The unwritten rules of shooting
The shooting man's guide to etiquette and conduct in the field, by George Padley.
Accepting the first offer
We're all delighted to receive an invitation to a day's shooting, in whatever format this may present itself. Some are more organised than others and send their invitations out within a sniff of the end of the previous season; regardless of when it arrives, accept the first invite you receive. Many will know of someone who is notorious for declining previously accepted invites in favour of a better offer; this is poor form, and I wouldn't hold your breath for an invite the following year if your host finds out.
It's not that hard is it? You wouldn't turn up to a wedding in a tracksuit, so don't turn up to a shoot in jeans and a t-shirt. Shooting breeks, a sensible shirt and tie with a jacket or jumper is perfectly adequate. Wellington boots in September may leave you with soggy socks, so walking boots of sorts might be more appropriate earlier in the season. Clay ground style skeet vests laden with gaudy sponsor logos don't go well with moleskin trousers, and you may get some well-deserved stick from your fellow Guns.
Planning and preparation prevent poor performance. Gather your belongings and shooting paraphernalia the night before, even pack the car if you can (bar the gun of course). Besides the embarrassment of having to ask to borrow something, you will also save yourself time in the morning and reduce the likelihood of arriving late – never a good start to the day, and one that adds unwanted pressure on your host and those in charge.
Without question the most important rule of all. Simple in theory but literally deadly if forgotten – there are no second chances. Familiarise yourself with the position of flankers, stops, pickers-up and your fellow Guns on each drive. Never let your barrels wander where they shouldn't, regardless of whether the gun is loaded and in your shoulder or not. If you don't know that it's safe to shoot, leave it. Whatever the day, whatever the brief, whatever the company, a good Shot is never an unsafe one.
Mind your manners
Good manners are the cheapest part of your day in the field but by far the most valuable. Few will forget to acknowledge the hospitality of their host(s), keeper(s) and those managing the day, but not all remember the crucial role and hard efforts of beaters, pickers-up, loaders and others rushing around in the background to ensure you have a memorable day.
It takes very little time at the end of a drive to say hello to nearby shoot staff and acknowledge their endeavours to provide you with exciting sport. It doesn't go unnoticed.
No one likes a greedy Shot. Establish who your neighbours are and take note of how they are shooting. If you find yourself pegged next to someone who is less experienced than you, or someone who has had a particularly quiet few stands so far in the day, then be considerate about which birds you choose to shoot at before landing a hatful of crossing birds at their feet. Similarly, if you repeatedly eyewipe a neighbour who is clearly struggling, don't expect them to regard you as some sort of heroic Shot. A courteous approach will lead to an enjoyable day for all; you'll be thankful when you're left a stray or two by your neighbour when you find yourself on the periphery.
Second only to a greedy Shot is an expert. Don't offer advice where it isn't wanted or asked for. We all have our opinions on how we might do things differently if we had a radio in our hands, especially if a drive hasn't gone according to plan, but you should never voice them. Equally, there's nothing worse than performing poorly during a drive, gun in hand, and your neighbour wondering over after the horn is blown, hands stuffed full of birds, saying “you know where you went wrong with those don't you… you're behind them.”
Fieldcraft is honed over time and gained with experience, but we can and should all try. Amidst even the busiest of drives, you must remember what you've shot and mark any pricked birds as best as you can. Even the best of pickers-up will miss the occasional bird, and it is your duty to look for anything you may have shot in the interest of welfare, if nothing else. Assessing your surroundings and preparing yourself for when to take a shot is a valuable skill – a difficult bird can be made easier if you know when to shoot it. Give yourself time, read the flightline of the bird, move your feet, swing smooth and through and, if you can, always take it in front.
You may think the world of your beloved friend but be sure to check that they are welcome before you turn up with a pack of eager canines, especially if you are a non-paying guest. Most shoots are very happy for Guns to bring their dogs, but woe betide the owner of the dog that runs in and ruins a drive.
We should never forget how lucky we are just to have the opportunity to shoot. If you've been a guest on a day then a thank you letter (not an email or Facebook message!) is a must – however short the letter and however bad your handwriting may be, putting pen to paper shows that you've taken the time to sit down and make an effort – it may even find its way onto the mantelpiece.
We're all there for the same reasons; great sport, great company and great fun. You should be able to enjoy the day on a personal level and as a part of a team. Naturally, everybody wants to shoot to the best of their ability, but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate the achievements of others, too.
We all like to shoot the screamer of the day, but it says more about an individual when you're able to tip your hat to someone else's effort, especially if you're not their number one fan.
Tipping the keeper
This should be at the discretion of each Gun, but if in doubt there's nothing wrong with discreetly asking a shoot captain or your host for guidance. Take into consideration the day as a whole and how well you've been looked after as a team, not just how you feel as an individual. Err on the side of generosity – under-tipping leaves a sour taste in the mouth and in the grand scheme of the day an extra £10 or £20 is neither here nor there. Shoot staff should never tell you what the keeper's tip should be, yet more and more frequently today this seems to be forgotten.
If you're lucky enough to have been invited shooting as a guest then it's important to acknowledge your host with a return invite. Not everyone is able to provide an invite to a day of the same size in return, but it is imperative to repay the hospitality one way or another. It should never be a case of comparing bag sizes, but you will raise eyebrows if you persistently return invites to 400-bird days with a 100-bird day invite. Good friends won't ever hold you to account, but this doesn't mean you should be oblivious to it. If you're not in a position to offer a day's shooting, then a thoughtful gesture by way of an invite to a dinner party or meal out, for example, shows you are making an effort to reciprocate hospitality.