Of Rituals & Rifles
Charlie Portlock tells us why our first airgun is such a landmark in our lives
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.’