Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 11 - Gunning

[... back to menu for this book]





GUNNING is my theme; not the patronymic of those three beautiful sisters who fired the hearts (if the dried-up integuments can be so called) of the court gentlemen in the time of the Regent, but the great art of shooting; on English manor or Scottish moor, from the back of a pony or the bows of a punt, in solitary ramble or grand battue; indulged in by my lord with his party of friends, his keepers, his gillies, and his beaters; by Bill Lubbock the poacher, known to the keepers as an "inweterate," with his never-missing double-barrel and his marvellous lurcher; or by Master Jones, home for the holidays from Rugby, who has invested his last tip in a thirty-shilling Birmingham muzzle-loader, with which he pots sparrows in the Willesden fields. Gunning, which binds together men of otherwise entirely opposite disposition and tastes ; which gives many a toiler in cities pent such healthful excitement and natural pleasure as enable him to get through the eleven dreary months, hanging on to the anticipation of those thirty happy days when the broad stubble-fields will stretch around him, and the popping of the barrels make music in his ear. Gunning, a sport so fascinating, that to enjoy it men in the prime of life, with high-sounding titles and vast riches, will leave their comfortable old ancestral homes, and the pleasant [-113-] places in which their lines have been cast, and go away to potter for weeks in a miserable little half-roofed shanty on a steaming barren Highland moor, or will risk life and limb in grim combat with savage animals in deadly jungle or dismal swamp. Gunning, whose devotees are numbered by myriads, the high-priest whereof is Colonel Peter Hawker, of glorious memory, who has left behind him an admirable volume of instruction in the art. Not unto me to attempt to convey hints, "wrinkles," or "dodges" to the regular gunner ; mine be it simply to discourse on the inner life of the art, showing what can be done, in what manner, and for how much; and giving certain practical information in simple and concise form to the neophyte.
        And first to be mentioned in a treatise, however humble, on gunning, are guns. A muzzle-loading double gun, by a first-class London maker, costs forty guineas, or with its cases and all its fittings, fifty guineas. The leading provincial makers, and those of Scotland and Ireland, charge from thirty to forty pounds complete; most of their guns are, however, in reality manufactured in Birmingham, where the price of a double gun varies from twenty pounds to two pounds five shillings, or even less, according to quality. The second-class London makers charge from twenty-five to thirty-five pounds ; but most of their work is made at Birmingham, and only "finished" in London. The London work is much the best; for, as the wages paid are much higher, London attracts the best workmen from all parts of the country. Another reason is, the greater independence of the workmen in London. In Birmingham, especially - between trade agreements on the part of the masters, and trade-unions on the part of the men - a man who can work better or more quickly than his fellows is continually hampered; and he generally makes his way to London, where he finds a fairer market for his labour, and fewer restrictions. The situation of Birmingham, near to the [-114-] coal-producing districts, renders the cost of fuel much less than in London; and all the operations which require a large expenditure of fuel, such as the welding and forging of the barrels, etc., are done at Birmingham, even for best guns; and it is frequently asked, since all the materials, barrels, etc. come from Birmingham, why pay the much higher prices of London makers for the same thing? meaning, that as the London makers get their barrels (the chief portion of the gun) from Birmingham, the prices they charge are extortionate. Now, what the London barrel-maker really does get from Birmingham is simply two rough tubes of wrought iron, not fit in their then condition even to serve as gas-pipes. All that makes them of any value as gun-barrels - the boring, filing, putting together for shooting, etc. - has to be done in London at four times the cost, and generally with ten times the accuracy, of Birmingham work. The fallacy lies in supposing that "the same thing" is obtained in both cases. If what a man buys when he purchases a gun be merely the six pounds of wrought iron and steel in the barrel and locks, and the half a foot of walnut plank in the stock, the value of these materials at twenty pounds a ton for the metal and a shilling a foot for the wood is less than five shillings for the whole, and he may well consider he is overcharged if he pay a pound for the complete gun. But what he buys is really the time and technical skill of the contriver, the time and skill of the workman, the waste of manufacture (and how enormous this frequently is, may be judged from the fact that ninety pounds of rough metal will be consumed in making a pair of Damascus gun-barrels weighing about six pounds when finished); these are the real things purchased, and whether the buyer pay ten or fifty pounds, he will generally get only the value of his money, and no more. Skill and time can never be brought to the same close competition as the price of raw material, and the tendency [-115-] of both is to become dearer, instead of cheaper, every day.
    During the last four or five years the use of breech-loading guns has become common in England. The system adopted is called the "Lefaucheux," from the name of its inventor, and it has been general in France for many years. Twenty-five years ago some guns of this pattern were brought from Paris by Mr. Wilkinson, of Pall Mall, who endeavoured to introduce their use into England, but without success ; and they were finally sold at one-fourth their cost, as curiosities only. The price of breech-loading guns of best quality is five guineas more than muzzle-loaders they are sold in Birmingham at from eight pounds to thirty pounds. The advantages of a breech-loader to young sportsmen are, principally, that the guns cannot be overloaded, two charges cannot go into the same barrel ; the charge can be taken out in an instant; and though, if the gunner be clumsy, he may shoot a friend, he cannot by any possibility shoot himself. This little distinction is highly appreciated, since accidents in loading from the muzzle were by no means unfrequent.
    To a moderate-minded man, three or four thousand acres in England would be a good manor, of which four hundred should be covert. Potatoes used to be good covert, now the best is clover left for seed, mangold, swedes and turnips, beans, etc. The usual price is one shilling per acre; but in the neighbourhood of London and large towns the rent is higher, and the value arbitrary. For four thousand acres, to do the thing well, one should have a head-keeper, whose cost will be as follows: a house, a guinea a week for wages, five pounds a year for clothes, twelve pounds a year for ammunition, a certificate three pounds, and a "deputation" from the lord of the manor, without which he cannot, I believe, legally take a gun away from a poacher. He generally has a pony and a spring-cart allowed [-116-] him, sometimes the keep of a dog. It has been well observed, that "it is not every fellow with a short jacket and half-a-dozen pockets, that is fitted for a game-keeper." He must be trustworthy; for he has in the mowing-time to pay a shilling a nest to the mowers, sometimes to pay for the destruction of vermin, etc., and he can cheat if he like. He should be a good, but not a noted or crack shot - not such a shot as keeps his hand in by practice on his master's game; and he should be thoroughly knowing in the habits of all manner of vermin, and in the mode of destroying them. He should not be allowed to break dogs for anyone save his master, or to rear pets, or in fact to do any extraneous duty. A game-keeper's situation is a pleasant one when he and his master pull together. There is always enough to do, both in and out of season, to keep a zealous man fully employed. He should be brave, yet not pugnacious; amicable, and on good terms with the neighbouring farmers, yet not sufficiently so ever to wink at poaching, however mild - and the natural instinct for poaching, even amongst farmers of the better class, is something marvellous  - and civil and attentive to his master's guests. (N.B.-It is usual to give a keeper five shillings for the day, if shooting at a friend's manor, and then he cleans your gun; at a grand battue, a guinea is frequently given, but for a day's partridge-shooting five shillings is ample. This, be it remembered, is expected.) Your head-keeper will want a man under him, with wages of twelve shillings a week, and a house, and at certain seasons watchers or night-men. These are generally paid by the night. The beaters employed at battues are very frequently old men or boys on the estate, who are fit for nothing else; they get from one shilling to half-a-crown for their day's job.
    For such a manor as I have pictured, two brace of pointers or setters, and one retriever, would be enough, and a good close-working spaniel, or a brace or leash, according [-117-] to fancy. A brace of well-broken second-season setters should be purchasable at from twenty-five to thirty pounds; spaniels at five pounds each; a good retriever would be cheap at twenty guineas, ten pounds being a very common price. If possible, by all means breed your own dogs, or get them bred by your friends; a purchased pointer is a pig in a poke-purchased, I mean, through the medium of an advertisement or from a regular dealer. Some animals so bought have never even had powder burnt over them, cower at the shot, and fly away from home immediately afterwards; others have a kind of "crammed" instruction - that is to say, they will be very good when kept in constant practice, but if left at home for a few days will forget all they have learnt, and come into the field wild and ignorant. Pointers are more useful than setters for partridge-shooting, easier to train, less liable to take cold, more easily steadied, and more tenacious of instruction. On the other hand, setters are superior for grouse-shooting, being harder-footed. Spaniels are the most useful of all dogs: there are two classes - the "mute," which are the best for all practical purposes; and those which fling their tongues, begin their noise as soon as they are put into cover, put all game on the alert, and send every jack-hare and old cock-pheasant out of the other end. A spaniel should stop when he rouses a rabbit or hare, should never range more than thirty yards from the gun, should drop when the gun goes off and should then lie until signalled on. He should go through any furze or brambles like a rat; should be short on his legs, long in his body, have a long head, go to water, and retrieve alive ; he should work with his tail down, and the set of the tail should be down also. His ears should be bell-shaped, small at the top and large at the bottom. The best breed is the "Clumber" spaniel, which is always mute, always lemon-and-white in colour, but not generally fond of the water. The next best breed is the Sussex, liver-and-[-118-]white ; the darker the liver, the better; the best-marked have a white blaze down the fact, white muzzle, liver nose, lips flecked with liver, and flecked legs, belly and hips white, and white collar and chest. The most fashionable spaniels are mute black-and-white, or black-and-tan, legs, feet, and toes well feathered before and behind, and the feet round as a cheese-plate. As to retrievers : when you hear people speak of a genuine retriever, do not place much credit in their assertions, as there is no regular breed, and time best retrievers are generally mongrels, half-poodle, half-spaniel, and sometimes with a cross of Newfoundland. A well-taught retriever combines the qualities of pointer, setter, spaniel, and water-dog, with his own peculiar instinct of fetching a dead bird out of any brake, and carrying him with jaws of iron and teeth of wool. I need not say that such a dog is invaluable.
    If you go in for pheasant-breeding, you go in for expense at once. The artificial food for three hundred pheasants, until they shoot their tails, would cost fifteen or twenty pounds. By artificial food I mean eggs, rice, greaves, chopped onions, lettuce, etc. I should say that every pheasant shot on any manor costs twelve shillings, for they must be reared by hand. The good friend with whom I have had many a pleasant day in the woods, calculates the cost of his birds at a pound each; but he does everything in an unnecessarily princely fashion, and has a staff of keepers and beaters inferior to none in number or cost.
    Grouse-shooting in England can be pursued in Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Westmoreland, in some parts of Wales, in Kerry, Limerick, Wicklow, and Tipperary in Ireland, and in the Scotch Highlands. Within the last few years grouse-shooting has become such a fashionable amusement, that the prices of moors have risen enormously, and have at length attained a fabulous height. Twenty years ago, the highest price for a moor of from twenty to forty thousand [-119-] acres, fit for four guns, was four hundred pounds ; you would be lucky now to get it for double the money. This is owing to the manufacturing gentry, who are tremendously keen groucers, and have a general leaning towards gunning, and can afford to pay magnificently. Here it may be well to call attention to the advertisements of moors to be let for the season, the owner of which stipulates that the tenant shall "be limited to a thousand brace!" He must not shoot more, for fear of thinning the stock on the moor. Caveat emptor. The intending answerer of such advertisement may safely pledge himself to abide by this stipulation, and if he and his friends bag three hundred brace, they may think themselves highly favoured. Setters and pointers (Russian and Spanish preferred by some) are the best dogs to shoot grouse to; the time, between the 12th of August and the 20th of September, though some talk of October, and even the early days of November, but you will get better grousing between the dates I have mentioned; a large-bored gun, and, if with a muzzle-loader, No. 3 shot. Colonel Hawker says: "Grouse take a harder blow than partridges."
    Also in the sporting journals, under the heading "To Let," you will find the entry: "Splendid deer-forests." A deer-forest is so named on the celebrated lucus a non lucendo principle ; it does not contain a single tree, but is simply a Highland tract of land from which sheep have been kept off - as sheep and deer will never feed together. The most celebrated are the deer-forests of Lord Lovat, the Duke of Richmond, the Duke of Athol, and, above all, of the Marquis of Breadalbane. For a good deer-forest, a thousand a year is a low price; and every deer shot costs, on an average, from sixty to eighty pounds. Let no man, un-possessed of great bodily strength, with lasting power amid patience, undertake deer-stalking. To walk for miles to the shooting-ground, to crawl on all-fours or on the stomach for [-120-] several hundred yards through brake and brushwood, and then to take steady aim at a distance of over a hundred yards at about the least, requires men in high training and of natural bodily strength. But your amateur, however good, is never equal to your gillie, whose eye is more acute than the best Dollond or reconnoitrer ; whose arm is as steady as a rock, after any amount of exertion; and who goes up any number of the stiffest braes without turning a hair, or apparently without an extra pulsation. A knowing shot, your gillie, and one who never neglects an opportunity. They tell a story of a noble lord who, last year, was out on his moor with his favourite gillie, when he spied a noble stag about four hundred yards off. The nobleman put his rifle to his shoulder, covered the object, then lowered his piece. "Donald!" said he. "Me lard!" said Donald. "That's a fine shot." "Et wad be a faine shot for the mon as wad het it," was the Highlander's sententious reply. "Take the rifle, Donald, sight it carefully, and give it me back; if I knock over that fellow, the rifle shall be yours." The gillie took the rifle and sighted it, and gave it to his master, who fired, and killed his stag. According to his promise, he gave the rifle to the gillie. Since then he has never been taken nearer than four hundred yards to any deer on his estate!
    Never let any ribald "chaff" any denunciation of Cockney sport, prevent you from enjoying a good day's rabbit-shooting whenever you have the opportunity. With a couple of mute spaniels and a sharp terrier, you may have an excellent morning's sport; but you must remember that it is very quick shooting, and you must keep your gun on the cock, and be ready to pull the instant you see the rabbit run, if you would have a chance of hitting him. Be wary, for rabbits are wonderfully "up to trap;" pretend not to be looking after them, and you will throw them off their guard; but if you advance in a business-like manner, gun in [-121-] hand, depend upon it that a flash of white tails is all you will see of your game - of the older ones, at least; the younger are less knowing, and more easily potted.
    For any hints about wild-fowl shooting, go to Colonel Hawker, and consult no other. He is a little rococo and old-fashioned ; but in the main he is as right now as he was when he wrote, and his advice is sound, practical, and sensible. Take it all with that "grain of salt" which the old Latin proverb prescribes ; for though there lived strong men before Agamemnon, there are not many men strong enough to undergo all the hardships which Colonel Peter Hawker lightly touches upon in his hints on wild-fowl shooting.
    It is unusual to take a dog with you when invited to a day's shooting. But in partridge-shooting, when you receive the invitation, it is common to ask the question: "How are you off for dogs?" and to take them if wanted. To take your dogs over without having ascertained the wish of your host, will cause you to be regarded as rather a cool hand. Perhaps, after all, spaniels are the most serviceable animals; setters and pointers are not much used in England, as there is little "laying" for birds under the new system of farming, and now turnips are drilled, birds rise before the dogs.
    Finally, do not imagine that you can leave the London season, the jolly nights in the Club smoke-room, the heavy dinners with ingoted East-Indian uncles, the twenty-one dances winding-up with a never-ending cotillon, indulged in night after night; and then go down to Norfolk, or wherever may be the manor to which you are invited, and shoot. The thing is impossible. You must be, to a certain extent, in training; at all events, your wind must be decent, your muscles braced, and your hand and eye steady. A long waltz may be good for your wind, but it will shake your arm; and a pipe of Cavendish or a couple of extra cigars will spoil your sport for the day. So do not be down-[-122-] hearted at first if you fire wild, or if the squire and his country friends grin a bit as the birds fly away unharmed; wait - let your faith be "large in Time," as Mr. Tennyson has it; and very soon you will feel your hand getting in, and you will find that, as sweet Will, who has something on everything, says : " Your shooting then is well accounted."