both had some basic grasp of range assessment. And that’s the rub, isn’t it?
Knowing ranges or guessing ranges has ever been the significant difference between a good sporting shot and just a hopeful one. But, like most things in life, practice really does help to make perfect. Simply getting into the habit of noting a stone, tree, or some mark and estimating how far away it might be, and then counting the paces, will soon build a ‘reference book’ in your mind – and you’ll be a better shot as a consequence. You don’t have to be walking in the country either; practice on telegraph poles or post boxes is just as effective, although the risk of bumping into people might be increased. Mind you, the metric police might take an issue because the average pace is closer to a yard than a metre, but keep the sums to yourself and you should be alright.
The major pitfall of the ‘mark and pace’ system is that it’s much easier to practise and assess horizontal ranges. Vertical range is never quite so easy, because there are seldom reference points in a clear blue sky except, of course, for your target. Hen pheasants can often look higher than they are, for example, because their shorter tails make them appear smaller; again, recognising this and adjusting your lead is a matter of practice.
When fronting a wood, you will have trees to use as height references, although the results might surprise you. A bird sailing over typical mature oak, for instance, could easily be close to twice the height of the trees and still be a sporting shot. Don’t believe me? The tallest trees in the UK are giant redwoods, which in maturity can be anything from twice to three times the height of a mature oak but they average out at 40 to 45 yards, so a bird just clearing their topmost branches would still be at an acceptable and sporting range.
Which opens another can of worms: just what is a sporting range? Not everyone would agree with the traditional standards, and these days some Guns seem to think it’s acceptable and ‘sporting’ to drop birds at 70 yards or more, taking shots over the head of their neighbour’s neighbour two pegs away. Clever marksmanship and skilful shooting, no doubt, but sporting? I don’t think so.
Maybe to them it’s more important to have a laugh than to bother with sportsmanship, and that’s fine if you have no regard for the live target you drop to the cheers of your companions. Some say it’s just the modern approach, to take ‘wiping an eye’ to extremes – since extremes seem to be the norm – but I’d question whether it’s to the benefit of our shooting sport. Maybe FITASC is to blame, but an inanimate clay at 65 metres (correct terminology in keeping with la Fédération) is not, and should not, be regarded in the same way as a blur-winged gamebird.
Part of the problem these days is cost. As commercial shoots become bigger and bigger, their reputations are established based on ever larger areas of sky obliterated by clouds of pheasants, which goes hand in hand with the ever larger sums of money required to launch ever heavier quantities of lead towards them, the place of sportsmanship can only become diminished.
But then, that’s what happens with old fashioned things, innit?
‘Hen pheasants can often look higher than they actually are because their shorter tails make them appear smaller’
Shooting is an extremely social sport and good etiquette and sportsmanship play a large part BREAK IT DOWN Instead of guessing, try breaking distances down into increments by using features in the landscape around you.
Is there a worrying trend of treating pheasants like clay targets?
Adam questions what constitutes ‘sporting range’ in modern times