Of Rit­u­als & Ri­fles

Char­lie Portlock tells us why our first air­gun is such a land­mark in our lives

Air Gunner - - Hunting -

I’ve just fin­ished read­ing Pan­ja­mon, a bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of French­man, Jean Yves- Do­ma­lain’s ad­ven­tures in the jun­gles of Bor­neo in the early ‘70s. After spend­ing some time liv­ing with a lit­tle con­tacted tribe of ex- head­hunters deep in the in­te­rior, he ac­ci­den­tally finds him­self mar­ried to the chief’s daugh­ter and must un­der­take a se­ries of ar­du­ous rit­u­als – be­ing buried in red ants etc – in or­der to re­turn to the com­mu­nity and be­come recog­nised as a man. He makes it through, just, but it re­minded me of a re­cur­ring thought I’ve been hav­ing over the last few years; why don’t we have any rit­u­als for young men any­more?

Th­ese kinds of test­ing tribal tra­di­tions are still com­mon­place in pre- in­dus­trial societies or within those cul­tures that re­tain a con­nec­tion to their an­cient roots, and I sup­pose we have the echoes of them in mod­ern stag par­ties. How­ever, out­side of the armed forces and sports teams there seem to be few for­malised con­texts where young men can have the kinds of rit­ual ex­pe­ri­ences that sig­nify their tran­si­tion to man­hood. I’m sure there are sim­i­lar is­sues for fe­male rites of pas­sage, al­though I’m not qual­i­fied to com­ment, but it seems that the mod­ern de­faults are not enough. After a rugby ‘ini­ti­a­tion’ my brother was forced to be­come blind drunk and woke up in a freez­ing bush wear­ing some­body else’s Y-fronts, 15 miles from his uni­ver­sity digs. He could have been out with a ri­fle in­stead.

Whilst the age of for­malised rites to man­hood are very likely be­hind us, a plethora of small per­sonal ones still ex­ist and air­gun­ning is one of them. How many of us be­gan our shoot­ing with those first solo for­ays be­tween the fields and hedgerows? Who among us can re­call the joy­ful agony of turn­ing the pages of air­gun magazines in search of a holy grail, and the benev­o­lence of fam­ily mem­bers who in­vented odd jobs to boost those ranks of tar­nished coins? I sus­pect that for many boys the air ri­fle was, and con­tin­ues to be, as much a sym­bol of man­hood and in­de­pen­dence as it of parental trust and re­spon­si­bil­ity. It cer­tainly was for me, and in a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with au­thor and field sports colum­nist, Liam Bell, I was re­minded that I’m not the only one.


Liam is a well- known fig­ure in the shoot­ing world. In ad­di­tion to his

role as Head Keeper on a Shrop­shire es­tate, he’s a pub­lished au­thor ( On your Shoot, Quiller 2015) and writes reg­u­larly for sev­eral field sports pub­li­ca­tions, most no­tably The Shoot­ing Times. He’s the Chair­man of the Na­tional Game­keep­ers Or­gan­i­sa­tion ( NGO) and en­joys a va­ri­ety of shoot­ing from driven game, deer- stalk­ing and wild-fowl­ing. He knows his busi­ness, but like many of us he at­tributes it all to his early fas­ci­na­tion with air­guns.

It be­gan in the late ‘70s with a visit to an un­cle in Cheshire, who had an old ri­fle that he em­ployed to keep the rab­bits off the veg­etable patch, ‘When I was 14, I bought it off him for 50p. Why he took the money I don’t know, but he knew that I wanted it: an Orig­i­nal Model 25 in .177. Th­ese were the Dianas that were still made in Ger­many after the war, but didn’t have the Diana name. It had iron sights, a cracked stock (still does), screws miss­ing and when I got it home my par­ents bought me a pack of 100 pel­lets that lasted about half an hour. It al­ways shot high and right, re­gard­less of what I was do­ing, but it was a start.

‘I saved up my money and when I was 14 I bought, for the sun of £ 20 – which was a lot of money in the early ‘80s – a BSA Me­teor in .22. No­body had te­le­scopic sights, only the rich boys could af­ford those. A friend of mine had an Air Sporter S with a scope, which we were al­lowed to stroke but never use be­cause he only brought it out to show off.

‘I read a book on field­craft ,and in­stead of just walk­ing about the fields wait­ing for rab­bits to jump out, I spent my time creep­ing around, us­ing cover and wait­ing … I man­aged to get closer and was even­tu­ally com­ing within 20 yards. My mother was al­ways com­ment­ing about my wet knees – it’s al­ways wet in North Wales. Be­cause pel­lets were pre­cious and my pocket money didn’t add up to much, I spent most of my free time stalk­ing rather than plink­ing, and I learned a lot about the need for good shot place­ment. A head shot was re­ally the only op­tion, and with iron sights you needed to be close.


‘My first real suc­cess came with star­lings, which you can’t shoot now (re­moved from the Gen­eral Li­cence in 2005 – CP). I kept fer­rets and was snar­ing rab­bits – all boys had fer­rets – and there was only a bit of myxi so there were plenty of rab­bits about. The fer­rets needed feed­ing so I used to sit un­der the eaves of the lo­cal chapel at dusk and wait for star­lings to come into roost. There were loads of them and they used to make a mess. A good star­ling would last two fer­rets a day, and you never shot any more than you needed be­cause they’d go off. We didn’t have a deep freeze and Mum didn’t like them in the fridge.

‘I even­tu­ally sold the Me­teor for a .410, but I kept the Orig­i­nal from some rea­son. I don’t know why be­cause it was fall­ing to bits, and even my first son re­fused to shoot it. Air ri­fles def­i­nitely have an im­por­tant place in shoot­ing. Any­body can go and buy one as long as they’re of the

“I spent most of my free time stalk­ing rather than plink­ing, and I learned a lot about the need for good shot place­ment”

le­gal age, the pel­lets are cheap and the guns them­selves are cheap. If you only have limited ground, you can go out and knock the odd rab­bit or squir­rel over as you see fit, with­out just walk­ing around blast­ing things with a shot­gun. It’s a dif­fer­ent skill.’


A dif­fer­ent skill in­deed, or rather set of skills. Look­ing back on them, the tri­als of the fledg­ling air­gun­ner might seem quaint; the rest­less and end­less por­ing through magazines in search of the per­fect ri­fle, the scrap­ing up of pocket money to fund the next tin of pel­lets, and the fruit­less stalk­ing of dusky fields etc – younger read­ers will know ex­actly what I mean. How­ever, al­though it’s easy to triv­i­alise th­ese things with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, at the time they’re not just child­ish me­an­der­ings, but deeply se­ri­ous chal­lenges that seem to carry the weight of the world. They also build es­sen­tial skills around gun safety, field­craft and marks­man­ship, and can teach broader lessons about man­ag­ing money and tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for one’s own ac­tions. An air­gun is a great learn­ing tool.

As any read­ers who have chil­dren will know, tak­ing them to the shop, buy­ing or bor­row­ing that first ri­fle and in­tro­duc­ing them to the field is a spe­cial process; a rit­ual, and al­though we may be far re­moved from the tribesman of Bor­neo, we still share much of the same mo­ti­va­tions. There’s the univer­sal de­sire to learn new skills and to test our­selves against the wilds, against our peers and against the per­son we were yes­ter­day. Th­ese things are hard- wired into us. For those born into a shoot­ing- friendly fam­ily, per­haps we’ve been lucky. How many peo­ple to­day have the same chances to re­con­nect with na­ture and learn new skills in the process?


To­day, we’re for­tu­nate that we have an ar­ray of af­ford­able and de­pend­able op­tions for the fledg­ling air­gun­ner, and there are few of us who’ll need to rely on that rusty old thing you once dis­cov­ered in your grand­dad’s shed – at least, not for long, and whether you want to plink, com­pete or hunt, it’s never been cheaper or eas­ier to en­ter the sport.

For Liam, air­gun­ning was the start of a ca­reer in shoot­ing, but per­haps it was also the start of some­thing else, too. For all of us who can re­mem­ber our first for­ays with a ri­fle, there’s a cer­tain nostal­gia for those times when, whether we re­alised it or not, we were tak­ing the first steps over the thresh­old to adult­hood. In ad­di­tion to be­ing an ex­cit­ing win­dow into a new world of ad­ven­tures, the first ri­fle, like the first car is also a sym­bol of free­dom and in­de­pen­dence. With this in­de­pen­dence comes less time for sim­ple plea­sures and in­creas­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, but if I look back on my 14- year- old self, I don’t think I’ve re­ally changed all that much since then. I won­der if any of us have. Good luck out there.

I haven’t changed much since I was 14

BE­LOW LEFT: The BSA Air­sporter; the ob­ject of envy

LEFT: Once food for fer­rets, but now pro­tected

FAR LEFT: I won­der why it al­ways shot high and right

LEFT: Any of­fers?

‘ I never hit any­thing with it.’

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