A Driven-Shooting Primer

men shooting at birds
The rewards of a well-planned driven day: sky-scraping partridge at Bettws Hall’s Plas Dinam estate.

Some pointers for Guns bound for Britain

Meanbh-chuileag is the Gaelic name for a flying insect that has the fastest wingbeats of any in the world—about 1,000 a second. Each weighs but 1/8000 of a gram. The Highland midge, or “midj-ee,” as the locals call it, also has a horsewhip’s bite, and in summer and early fall it teems in Scotland’s Highland skies. When the breeze falls and the air stills, these midges swarm for unprotected flesh. “I once had an American team grouse shooting in Scotland, and they left after the first drive because they told me they were being ‘eaten alive by these critters,’” said Nick Mason, shooting director of Davis & Bowring, a sporting agency in northwestern England. “So they went shopping instead.” 

Today the price for driven Scottish grouse averages about £215 ($270) per brace of birds (excluding 20-percent VAT), and a team of eight Guns typically books 150 brace per day—and pays for it whether the birds are shot or not. That doesn’t include the cost of accommodations, transportation, cartridges, permits and licenses, insurance and tips. The bitty midj-ees made for an expensive shopping day. “Pack a headnet and repellent, if you are heading to the moors in warm weather,” Mason said. “And big cigars don’t cut it.”

These days many shooters prefer over/unders for “tall” driven pheasants and partridge—and it’s important to have guns that fit.

That an insect so diminutive would scupper some of the world’s priciest wingshooting offers a salutary lesson about preparedness when traveling overseas to shoot. Driven shooting can be, as Michael McIntosh wrote, “the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” but in today’s pandemic-prone and firearm-phobic world, considered planning and attention to the smallest details is quite as necessary as a can of DEET on a moor in August. For those who haven’t shot in the UK before, I asked four seasoned British insiders well-versed in hosting Americans to discuss some of the questions and challenges they commonly encounter—and how best to surmount them. I’ve also tendered a bit of my advice based on experience gained over a quarter-century serving as a “team captain”; that is to say, a herder of cats, the cats being accompanying shooters to whom it is the captain’s task to remind (pester) about airline flights, deposits, insurance and—above all—the timely delivery of gun-permit information to the agent or shoot.

A Question of Guns 

Driven shooting is challenging—all the more so if you’re new to it. There is little more reassuring than having a familiar, well-fitted gun (or pair) in your hands when that first pheasant comes curling high overhead. Should you bring your own? The answer is simple: It depends.

Before deciding yea or nay, a word about paperwork and permits. It’s been my experience that some shooters who hail from states where the tethers of firearms restriction are lightly held do not fully grasp how serious and strict the regulatory environment is in Britain (or, for that matter, the EU) about possessing and using guns. Whether you take a gun or not, you will need a Visitor’s Shotgun Permit, and thus you will need to pick a sporting agent or an estate practiced in obtaining one for Americans. Permits take time to process through UK police red tape (and some jurisdictions are quicker or slower to issue permits), so you should follow to the letter your chosen shoot’s or agent’s instructions and supply the information requested by the deadline. 

The best British operations make the permitting process very easy for Americans. Bettws Hall, for example, is a famous, vertically integrated operation made up of six estates in Mid Wales that provides overseas shooters with what Marc Brown, the gunroom and shoot-sales manager, calls “plane-to-peg” planning. “From our guests’ point of view,” he said, “we condense the permitting process down to a single form for them to fill out with their personal and gun details and to supply a copy of their passport. With that information—which we ask for in spring or summer—we can then process the application with time to spare and have it securely couriered to them once issued.” (You will need to have the original in hand, if you enter the UK with a gun.)

Bettws Hall’s estates are renowned for their challenging drives—presenting partridge and pheasants from 30 to 80 yards overhead, depending on the drive. In Brown’s opinion guests armed with their own guns will have an edge. “Based on how easy we make it to get a permit,” Brown said, “I would absolutely want to bring my own—and having a fitted pair will certainly help.”

Davis & Bowring, founded in 1942, has its roots in managing moors and has long experience booking Americans for driven-grouse shooting on about 30 moors in northern England and Scotland (as well as partridge shoots in Spain). Nick Mason said most Americans they host in the UK bring their own guns, often pairs. “For Americans there are so few opportunities to enjoy shooting with a pair of guns,” he said. “Grouse are difficult enough to hit, so it makes complete sense to use guns that fit.” 

Yet for some (your correspondent included), overseas travel with guns has in recent years become angst-inducing: airline regs fickle as Irish weather, clueless gate agents, sometimes sullen airport security, delayed or canceled flights, lost guns . . . . And you haven’t even reached the customs desk at Heathrow yet. Shooting Sportsman Shooting Editor Chris Batha has been hosting Americans in Britain for almost four decades. Nowadays many of those he brings prefer to store their guns in Britain or rent once there. “Operations that I use like Bettws Hall or E.J. Churchill or the shooting schools I work with have large selections of rental guns to choose from,” Batha said. “If you send over your stock measurements in advance, most often we can supply guns that fit you.” Brown noted that Bettws’s gunroom, for example, includes an array of Berettas, Brownings, Blasers and even Purdeys in different configurations along with a choice of ammunition that can be matched to the shooter, quarry and the particular gun(s).

Batha—who has been an instructor at the West London Shooting School, Atkin Grant & Lang, and E.J. Churchill—recommends lessons for those new to driven shooting. Oftentimes he takes parties several days early for instruction at one of Britain’s storied shooting schools. He also offers lessons in the Southeastern US. (In fact, his instruction to me was invaluable before a trip last fall to Portugal for driven red-legged partridge.) As Batha notes, few US shooting grounds have the terrain and/or towers for proper training, but there are certainly domestic instructors who can help with driven-shooting techniques. Some whom I am familiar with include Bryan Bilinski, at Fieldsport, in Traverse City, Michigan; Lars Magnusson of Blixt & Co., in Victor, Idaho (who also has a successful driven-game-shooting operation); and Kevin Sterk, at Griffin & Howe’s Hudson Farm, in Andover, New Jersey.

Truly high birds, too, can be intimidating, even to crack British Guns practiced at shooting them. It’s important to communicate with the agent or estate well in advance about your (and your team’s) skill and experience level. An operation that is used to Americans can try to tailor its birds to match the mettle of the team.

“Our birds at Bettws’s six estates range from ‘a good test’ to stratospheric,” Brown said, “so it’s important we arrange trips so that the confidence—and souls—of the Guns are not destroyed on the first day. If a team wishes, we can take them by a nearby shooting ground before the first day to practice on clays that simulate our birds. Regardless, it’s my job to ensure that the first day on live quarry is on one of our estates where shooters are tested but not demoralized. On a trip that involves shooting over several days, this allows us to ‘build the Gun up’ to higher and ultimately the highest birds toward the latter part.”

Keep in mind that your gun and its configuration should also suit the type of birds you will shoot. Most shooters at estates renowned for “tall” birds prefer over/unders—at Bettws, for example, about 95 percent, according to Brown, with about 80 percent of the guns being 12s. The classic side-by-side game gun still has a place—notably for lowland partridge and driven grouse. Mason believes that preferences are split evenly between side-by-sides and O/Us on the moors. “I personally prefer a side-by-side,” he said, “as you get a much better sight picture for grouse.”

man shooting in the air
There are nuances to the “rules” of driven shooting, including taking only sporting birds (no low shots), refraining from shooting birds heading to a neighboring Gun and trying to mark downed or winged birds.

Logistics

Brown summed up some of the questions and concerns that new guests looking to book often have: How do I get there? Where do I stay? How far away from the airport are you? The logistics of getting said shooter and all of his or her gear from the US to the UK can seem daunting.

Many UK shoots ask Guns to provide their own 4WD vehicles, “particularly if shooting on the grouse moors of northern England and Scotland,” Mason said. “Driving on UK roads can be bewildering for visitors used to super highways. Reversing down a single-track road using wing mirrors to guide you—in the rain—is a challenge even for locals. And remember that if flying on internal [UK domestic] trips, it is unlikely you will be able to carry guns.”

Renting your own 4WD is certainly an option, but remember that you could be held strictly liable if guns go missing from the vehicle (or public transportation). A full-service outfitter, alternatively, can arrange transportation from major UK airports to lodging, and then on shoot days from the lodge to the field—certainly a more stress-free option. “We have our own fleet of 4WDs,” Brown said, “and drivers collect our guests from our lodges and look after them throughout the entire day. And they will often be your loaders too. It’s our duty to ensure our guests have a stress-free and enjoyable experience, and logistics are a huge part of that. We can take on all planning and logistics for our clients if they wish.” 

The Best-Laid Schemes . . .

You’ve picked a great agent or estate and planned carefully. What can go wrong? 

First, let’s go back, so to speak, to bugs. No one needs reminding of the human toll and consequent disruptions of the Covid pandemic. But last season avian influenza swept through game-breeding operations on the Continent, where many eggs for partridge and pheasant shoots are sourced. The disruptions were widespread—many estates canceling shoots for part or all of the season. 

Poor breeding conditions on the moors—red grouse are, after all, wild birds—can occasionally wreck grouse shooting; in years disastrous for the hatch, moor managers will curtail or even cancel the shooting season. The British love to talk of the weather, except when December fog viscous enough to wade through settles on your estate’s allotment of England’s green and pleasant land. You will not shoot pheasants that day. Just saying: Get good travel insurance—good enough to cover all of the contingencies. You’ll also need liability insurance for any accident afield. Make sure that, as an American in a foreign land, it will cover you there. I’ve had great luck with the shooter’s insurance offered by the UK’s Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust; not only is it affordable, but also your fee benefits one of the world’s great science-based, shooter-friendly conservation organizations.

Minding Your Manners

The vast majority of Americans who show up for a driven shoot will be togged in tweeds finer than those worn by the Lord who owns the estate, so here we need not bother with sartorial advice. And most will be—as well-read Anglophiles—conversant and maybe even overly self-conscious of British shooting etiquette. But unless you’ve done it a few times, it’s still a new game with new rules, and there are nuances to those rules. Craigsanquhar Estate is a historic Orvis-endorsed lodge near St. Andrews, in Fife, Scotland, that hosts American shooters both new and experienced for partridge and pheasant shoots on eight nearby estates (see “The Magic of Driven Shooting,” May/June). Shooting Consultant Jason Herkes offered three perspectives for those new to the nuances.

“Most of the Guns who come through our doors are accomplished shots that show great character,” Herkes said. “When any of my fellow countrymen see American guests demonstrate the following three practices, their respect for them grows tenfold.

“First, you do not have to shoot at every bird that comes your way. Take sporting shots only and no low birds. I’ve shot in America and can see where misunderstandings might come from. Typically Americans are in a walked-up environment or a duck blind with few opportunities to shoot. On a driven shoot in the UK you will have many opportunities to shoot and to shoot often.” And a sporting bird is? “We like the treetops as the minimum height, and there must be five feet and 360 degrees of blue sky around the bird before you pull the trigger.

“Second, allow birds heading to your neighboring Gun the right to do so—alive. Skeet and sporting clays are for competition; we try to keep it that way.” I would add that judging whether a bird is yours or not is often easy enough, but reading the line isn’t always clear-cut, particularly with birds heading in at an oblique angle between two Guns. Should you dump a bird at your neighbor’s feet—as, ahem, I have done on occasion—bow and scrape a bit and stand him (or her) a pint (or two) at the bar afterward.

You also will make friends of your “pickers-up” (dog handlers) if you try to mark downed or winged birds behind you. “This can be a challenge to you and them if you are on a hot peg with a lot of action,” Herkes said. “Setting marks based on clock times—‘ten o’clock,’ ‘two o’clock’ and so on—is a simple way to help transfer information to a dog handler after the drive. ”

Finally comes the protocol of tipping, which can be “baffling” for some Americans. According to Mason, “There are four groups of people who will need tipping during the course of your shoot: your loader(s), the gamekeeper, the house staff (if staying in a private house), and the driver who picks you up from the airport or train station. As an agency, we ask whether guests would prefer us to tip on their behalf, and we can invoice the team in advance. Regardless, don’t try to tip in US dollars, Euros or crypto.”

Americans overseas are well known for their generous tips. But, according to Batha, “If you’ve over-tipped the individuals who have helped you, it can lead to serious friction between their peers who haven’t benefitted equally.” The best advice? Follow your outfitter’s advice.

And if you’re going to Scotland in August, don’t forget the bug spray. 

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