It's all in the feet
Chris Batha looks at the two main styles taught by modern shooting schools for taking really high pheasants, and asks the question: which one is more effective?
Taking a high curling pheasant, and by high I mean a minimum of 40 yards over the line, requires a smooth swing, timing and the correct application of technique.The role of technique is to consistently place the muzzles the correct distance in front and on the line of the bird's flight and should not be confused with style.
There are several techniques but only two styles of straight shooting and it is style that creates the swing tempo for the consistent application of technique.
The two major London shooting schools differ in opinion. Holland & Holland teach a modified Churchill style shooting off the back foot, while West London favour an off the front foot nose-over-toes style of the legendary instructor and champion shot Percy Stanbury.
But which is the most effective and all importantly consistent for you? For that we need to examine the theory and application of both styles to allow you to make an informed decision for yourself.
Colonel Hawker is reputed to have said that: “It is better to miss with good style than to hit with bad form,” though it would be a hard task to convince a client that though they are incapable of hitting the ground with a shovel, their style, however, is impeccable! But I recognize the lesson in the statement.
Using cricket as an analogy, every player who reaches a high standard demonstrates good style. Yes, they all have individual subtleties to their game, but the constant is that they have found what allows them maximum coordination of visual acuity and reflexes to sync with their height and physique, all learned and practised around the foundations of classic cricket stroke styles.
Cricketers learn to move their feet, in controlled movements not lunging strides, they adjust their body shape to tackle balls off both the front and back foot, and it is this intrinsic balance that allows the hard focus, reading the ball's pitch, spin and line that creates the split second decision to defensively play a straight bat or hook for a score building boundary shot.
This is what the shooting styles are, exactly like other sports evolved over the decades, to offer a framework to adapt to suit you, to learn and practise the smooth controlled swing that is the backbone of straight shooting. Now, unlike the professional cricketer who pays his bills from his years of training, no matter your prowess in game shooting, it is a labour of love and offers little reward bar the congratulations from your fellow Guns when you clatter a late January cock high over the line – most importantly, hit with both the good style and form that would bring a smile to the old Colonel's face. So I would encourage you to consider discovering for yourself the style that works best for you and work at it. The reward will be paid in spades in the seasons to come.
Robert Churchill was a pioneer of both gun making and shooting style; he was an exceptional game and live pigeon shot. The story goes that he was due to be at a live pigeon match in Monte Carlo and on a shoot the day before he somehow blocked the muzzles of his 30 inch gun with snow. On firing, the muzzles split and separated. There was insufficient time for the gun to be re-barrelled so he had the barrels cut off to 25 inches and some choke replaced by retro boring. He went on to win the competition and stated that the shorter gun was faster handling and more instinctive in use. He then went on to build the 25 inch barrelled guns with which his name is synonymous. There were a few more innovations to the gun, and to make the barrels appear longer it was fitted with the XXV Churchill rib.
His advertising stated that the gun handled like a 20 bore but shot like a 10 bore. Churchill was a short rotund man and I believe had trouble shooting traditionally off the front foot, most especially when tackling the very high pheasant. To overcome this he created a new style where the shooter would distribute his weight equally between the feet, with a square-on to the target address. Depending on the shot and angle presented to him during the mount he would transfer his weight onto the appropriate leg by the raising of the heel of the opposite foot. And if the bird was perpendicular overhead then he left taking the shot off the back foot. Which, if you would like to try it yourself, allows the whole body, both upper and lower torso, to work as a unit with no conflicting resistance to check your swing.
He was a great advocate of drills for stance, posture and gunmount with particular emphasis on footwork. He also created a debate in his advocating that there was no requirement to see lead or forward allowance, that a well drilled gunmount with the muzzles pointing at the beak of the bird through to completion of the mount, the pulling of the trigger without check or hesitation, the lag in the brain between eyes and hand meant that the barrel had travelled several feet in front of the bird and gave the required forward allowance. It is my opinion that the combination of enhanced second phase of recoil from the short barrels, a preference for higher comb heights and the Churchill XXV rib created a good amount of the lead generated and that the height of birds of this era were such that the drilled move and gun allowed the impression of shooting at the bird's head as the trigger was fired.
After all these years, arguments continue to rage over the good and bad sides of his guns and methods, yet there is no ignoring the fact that Churchill had great success as a shot, coach and as a businessman.
The Churchill Gun Club was located in Kent and Churchill had an understudy in one Norman Clark. With the passing of Robert Churchill and the closing of the club, Norman Clark moved to the Holland & Holland shooting school. He had great respect for Churchill but did not have the same rigid thoughts on the XXV or teaching methods. He introduced several subtle variations to the style, passing on this knowledge to his own understudy, Ken Davies, whose excellent reputation precedes him. Ken has now retired and the modified Churchill style is taught by chief instructor Chris Bird and his team.
Shooting has been taught since the advent of the first shooting schools in the 1800s. Earlier in this period, the most common type of game shooting was walked-up over dogs where the birds would more often climb and rise away from the gun. The shooting schools, as you would expect, taught a style to suit the shooting of the day, which resulted in a stance simply put as a case of best foot forward with the weight predominantly on that leading leg almost as if you were about to fall over and had planted the leg to stop it happening. Exactly the initial reaction you would make if you were walking and a bird flushed over dogs ie. to step forward into its line to take the shot.
With the introduction of a driven game shooting style with more lateral or rotational movement; a good example of the style taught during this period is found in Charles Lancaster's book on the subject published in 1906. Charles Lancaster was one of many gunmakers who created shooting schools to help their clients to become proficient shots. Most importantly, he clearly advised on judgement of pace, angle and the swing which kept the same walked-up style, and introduced to the Gun footwork to step into the line of the bird's flight, with the body's weight being maintained over the forward leg throughout the shot.
West London Shooting School needs little introduction and was home to one of the finest shots and instructors ever, Percy Stanbury. Today, Alan Rose (an understudy of Stanbury) and his team of excellent instructors maintain this tradition - the Stanbury style of shooting is taught still.
Once again the Stanbury style emphasizes the fundamentals of stance, which is slightly more side-on to the bird than the Churchill approach, posture, gunmount and footwork. The differences are in the maintenance of weight over the leading leg, the muzzles being pointed at the body of the bird throughout the gunmount so that, as the gun mount is completed, the gun is brushed through the bird where the lead or forward allowance is observed but not dwelt upon and the trigger fired without check or measure. Targets to the left and right of the peg are answered with a step into the line of the bird, but the shot is taken off the leading leg. If this step is not made, the rotation of the upper torso is restricted by the lower limbs and the gun swing will slow or stop. The classic Stanbury silhouette, and logo of the WLSS, is a dramatic line drawing of the man, taking a high pheasant off the front foot. The shape created is almost that of a strung long bow. This is because of the need to push the hip into the shot which, combined with lifting the rear heel, gives the smooth swing required for the shot. It should be noted that he was a tall lean man, in contrast to Churchill's stockiness and more than capable of the flexibility required to make this shot off the front foot.
Their choice of gun is interesting, Stanbury preferring his favoured Webley & Scott with 30 inch barrels. If you point with a walking stick at an object you could swing to it quicker to a mark but swing off it equally quickly, whereas the same action with a fishing rod and the swing is slower but holds steady on the mark.
With the Churchill style, the XXV would generate more barrel speed and come on to the bird quicker. Only the smallest push of the left hand is needed as the trigger is pulled to generate the required forward allowance. Whereas the longer barrelled gun with the same style will be marginally slower to the bird, requiring a more deliberate swing through the bird to establish the lead and to time the trigger pull.
So my verdict? There is very little to choose between the styles - both work well. You need to discover the style that works best for you, and the gun to do it with. I would give the nod to Stanbury on flair and athleticism - the taking of the bird off the front foot is shooting in good form and properly executed always looks stylish.
Regardless of style, you need to lift the heel of one or the other foot to achieve a full range of motion to reach the high birds and it may be you need to be able to shoot both styles to tackle the diversity of shots encountered in a season, from early jinking flaring August grouse, to curling drifting pheasants of late January.
It is insightful that they both are in agreement on the fundamentals of stance, posture, gunmount and hard focus on the bird and I do not know a shooting instructor in the country who would disagree with them.