Phil Burtt's level of enthusiasm for his sport is matched only by his outstanding shooting ability, as Mike Barnes discovered.
Over the years there have been any number of listings of the top ten or twenty game Shots. I have been involved in putting a few of them together and, while the compilations are fun and intriguing, I'll be the first to admit that any kind of ranking in game shooting is arbitrary. There is never any score taken on a shoot day and there is no way of knowing everyone in the UK who takes part in the sport. However, a common denominator of all of these lists is the name Phil Burtt.
This clearly is no coincidence, as can be verified by anyone who has shot with him. Moreover his outstanding ability is matched only by his enthusiasm - indeed the two are probably inextricably linked.
Here is a man whose programme takes in the cream of grouse shooting, the highest pheasants and the best partridge manors, yet he is equally happy on the smallest of informal days. Anyone who has spent time in his company on the shooting field will confirm just why he gets so many top drawer invitations - not only is he an outstanding shot, but also charming company and, most importantly, a passionate sportsman.
The latter is apparent both on shoot days and in conversation. During an enjoyable lunchtime chat over a glass of something white and innocuous, it was clear his charm and easy way with people never gets in the way of his views on the sport and those who are involved either as participants or professionals.
It all started on the family farm at Brandon, near Newark, Notts. "My father was a keen Shot and my first gun, as an eight year old, was a .410. I followed him everywhere - every time he went shooting, if at all possible, I went with him. He was incredibly supportive and I shot my first pheasant at the age of 10." Phil then moved up to a 28-bore and shot his first grouse on a walked-up day in Dumfries as a 14 year old. "By then I was completely hooked. My father had started a shoot on the farm and in 1953 employed a gamekeeper. It was low key, starting off with 500 birds, but it gradually built up over time. When the margins got tight, we started to let odd days to offset costs."
"When I was 10 or 11 I had some lessons with Michael Rose at West London, and one or two visits after that. But shooting is very much like any other sport - practice helps but ability is something you either have or you don't. As in golf, the top pros have something special. I can see it in youngsters when they come for a lesson - some have brilliant hand/eye coordination, a gift they have been blessed with. But a lesson with a really good instructor will help a lot.
"The other big secret to shooting well is having a properly fitted gun. I would say that over half of the people who shoot either have a 'wrong' master eye or a gun that doesn't fit them." Over half, I queried? "Yes, definitely," he confirmed. "It is something that they are unaware of and is the most likely cause of inconsistent performance for an otherwise reasonable shot.
"I had my measurements first taken at 16 and once my body stopped growing, I have kept to the same measurements ever since."
"Shooting is about natural reflexes," explained Phil. "You have the style and approach work, but you don't rush into a shot - you look at the bird and respond. I would never talk about giving a bird a certain amount of forward allowance. Just looking at the bird, clearly focused, will tell your brain what to do. Very high pheasants can be tricky because of the curl but if you look closely as you take your shot, then your reflexes will respond."
He has shot with same pair of William Evans 30" sidelocks for over 20 years. "I may be a traditionalist but I genuinely believe that game shooting requires a side-by-side gun. The only time I ever use an over-under is on extreme birds in the West Country, which require a bigger load than is comfortable in my gun."
He shoots the same combination for everything. "Tight chokes, light loads - I shoot full choke with 1oz Caledonian sixes for grouse, partridge and pheasant. I had multi-chokes fitted to one of my guns so that I could shoot full choke in Devon. After shooting, I saw the kills were dramatically different to my more open choked gun so had that converted too. I have shot full choke ever since. I never think about it while shooting other than seeing birds cleanly shot. I am not a great fan of smaller gauge guns - a lot of people seem to be shooting 1oz loads through even 28-bores. I really don't see the point. It's probably a fad."
He did however use a pair of Beretta 20-bore over-unders to join Argentina's 2000 Club. "The shoot provides the guns and cartridges in Cordoba," he explained "and I shot a pair of 20-bores and got through just over 9,800 shells in three days." In one three-hour afternoon stint he shot 2,000 doves, a pretty intense hit rate by any standards. This is where the doves are in plague proportions doing immense damage to crops. "I have not been before or since, but that was the moment and I was up for it. The birds were all heights and all ranges - and it was terrific shooting. My shoulder wasn't too clever afterwards!"
While he is fond of all game birds, grouse is king. "I have to say that I love grouse shooting probably more than anything else. I have no favourite moor - they're all different, and it's a privilege to shoot on any of them. Some say that with grouse there can be a long wait before there's any shooting on a drive, but for me that all adds to the excitement. I love the wildness, the movement of the birds and the extremeties of difficulty of the shooting challenge. There is not a Gun who hasn't been outdone by grouse. There is no other shooting challenge like it."
When it comes to challenges however, he has strong feelings about high pheasants. "The one thing which I am absolutely against is pheasants which are out of shot. What is the point? It is also unsporting. I personally get no satisfaction from being brought shot birds by a picker-up, having been unaware that I have even pricked them. If we have to shoot 32" over-unders to handle a charge of 40 or 50gms to shoot them, do we really want that? As someone said to me, the thrill is in the kill - not a in a blood-thirsty sense, but seeing a good well-presented bird cleanly taken."
What doesn't he like about shooting, apart from out-of-range pheasants and greedy agents? "A lack of understanding of what goes into a shoot," he immediately responds. "Unfortunately many new people who come into the sport have no concept of what goes on behind the scenes to make their day possible. Even the common courtesy of speaking with the beaters, keepers and dog handlers is in my view essential. Every shoot day involves a huge effort and we should never forget that. Maybe they don't know any better, in which case they should learn shoot day courtesy when being taught to shoot. After all we shouldn't decry people because they are new to the sport - they bring in money, create jobs, fill hotels and enable shoots to improve habitats and create wildlife friendly environments."