It can be as simple as a kid picking up a shotgun, whistling for his dog, and walking out the back door, or as formal as a duke setting out with a score of retainers to shoot a thousand birds. It is all wingshooting, and it is all wonderful.
The literature begins before the Napoleonic Wars, but we can date wingshooting as we know it, more or less, to the year 1812. The London flintlocks of the Manton brothers inaugurated the era of the fine fowling piece, and the practice of “shooting flying” began around the same time. The idea of downing a swiftly moving bird in the air, instead of sitting on the ground, seized the collective imagination of a century of aristocrats.
If we were to pick one day in wingshooting history as the greatest of all time, not just for numbers but for sportsmanship combined with consummate skill, my nominee would be August 20, 1872, on Wemmergill Moor in Yorkshire.
On that day, Sir Frederick Milbank, Bart downed 364 brace of red grouse – 728 birds – over the course of eight drives. On one drive alone, which lasted 23 minutes, he shot 190 grouse. He knew this because, as the drive began, the hammer of his Westley Richards pinfire caught his watch chain and yanked it out. He noted the time; when the extraordinary drive was over, he checked his watch again. Twenty-three minutes.
This is not the most birds ever to fall to one gun in a day, by any stretch of the imagination. Reading of Sir Frederick’s accomplishment, that most competitive of shooters, Lord Walsingham, staged a series of drives on his own moor eight days later and dropped 842 grouse.
What sets Sir Frederick Milbank’s day apart is the fact that it was not done as a stunt, to break a record; it was not a conscious attempt to kill for the sake of numbers. He was one of eight guns shooting on one day in a year, which has gone down in history as the greatest red-grouse season of all time. He shot from the positions he drew, did his best, picked up his own birds, walked between the butts, and carried his own equipment. It was simply an extraordinary day of real wingshooting, never to be matched.
Sir Frederick shot a trio of pinfires, with two loaders. In a letter to Land and Water in 1898, shortly before his death, the baronet gave details about the day, including the fact that his load was 7/8 ounce of #6 (American #7) and 2½ drams of black powder. Velocity was 1100 feet per second – by today’s standards, barely an adequate dove load. It shows what you can do with a fine gun, shot well. And Sir Frederick was acknowledged as one of the premier shots of the day. Not excessive, and not corrosively competitive like Walsingham, but a fine wingshooter and a gentleman.
In America, there is an abiding image of birdshooting, epitomized by Robert Ruark’s stories of his boyhood in the Carolinas, hunting quail with his grandfather. Never mind that quail numbers that existed in the 1920s in the South were an anomaly brought on by the aftermath of the Civil War and long-gone farming methods. The image persists.
So do Ruark’s later stories about hunting sand grouse in Africa, taking time off from a day of Cape-buffalo intensity to exercise the “shotty-gun.” If anyone was the father of the concept of travelling far and wide to shoot birds, it was Ruark. A few New England old-money patricians may have made a practice of going to Scotland for red grouse, to Hungary for pheasants, or to Spain for red-legged partridge, but few of us have that kind of money and, for some reason, those patricians never wrote about their experiences for the benefit of the masses.
Wingshooting is truly a worldwide pursuit. Even countries with strict gun laws, which frown on rifles and turn faint at the thought of handguns, allow people to keep shotguns. The art of wingshooting is as much an international language as the music of Mozart or the literature of Tolstoy.
In fact, Tolstoy himself, although a vegetarian, wrote one of the most celebrated accounts of a day afield, in Anna Karenina, with the admirable Konstantin Levin hunting snipe. Birdshooting is central to Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches and holds a key to the character of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Wingshooting only moved to center stage in serious American literature with Ernest Hemingway, but it has stayed there even as anti-hunting sentiment pushed big-game hunting from the pages of the Atlantic.
There is something about wingshooting that brings out the gentleman in some people, the opposite in others. As Ruark’s grandfather observed, “Let me watch a man in the field with a shotgun, and I’ll tell you the story of his life.” For a novelist, such insight is priceless.
A vivid childhood memory is my first glimpse of a ruffed grouse, when one floated in and settled under a fir tree a few yards from where I was sitting. It studied me with bright eyes, hopped onto a log, and spread its wings. I moved and it thundered into the air, leaving me breathless. Unbeknownst at the time, it carried my heart away with it. I was nine years old.
One can try to wax profound about wingshooting, but its profundity lies in its simplicity.
At its most basic, birdshooting is a combination of relationships: a man, a gun, a dog, a bird. Each has its own life and they all revolve, circles within circles. A bird lives a couple of years at most, a dog maybe a dozen, a man 70 or 80, and a fine gun, indefinitely. But the bird has both the shortest life and the longest, for the species outlives us all. At some point, every element bids goodbye to every other element, then greets a new one, and a new circle takes its place. Circles within circles within circles.
These are thoughts that go down well, drowsing in a warm October sun, on a hillside smelling of juniper, as ruffed grouse erupt from the blueberries all around. Or under a tree in South Dakota, sharing a sandwich with your setter, wondering about the pheasants in the corn.
There are wider circles to wingshooting, too. It’s one of the few shooting sports in which, on its grandest scale, dozens and even hundreds of other people are drawn in as a supporting cast. All have their part to play, and they do it, not because they have to, or because they are paid to, but because they love being part of this large and timeless picture.
England’s royal family have always been wingshooters. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, set the social style that resulted in the explosion of Victorian fine gunmaking and shooting, and it has flourished with every successive generation. Today, Queen Elizabeth does not shoot, but her husband does, and her son does. The queen prefers to stay behind the line of guns with her retrievers and act as a picker-up of the downed birds – as vital a part of the operation as the beaters, stoppers, loaders, guns, and the birds themselves.
In America, wingshooting can be similarly divided, with the shooter playing the role of the center in hockey, or the quarterback in football. The guy (or girl) who pulls the trigger is important, but is only a part of a larger picture. We have dogs and dog handlers, and many a dog person is content to go afield for no other reason than to run the setters, pointers, or retrievers. They may carry a gun, and occasionally even fire it, but for many it is more of a fashion statement. The real fascination is in the dog work.
In February, 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote an essay for Esquire, one of his “letters” from the Gulf of Mexico, called “Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter.” It was a wistful piece, written by a wingshooter in the off-season, wishing he could down a bird and smell gunpowder on the breeze.
Hemingway pondered “that catharsis wingshooting has given to men since he stopped flying hawks and took to fowling pieces…” and noted “they are all the same, and they are all different, and the last is as good as the first.”
If St. Hubert were to offer me one last day afield before collecting my soul, I would take a shotgun and head into the deep north woods in search of that first ruffed grouse, to hear the wings of autumn, one last time.—Terry Wieland