High pheasants, then and now
Rupert Godfrey ponders ‘the most difficult shot’, and considers how pheasant shooting has changed over the years.
Over the last couple of issues of Fieldsports, eminent Guns have been asked to describe the shot which they consider the greatest challenge. This mirrors the question which was posed by the editor of The Badminton Magazine in 1905. In both cases, the pheasant has been the quarry most quoted; nowadays usually “high and curling”, but then also the low or wide ones which were often shot at.
Looking at some of the responses from 1905:
“Lord de Grey [then regarded as the greatest living Shot], I chanced to meet before he had replied to my letter, and received his answer viva voce. A high pheasant coming downwind with a drop and a curl is, in the opinion of this leading authority, the bird that there is most excuse for missing and that is oftenest missed.”
Lord Walsingham was de Grey’s closest rival, and wrote: “The most difficult shot I know is a pheasant which comes straight over your head at a moderate height, and which for some reason, such as an empty gun or a thick wood close in front, cannot be shot when approaching. You must then turn round and shoot under the bird as it is going away. If you let it go far it becomes almost impossible, and if you are ever so quick, with a second gun or otherwise, you have to calculate how far to hold below the bird that it may fly into the charge, the object being to put the shot under the neck-feathers and not through the tail – a calculation which is extremely difficult to make instantaneously. It comes off all right when you know how to do it, but I have seen very few men who could kill such a bird with any degree of certainty. Of course, if the bird is the least on one side or the other, the shot becomes comparatively easy.”
Prince Victor Duleep Singh: “To my mind the most difficult shot is a high, dropping pheasant with a wind behind, coming over high trees, and over the Guns placed in a narrow cutting or valley. This makes it imperative to take a snap-shot at the bird, and, as its wings are practically motionless, one has no visible sign of its speed. I’m afraid I express myself very badly, but I could show you what I mean, for instance, at the beech-tree rise at Highclere.”
Lord Granby: “Probably the bird which is in the first place a really high one, but which in addition is dropping all the time, is as often missed as any. If such a bird is also ‘curling’, then I think, were a general vote of the ordinary class of gunner to be taken, it would obtain a large majority over all others.”
R. H. Rimington-Wilson replied from Broomhead Hall: “I incline to think that really high pheasants – in a wind and with a curl – defeat the gun more frequently than any other sort of game; but shooting, of course, is in a great measure a matter of apprenticeship. The high pheasant stand, the partridge fence, the snipe bog, and the grouse butt all have their specialists, and the man who reaches the highest standard under all these conditions is very rarely met.”
Lord Ashburton: “I think the most difficult shot you can have is a pheasant, when about 35 or 40 yards away, crossing you, and dropping from some height, with his (or her) wings motionless. You have, of course, two different allowances to make, one for the distance and the other for the rapidity of fall; added to which, the wings, being outstretched and motionless, seem to afford considerable protection. It is, fortunately, a shot which does not often present itself, but I have never yet seen pheasants well killed under these circumstances.”
From the Hon. Harry Stonor: “I received your letter in which you mention the Golden Valley, which is a wood at Warter Priory belonging to Mr. Charles Wilson, and is quite the best day’s pheasant-shooting I have ever seen. With regard to difficult shots, I should most certainly say a high cock pheasant in the open, flying down the line of Guns with his wings outstretched and motionless is the most difficult shot I know, and I am sure the best way to kill a bird of this kind is to take a snap-shot at him.”
F. E. R. Fryer – one of the very best of contemporary Shots: “I am very pleased to give you my opinion for what it is worth on the question you ask. The difficulty of hitting a low skimming pheasant is in most cases caused by the bird going very much faster than it looks; if any distance out, and flying against a dark background, it is extremely difficult to judge the pace it is going, and there is also a tendency to shoot low at anything travelling on or near the ground; but I think the primary cause is the difficulty of judging the pace. These shots are in most instances the lot of the outside forward Guns heading a cover, and in this case the bird is mostly going on the outside edge, i.e. away from the Gun. This will naturally increase the difficulty of the shot. In my opinion, the correct pheasant shot is one that in the Eastern Counties is styled a nice high one. It is only when they go one storey higher that the difference between a good and moderate shot is apparent, but this is equally so at the long, low crossing shot. This shot is had to perfection at Euston, where all pheasants are wild, and they are just as likely to fly into open space as to the nearest wood, and moreover, being accustomed to use their wings, they go a tremendous pace. I am not quite sure from your letter if you wish me to give an opinion as to the most difficult shot – a very high bird or a low skimmer; this would be rather difficult unless the distances were defined. For instance, I should say it would be easier to kill a skimmer at 40 yards than a high one overhead at that distance, partly on account of the former giving you the chance of hitting the bird on a vulnerable part, i.e. under the wing.”
Lord Westbury: “I am sorry to be unable to plead guilty to being ‘a Shot of exceptional merit’, but I’ve frequently seen Shots of that description make very indifferent practice on cock pheasants dropping across the open with outstretched wings from a very high covert into a low covert behind, particularly when 25 yards wide, the birds having a good outside (i.e. away from the shooter) ‘curl’ on. I find it almost impossible to allow for the pace, the drop, and the curl. In my opinion pheasants are, under certain conditions, the most difficult of ordinary game birds to kill properly.”
Major Acland-Hood: “I think that of all the many difficult shots one gets, a low partridge or pheasant (especially the latter) on one’s left is, as a rule, that which defeats one more frequently than any other, for this reason: first of all there is the knowledge, especially in partridge-driving or pheasant-shooting, that owing to the low flight of the bird there may be somebody’s head on the same level and beyond the bird (the other side of a hedge, perhaps). Well, this makes one think of other things besides the bird, and also causes one to take before shooting a very quick, comprehensive glance in the line of fire to see that all is safe. In doing this I think a man is apt to misjudge the pace the bird is flying and shoot behind it.”
By 1905, of course, the pheasant, for most Guns, had become the most common quarry – as it was reared on an industrial scale, by both the aristocracy, and the nouveaux riches – so it’s not altogether surprising that it often presented the most difficult shot. ‘High’ pheasants, as we know them today, were rarely encountered, though the top Shots often relished their challenge when they were produced.
Too often, unfortunately, the pheasants were low and slow, and so, while the better Shots wanted higher and more difficult birds, it was easier, and more productive, for keepers just to get the birds over the Guns, at whatever height: “The great principle, advocated over and over again by all the recognised authorities (vide: Badminton Library, &c), is to utilise the running powers of the bird to take him to the point, whence you will use his flying powers to bring him overhead, if possible, back in the direction of his home. But, like many other things well recommended by the really experienced judges, this principle is only too often ignored, and it is painfully common to see Guns placed in the obsolete manner, close round the end or corner of a covert on low or flat ground, with a bloodthirsty keeper pushing pheasants out into the faces of the embarrassed shooters. This is usually done in deference to his ignorant desire that a heavy bag should be made; and, in modern days at least, usually defeats its own object.” (The Pheasant – Fur, Feather and Fin Series).
If Lord de Grey, heir to the great Studley Royal estate, couldn’t kill the birds on offer, then nobody could. Too often, though, he recorded phrases like ‘Birds horribly low’ – though he still killed what was on offer. One had to, as there was nothing else, though many were shot behind the line as they were too low to be shot safely in front. Some of the shoots he visited clearly challenged him, however, as these extracts from his gamebooks reveal. In the 1886 season, he recorded several occasions on which even he had trouble:
Wilton: December 9. “Groveley Wood. High Wind. Difficult birds and some very high ones, which defeated all of us.”
Panshanger: December 23. “Fine day with wind. Some birds too high for all of us. 48 at old High Rise, shooting well. 20 at New High Rise! Defeated!!”
Spa Gill: January 13. “Fine, frosty day. Birds flew very high. Not quite enough in front on more than one occasion.”
Spa Gill was the beat at Studley which showed exceptionally high birds for the time, and usually defeated his guests. He soon learned how to shoot the really high ones, as he had plenty of practice at them, and noted: “Birds flew splendidly, and were well accounted for considering their great altitude.” On another day: “Birds fearfully high.” He killed 120 during the day; his two companions managed 40 between them. He wasn’t averse to trying new tactics either: “Tried No. 3 shot at the very high ones with success.” The following day: “Never shot so well! Very high birds. Hardly missed any.” He killed 271!
Then, as now, a strong wind – if used correctly – made birds even more challenging, and their extra speed and curl defeated all but the most experienced of Guns. It would be fascinating to be able to compare de Grey at Spa Gill to one of today’s experts. I fancy that, given some practice with modern guns and ammo, he would be up there with the best, but I’m not sure he would understand the instruction: ‘Be selective’!