How to shoot grouse - with Simon Ward
Driven grouse shooting is unique and unlike all other forms of game shooting, says Simon Ward. The secret is to use a controlled yet aggressive style, shooting instinctively and trusting yourself to pull the trigger on first aim without hesitation.
It requires a different approach to that which is effective for driven pheasants, mainly due to the fact that you will be taking very low shots well out in front at incoming grouse heading for the line of butts and also low angled quartering shots behind the line as the grouse retreat from the Guns. It is some of the most exciting and challenging sport you will ever experience, particularly as the season progresses and the grouse become more wild and challenging prospect for those privileged enough to experience it.
Unlike any other game bird grouse can fly in a most unpredictable fashion, twisting and curling as they hug the contours of the moor, skimming the tops of the heather.
To those other than experienced grouse Shots, the prospect faced can often be daunting with the potential to induce a state of panic. The primary message is to engage the bird early in its flight, some 70-80 yards in front of the line of butts, if your horizon permits. From the moment you have picked your bird and connected the muzzles of your barrels to it, mount your gun to cheek and shoulder and the shot should be taken without hesitation. In what seems a split second to complete this smooth and instinctive process, the surprise to the Gun is always how much ground the bird has covered in that time.
Quite often during this process of engagement, mounting and shot being taken, by the time the grouse has met with your shot pattern, it will have covered 25-30 yards plus - more, when assisted by a strong tail wind. And then there's the second bird to shoot at... start early to avoid disappointment.
The timing of when you start is tantamount to your success. Great excitement comes when you are faced with the prospect of either a covey or large pack of grouse heading directly for your butt. One thing I have witnessed when both shooting and coaching others in the field, is that if you are busy trying to pick a bird out, you can become mesmerised and easily end up swapping horses several times. As a consequence you then lose valuable time when the grouse gain the upper hand and before you realise it you are too late.
You need to be extremely bold and focused - instead of waiting for the inevitable you must go out to meet them, choke barrel first. My advice is to point the gun's muzzles into the mass and a bird will suddenly show itself to be the right one. Go for it and take your shot, keeping your cheek firmly on the stock until you see the bird collapse into the heather, moving swiftly onto the nearest bird for your second barrel. Both shots will have been instinctively taken without hesitation and providing your gun mount is good, with your stock firmly in your cheek, you will have no problem.
Try to resist changing horses, no matter how tempting a different bird in the covey might appear, or predictably you will end up punching two holes in the sky with nothing to show for your efforts. Keep firm focus on the bird that showed itself. If the bird is coming directly towards you at eye level, then the gun's movement must be kept to a minimum. Point straight at the bird and pull the trigger - again keeping your cheek firmly on the stock until you see the bird fall.
Well intentioned tips are not always to be heeded. You will often hear people advise to “shoot at the bird's feet” or “shoot their socks off”. I would suggest this method only applies if the bird's flight is well below your eye level. In my experience, more grouse are missed underneath or up the side rather than shooting over the top.
If a grouse is angling into you (as a opposed to crossing broadside at 90 degrees) and is clearly your bird and at a safe angle, again engage it early, connecting your eyes and muzzles to the bird.
The shot needs to be taken swiftly and there is no time to use the swing-through method of coming from behind the bird, as this could prove dangerous, with the possibility of swinging through the line.
Instead you need to see the bird directly over your muzzles, using your lead hand (left for right hander) pointing onto its crop, point in front of the bird and pull the trigger. Again keeping the cheek firmly on the stock until you have seen the bird fall into heather. It's all about economy of movement and amounts to shooting with a short checked swing. Shooting on first aim in this way will always result in more birds being added to the bag.
More than ever your success will be dependent on your smooth and accurate gun mounting skills, so take time out at home with some dry mounting, as this will definitely pay dividends when you get out onto the moor. Practise on low objects out in font and also behind. Use a pair of snap caps and pull the trigger as if the situation was real.
Try to keep your weight on your front foot (left for right hander) during the shot, whether taking the bird in front or behind, which brings me to those birds which are missed with great frequency... the shot which is taken as the bird retreats behind the line of butts. Just why do people miss birds that have gone through the line?
The answer is simple - lack of anticipation and poor footwork resulting in the inevitable incorrect and uncomfortable position of your body. Remember on these shots you should always prepare in good time. If you have missed a bird in front with your first barrel and it becomes too close for a safe second shot in front, then use your feet, turn, put yourself in a comfortable shooting position, again placing your weight over your front foot.
While achieving this movement, you must keep visual focus on the bird as it passes through the line, before you take a safe angled shot as it retreats. By keeping full focus on the bird throughout, you seemingly also slow its flight. You have more time. Your gun will be out of your shoulder as you safely raise the barrels as you turn through the line, then lower the muzzles, pointing them at a safe angle to connect into the bird. You then find yourself in a similar position to that of the angled incomer, other than it is retreating as opposed to coming towards you. Again, refrain from trying to measure the bird using your lead hand swiftly and accurately to the front end of the bird as it quarters away from you - take the shot without hesitation. And again keep your cheek on the stock until you see the bird fall.
Practise your footwork sufficiently so that it can become a major part of your shooting repertoire. By working on this aspect of your shooting you will learn how much time you really have. Always a sign of great Shots is their ability to make it look as though they have all the time in the world, even when faced with the prospect of downwind grouse in October.
SAFETY - NO COMPROMISE
Safety is always paramount on a grouse moor - whether driven or walked-up, you need to have your wits about you at all times, not just on your own safe shooting and gun handling, but also keeping a watchful eye on your neighbours.
Grouse shooting is an incredibly explosive and exciting sport and in the heat of battle it can be very easy to get disorientated as to where the Guns and flankers are.
Butt sticks will be provided (you may have your own) and must be used at all times. These will be set to provide your safe boundary of fire, stopping the potential for you to swing though the line. But at all times during the drive check and double check where the line is, keeping a very clear focus on your safe angles to take your shots.
The two end Guns need to be particularly vigilant as they not only have a shooting neighbour, they also have the flanker to watch out for (the guy(s) with the flag at the end of the beating line with the task of stopping birds flying out of the drive). As a rule their positions will change as the drive progresses. So while you need to use controlled aggression in your shooting, you also need a clear head, and if any birds break out the side you must wait and let them pass safely through the line before taking a shot behind.
Remember that when you take a low angled shot, there is the potential to blind someone at up to 250 yards. If in any doubt, don't shoot - the risk should never be taken.
As the drive is drawing to a close a horn will be sounded to warn the Guns to stop shooting in front as the beating line is now in shot. From this point you must only shoot behind the line - never forward. I again stress that the end Guns must use their discretion as to when to stop shooting in front. Quite often, well before the horn is sounded, both the flankers and the end of the beating line arrive in view before the middle section.
Once your butt sticks are in position, then study your surroundings, to both front and rear, and use your imagination to assess where you think your grouse might appear from. If shooting a single gun, then either load from your pocket or use a ‘fast-load' cartridge belt. I wouldn't recommend placing your cartridges on the butt wall as they will probably fall or get knocked over and end up covered in grit and muck. I suggest the use of 1oz loads of 5s or 6s in your 12 bore early season (25gram 20 bore) moving up to 30 or 32gram later on (1oz load for 20s).
Check and double check your barrels are clear before you load your gun. I recommend wearing muted colours to blend in with the moorland surroundings, and try to avoid fidgeting and moving around in the butt once the grouse are on the move. Try to keep still until you need to spring into action. Remember these are wild birds.
Shooting glasses are a must - it only takes one stray pellet to cause loss of sight. And keep a piece of chamois leather with you in case of rain, so that you can wipe them.
Take all the clothing with you that might be needed, especially waterproofs - the weather can change dramatically on the moor.
The surroundings may well be spectacular, or conversely you may be positioned on a drive with a very short horizon. While the wait for the grouse to arrive can be a long one, you need to keep alert, especially with a short horizon - as the birds disappear as quickly and surprisingly as they arrive. The shooting is therefore both exciting and unpredictable.
So during the wait, before the grouse are on the move, practise your footwork as though you were turning to take a shot behind - there is nothing like being prepared. As the old saying goes, fail to prepare - prepare to fail.
Double guns are never more essential than when large numbers of grouse are being driven. And if you have never shot double guns, I recommend you take yourself off to a shooting school. To shoot effectively with two guns very much depends on the rhythm of Gun and loader. You will see that seasoned grouse Shots often have their own loader who travels with them - they will have developed a rapport which is impressive to watch.
There's no question that having a good loader definitely pays dividends. If it's your first time double gunning, try not to be too daunted and don't be afraid to ask your loader for any tips or advice. They are your companion for the day and often have an invaluable wealth of knowledge and experience, which can be of great help to both the seasoned grouse Shot as well as newcomers to the sport.
What you must remember however is that it is a cardinal sin to hand a gun back to your loader with the safety catch still on ‘fire' - even if empty.
Much of the above applies equally to lowland partridge shooting, particularly the classic English style of presenting birds over tall hedgerows. More on partridges, high and low, next issue.
Enjoy and savour the wonderful experience - grouse shooting in all its forms is very special and a great privilege.