With the Glorious Twelfth almost upon us once more, Steve Rawsthorne talks us through the technical challenges of facing the most noble of quarry species: the red grouse
Grouse. The word conjours up such a variety of feelings and experiences for me: the Glorious Twelfth under a blazing August sun; fantastic, fast birds in October (the best time in my mind); tired, stiff limbs and a rueful smile after a hard day’s walked-up grouse shooting over pointers, with only an occasional shot on target!
If you are fortunate enough to be going grouse shooting this season, you should prepare properly, as it can be hugely expensive and hugely challenging for the first-time grouse shooter, and if you do not train for it, you won’t get the best from the experience.
Grouse fly low and fast in packs, constantly changing their position within the pack – this is how they confuse avian predators like the peregrine falcon. If you have ever watched RAF fighters on a bombing run, coming in fast, hugging the ground, following its every contour, this is what grouse do, but their TFR (terrain following radar) is much better!
One of the hardest things to get used to is shooting low, way out in front, often straight at the
beaters. There is a procedure to keep this safe, which we will look at below.
Most grouse are missed because they are shot at too late and/or over the top due to a combination of having the head off the gun and then swinging through the bird. You should be aiming to shoot your birds 70 yards out in front, as then you might actually hit them 30 yards out.
If you aim to shoot them 30 yards away, you will be too late, shooting them 20 feet away with a tiny pattern and an uncontrolled sense of rush. If you can see a pack 200 yards away, orientate your body to them and get ready. Your muzzles need to be low, parallel to the ground. Forget high-port positions, as you will be pulling your barrels down, moving in the opposite direction to the bird.
With the gun butt tucked up in the armpit, muzzles low, watching the birds over the end of the barrels, when they are 50 yards or more away, commence your mount. Focus on your intended target and don’t lose that focus throughout the shot. Remember the peregrine? Push
forward with your front hand, the comb coming into the cheek, directly under your eye; your shoulder pushes into the stock, you fire and follow-through. Then, look for your second bird!
On a low, fast driven bird coming straight at you, if you shoot it 50 yards in front, you will have a nice wide pattern for it to fly into. Assuming you have done your gun mount right, you just need to sit the bird on the end of the barrel. For the second bird, which may be closer (or if you have missed the first bird) you will need to give your second shot some lead. A combination of good gun mount and shooting them well out in front will give you a fair chance of success.
Grouse will present you with a huge variety of angles, not just the straight driven, and some quartering birds of pheasant-style shooting. Fast, low crossers to your front are common, so you will need to know how to deal with them.
If you are new to grouse, you will be surprised by how much lead they need and shooting so low will be alien. Again, good gun mount is essential: if your head is up even a little off the stock, you will miss above the bird. Combine that with their
terrain-following abilities and you will find yourself in trouble.
Time spent in a grouse butt with a good instructor should be regarded as an investment not a cost. Good instructors are hard to find, but there are excellent grouse butts at Bisley Shooting Ground, set in heather with the ability to be able to shoot behind.
I said earlier that it is common to be shooting towards the beaters who could be in view. Normally, during the pre-shoot briefing in the morning, the organisers will tell you how this works and the signal to stop shooting in front. When the beaters are around 350 yards from the line of Guns, a horn will be blown as the signal to stop shooting in front. Usually, Guns hold their guns high above their heads with the barrels pointing skyward to signal that they have heard the command. From this point on in the drive, you may only shoot behind.
Turn your body and face rearwards, muzzles low, then turn your head back so you can look into the drive again. When you see birds coming, you are going to need to shoot them as they depart and, as before, so many are missed above for the same reasons.
If you see the birds are passing to your left, orientate yourself that way, pick your bird and be decisive in your mount and shot – this is no time for dilly-dallying. Do the same for your right side. It’s a skill that takes practice and is more difficult than it looks. A skilled and experienced grouse shooter can make it look easy, but most shooters find this tricky!
There is an increased element of risk involved in grouse shooting because you are shooting so low. Normally, butts will have rails at either side so that
Guns cannot swing easily through the line in the heat of the moment, but it does happen. Wear good quality shooting glasses at all times and don’t skimp on cost; your eyes are necessary to continue shooting. The horn to stop shooting in front is based on sensible shot sizes and loads. If you use 34g of No.4 shot, it will travel further than No.6 pellets, for example, and you may hit the beaters with the heavier pellets – if in doubt, ask your host well before the day.
Grouse shooting is fantastic. If you are less experienced at it, even if you have shot hundreds of pheasant days, get some tuition. Practise shooting low in front with a different ‘ready’
position, along with fast, low crossing targets and shooting behind. Ideally, try to get some practice by shooting some coveys of clays to get you used to picking one target and staying with it. If you are going to shoot double guns, especially in a confined grouse butt, practise it. Many people find they shoot as quickly using only one gun and a stuffer. Whatever you do, enjoy the day – it really is the sport of kings!
Grouse butts often feature rails so that Guns can’t get carried away with their swing-through!
This starting position in a grouse butt forces you to pull the gun down, moving in the opposite direction to the bird before you can even commence your gun mount
Low-flying and fast, grouse are a challenging target
Completed mount: shoot your first bird well out in front for the possibility of a right and left!
Halfway through the mount: eyes focused on your bird, push forward with the front hand, locked onto the target
Starting position: if you have your gun in the high-port position, you will be at a huge disadvantage