Rhythm in twos
A seamless partnership between Gun and loader on a busy drive is a joy to behold, but there is more to the art of double gunning than meets the eye. Will Pocklington takes a closer look.
Top Shot' lists are now commonplace in many country sports publications. A celebration of those who are renowned far and wide for their impressive ability on the peg or in the butts – with near-perfect shot-to-kill-ratios and shooting styles that exude elegance and panache. And it's not just recently that we've taken to recognising them. The formidable reputations of Lord Ripon, The Maharaja Duleep Singh, Sir Joseph Nickerson, and such like are immortalised in print, forever associated with the in-awe accounts of their prowess with a gun – “seven birds dead in the air at once”, “28 pheasants in a minute”. But what about their trusty loaders?
Behind every great Shot is a great loader, quite literally. Watched from a distance, an experienced partnership of loader and Gun have an almost rhythmic timing, similar to an accomplished dance pairing. This rhythm and synchronisation is key to good shooting on a double gun day, and a true joy to watch when done properly.
Many experienced Guns will have their own or a regular loader for each estate they frequently shoot at, or else they might employ a professional instructor/loader for the day. For the casual Gun who only shoots a few days a season, they are allocated an estate loader on the day.
Good loading is a skill that requires a sound understanding between both the Gun and the loader. Indeed, there are numerous things that both should bear in mind to achieve the coveted seamless partnership...
Step 1 (Gun): After firing, pull the safety catch on straight away and remain facing the drive, looking for the next bird.
Step 1 (Loader): Hold the loaded gun in a vertical position in the right hand with the barrels pointing skyward, and be aware of the movement and positioning of the Gun.
Step 2 (Gun): Hold the empty gun vertically in the right hand, close to the body. Extend the left arm across the front of the body with the left palm open, ready to receive the loaded gun.
Step 2 (Loader): Firmly place the fore-end of the loaded gun into the Gun's open palm, whilst simultaneously taking the empty gun by the fore-end in your left hand.
Step 3 (Gun): The exchange is now complete. Select and take your next two shots.
Step 3 (Loader): Using the left hand to grip the fired gun, turn and lift it butt-up, always ensuring that the muzzles are pointing in a safe direction.
Step 4 (Gun): Be aware of the rhythm of the loader – he/she is currently loading the gun behind you.
Step 4 (Loader): Grip the stock between the forearm and body. Push across the top lever with the right hand and reload.
Step 5 (Gun): Return to step 1.
Step 5 (Loader): Close the gun by raising the stock to the action with muzzles pointing to the ground. Then assume the position shown in step 1.
What makes a good loader?
Scott Nicholson is an experienced loader who regularly loads on the Ormsby Estate in the Lincolnshire Wolds. He has loaded for Toby Dennis and several members of the Nickerson family on pheasant, partridge and grouse days. His uncle has loaded a number of times for Sir Joseph Nickerson.
“Safety is always the primary concern,” says Scott. “It is so very easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of the day, particularly on a busy drive, and there is a lot to take into consideration, as Charlie has highlighted on page 44.
“When I'm standing on the peg, I am thinking about the position of the birds that have been shot, where the beaters – particularly flankers and stops – are, the flushing points and hence the likely movement of the Gun.
“The most dangerous person on a double gun day is the loader – it is his duty to look after both guns and the person that he is loading for. A cool, calm manner is essential – that is what makes for a competent, safe and quick loader.
“Aside from this, the loader should also be good company for the person he/she is looking after – tending to their every need and making the day more memorable for them. At the meet and greet in the morning, it is important to introduce yourself properly. Speak to the shoot captain beforehand so that you know how to address the person you are loading for. Is he/she titled? How would they like to be addressed over the course of the day?
“And of course, taking great care of guns and gear is a given. Always treat it with utmost respect and care, whether it is a battered old gunslip or a pair of best London guns.
“So, in summary, a good loader is well-mannered, fine company, composed when under pressure and capable of controlling the situation at all times. But above all he is 100 per cent safe.”
Belt bag or speed loader?
The traditional method of transporting cartridges is a cartridge bag that acts as a reservoir for pockets and cartridge belts. Many loaders have a loader's bag (see page 41) with pockets on the front that are easy to replenish during a drive. Some may prefer to use a cartridge bag to replenish pockets and/or a cartridge belt. Cartridge belts have loops or clips; the clips have the edge in speed, but not in security, whilst a belt with loops that are too snug can make things difficult. Some swear by speed loaders, but they can be cumbersome and have limited capacity, and there is always the risk of gouging the stock on the rims of the cartridges.
Quickfire pointers, by Charlie Parkes
Charlie Parkes OBE has been loading on shoots across the UK for 20 years, from Highland grouse to lowland partridge and Devon pheasants. He has run coaching courses for both novice and experienced loaders.
For the Gun:
• Sound muzzle awareness is of paramount importance at all times.
• Never tell the loader to hurry up.
• To turn and shoot behind when shooting grouse, raise the left thumb up to your nose (if you're right-handed) and follow the bird with your eyes as you turn your body and then re-present and shoot.
• By and large the Gun should not move from his/her position on the peg as doing so will make life much harder for the loader.
• Don't be afraid to ask your loader for any tips or advice.
• Don't forget to pay your loader and consider a tip at your discretion if he/she has provided good service and company.
• A reasonable understanding of the loader's duties and capabilties is key to smooth and consistent shooting; after all, there is a limit to how fast a gun can be loaded. Remember, smooth action translates to fast shooting. The Gun must recognise this and time his shots accordingly. Guns accustomed to shooting with a loader will be well rehearsed with the points below, many of which apply to both Gun and loader.
For the loader:
• At fences, ditches and stiles, assist the Gun (especially a walking Gun) to cross the obstacle safely, e.g. ensure the firearm is unloaded, in its slip or broken and passed to the Gun, stock first, over the obstacle.
• Exercise care where guns of different calibres are present, with particular focus on separation of cartridges.
• Be legal: loaders without a shotgun certificate may only act as ‘gun bearers' for, and under the instruction of, a certificate holder. Ideally, loaders should possess a shotgun certificate to enable the purchase of ammunition, and the repair, transit and possession of shotguns in all circumstances.
• Check pairs for correct assembly. Pairs should be assembled, cleaned and cased separately to avoid incorrect assembly. Check numbers and/or serial numbers, and that the cartridges match the proof of the gun(s).
• Check for obstructions in the barrels of guns before each and every drive and listen out for odd reports during shooting – an indication that a wad is stuck in the barrel.
• Travelling loaders/chauffeurs should have a basic understanding of off-road driving.
• Ensure you have enough cartridges for the drive or period of time that you are away from a cartridge supply in the vehicle or Gunbus.
• A simple trick to re-arrange cartridges – whether in a bag, pouch or pocket – is to give the container a good shake. By doing so, you will find that the weight of the shot forces the lighter brass tops to face upwards.
On the peg
• Loaders should brief Guns on the peg and advise on safe shooting when and where required. The amount of detail that the loader should go into will be determined by the experience level and perceived character of the Gun.
• Exercise sound muzzle awareness at all times. This applies to all aspects of the day, whether taking the gun in and out of the slip, loading guns, presenting the gun to the shooter, or raising the gun to the ready position.
• Concentrate and focus on the shotgun rather than the shooter. Imagine the exchange of guns as a juggling act, where the ball is the fore-end when receiving the empty gun, and the Gun's empty hand is the next point of aim for the loaded shotgun.
• In double gunning, loading may be to the rear, front or side, depending on the prevailing circumstances. Pointing the muzzles in a safe direction at all times is the main criterion.
• Be aware of the Gun's position and the potential direction of approaching birds to establish whether the Gun will turn to shoot left, right and/or behind. Be prepared to move with the Gun. This is particularly important in a grouse butt.
• Stand still in the butt. Wear dark clothing and avoid shiny items like metal watch straps.
• Only ever pass the gun when the safety catch is on.
• Guns should be closed after loading by raising the stock to the action, so that the muzzles are always pointing towards the ground.
• Be systematic at the peg by following a simple routine for every drive:
1. Let the Gun establish where he/she is going to stand.
2. Have your ear defenders on and ready.
3. Prepare your cartridge bag.
4. Remove one broken gun from its slip and hand it to the shooter, then remove the second broken gun.
5. Place the slip(s) in front of the peg or put it on your back.
6. Check the barrels and ask the Gun if the barrels are clear.
7. Load both guns.
• Keep the peg or butt tidy, and make sure gunslips etc. are in front and well out of the way.
• When minding a new Shot, stick to using one gun. Start with one cartridge until you are satisfied with their behaviour.