Grouse Shooting by those that actually do it!
by Sir Edward Dashwood
One of the biggest issues for game shots making first venture into driven grouse is the totally alien nature of many of the shots they are expected to take. Yes, you can get the odd high bird when shooting grouse which is more akin to a driven partridge, especially if you are in a valley or down the side of a steep hill. Sometimes, especially in Scotland these can be astronomical. However, by far the bulk of your shooting will be at birds less than twenty feet high, and very often at birds that are hugging the ground and using the contours to their advantage. This is therefore below the height of anything we would normally consider safe or acceptable to shoot at on typical lowland driven game shoots (perhaps with the exception of traditional grey partridges) and as a result many guns who have conscientiously adhered to a strict safety policy, no doubt quite correctly drummed into them from an early age, can find the whole concept of shooting so low very unnatural and disconcerting. There is nothing wrong with this and it is rather reassuring, but the fact remains that if they have any chance of becoming a half decent grouse shot we need to change this, and fast. Even the most committed grouse shots will most likely have ended the previous season in January on a diet of high pheasants, and so they too may need a reminder of what the grouse business is all about.
Pigeon shooting is great fun, and as a warm up and practise for grouse shooting is as good as it gets. Generally pigeon decoy in ones and twos, and if you are on your own you can really concentrate on taking the shot where and when you want it, with no interference from anyone else. This does at least get you over that hurdle of shooting low, and that it really can be safe to do so. Also, you will begin to see a different picture emerge as you will not be used to shooting at, or even down on targets. The old maxim was with grouse shoot at their spats, and with pheasants shoot at their hats! It still works…. Very often guns will shoot over the top of low incoming grouse, and especially when they pass through the line of butts and you shoot at them behind this can be the case. The difference on a grouse moor, unlike pigeon shooting, can be that grouse are coming thick and fast, and in coveys. Sometimes you do not have the option to take the shot just where and when you would like, as your neighbour may open up before you and the whole lot start twisting and weaving, or another bird catches your eye from a different direction.
Some people say pick a bird way out, stick on it and shoot it regardless of what all others do. I prefer to keep a fairly blank mind right up until the last millisecond, and then pick my bird, hopefully the one presenting the best chance, right at the last minute as I am mounting my gun to shoot. It can be fatal to change your mind at the last second and certainly do not panic! I think it is good form always to try, if possible, to fire a second shot at the same bird if you miss it, rather than select a new bird, as you may well have hit it with a few pellets without appearing to and it makes sense to try to finish it off.
The other art that pigeon shooting teaches you is how to keep still and low and be aware of the picture you present to the bird. Pigeons are so clever and you will know only too well when you have been spotted as they suddenly take evasive action and leave you for dead before you have even fired a shot. I am amazed how many grouse shots do not even wear a hat or cap or perhaps take off their coats to reveal a pair of white sleeves waving around against a dark background. Usually these same guns are heard to remark that they got less shooting than their neighbours and the grouse all split on them! If you are ever flanking or at the top of a hill just look down at a line of guns and see how their white faces really do stand out against the hill. Grouse have superb eyesight and their survival depends on this. At the beginning of the season these factors are perhaps not so important, but they become increasingly so as the birds get chased around and get wilder and wilder.
It goes to say that if pigeon shooting is hard to come by, you should always make the effort to have at least one warm up or lesson at a proper shooting ground with built in grouse butts and a professional instructor. They can explain the safety parameters very clearly, and the concept of those angles which are safe and not safe to shoot, not swinging through the line and the use of safety sticks. You can practice shooting in front, and turning and shooting behind in a safe manner. These are all issues which are usually cleared spelled out in safety briefings on shoot days themselves, but if you are a novice grouse shot it is nice to know exactly what they are talking about and to feel comfortable with the whole process. Do not worry too much whether you hit every bird or not, and my advise would be also do not try and be too deliberate. Just get used to the concept of shooting quickly and low out in front. You always hear people say ‘shoot them well out in front’ and they are right. It really does though take a lot of practice and discipline to put this into practice, and it is not the natural thing to do. It does actually make the shooting much, much easier, as your pattern has the optimum spread and is at its most effective, and the margin for error is far less. However, the most common mistake is simply one of dwelling too long on incoming birds before you begin to engage them. Always try and fire two shots in front, even if you have a single gun. This enables your neighbours to recognize that you may be empty, and you will be far quicker to reload and shoot again, without having to turn and turn back. In addition, the hitting and shock power of your shot, being head on will be hugely greater than shooting at birds disappearing behind, often with their head, which should be your target, shielded by their body When it gets very busy you will notice that expert guns will shoot continuously out in front, and will sometimes bemoan the fact that ‘they got turned’. This is what they are talking about.
Finally, have the right kit. This means make sure your guns work, and if need be have been serviced. It’s an expensive sport, a long way to go and bad manners to have a gun that fails on the first drive. Ensure your own safety, and your family’s if you take anyone with you, by having good safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves, hats and waterproofs etc. Midge repellent is worth keeping on your somewhere. Finally, a word on cartridges for grouse. Everyone should use fibre wads and it is unforgiveable not to nowadays. Virtually every estate requires it anyway. Secondly, I would not advocate shooting anything above 30gram maximum, and not larger than a 6 shot size. Regrettably accidents will and do happen despite all our precautions. Often it is the neighbouring gun or nearby flanker who gets hit. Being peppered with 28 or 30g of 6s or 7s is one thing. Being shot with 34g or 4s would be different entirely…..
Practice, be prepared, be alert, be safe …. and enjoy every minute and appreciate how lucky you are.