Guests preparing for a day in the grouse butts at Fasque do not usually find themselves stuffing a hammer gun, or two, into leg-of-mutton cases but that was exactly the scene when Kiri, at Athina Sporting, last roped me in to assist him with a party of Guns, with promises of stylish accommodation in a Scottish castle, fine food and a couple of days scaring those deceptively heavy and muscular little Exocet missile impersonators that inhabit the moors.
Shooting magazines abound with advice on the right gun for every conceivable shooting scenario; I have written a fair few articles on the matter myself over the years. However, what I really think (and do) is this: shoot what makes you happy.
By that I don’t mean emulate the new Gun who, memorably, shot a dozen blackbirds on the first drive and, when admonished, replied to the ‘keeper; “You told us to shoot what makes us happy and I really enjoyed shooting them”.
What I mean is that your choice of gun should be one that you get the most pleasure from taking out. I like my hammer guns. I like everything about them. I like how they look, how they feel in the hands, how they come to the shoulder and how they dispatch a few unlucky game birds with style and certainty.
“But”, I hear you say, “they are too slow to load, what about all those birds you won’t shoot”? Well, my answer is this; speed is only an issue if you care how many birds you shoot. I don’t care.
What I can say is that I can get-off fourteen aimed shots per minute with a hammer gun (if it has rebound locks, a top-lever, side-lever or snap under-lever), more like nine if using a Jones under-lever gun with non-rebound locks.
When my gun is loaded, I face forwards, ready to take on whatever is in my field of fire. I shoot what I can, as smoothly and instinctively as I can and enjoy every one. If I shoot well, four or five birds grounded is a beautiful thing. If they beat me more often than not, I gulp down that mixture of exhilaration and frustration and vow to work harder next time.
The sheer pleasure of taking out guns made before the Zulu War adds immeasurably to the experience. I love the fact they were hand made by men who started their apprenticeships at fourteen and worked until they dropped in their dotage, still filing metal and shaping wood by gaslight. I revere the unique quality of every gun, but what I also appreciate is how well they do their work.
Most guns made before 1878 had no choke - barrel boring could produce good patterns, more as an art than a science, but you won’t get much performance improvement beyond what we would consider Improved Cylinder.
In my experience, that is just fine. An ounce of No.6 patterns and penetrates sufficiently to kill at 40 yards through I.C and the nice, broad, even spread achieved by a lot of these guns is ideal for fast target approaching the butts. In fact, my first shot at a pair of grouse killed both with one barrel!
Most old guns have shorter stocks that we recommend today for modern men, especially those shooting maintained-lead on high pheasants. I find that works well in the grouse butt, where you have to get the butt into your shoulder while moving in a confined space. Use the front hand, push it at the bird, make your torso rotate to follow the leading hand and fire as shoulder contacts the butt, or just after.
If you are too deliberate, you are too slow and won’t get a pattern on the bird before it is off over the short horizon, on may occasions. When I trained as a martial artist, we were always taught to await combat with calm anticipation, relaxed, yet poised, using peripheral vision to pick up any incoming attack, then moving to meet it unhesitatingly, with fluidity and decisiveness. I find it works well as a strategy for killing grouse. Gun held in front, muzzles to the fore, where you anticipate the grouse to come into sight, then get the muzzle following the bird as you keep moving and complete the mount.
Of course, every butt and every day is different. Some are un-shootable. Every now and then a pack comes over at high altitude, offering almost driven pheasant like challenges. WhenI have been bouncing around like a jack-in the-box trying to get on to fast, contour hugging birds, I normally totally fluff the straight over-head shots I’d normally dust on the clay range. That is one of the joys of grouse - they offer so much variety.
I have shot grouse with four different hammer guns. Lord Walsingham did the same thing - but he shot all four on the same day, while bagging his record on Blubberhouse moor. My grouse-bloodied hammer guns consist of three twelve bores and a 20-bore.
I set my guns up so I am looking right down the rib, seeing very little of it. I want flat-shooting, so I can see where my shot is going. Some shooters like to ‘float’ a target over the bead. Not me. This works for grouse. Most are missed over the top, so a flat, or even low, shooting gun won’t do you any harm.
A grouse butt would seem to be the place for short barrelled guns but I have always used 30” barrelled 12-bores and my 20-bore had 32” barrels (and a good bit of choke). All worked well.
As for ammunition, I shoot almost everything with fibre-wadded 30g or 28g No.6 shot. Grouse get no special treatment. I think it more important to find a load which is comfortable to shoot and suits your gun than to constantly seek a ‘harder hitting’ shell.
I don’t know when I will next be lucky enough to go north and tackle the grouse again but when I do, you can be sure I’ll be packing a hammer gun.
Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on