Driven in the Old Dominion

Group of three wingshooting

A late-season shoot at Primland

Story by Robert Parvin Williams
Photos by Dan Routh/courtesy of Primland

As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.

—Letter from Thomas Jefferson to his 15-year-old nephew, Peter Carr, August 19, 1785

Man wingshooting
More than 12,000 acres of forest and hills allow plenty of contour for the drives at Primland. The author (above) enjoyed the use of a Holland & Holland Royal 20-bore as part of a line of five Guns.

A couple of hours south of Monticello, we are, in Mr. Jefferson’s words, enjoying life and liberty and passionately pursuing happiness in the form of driven pheasants high in the hills of Primland, the 12,000-acre crown jewel of Virginia sporting resorts. It is a particularly vibrant, stirring kind of happiness: a crisp, clear morning, with the temperature in the mid-20s, and scattered colors—ladies’ scarves, a Lab’s gleaming coat, the deep luster of figured gunstocks—popping bright against winter-brown hills.

The scene is mildly Edwardian: our line of Guns, loaders and dog handlers resplendent in tweeds and Wellies—the set of Downton Abbey come to life. Except, of course, for the American accents. There is nary an Englishman in sight, yet everything we’re doing and wearing owes much to the same empire that Mr. Jefferson’s words in the Declaration were crafted to repudiate. Admire the irony, if you’re so inclined, but listen: This is fun. Seriously, unironically, splendidly fun.

This is no doubt why, as British gunmaking came of age in the 19th Century and the Royal Navy secured a pretty leisure for the landed class, the traditions of driven shoots found themselves polished and perfected into art. For pageantry and ceremony, no one beats the Brits. And for staging an American driven shoot in the best British tradition, it is hard to beat Primland.

Eager faces watch the sky along the line as we stand at our pegs for the first drive. I have drawn Number 3, situated near a corner in the treeline. The ground rises sharply in front toward a forested hilltop and falls sharply behind into a wooded ravine. Marcus Heath, my loader, stands just behind my right shoulder. The horn sounds to signal the beginning of the drive. I close my gun, then listen as the shouts and snapping flags of beaters and flankers drift toward us on the wind. A shot sounds somewhere around the hill to the right. When a pheasant breaks cover overhead, already high and riding a brisk tailwind, I cover it, push ahead and fire. A hit! I swing left to catch a trailing bird, push harder, and even as I fire know I’ve missed. “Behind?”

Bird flying through trees

“Yes, sir, about a gun length,” Marcus says, stuffing shells into my open gun before I close and raise it as more birds swarm like inbound missiles. When the horn sounds again, I break open the gun, a sea of empty yellow hulls surrounding me. I look over at my wife, Daphne, and can’t stop grinning. “Did you see how fast they were? How cool was that?”

The dogs are literally having a field day, streaking up the hill, down the hill and into the woods. The handlers nearest me are working with a trio of Labs and soon are laden with birds. There are the sounds of laughter, whistles and breaking brush. It is a wonderful beginning to the day.

During a mid-morning break, I ask Carl McDaniel, Primland’s activities director, to explain how he goes about planning a driven shoot. “A lot depends on the number of Guns,” he says. “This shoot is on the smaller side. We usually plan on lines of six to eight Guns. The number of beaters, dog handlers and loaders varies based on the size of the line. The weather makes a difference in how the birds fly, but we can usually drive the cover so the birds are spread fairly evenly along the line. Our goal today is about 180 birds over four drives—three before lunch and one after. But you never really know how it will go until it’s over.”

He smiles and adds, “Pretty much depends in the end on you folks with the guns, doesn’t it?”

Two men wingshooting

When I compliment Carl on the quality of the dog handling, he’s quick to point out that while Primland has extensive kennels, many of the handlers are simply local residents who enjoy working their own dogs. Indeed, Primland’s strong ties to its surrounding communities—towns like Stuart, Virginia, and Mount Airy, North Carolina—seem to play a large role in creating the esprit de corps we sense again and again during our stay. This is a happy place staffed by people who exude pride in their jobs and who seem genuinely pleased with the company they keep.

Three of our line are shooting matched pairs, which makes for some impressive gun handling between shooter and loader. Because I am shooting just one gun, Marcus and I don’t have to hand it back and forth. Instead, I break the gun with muzzles pointed downward, ejecting the empties, then Marcus reaches around my right shoulder and shoves new shells into the chambers. It’s a fast system that assures my eyes are always on the sky. At the end of each drive I find myself so focused on the action that it takes a moment or two to return to earth.

By the way, the phrase “just one gun” doesn’t do justice to this particular gun: a dazzling Holland & Holland Royal 20-bore dating from the 1960s that Dave Cruz from Holland’s New York store supplied for this shoot. Yes, I could have used one of my own guns and been just fine, but come on. A Holland & Holland on driven birds? How perfect is that? At 143⁄8" the gun is a bit short for me, so I use a detachable leather pad to add some length. I find one ounce of No. 6s to be plenty for pheasants up to about 40 yards, as long as I get the lead right. Almost all of my misses are behind.

After the third drive we repair to Primland’s activities center for a casual lunch of soup and hot sandwiches. The center, located about 20 minutes down the mountain from the lodge, is home base for Primland’s hunting, shooting, fishing, archery and other outdoor pursuits. It includes a well-stocked retail store with a good selection of clothing, guns, ammunition and other useful items. After lunch, Daphne browses among the Dubarry boots while I look over a sweet little Caesar Guerini .410.

Then it is back to the hills for the final drive, which also turns out to be the best of the day. We take our stands along a trail that traverses a steep slope roughly a hundred yards below the crest of a hill. The wind has picked up noticeably, whipping from right to left. The sun is exactly behind us, perfectly positioned so that as the birds stream over the hill they are caught in the light, shimmering like iridescent fragments hurtling from some cosmic explosion. If there’s anything lovelier than a rocketing rooster in the right light, I’d be hard-pressed to name it.

Old farm House


Two views of understated elegance: The 26-room main lodge is finished in local materials and style; the deeply carved engraving of the H&H Royal is part of a perfect package for a driven day.

The birds come in waves, riding the crosswind. We shoot and load and shoot and still cannot keep up, the air filled with floating feathers, the barrels hot in my hands, the dogs crisscrossing brushstrokes of black, yellow and brown in the bracken.

When the horn sounds to end the shoot, the dogs make their final retrieves and we pack up guns and birds for the drive back to the lodge. Our final bird count is 231, considerably more than the 180 Carl expected. That is a lot of shooting for just five Guns, especially considering the number of birds that escaped to fly another day.

We end the afternoon saluting the birds over bourbon around the lodge fire. Completed in 2009, the lodge is perched atop one of Primland’s highest ridges and offers fine views from each of its 26 rooms. Our suite, like the rest of the lodge facilities, is elegant but not ornate—the lines clean and simple, the materials indigenous wood and stone that capture the aesthetic character of the Virginia mountains. For families or large parties, Primland also offers individual cottages. Lodge amenities include a spa, an indoor pool, a fitness center, a recreation area and various meeting facilities.

Dinner that evening is in the lodge’s main restaurant: Elements. (The lodge also offers more casual dining in the 19th Pub, which we had enjoyed the previous evening.) Elements is the primary basis for Primland’s reputation for fine “New Southern” cuisine, and it does not disappoint.

Bird Wing
We shoot and load and shoot and still cannot keep up, the air filled with floating feathers.

After dinner we tour Primland’s observatory, the dome of which features largely in the architectural character of the lodge. On a clear night the visible universe puts on a spectacular show for Primland guests, ably assisted by a massive Celestron CGE Pro 1400 telescope and a knowledgeable staff of amateur-astronomer guides. It is a fascinating experience and sure to be a highlight of any visit.

The next morning we have a couple of hours free before we need to drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, for our flight home, so we sneak in a walk-up pheasant hunt with guide Sammy Howell and his well-trained griffon and pointers. Primland is an Orvis-Endorsed Wingshooting Lodge, and its kennels currently house 46 gundogs, including pointers, English setters, German shorthairs and Labrador retrievers. Walk-up hunts are available on a half- or full-day basis on seven courses. Each course is set in scenic, hilly terrain planted in grasses as well as food and cover crops. In addition to pheasants, Primland offers hunting for early release quail and chukar as well as opportunities for deer and turkeys during state seasons.

Primland’s sporting clays courses are extensive and highly regarded. Rainy weather on the day we arrived kept us from experiencing them to full advantage, but we did manage to get in a few stations and Daphne enjoyed some good coaching from shooting instructor Lauren Benfield. The full clays course includes 14 stations along a mile of cart paths, with individual stations simulating shots at pheasants, quail, grouse, ducks and rabbits. A traditional 5 Stand setup is also available, as are two other games that are new this year: Make-A-Break, in which pairs of shooters compete from a stage and shoot 10 pairs of targets from eight machines, and Upland Practice Parcours, involving 50 targets divided evenly between two courses, with each course presenting a combination of singles and doubles from five traps and three shooting positions.

This was our first visit to Primland, but it won’t be our last. Current plans call for a couples weekend shooting more driven birds and stargazing at night. Mr. Jefferson won’t be able to pursue happiness with us in person, but I’m certain that wherever he is in spirit, he’ll approve.

For more information on Primland, call 276-229-4334 or visit

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