The pigeon gun that’s perfect for pheasants
The style of side-by-side once popular for live-quarry competitions is finding renewed favour among the aficionados of high-bird shooting
A new use for live-quarry competition guns. By Dr John Newton
An article in a magazine caught my attention. It was one of those pieces that appear periodically and present the reader with a list of the top game shots as nominated by sporting agents, shooting instructors, gamekeepers and fellow guns, who, in the opinion of the aforementioned, are the finest pheasant shots in the land. I usually read such articles with an equal mixture of interest and envy, but this time something caught my attention: the article was about the top shots who use side-by-sides exclusively. There was a short resumé for each nominee, listing their gun(s) of choice, bore size, barrel length, choke, cartridge of choice, favourite shoot and drive, plus their top tips for tackling high pheasants. Of the 24 individuals, all shot 12-bores, long barrels were more popular than short ones, as were tighter chokes and loads of at least 30gm and No 5 shot dominated the favourite cartridge list. Nothing surprising so far but what caught my attention, however, was that four of the ‘superstars’ used traditional live-pigeon guns, three of which were choked full and full and the other fitted with Teague chokes, used half and full. These guns were all of a vintage when live-pigeon shooting was practised as a sport and came from a variety of London and Birmingham gunmakers, including James Purdey & Sons, William Evans, Cogswell & Harrison and WH Pollard.
It is common knowledge that clay-pigeon shooting has its foundations in the sport of live-pigeon shooting, which was a popular competitive sport in these islands during the 18th and 19th centuries. Live-pigeon shooting contributed many terms that persist today, including trap, pull and no-bird.
The birds were released from collapsing boxes known as traps. The trapper released the bird by pulling on a cord, and a no-bird was one that did not fly when the trap was pulled. As live-bird shooting grew in popularity it spread through the British Empire, Europe and into North and South America. The competitions attracted large crowds and often considerable prize money was at stake. Many competitions were the subject of large personal wagers amongst both individual competitors and the spectators.
Many gunmakers built specialist livepigeon guns and widely advertised the competitions won using their guns. The pigeon gun was different from a game gun and was stocked and ribbed to throw the centre of the shot pattern high of the point of aim. A heavy charge of powder and shot was the norm, typically up to 1¼oz, so guns were typically built to be heavier to absorb the recoil and promote a steady stance; a 12-bore chambered for a 2¾in cartridge shooting 1¼oz of shot would weigh around 7½lb. This is lighter than modern competition over-and-under guns, especially those for the trap disciplines, but was in the region of a pound heavier than a contemporary game gun. Weight was later limited under competition rules to a maximum of 8lb. The principle requirement was for the gun to be able to shoot a heavy charge at high
velocity in order to achieve the penetration necessary to bring down the rapidly retreating target. A shot charge of 1¼oz represented an increase of approximately 30 to 50 pellets over a contemporary game load but, nonetheless, great care was taken to regulate the chokes to ensure the guns shot consistently dense patterns. Three-quarter and full choke or full and full were typical standard specifications, although the customer’s personnel preference was always accommodated.
The comb of the stock of a live-pigeon gun is high and level allowing accurate alignment of the master eye with the top rib to maintain the correct sight picture necessary to place the shot pattern high of the rising and retreating target. Perhaps a little unusually for guns with double triggers, live-pigeon guns were commonly stocked with pistol or semi-pistol grips. The top rib of a live-pigeon gun is typically broad, flat and file cut or machined to reduce reflection and aid concentration. Another characteristic feature is the use of a third bite and side clips on the action fences, of both sidelocks and boxlocks, as a means of strengthening the lockup and to provide additional lateral stability between the breach and the action face.
Guns originally built as live-pigeon guns can still be found if one looks hard enough in the right places but there are a few points worth considering when searching through the advertisements and the various websites. Many examples have had the tight chokes opened out during the intervening years. This can be fixed by simply having Teague chokes fitted, provided that there is sufficient barrel wall thickness at the muzzles. With luck, the original specification was for 2¾in chambers but, fear not, in extremis chambers can be lengthened but this will require the gun to be reproofed.
Perhaps the only two things to cause real pause for thought are: is the weight sufficient to absorb the increased recoil of lots (and lots) of high-performance, high-bird loads? And has the gun been sufficiently well maintained and serviced during the intervening years to keep it in the condition required to handle all those days on the high birds? If you are interested in acquiring a high-bird sideby-side but don’t have the patience for what might be a protracted search for an original gun of a suitable format in the right condition, or you want something that comes with a manufacturer’s warranty, there are some other options worthy of consideration.
Introduced in 2011, William Powell’s Linhope, named after a famous high-bird shoot in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland, was developed in partnership with the Basque gunmaker Arrieta as a modern, high-bird side-by-side equipped to take on the most challenging 40yd-plus birds. The Linhope takes the established principle elements of a live-pigeon gun: long, tightly chocked barrels; a high-shooting stock-rib combination; some weight to absorb the recoil, and applies them to a modern side-by-side. The result is a 12-bore able to handle high birds with aplomb. It has 29in or 30in full-choke barrels, 3in chambered for high-performance shells and fitted with a long, full pistol grip stock that weighs 7¾lb (with 30in barrels). However, it retains the quality, elegance and handleability of a more traditional side-byside game gun. The top-quality, seven-pin sidelock ejector action, chopper lump barrels, disc-set strikers, bouquet and scroll
Pigeon guns can still be found but there are a few points to consider
engraving, colour case-hardened or bright finished action options all add up to a very handsome and supremely practical gun, which comes with a five-year guarantee.
bespoke london gun
Alternatively, you can order a bespoke, highbird side-by-side from a British gunmaker. You won’t be the first person to do so and there is one London maker who has already fulfilled a recent order from an English customer for a live-pigeon-style side-by-side specifically for high-bird shooting. That maker is Michael Louca, proprietor and chief gunsmith at Watson Brothers. Louca has a well-deserved reputation as a maker of elegant and lively handling side-by-sides in a spectrum of bore sizes, and equally lively handling over-and-under guns that weigh and feel like small-bore side-bysides. In addition to these guns, Louca has also made several four-bore side-by-sides, to prove that it could be done to the same high standards as used for his other more conventional guns. He is currently working on an eight-bore.
On a visit to the Watson Brothers’ workshop on Tower Bridge Road, London SE1, Louca talked me through the base specification of the ‘pigeon gun’: the sidelock action is fitted with a hidden third bite and side clips to ensure perfect lock-up and lateral rigidity; 30in (or longer if specified) barrels with a flush top 7/16in rib, which sits 1/16in above the muzzles; beaver-tail fore-end to provide a positive grip for the leading hand; capped pistol grip; engraved heel and toe clips on an exhibition-grade wood stock fitted to the customer’s dimensions; heavy oak leaf-style carving, including carved fences and barrel breaches. As you would expect, chamber length, 2¾in or 3in, is at the discretion of the customer.
The customer can also choose: double or single trigger; automatic or manual safety; and fixed or multichokes. Louca said that, to date, all enquiries and orders for his high-bird pigeon guns have come from British shooters whilst his US customers have shown no interest. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as we’re lucky that the UK is home to high-bird shooting. There is a long list of shoots with an enviable reputation for high, fast and supremely challenging birds. Brigands, Chargot, Ravenswick, Urra and Whitfield are just a handful that spring to mind. Anyone fortunate enough to have shot real high birds will have their own, sometimes humbling, memories. If you’re a side-by-side obsessive and wish to raise your game, there is hope. Get yourself a pigeon gun. Get stuck in and enjoy.
Above: William Powell’s Linhope employs the basic principles of a live-pigeon gun. Above right: highbird shoots are becoming increasingly popular
Cogswell & Harrison’s 1900 catalogue showing competitions won using its live-pigeon guns
Above: oil painting of a live-pigeon competition by Samuel Henry Alken (1810-1894)Left: a WW Greener 12-bore boxlock ejector ‘Blue Rock’ pigeon gun sold by Gavin Gardiner for £1,400
A William Evans 12-bore boxlockejector pigeon gun with 30in, nitro barrels with raised file cut rib, 3in chambers, bored full and full, treble-grip action with carved fences, removable striker discs and automatic safety, weighing 7lb 11oz