High pheasants – with Simon Ward
Simon Ward argues that extreme range pheasants can be killed cleanly and consistently, but only if you are well prepared. And that means using an appropriate gun, cartridge and choke combination, practising and being willing to adjust your technique where necessary.
Although recent gun and cartridge innovations have made it possible to consistently and cleanly kill pheasants at ranges in excess of 40 yards, there are, of course, important ethical considerations. It is all about balance and knowing your limitations. But there are two factors here: the limit of your gun, choke and cartridge combination, and your own personal limitations.
The whole point of presenting high pheasants is to create a challenge for the Gun line. However, if you shoot at birds that are out of range all you will end up doing is wounding a large percentage. Just look at your cartridge to kill ratio – when it is in excess of 10:1, for instance, you can assume that you will be wounding more than you are killing, and that is simply indefensible.
It is my view that some shoots are pushing pheasants too high these days. I have even shot on drives where up to 70 per cent of pheasants are substantially out of range. And by out of range, I mean a distance at which, no matter what gun and cartridge combination you are using, or how good a Shot you are, a large percentage of luck will be required to kill a bird cleanly. For me, 60 yards vertically is the limit of a heavily choked gun and 36g No. 4 cartridges. That is where I draw the line. Beyond that, ballistically, everything starts to peter out very quickly. I can think of instances when I could have had 50 shots for perhaps 10 cleanly killed and 30 or 40 wounded birds. No one wants that, so leave those birds that you deem to be out of range alone.
In terms of judging range, turn to your left and right and gauge how far away your neighbouring Guns are. Chances are they will be 30 – 40 yards away, but pace it out if you can, and use that as your yardstick to judge how far away the pheasants or partridges are until you can confidently judge range. As a rule of thumb, though, if you feel that the bird is out of range, then it probably is.
When you book a day's shooting, be honest about your own ability, both for your own enjoyment and for ethical reasons. And if you find yourself on a drive that is beyond you, don't be afraid to let your host know. No one enjoys missing bird after bird or being tortured by those that are out of range.
Wounded birds should always be killed as quickly and cleanly as possible, even those that have been hit by other Guns. And, equally, if you wound a bird with your first shot, you are duty bound to give it a second barrel, even if the bird of the day is heading your way.
Gun and cartridges
It is a fact that high pheasants call for the use of an appropriately heavy gun, choke and cartridge combination. Although there are some exceptional Shots such as Phil Burtt, Lord James Percy and the Duke of Northumberland who can consistently kill high pheasants with their preferred side-by-sides, for other mere mortals, an over-under is unquestionably the better choice. I shot for 10 seasons with a side-by-side and when I moved to an over-under in 2001, I immediately felt that I could see better because of the single sighting plane and better ‘pointability'. The gun was more heavily choked and was heavier, so I could put bigger loads through it, which, as a consequence, extended the range of my shooting and enabled me to take on longer, higher birds.
Although I have seen a 28 bore being used very effectively for high pheasants, my advice would be to use the biggest bore size you can comfortably handle. For really high pheasants, a 12 bore would certainly be my preference. In terms of choke, anything between and full is recommended, but remember different loads will pattern differently in different guns so it is a good idea to test a range of cartridges and loads to see which ones perform best in your gun. My guns are choked full and full, and my cartridge of choice for high pheasants is a 36g No. 4.
It is also important to match the perfect load to the weight of your gun. Not all guns can handle very heavy loads. As a rule of thumb, a 7lb gun will handle up to 30g of No. 5 or 4s. An 8lb+ gun should be able to handle anything up to 36g. My Perazzi weighs 8lb and has 32" barrels, but I don't use anything over 36g, purely because I don't need to. It is my belief that over that, the recoil and muzzle flip undermines the advantage of the heavier load. Barrel length is a personal thing, but it is also my view that, for high pheasants, you will be at a substantial disadvantage with barrels of less than 30".
Being comfortable is very important, so if you do not have a gun that is built to handle heavier loads, I would always recommend going up a shot size rather than load. The latter will result in excessive recoil which is counterproductive.
In preparation for your first high bird day, it is a good idea to go along for a few lessons with a reputable instructor who has in-the-field experience of high driven pheasants. This is really important as not all instructors will have the skills to put you onto the right track.
Get two or three two-hour sessions booked within a month of the shoot day so that everything is still fresh and the finer points are crystal clear in your mind. Then, one week before the big day, go and shoot a few high clays off a tower to freshen up. Bear in mind that not all shooting grounds have the facilities to present really high clays, so check beforehand. You really need to be training on a 120ft+ tower.
The alternative to lessons at a shooting school is to have an instructor join you on your peg on a shoot day to give you some in-the-field tuition. A combination of both is ideal: a day or two on the high tower and then a day with an instructor on the peg on a shoot day. This can also be greatly advantageous in learning to judge range accurately.
The technique required to shoot very high pheasants differs from the more instinctive style of shooting that is effective on decoyed pigeons, traditional partridges and grouse, and walked-up game, for instance. This style of instinctive shooting is akin to having a ball thrown at you without warning – you don't have time to think and without realising it, you either catch the ball or duck out of the way. However, with high driven pheasants, you do have time to think about it and prepare for the shot. Therefore a more measured and controlled method of shooting is more effective.
The first thing you need to do for a high, straight driven bird is to move your feet into position so that the side of your left hip (for a right-handed Shot) is facing the line of the bird (image 1). The importance of good footwork can not be overstated.
A narrow stance is preferred with your heels no wider than 12 inches apart. For high driven pheasants I recommend shooting off the back foot (right foot for a right-handed Shot, left foot for a left-handed Shot) with 60 per cent of your weight on your right foot. This leg should be straight.
Bring the muzzles up to just behind the bird's tail with the heel of the stock resting just under your armpit (image 1).
As the bird reaches the 10 o' clock position in front of you, start to prepare to mount your gun with the barrels just below the bird (image 2). As you complete the mount of your gun, the muzzles should still be just behind the bird – for arguments' sake a pheasant's length, no more – and momentarily lock-onto this position before progressively and smoothly accelerating past the bird (images 3 and 4). As you do so, take your shot when it feels right, preferably at 11 o'clock (image 4). If a second shot is required, it should not be taken beyond 12:30.
With straight driven pheasants, because the bird will be obscured by the barrels when you take the shot, the perceived lead isn't an important factor. Rather the movement of the gun is crucial with this shot, so keep the gun moving after the shot by planning to take a second shot. The gun should be accelerating as you pull the trigger, and always keep your cheek on the stock until you see the bird start to fall. If you lift your head early, you will have to restart the whole process before you can take your second shot.
I would definitely advocate turning any birds that aren't heading directly over your head into high crossing shots.
For one going over your right shoulder, ensure that the side of your left hip is facing where you plan to take the shot (image 2). Again, 60 per cent of your weight should be on the back foot (right foot for a right-handed Shot). As the bird heads towards your window of opportunity (i.e. where you plan to kill the bird), lock the muzzles onto a spot a pheasant's distance behind the tail of the bird (image 2) and, as the bird reaches 10 o'clock, complete the mount of the gun, locking momentarily just behind the bird (image 3) and then again, smoothly accelerate past it.
When your lead picture looks sufficient, take the shot, keeping your cheek on the stock and keeping the gun moving (image 4). And be ready to take a second shot if it is required (image 5).
Apply the reverse for a bird going over your left shoulder.
The reason why I advocate putting 60 per cent of your weight on the back foot is because it helps you to maintain the line of the bird better than if you are shooting off your front foot, and stops you from rainbowing and therefore missing underneath.
At the end of the day, the three keys to shooting consistently are: 1) line, 2) forward allowance and 3) keeping the gun moving. Get these things right and your success rate will improve.