Lessons from wingshooting’s legendary scribes
Bird hunters can be a finicky bunch, but grouse hunters are idiosyncratic on another level. Take, for example, the age-old debate over the ideal grouse gun. What defines perfection? It’s a complicated question, and the answers are as elusive as the bird itself. Make, model and barrel configuration certainly represent part of the equation, but there’s also the matter of weight, balance and chokes to consider, not to mention an abstract measure of magic known as “feel.”
Internet blogsites and podcasts offer endless opinions on the matter, but these sources are rife with frivolous chatter. Truth is, experience drives expertise, and the old-timers shot more grouse in a week than most modern gunners flush in an entire season.
Who, then, could be more qualified to decipher this dispute than the legendary outdoor writers of yore who formed their shooting sentiments afield? Problem is, many of them are gone; but fortunately their words remain.
William Harnden Foster, the author of New England Grouse Shooting, said that a grouse gun is: “. . . the one that a certain hunter will find most pleasant to carry to the spot where a grouse is to be shot at, and there prove most efficient when the shot is made.”
With this in mind, let’s see what other wisdom Foster and his peers put forth on the subject.
William Harnden Foster (1886–1941)
William Harnden Foster was energetic and talented to the core, excelling as a writer, illustrator and wingshooter. But his skill set didn’t stop there. He was also a competitive field-trialer, magazine editor and decoy carver.
No small surprise: Foster was also a perfectionist. When he missed a grouse, he’d head to the range, set up a similar scenario and practice until he felt proficient. This dedication eventually gave rise to skeet, a clay pigeon game Foster and his cronies devised to improve their field performance. Originally called “Shooting Around the Clock,” skeet simulated the shots encountered while bird hunting.
According to writer Tom Davis, all those hours at the range eventually took a toll on Foster, imparting a vicious flinch that prompted a switch to the softer-shooting 28-gauge.
The gun Foster chose was an OO frame Parker DHE (Serial No. 236560). This 5-pound 12-ounce gun sported 28-inch barrels, a selective single trigger, a splinter forend and a straight-hand stock. The chokes measured .007" (Improved Cylinder) in the right barrel and .017" (Modified) in the left. Foster used shells loaded with ⅝ ounce of lead and a fiber-and-cardboard wad column. A true disciple, Foster went on to preach the gospel of the diminutive gauge that recoiled lightly and hit harder than it should.
Throughout his life, Foster was a prolific writer and illustrator, but New England Grouse Shooting was his first and only book. Eighty years later the wealth of information within remains relevant, and the pen-and-ink illustrations stand out as some of the best. Chapter one is titled “The Little Gun,” and it highlights the story of a sleek, hard-hitting 16-gauge Parker hammergun. This lithe double tipped the scales at 6½ pounds, “nearly a pound and a half lighter than anything else being carried by local gunners.”
As expected, Foster decried repeaters, calling them “too clumsy, poorly lined, and generally too heavy to be given places in the class of real grouse guns.” The Little Gun undoubtedly influenced his opinions. Weight was part of the equation, since upland hunters walk far and shoot infrequently, but balance carried even more importance. According to Art Wheaton, past president of the Parker Gun Collectors Association and a longtime Parker enthusiast, Foster’s shooting dimensions for the DHE were 14 1⁄16" length of pull to a skeleton buttplate, 1½" drop at comb, 2" drop at heel and zero cast.
Foster died unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 55 doing what he loved: judging the New England Bird Dog Competition. His legendary Parkers (including The Little Gun) remain in the family to this day.
Burton L. Spiller (1886–1973)
Burton Spiller worked as a blacksmith and welder, grew gladioli and crafted violins and knives on the side. Ever the gentleman, Spiller seldom swore, didn’t drink and refused to hunt on Sundays. Most famously, this jack-of-all-trades was an accomplished writer renowned far and wide as “the poet laureate of grouse.” His books, including Grouse Feathers, Drummer in the Woods, Firelight and More Grouse Feathers, were eloquent accounts of his adventures in the New England uplands.
Spiller began his wingshooting journey like many other sportsmen, with a hand-me-down fowling piece. In young Spiller’s case, that took the form of his father’s unwieldy 10-gauge hammergun. Hardly an upland hunter’s dream, it was nevertheless serviceable—and perhaps most importantly, available.
One day when he was roaming the woods near home, Spiller crossed paths with a grouse: “The hammer of the 10-gauge clicked softly as the barrel was quietly raised. For a moment the muzzle wavered, then steadied—and Vesuvius erupted with an earth-shattering roar. The sun was blotted out, while stars shot dizzily and aimlessly through the heavens, but above all, beyond all, a faint sound dominated the chaos: the spasmodic and drum-like hammering of wings on dry pine needles.”
Ground-sluicing that grouse catapulted Spiller into the sporting life, but like so many other upland hunters, his tastes evolved with time and experience. Almost immediately he realized the 10-gauge was better suited for waterfowl and began yearning for a double of his own. He traded his bike for a secondhand 16-gauge but ultimately settled on a Parker VH 20-gauge (Serial No. 236252), built on an O frame. The six-pound gun had 26-inch barrels and 2⅝" chambers.
Spiller’s list of friends included Gorham Cross, H.G. “Tap” Tapply and Tap’s son, William, who, like his father, would become an accomplished scribe of the sport. By the time young Bill and Spiller started hunting together, Spiller was already 78 and slowing down. One day, to Bill’s astonishment, the old veteran “traded” his well-worn Parker for Bill’s plain-Jane, single-shot Savage.
When Bill passed away, in 2009, Morris Baker, owner of RST Shotshells, quietly purchased the Parker and retains ownership of it.
Gordon MacQuarrie (1900–1956)
Gordon MacQuarrie embarked on his writing career as a cub reporter for the Superior Evening Telegram, in Duluth, Wisconsin, andeventually penned numerous newspaper columns and magazine articles. His lovable, folksy tales often centered around the ODHA, or Old Duck Hunter’s Association, Inc. Like Foster, MacQuarrie began beating the conservation drum before it was trendy, and his words remain relevant nearly a hundred years later.
MacQuarrie seemed to view shotguns like a mechanic views a ratchet set: as tools of the trade rather than objet d’art. He seldom waxed sentimental about any particular gun or gauge, instead preferring to focus on the action unfolding in front of him outdoors: “The man kneeling in autumn leaves dressing his first partridge should know that he is of the elect, that he has entered that Valhalla of sport where the best is hard to get, and the getting is the best part of it.”
On a preliminary hunt with his father-in-law, Al Peck (“Mister President” in the ODHA series), “Mac” borrowed an ancient short-barreled hammergun, “the fore piece bound together with close-wrapped bailing wire.” When he finally acquired his own gun, MacQuarrie settled on an Ithaca Lefever Nitro Special, a scattergun he used for waterfowl and upland birds, although his essay “Native Son” explores the notion of grouse guns specifically: “Let not the man of the corn fields depend upon the full choke gun in the partridge woods. It is brush shooting, calling for something that throws a big, open pattern. Skeet bores are popular. The various patent, adjustable choke devices are gaining many friends. The tried-and-true double-bore with right barrel improved cylinder and left barrel modified is just about perfect for me. Any full choke barrel will spotter birds.”
Like his peers, MacQuarrie preferred double guns with open (comparatively speaking for that era) chokes. However, with repeaters, his approving nod to the abominable pickle-barreled Poly Choke speaks to a preference for function over form. Then again, that was MacQuarrie to a “T.” Either way, to this Wisconsin scribe, the gun seemed somewhat insignificant in the total “pa’tridge” hunting equation: “There was a beginning to pa’tridge hunting. The president of the Old Duck Hunters makes a rite of such a privilege. Everything must be just so—the season, the day, the company. He laced his boots a bit tighter, pulled on a baggy, stained hunting jacket, lit the familiar little crooked pipe and stood on the cabin stoop, 16 gauge under his arm—a full and proper and capable pa’tridge hunter if I ever saw one.”
“Always there is a norm in duck hunting,” MacQuarrie wrote his story “Ducks! You Bat You,” and that dictum also applies to grouse. His 12-gauge Ithaca sported 28-inch barrels choked Modified and Full, per the “norm” of the day. Later in life he acquired a fancier Browning A5 autoloader, but he enjoyed it for only a few years before passing away unexpectedly at age 56.
The whereabouts of MacQuarrie’s well-worn Nitro Special remain a mystery to this day.
George Bird Evans (1906–1998)
Perhaps no author wrote about gunning for grouse as poetically or passionately as George Bird Evans. He strung words together as seamlessly as the wood-to-metal fit on a British best gun and lived an envious life devoted to setters, shotguns and the hallowed business of bird hunting.
Early on, Evans shot a 12-gauge Fox Sterlingworth, but later he inherited a friend’s Purdey that would become his primary grouse gun. Like several other authors featured here, age and injury nudged him to adopt a 28-gauge late in life.
It was a “drooly afternoon” in June 1961 when Evans and his wife, Kay, dropped by Dr. Charles Norris’s manor to settle his friend’s estate. “The guns are upstairs,” Evans was directed by Dr. Norris’s son William. “You are to have your choice.” And what a decision to ponder: one of two Purdeys or a Churchill—all 12-bores.
Evans famously chose a lovely little Purdey with rose-pattern engraving on the locks and action, and he was specific in his documentation of its particulars. The gun weighed 6 pounds 7 ounces and had two sets of 26-inch barrels: the first bored 72 percent and 76 percent and the second 54 percent and 71 percent. The straight-grip stock was French walnut with 24-lines-per-inch checkering.
Evans was slight of build, but Dr. Norris had been short and stout. That meant the Purdey would require more drop, length and cast-off. Evans modified the fit by patiently sanding the stock and then adding liberal applications of “GB” Lin-Speed oil. He also had a gunsmith lengthen the 2⅝" chambers to a more practical 2¾" and open the chokes.
According to the Old Hemlock Foundation, Evans’s guns, including the Purdey, were passed on to like-minded upland hunters who shared his philosophies.
Gene Hill (1928–1997)
Gene Hill—“Hilly” to his friends—was the quintessential everyman’s writer, and his essays endure as some of the best outdoor literature of all time. As longtime pal and fellow author Steve Smith noted, “Hilly could say more with fewer words than any writer around.”
Hill had an unassuming, aw-shucks style, but he was a well-traveled wingshooter who enjoyed exotic aspects of the sporting life—whether that meant woodcock in the Maritimes, waterfowl in Argentina or anything in between. As a native New Englander, he appreciated grouse hunting and all that accompanied it.
By all accounts, Hill was a humble fellow, seldom bragging up his guns or shooting prowess. He preferred instead to assume the station of the bumbling underdog. According to Smith, however, Hill was a crackerjack wingshot and target shooter.
Curiously, Hill never mentioned his grouse gun in print, so the particulars remain shrouded in mystery.
In an essay titled “The Woodcock Gun,” he mentioned a 5½-pound 16-gauge Greener with 24-inch barrels and a toplever safety. He also owned a 12-bore Woodward with 28-inch barrels.
“One night we had a long, malty discussion about whether he should add a screw-in choke to the right barrel of the Woodward,” Smith remembers. “Hilly was a big believer in leaving the left barrel Full for pheasants.
“In all the times we hunted together, I never saw him carry that Woodward. His travel gun was a Beretta 12-gauge over/under EELL, but I think his favorite was an Italian 28-gauge he used in Mexico on doves. He was absolutely deadly with it.”
It is difficult to confirm whether the Greener, the Woodward or some nondescript 28-gauge served as Hill’s primary grouse gun. Perhaps not mentioning a particular make was his way of appealing unpretentiously to his readers. Something that is obvious is Hill’s soft spot for sub-gauge guns. In his book Shotgunner’s Notebook he devotes entire chapters to both the 28 and the 16 gauge. “I feel a warm spot in my heart when I meet a man whiling away an afternoon over a couple of bird dogs and when we stop and chat, the sleek lines of his double gun whisper, ‘sixteen.’”
Nevertheless, as he grew older, Hill took to swapping guns after lunch, Smith explained. In the afternoon he’d trade out the heavier 16 for a 28-gauge.
The whereabouts of Hill’s guns remain a mystery. Several were reportedly stolen from his home gun safe. Then again, as Smith mentioned, “Hilly might have been approached with an offer he simply couldn’t refuse. He was, after all, a Scotsman, you know.”
Michael McIntosh (1945–2010)
Michael McIntosh was known as the “Dean of Double Guns.” He adored all the gauges for what they offered, but over a lifetime of shooting he arrived at a similar conclusion to those that Foster, Evans and Hill eventually came to: “The 28 generates considerably less recoil, so you can fire literally hundreds of shots in a day without getting a case of the flinches and yips.”
Surely no one wants a case of the “flinches and yips,” but McIntosh also appreciated the 28’s short, efficient shotstring. As he wrote in his book Shotguns and Shooting III:“If you want to see a bird die like it’s been struck by lightning, center it with a 28-bore at any distance out to 35 yards or a bit beyond.”
McIntosh had an affinity for fine Spanish shotguns. He toted an AyA No. 2 on far-flung destinations when air travel was involved, but his primary grouse gun was a 28-gauge Arrieta. In Shotguns and Shooting III he states: “My favorite 28-gauge, which is well on its way to becoming my favorite game gun, is a round-body sidelock ejector that Arrieta built for me a couple of years ago . . . . I’ll bet it against all the stray feathers and brush chaff in your game pouch that if you swung it a couple of times, you’d want to shoot it, and if you shot it, you’d love it.”
The Arrieta referred to was a Sporting Classics Custom Game Gun with 29-inch barrels and a flat, hand-filed rib. The barrels were choked .004" and 013", or roughly Skeet 1 and Skeet 2. It had double triggers, ejectors and a splinter forend. The gun weighed 6 pounds 2 ounces and, according to McIntosh’s friend and business partner Bryan Bilinski, “balanced nicely a half-inch in front of the hinge pin.”
McIntosh’s measurements for the Arrieta were as follows: slightly less than 15" length of pull, 19⁄16" drop at comb, 25⁄16" drop at heel, ⅜" cast-off at face, ⅝" cast-off at heel, 1½" of down pitch. After McIntosh passed away, a private party bought the famed Arrieta at auction for an untold amount.
Do any of these opinions clarify what makes an ideal grouse gun? Perhaps not. The Old Guard clearly preferred doubles, but their preferences about make, model, barrel length, gauge and choke cut a wide swath. Perhaps the answer must remain a mystery. In any case, let’s allow George Bird Evans the final word: “When you come by a fine gun you become a little bit of the man who loved it, for a shooter lives on in proportion to the manner in which his gun is used and enjoyed after he is gone—a nice way to be remembered.”
A wonderful way to be remembered, indeed. And probably as close to the ideal grouse gun as anyone’s liable to get.