Big Bag Pros and Cons

Too Much or Never Enough?

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Shooting|February 2022

I have an old friend, well-known in gun trade journalism, who vocally disparaged ‘big days’ as vulgar, unsportsmanlike and gauche, while romantically waxing lyrical that the essence of our sport is walked-up shooting over a pair of dogs.

However, as the old saying; “it just takes a bit of money to rub away the socialism’, suggests, so my friend hungrily accepted (some may say blagged) as many big-bag, driven days as he could get and then blissfully killed everything that came within a sniff of his peg (he is a very good shot).

Everyone’s idea of a ‘big day’ appears to be one bigger than they, themselves, usually attend.

I suspect his contradictory expression of preference is not unique among shooters. The well-heeled cynic might offer the opinion that those who pour scorn on ‘big days’ are usually those who cannot afford them.

Everyone’s idea of a ‘big day’ appears to be one bigger than they, themselves, usually attend. As someone who has shot a lot of 200 bird days, I suppose I’d class a 350 bird day as a properly ‘big day’. The Sheiks of the shires would consider a 500 bird day a bit thin. Atlas Sporting sell a lot of 300-bird days but tell me demand for smaller days is huge. Is that for budget or ethical reasons? I think we can guess the answer.

According to a 2018 Strutt & Parker survey, 40% of respondents said ‘over 200’ birds was a big day and 24% said ‘over 300’. The same survey found the ‘average’ shoot day ended with a bag of 161. So, I’m going to go with the higher number, as I’m after ‘big day’ not ‘bigger than average day’.

Numbers can creep up on you, if the shoot is well-stocked and shooting spread evenly across a line of competent Guns. A four-hundred bird bag is achieved by eight Guns shooting ten birds each drive over five drives. Put that way is doesn’t seem so excessive does it?

Numbers aside, what is the experience of a big day? Is it better? It is certainly different. “Yes, different and better” I hear my financially fortunate mates crowing in my mind’s ear as I write this. “To say otherwise is the politics of envy”, they chip in for good measure.

A good ‘big day’ has its attractions. One is relaxation. You know if you miss a few birds, with a bit of calm self-coaching and a positive mind set, you can shoot yourself into form before lunch. On a small day, every bird might be the last one you see and if you miss the one cracker of the day you might feel like chucking your gun in the pond!

Rhythm is what you get to experience on a big day; and that is a sweet spot that becomes addictive. Loading, looking-up, engaging the next bird instinctively, folding it, looking for the next, folding that, a flash of elation, a smile on your lips and you bend to re-load, look-up, instantly swing as that next bird passes you and see it fold over the tree line, just beyond your comfort zone. You are on form and it is a good feeling.

I am quite ashamed of the enormous number of pheasants we sometimes killed...

Once you have been there, you want more of it. No need to apologise, it is fun, a lot of fun; adrenaline, dopamine, whatever pleasure sensor stimulating chemicals your body produces during a busy drive when you and your gun are on song, they put you in your happy place. At least, that is my experience. My best experience.

However, your best day, by definition, cannot be your every day. The shoot has to be right to make it happen. If, when you glance skywards to engage, your next bird, you are met with a sky full of low-flying, semi-grown turkeys instead of turbo-charged missiles on the edge of your ability, it becomes a dispiriting business; indeed a dirty one if your fellow guns are whacking fifteen yarders with apparent satisfaction. One reason I no longer book a single peg in a line of strangers.

Something I think the nay-sayers often neglect to acknowledge is that regularly shooting days on which you fire between a hundred and fifty to two hundred shots, makes a good Shot better.

The cliche ‘we are good at what we do often’ is true. Those who shoot a lot of driven birds tend to get very good at it, if they have good basic skills and any talent for the sport at all.

Rare indeed is the man who seldom gets to pull the trigger, yet kills stone dead, out of a clear blue sky, in full view of an admiring team, the one stratospheric cock bird of the day.

Confidence, timing and muscle-memory combine to create good form and without extended ‘trigger time’ those ingredients do not have a chance to cook. From personal experience, my shooting is consistently better when I am shooting a lot.

The morality of the big bag is a current, but not a new, discussion. The Duke of Portland, writing late in life about his ‘glory days’ with the cream of Edwardian shooting society reflected; “When I look back at the game book, I am quite ashamed of the enormous number of pheasants we sometimes killed. This is a form of shooting which I have no desire to repeat”.

For the record, a typical day for the Duke and his friends would have exceeded a thousand head of game.

One former sporting agent told me the biggest day he had shot bagged twelve hundred birds; “I hated it”, he said, “anything over four hundred and the quality diminishes”. He went on, “On ‘high bird’ big-bag shoots you hardly see a bird fall out of the sky, people are putting one or two No.3s into a bird, which is being picked up well behind the line. It is very unsatisfying.”

Then there is the problem of perception of quality, “eighty to ninety percent of what most shooters think is a quality bird, you or I wouldn’t raise a gun to. Watching a lot of low birds being pillow-cased is a pretty unedifying spectacle.”

Bag numbers, like the morality of big game trophy hunting, is something the wider public spends very little time contemplating. The finer points of shooting etiquette concern those of us who partake but morally questionable weak spots in the argument for shooting’s efficacy within a conservation policy provide ammunition for political opponents.

Some would have us believe that shooting is merely harvesting food for the table. It is not. It is sport and food is a by-product. Shooting is a most inefficient means of collecting dead pheasants.

However, there is nothing wrong with sport as long as it is conducted in a sporting manner and the birds shot are handled and processed with care and respect. The happy by-product of shooting is healthy, inexpensive protein, the cost of which is subsidised by the participants in the shoot.

timing and muscle-memory combine to create good form

Is the morality of a team of sportsman shooting five-hundred birds on a Tuesday, rather than shooting two hundred every day that week somehow worse because a higher number was involved on one day?

Clearly not. Yet, the ‘optics’ tell another story. Even non-shooting people are fairly easy to convince that a countryman walking-up a hedge and bagging a brace of birds for the pot is defensible. The more apparent excess, the more resistance we encounter.

Shooting is an enjoyable endeavour, shooting a lot is, to many of us, more enjoyable than shooting a bit. There is, however, a dis-connect between the ‘shooting industry’, which seeks to profit from the sport, ‘sportsmen’, who value the traditions and nuances of country life and see shooting as an integral part of it and ‘consumers’ who buy a product (shooting) and whose interests begin and end with the first and last whistles of the day.

Un-checked, business invariably overlooks everything in the name of profit. Commercial shooting is no different. Over-stocking woodlands to the degree that pheasants devour every plant and insect and foul the ground until it is poisonous, is bad for the environment and bad for the image of shooting.

Ask yourself when booking a four hundred bird commercial shoot in January what has been done to make it possible. Is it defensible? Can the land handle it? You can’t shoot three 300-bird days a season on the same stock density as ten 120-bird days, it requires higher numbers on the ground, so, big days equate to harder environmental impact.

Commercial shoots are a legitimate part of the countryside economy but must be kept honest by we who shoot. If we ask questions, care about the answers and make sure that we spend our money accordingly, ensuring best practice pays, driven shooting, of whatever bag size, will, hopefully, not go the way of live-pigeon trap shooting, and the dodo.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on

Shooting|February 2022

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