Inside information on what happens on the peg.
The difference between being a good loader and a great one often comes down to getting the basics of your job done quickly and efficiently – with a dose of mutual respect added for good measure.
Imagine you are in a butt on a grouse moor. A covey of grouse is skimming the heather towards you. You kill three out in front of the butt, spin around as they twist and bank through the line and take two more behind. Now I think you will agree to do that you need to be a pretty good shot, but more than that, you will need a damn good loader at your elbow.
A good friend’s father, who was the keeper on a local estate and loaded for his boss, said that “the Boss” could regularly take five grouse from a covey. The trick was to take the first bird well out in front and then change guns so the loader only had one cartridge to load while the Gun was taking two more birds in front of the butt with the second gun, then changing guns on the turn and taking two more behind. Great teamwork, of course, but teamwork that stemmed from long practice and both Gun and loader knowing exactly what they were doing.
Do you have to be that accomplished in order to be a good loader? I don’t think so. Last year
I was standing in for the regular loader of an experienced shot. He had a beautiful pair of Berettas but when I went to remove the second gun from the car he said, “No. We’ll just use one gun today.” I must have looked surprised because he went on to explain, “Unless Gun and loader are used to working together, stuffing a single gun is just as quick as switching around with two.” He went on to shoot like a dream with just the one gun and I was left thinking that it would be an awesome sight to see him working with an experienced loader and a pair.
So what makes a good loader? Let’s start by looking at a loader’s duties. Obviously, first and foremost the job is to load the gun or guns. There are two ways for a loader to work: double guns or stuffing. Briefly, double guns is the classic way of loading where the loader stands at the Gun’s right shoulder with a loaded gun while the Gun is dealing with the business of actually shooting. Once a shot or two has been fired the empty gun is exchanged for the loaded one: the Gun gets on with shooting and the loader does what it says on the tin. When stuffing, the Gun never lets go of his gun but just pushes the top lever to allow the cartridges to eject, then the loader replaces one or both.
Having a loader, whether double guns or stuffing, means firstly that you can get more lead in the air than if you were fumbling about for cartridges yourself, so you might decide that a good loader is one who can get cartridges into chambers as rapidly as possible. And you would not be wrong, but there is much more to loading than simply replacing spent shells.
Legwork and heavy lifting
The loader will carry the guns and cartridges to and from the peg – and this can be harder work than you might imagine if you have a pair of heavy guns in cowhide cases plus 500 shells to lug to a grouse butt handily sited half a mile away up a steep hill. When the drive is over and the guns back in their slips, the empty cases need to be gathered and the game lying close to the butt or peg collected, unless the pickers-up have done that already. At the end of the day it is the loader’s job to clean the guns and put them safely away.
Those are just the basics. You and “your” Gun are going to be spending the day in close company and essentially work as a team. It is your job to do everything you can to make sure that your Gun gets
as much enjoyment out of his day as possible. This can lead to some slight dilemmas. I once heard one of the Guns (semi-jokingly) refer to “the endless stream of unwanted ballistic advice” he was receiving from his loader. Having watched him shoot I would have to say that the advice may have been unwanted but it certainly wasn’t unwarranted, but that isn’t the point. If your Gun doesn’t want your advice then it is better not to offer it.
The loader has a responsibility to make sure that the Gun handles his gun safely. With an experienced shot this shouldn’t be an issue, but not all shots are experienced. I was loading for a young man from Eastern Europe and asked him if he had shot pheasants before. “No,” he replied, “This is my first time.” “And have you used a gun before?” I enquired. “Oh yes,” he said. “Yesterday.” He’d had a few shots at some clays the day before which was the first time he had ever fired a gun. At the first drive we were down in a little valley with three stops on the hill above us, all nicely within range. And the gun he was using was a trap gun with no automatic safety. Squeaky-bum time for the loader. In fact, he listened, did exactly what he was asked to do and killed quite a few pheasants.
Another day, another Gun but this time it was me feeling nervous. My Gun came complete with a team of eight bodyguards who never let him out of their sight. One of them, armed and alert, stood just behind us at every drive. As we were heading to our peg one of the other loaders said, sotto voce: “Don’t make any sudden moves.” Halfway through the first drive I noticed that the bodyguard had his fingers in his ears. Well, it was quite a busy drive and everyone else was wearing ear defenders. As for the Gun, he was a pleasure to load for, insisted on being on first-name terms with everybody and was a good shot into the bargain.
Sometimes you might get to have a shot yourself. It was the last day of a week-long trip for a US party. My Gun was a quietly spoken gentleman who had “a little place in Montana” that turned out to cover 100,000 acres. As we went to our pegs for the last drive of the week, he handed me the gun and said “Gimme some shells. The first two are yours. Roosters only.” I managed to kill two “roosters” with not too many shots and handed back control of the gun to the rightful owner. After the drive it turned out that all the loaders had been given a chance to shoot two “roosters”. I suspect they were running a book on which loader could kill two cock pheasants with the least number of shots. I don’t know who won but I suspect it wasn’t me.
So what makes a good loader? Someone who can add to “their” Gun’s overall enjoyment of the day. If you can get those cartridges into the chambers efficiently, give help or advice if it is required, add a little praise or a little sympathy depending on whether that high pheasant crumples or sails on untouched, share the odd joke and finish the day feeling that you have both made a new friend, then perhaps you are on the way to becoming a good loader.
Now bring on that covey of grouse and let’s see if “our” team can get five down for five shots.
“It is your job to make sure that your Gun gets as much enjoyment out of the day as possible.”
In the close confines of a grouse butt Gun and loader need to work seamlessly.
Cleaning guns on the hill at the end of a grouse day.