Simulated driven shooting is a fun way to get a taste of the real thing or to warm up for the season.
By Chris Batha
In America, at least since market hunting ended, bird hunting has been shooting over dogs while walking large areas of habitat, as well as decoying waterfowl and pass-shooting doves.
In the UK and Europe hunting in all forms largely has been the domain of the landed gentry, with laws against trespass and poaching rigorously enforced through the centuries. Though participants have been wealthy and limited in number, the tradition of shooting over dogs was similar in Britain until the introduction, in the early 1800s, of the French sport of high-volume driven shooting.
The fashion for driven shooting created the need for faster reloading and improved ballistics, and this resulted in meteoric advances in the design and function of the sporting shotgun. By the start of the 20th Century, affluent British sportsmen had moved away from hunting over dogs in favor of shooting birds driven from cover over a line of Guns in fixed butts and pegs.
Two world wars caused an epic redistribution of wealth in Europe, particularly in Great Britain, where many renowned shooting estates out of necessity began offering land to lease for private shoots. The proliferation of these new shooting venues resulted in the formation of traveling syndicates and the creation of agencies that offered sporting opportunities both at home and abroad.
Though these unique sporting experiences were available to anyone who could afford them, the cost of maintaining an estate or moor for driven-game shooting could give you a nosebleed. A driven shoot is like a London theater show: The audience in the box seats sees only the actors on stage. However, there are stagehands, set changers, musicians, dressers, makeup artists and directors, to say nothing of the untold hours of rehearsals. Similarly, a line of Guns waiting for a drive to begin likely can’t imagine the immense amount of work and cost that go into every drive.
The 21st Century Sporting Man
Since the Victorian period there have been many famed estates on driven-game shooters’ bucket lists. But such days command premium prices and often are sold out a full season in advance. The cost of joining a line for a shoot “in season” at a prestigious estate makes this sport unaffordable for many.
Because of the testing heights and speeds of the best driven birds, in the off-season even experienced shots take lessons and practice on the high towers and grouse butts at the likes of the E.J. Churchill Shooting Ground, West London Shooting School, the Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds and the Royal Berkshire Shooting School. These warm-up days long have been de rigueur to practice for the upcoming season.
Some major shooting grounds began to expand practice sessions into simulated driven-game-shooting days. They set up a series of traps that were able to throw flurries of clays, simulating driven shooting over a line of up to eight Guns. It was great fun and good practice, as the target setters strove to capture the characteristics and excitement of the real thing.
These “simulated clays days” have evolved into presentations that resemble the real thing. Stately homes that host driven days during the season are used, as are specialized clay throwers with three to six traps like the Promatic Huntsman, Grouse and Fieldsman—fixed and oscillating—that can be programmed to throw 40 to 60 clays per minute with speed and flight characteristics that accurately mimic a driven bird. By using different sizes and types of targets, different drives can replicate red grouse, partridge and pheasants.
The core skill is keeping the barrels on the line of the bird throughout the shot.
The estates (and drives) are carefully chosen for their topography and habitat, with an emphasis on steep valleys for simulated pheasants and partridge and a rolling landscape for grouse. Standard targets are used mainly to simulate pheasants, whereas midis and battues are used for partridge and grouse. This allows for accurate simulations of high pheasants—40 yards plus—as well as the speed and ever-changing directions of coveys of partridge and grouse. Battues are used judiciously to simulate fast, curling birds in grouse drives.
Each day is run exactly as a real driven day. Upon arrival you are greeted by the host and introduced to your fellow Guns before breakfast. You then pair off with a fellow Gun—either someone you know or another single Gun—receive the all-important safety briefing and choose pegs. When the team of Guns is on the pegs, a blast on the horn announces the start of the drive. The Guns take turns loading for each other—changing from shooter to loader (or vice versa) when a horn is sounded indicating the halfway point.
The drives are well orchestrated and start with a vanguard—a gentle dribble of birds over the line—building to a crescendo of birds that almost fill the sky. This is fast and furious shooting and a true simulation of the real thing (except when it comes time to pay the bill). At the end of the drive the Guns gather at the shoot transport for a light refreshment of soup and sandwiches. Suitably nourished, they ride to the second drive.
There are usually four to six drives with a light luncheon at midday. When the shooting is over, an evening meal is served with the appropriate libations, and the host announces the bag-to-cartridge ratio of the team in the same manner as is done following a live-bird shoot.
It is surprising to many that clay targets can prove just as challenging as their feathered counterparts. These simulated days originated more than 100 years ago on the high towers of the British shooting schools as practice for pheasants. Many of the well-known, driven-shooting estates realized that by using the flurry traps they had the opportunity to extend their season by offering simulated game shooting during the idyllic summer months. As a result, simulated shoots have become hugely popular, as they offer all of the etiquette, safety, loading and shooting excitement of a real day in the field for a fraction of the cost.
Where To Shoot “Driven Clays”
Most well-established shooting schools in the UK offer instruction specific to shooting driven game, and some offer actual simulated clays shoots. Here are resources to look into:
Atkin Grant & Lang Shooting Ground offers a driven grouse sequence as part of its regular clays course, shot from a stone grouse butt.
Ian Coley Sporting offers driven game instruction from a purpose-built grouse butt with targets from more than 10 traps, plus a 120-foot-high tower and four lower towers on its clays course. The sporting agency also offers a range of simulated game days on estates around the UK from April through July.
GunsOnPegs.com is the broadest single resource online for shooting in the UK, redefining the role of booking agency and roving syndicate. The site’s simulated game shooting section typically offers choices from among dozens of simulated shooting days.
The Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds offers shooting and instruction featuring “all types of traditional game birds . . . simulated in realistic settings.”
The Royal Berkshire Shooting School features seven full time, professional shooting instructors and having one of the most expansive shooting grounds in the UK.
Six Mile Bottom Shoot offers simulated driven instruction and full simulated driven days that throw approximately 4,000 targets over five drives.
The West London Shooting School offers driven shooting instruction, simulated drives on-site with its Three Feathers Shoot and simulated days on a variety of estates.
A growing number of shooting grounds and instructors in the US are offering opportunities for simulated driven clays shooting.
Author and Shooting Sportsman Contributing Editor Chris Batha—in addition to hosting and teaching the driven shooting at Highland Hills Ranch—offers driven shooting schools in the US and several driven shooting trips to the UK every year.
Blixt & Company offers a full driven-day experience on its grounds in Idaho, with multiple drives in three locations and full shoot-day protocol.
Green Acres Sportsman’s Club, just south of Chicago, offers a variety of British-style events hosted by Keith Coyle, a Brit instructor in the Churchill shooting method. Shoot days include a mix of instruction with clays and bird shooting.
Highland Hills Ranch offers driven shooting days that are preceded by driven shooting instruction. Regular walked-up shooting guests can also take advantage of the incoming flurries thrown from multiple launchers, high above a steep hillside from the shooting stations.
Woodcock Hill in Benton, Pennsylvania offers a comprehensive driven shooting school as preparation for everything from clothing, etiquette and loading to high incomers and birds going away, complete with stone grouse butt and towers.
The Perfect Summer Break
As mentioned, simulated days are excellent introductions to driven-shooting etiquette as well as to learning how to shoot driven birds. Just think about what a wonderful vacation this could be. Three or four days of simulated shooting on some of the great British estates, a couple of days shooting wood pigeons over stubble and, if timed right, a weekend at one of the famous summer game fairs.
With the exception of an occasional shot at a duck or a dove passing overhead and relatively few 80-foot claybird towers, the majority of American shooters do not have the opportunity to practice the classic high-driven-game shot. It is a very different technique than shots at upland birds or shooting from a blind. The bird passes over the stationary Gun in excess of 30 yards and 40 mph. It requires a technique that establishes and develops the bird’s line of flight together with a swing that matches the gun speed to the bird’s speed to place the pattern on a collision course some six feet or more in front of the bird.
Renowned shooting instructors Percy Stanbury and Robert Churchill perfected individual techniques that have stood the test of time and still are taught today. The only difference is that Stanbury advocated shooting off of the front foot, whereas Churchill taught shooting off of the back foot.
The core skill is keeping the barrels on the line of the bird throughout the shot, which applies to real birds as well as clays. This is achieved by continuously pointing out the bird with the barrels throughout the gun mount and taking the shot. Imagine you are standing facing the direction the birds are coming from, with 12 o’clock being directly above your head. With a bird or clay approaching, you begin your gun mount pointing at the bird at 10 o’clock, keep matching the bird’s speed as it reaches 11 o’clock, accelerate the barrels in front and take the shot without check or measure—the first barrel at 11:30 and, if you fail to break the clay or miss or wound the bird, the second directly overhead at 12 o’clock. The gun speed and lead required are established by the transference of weight from one foot to the other, which uses the whole body and not just the arms.
The most common mistake I see when giving lessons or hosting driven-shooting schools is the lack of footwork, which results in an involuntary and unconscious transfer of weight that either checks the swing (stopping the gun) or causes the gun to come off of the bird, missing offline.
Whether one wants to practice shooting from the front foot (Churchill) or back foot (Stanbury), the important thing is to practice a controlled, smooth transition from one foot to the other, which helps accelerate the barrels to match the target’s speed. An involuntary transfer from one foot to the other causes the shoulders to roll, taking the barrels off of the line of the bird and resulting in a miss above or below. Referred to as “windshield wiping,” when watched from behind, the gun is arcing in the same manner has a windshield wiper.
If you can’t get to the UK to experience “real” simulated driven shooting, all is not lost. There are several instructors in the US who teach driven-game-shooting skills, and some grounds offer simulated clays days hosted in the same manner as in the UK. There are also several opportunities throughout the year to practice high-bird shooting and double-gun loading at events like The Vintage Gunners Cup and the Orvis Game Fair. I host high-driven-bird-shooting schools in the spring and fall, and there are opportunities to shoot with Blixt & Co, Highland Hills Ranch and others.