Shooting Etiquette from Purdey
The idea of shooting ‘etiquette’ may seem somewhat daunting. But really, there is no need for it to be. The essence of field etiquette is really quite simple. Be safe and be sporting. In fact, far from being a pastime heavy in hidden codes and arcane ritual, you will find that most of the unwritten rules are merely a logical means of shooting safely, and with pleasure for all.
It is no small feat to lay on a large shoot. The head gamekeeper and his team will have spent the best part of the year building up to it, at times working 18-hour days, seven days a week. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to shoot, it is polite to respond quickly, and in writing. And to make sure that should you accept – and we hope you will – that you arrive promptly on the chosen day. If you agree to attend, it is normal to return the kindness in the future. But it may not be possible for you to offer your host a day’s shooting. If that’s the case, reciprocate in some other way. The theatre and dinner, perhaps. What you should never do is accept an invitation from someone you don’t expect to enjoy spending the day with. Shooting is a sociable sport, best shared among friends, old and new.
What to wear
It’s important to dress appropriately, not ‘to be seen to be seen,' but rather to make sure you stay warm, dry and good company throughout. You won’t have fun if you’re soaked through on the first drive, nor will you enjoy yourself if your swing is being hindered by your Mackintosh.
You should expect to provide your own gun. If you’re a novice shot, the best initial step will be to book a series of lessons, either as a refresher, or for your very first taste. It is very unwise to arrive at a driven shoot having never hit a clay, and we would strongly advise against that.
Other things you’ll need
Apart from the right clothes and a gun, you’ll need a gun case or a slip. (Arriving at a shoot with an unsheathed firearm would seem very odd to the rest of the guests.) You’ll also need plenty of cartridges, and something to carry them in. It’s much safer to over-estimate the amount of shooting you’ll do; not only does it avoid the awkwardness of running out, it also says to your host that you’re expecting a good bag. Make sure they’re the right bore. Ear protection is vital, and safety glasses are highly recommended.
Shoot locations can be very obscure, but the invitation will usually give clear instructions on where to meet, and at what time. If there’s any doubt whatsoever, check with your host in advance. Don’t rely on a satnav or Google Maps; country estates often feature unmarked tracks which are unknown to these systems. Mobile phone signals can be patchy, and your host will very likely be busy with final arrangements on the morning of the shoot. If you arrive late, don’t expect to find him or her waiting.
Loaders, partners, cars and dogs
The invitation will usually make clear whether or not partners are invited; if you will need a 4x4; and whether your dog (gundog, that is) or loader will be welcome. It’s even possible that your host will provide a loader for you on the day. If that’s the case, accept the offer. A loader will be a helpful second pair of eyes, not to mention being vital on a ‘double gun’ day, when he will change and reload your guns.
What to shoot
In her excellent book on shooting etiquette, How to be Asked Again, Rosie Whitaker quotes Mike Barnes, then-editor of Fieldsports: ‘Respect for the quarry is everything. We are not simply shooting targets – pheasants and partridges are real. Knowing something of their ways and wiles is fundamental. It also adds so much to the enjoyment of time spent in the field.’ At the beginning of the shoot, there will be a shoot briefing. ‘Guns’ – ie, the shooters – will be assigned ‘pegs,' and told what to shoot. Some birds may be off limits, usually for reasons of game management. Listen very carefully. If you are in any doubt, now is the time to ask. You will also, of course, need a shotgun certificate. These can take three to four months to process, and as well as being willing to answer some very personal questions about your health, you will also need to be able to show the police that you have a secure gun-safe in your home in which to store it.
The shooting itself
During the safety drill, as well as being told what you can and can’t shoot, you’ll also be reminded of the signals to look and listen out for on the day. Obey your host, and the keeper, entirely. Follow all of their instructions. It is their job to make everything as safe as possible for everyone, and your responsibility to help that happen. Before loading your gun, check both barrels are absolutely clear. Make certain, too, that you have the right bore cartridges for the weapon. A 20-bore cartridge will slip down and stick in a 12-bore gun. If you fire into that, you risk an explosion which could split your gun’s barrels and take off a finger. When you close your gun, always keep the barrels pointing down, and bring the stock up to meet them. Never, ever raise the barrels to the stock. When walking, always break your gun, and ensure the barrels are pointing earthward. Even seasoned shooters’ guns have been known to go off unexpectedly, and every year there are accidents caused by carelessness. If you hand your gun to someone else, you should always unload and break it. Similarly, if climbing over a fence or style. Only ever shoot when you can see clear sky around and behind the bird. You should never shoot towards woods or hedges, as that’s precisely where the beaters could be. If in doubt, don’t shoot.
During the shoot, there are certain conventions designed to keep things sporting. It’s considered very bad form to shoot a low bird, or to poach into your neighbor’s airspace. The exception is if they have already unloaded and there is nothing in your airspace, or to deal with a wounded bird. Similarly, don't shoot a bird at very close range, or one that’s too far away. A ‘pillow-cased’ bird, packed full with lead shot, can’t be sold to a game dealer. And anything you aim at that’s more than 40 yards away will very likely be just crippled or maimed. Your aim is for good, clean kills that bring the birds down quickly and fairly, in a condition that’s fit for the table. Whenever you suspect a bird may have fallen only wounded, make a clear mental note of it. Once the whistle has blown and it’s time to pick up, such birds are the first ones to tell the pickers-up about. If you are a skilled shot, be generous. Let a few birds fly on to your neighbor unscathed, as they’ll thank you for it. If he or she misses, don’t insist on picking the bird off yourself. ‘Wiping your neighbors eye’ too often is considered poor form. Or, if you’re having an off-day, don’t moan. It’s better to be philosophical and stay optimistic. ‘They were too good for me!’ is a sufficiently upbeat, stoical response.
The shoot lunch can be anything from a flask of soup on the bonnet of the Land Rover, to a six-course feast. If you do go indoors, your boots should stay behind, with the dogs and the guns – though put some distance between them. Shotguns should be broken and unloaded, and protected in their case or slip. If you’ve been wearing waterproof over-trousers, take them off. Muddy, wet breeks don’t pair well with upholstery. Wherever you’re dining, the time to pack up and head off could be announced at short notice, so be ready to eat up quickly.
You may well be offered a glass of sloe gin on arrival, perhaps another mid morning, and possibly beer or wine over lunch. You will know your own limits, though few shots find their aim truly improves after having a drink. The best advice is to treat alcohol as you would if you were driving, and wait until the shooting’s finished until you fully indulge.
You may have had a long journey to the shoot, and the idea of ‘ducking out’ before the last drive might appeal. But a shoot is a communal occasion, and to leave prematurely will appear very selfish. Not only will you miss helping your fellow shots pick up their birds and cartridges, but you’ll also miss taking your brace – and those birds for the table are, albeit somewhat symbolically perhaps, the reason you came to begin with. So stay to the end. Help out. Part happily. And when the guns are packed away, and you’re safely at home fed, bathed and changed, take a moment to reflect on your day. Then write your ‘thank you.' When it reaches your host - as soon as it can - that small show of gratitude will make all his efforts worthwhile.
Always help your fellow guns pick up their birds once the drive is over. And treat all quarry with respect. On the Continent, it’s quite usual for the birds to be laid out in rows at the end of the day, to allow the sportsmen to honour them. When you leave, you’ll be offered a brace, which you should always accept. And whatever you do, don’t throw your birds in a pile, for the meat bruises easily. Your host will probably want to sell them to a game dealer, so set them down neatly and carefully by your peg. Once your birds are all in, you can pick up your cartridges, and help your neighbors pick theirs.
Gifts and tips
Most guests to a shoot will bring their host a present. You should always take cash with which to tip the head keeper at the end of the day, and your loader if you have one. Ask your host what the recommended tip is; as a guide, depending on the shoot it’s likely to be between £40 and £80.