Dances with Guns

SS1-gif-400dDriven-game shooting has changed very little since its infancy in the glorious Victorian Era. On larger days, with bags in excess of 300 birds, the use of a pair of guns has always been required.

Now as then, a cracking-good drive will last a long time. Driven birds do not come over the Guns in one heaving rush but rather appear in controlled “waves,” bursting upward as the beaters progress through the cover.

Driven shooting is possibly the most challenging wingshooting there is, and it is no wonder that on a “high-bird estate,” anyone with a one-in-three average is considered a great shot. A good shot will hit one in five, but the realistic average on really good birds is one in eight.

Thus, if a group is shooting a 400-bird day over four drives, the minimum number of birds that will pass over the line will be 800-plus . . . per drive! As the beaters work the large areas of cover crops, the drives ebb and flow, with waves of birds soaring over in staggered flights followed by lulls with only a few in the air.

During the heat of action, when the sky is dark with birds, shooters do not have the luxury of time to fumble with cartridges. The Victorians’ remedy for this was to use multiple shotguns—a pair or even a trio—and one or two loaders. But it is not as simple as acquiring a pair of guns and finding any able-bodied man to load them and hand them off amid the excitement. It takes experience and practice—not only to load the guns but also to shoot well by fully utilizing the skills of the loader. Watching a practiced team of Gun and loader is like watching a choreographed dance. It is, in fact, often referred to as “The Two-Gun Tango.”

The haste of trying to maintain a constantly loaded gun during the action on a hot peg certainly can be distracting, and that’s when accidents can happen. Safe and swift loading is a team effort. Understanding each person’s role in the process is the key. That said, no matter the dexterity and speed of the loader, there is a physical limit to how many times guns can be opened, loaded and exchanged in a minute. The shooter must synchronize his shots to match the rhythm of the loader. By selectively choosing targets and shooting with precision, the Gun can match his tempo to the loader’s beat.

The Gun must avoid snapping off rapid-fire shots, as this can quickly and effectively disrupt the timing of the loading and passing of the guns. Once out of sync, it is nigh on impossible to recover the loading-and-shooting rhythm unless there is a pause in the drive.

If the loader, attempting to keep pace with the Gun’s frantic firing, begins to snap shut the guns with a flick of the wrist, that violent force can cause a cracked stock, the barrels to come off-face, or the action to actually loosen. Even worse, the barrels can be dented and dinged during a fumbled exchange.

Many experienced Guns will have their own loader or a regular loader at each estate where they regularly shoot. Others will employ a professional instructor/loader for the day. For visiting Guns, estate loaders are appointed in the morning, and though most are competent, it is the luck of the draw as to an individual’s degree of skill.

The best way to proceed with confidence is for the Gun to have a few minutes’ practice with the loader before the start of the first drive. Empty guns are make-believe loaded and exchanged, simulating the situation in the field. During practice it is important that the Gun pause between exchanges as if making two shots. This simple rehearsal will give both the Gun and the loader a good idea of each others’ rhythm and timing and determine the realistic number of shots that can be taken per minute.

The Choreography

The methods that follow are taught at all of the major British shooting grounds and have been described in most of the well-known shooting texts, including The Better Shot, by Ken Davies; Shotgun Marksmanship, by Percy Stanbury; and Game Shooting, by Robert Churchill. The following instructions are for a right-handed shooter; reverse sides for the left-handed Gun.

  • Safety first: Shotguns are always exchanged with the safeties “on,” whether the guns are loaded, unloaded or one shot has been fired.
  • Position: The loader stands close behind the shoulder being shot from, ensuring a safe exchange. (Guns must always be exchanged from the shoulder being shot from, even if a shot is being taken behind the line, to avoid a dangerous situation and damaging the guns.)
  • Exchange: After firing, the shooter remains facing the drive, looking for the next opportunity. His first action is to flick the safety “on” and hold the gun in his right hand by the grip in a vertical position close to his body. He then extends his left arm, palm open, across his body, ready to receive the loaded gun.

The loader, holding the loaded gun in his right hand in an upright position, places the gun into the shooter’s left hand, firmly pressing or slapping the forend into the palm and triggering a reflexive gripping action. At the same time, the loader takes the fired gun by the top of the barrels and forend, preventing a clash of the barrels during the exchange.

  • Loading: The loader turns to his right, gripping the empty gun with his left hand, and lifts up the butt, holding it between his forearm and body. With his right hand, he pushes the toplever and opens the gun. He then reloads and closes the gun, holding it vertically in his right hand, forend out, ready for the next exchange. The loader needs to be constantly aware of the shooter’s position and movement while being as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to interfere with or distract from the shooting.

Traditionally, the loader will have a large cartridge bag with a hinged flap that allows it to be opened fully. It will hold more than sufficient cartridges for a really hot peg on a long drive. Often reserve cartridges are arranged in pairs in pouches or loops stitched to the outside of the bag that are faster to access and load during a particularly fast flurry.

  • Side-by-side vs. over/under: Because of its shallow gape, a side-by-side will always have the advantage in speed of loading compared to an over/under. Loading an O/U requires more movement to open the gun wider and access the lower barrel.
  • Ejectors: Regardless of barrel configuration, good ejectors are essential to throw spent cartridges well clear of the breech. The Titanic of loading disasters occurs when the ejector/extractor overrides the rim of the shell, effectively ending the drive for the Gun. But even if the cartridges don’t eject cleanly, precious time is wasted plucking them from the chambers. A preseason service to ensure that your guns’ ejectors are well timed and powerful is well worth the cost.
  • Double-gunning differences: There are some subtle nuances in double-gunning in different shooting situations. For example, when you are on a peg in an open field, you have the luxury of space; in an enclosed grouse butt you do not have the same luxury.
  • In the grouse butt: Red grouse in their moorland habitat are some of the most challenging and exciting gamebirds. Their large numbers—flying in swift heather-hugging packs—necessitate taking low shots both in front of and behind the line. When turning from shooting in front to shoot to the rear, the Gun must point his barrels vertically and do a smart about-face. One never, ever swings through the line.

A butt will have canes, sticks or fixed frames—often referred to as spectacles—placed in the sides, so when looking through the spectacles, you can see your fellow Guns in the neighboring butts. This is to enforce safe arcs of fire and to prevent shooting down the line. The loader often will arrange pairs of cartridges on the lip of the butt for swift access when moving in the confined space.

Grouse butts are designed to blend into the moorland landscape; their sole purpose is to conceal the Guns until the grouse are in range. They can be anything from wooden hurdles to traditional circular stone structures to pieces of straight wall. As they usually are sunken in the ground, most have some drainage or a pallet to provide sure footing.

A line usually consists of 10 grouse butts, 35 to 50 yards apart, and inside each butt is enough space for a Gun and his Loader. The tight confines of a grouse butt and the constraints of safe arcs of fire can restrict movement. Sometimes it is not easy for the loader to rotate into the correct position, so making room for opening and reloading the guns can be challenging. But an experienced loader who knows the grouse moors can help you shoot straight and safely.

  • Double-gunning Spanish style: The Spanish have another twist to loading. At first it can look a little strange and, like all things new, slightly discombobulating. In Spain you get two helpers: a secretario and a loader. The secretario sits behind you and counts your downed birds, marking their positions on a piece of paper. The loader sits on a stool just in front of you. The loader has a magazine of cartridges and the pair of guns. He will load one gun and hand it to you, and then load the other gun and keep it at the ready. When the drive commences, the loader will reach up and take the empty gun and at the same time hand you the loaded gun. Having the loader sitting in front does take a little getting used to, but the process is just as swift and smooth as the more traditional British technique.


Chris Batha’s latest book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting Video-clip shooting tips are available at

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