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

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY dr john New­ton

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

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