»  The Straggler, No. 77

April 6, 2009

   Shooting Like a Gentleman

The luckiest bird in the world lives in a wood near Reading, Pa. He popped up out of the tall grass thirty yards in front of me. "Popped" isn't quite right. These were farm-bred pheasants, well-fed and not much keen on flying. They had been scattered around the forty-odd acres of grass early that morning, before we arrived. This particular bird was one of the more energetic ones, though, and he was up above head height before I'd gotten the gun to my shoulder. I fired off a shot which comprehensively missed. The bird took off to my right. Tracking him, I worked the action and fired again, missing again. There wasn't even the consolatory feather or two drifting down.

The four of us were in extended line across the field, I at the left-hand end. That charmed bird proceeded to fly straight across the front of the line at about the same distance, but gaining height laboriously with his farm-fattened wings. My three companions — one of them an experienced hunter — each in turn fired at him, but he got away and disappeared into the woods at our right, having survived eight or ten bursts of shot.

At the risk of violating the Excuse Rule (which is: No excuses!) I at least can plead rookie status — this was my first bird shoot — and an unfamiliar borrowed gun. I am handicapped, too, by gun safety neurosis. I was introduced to target shooting at age thirteen by instructors who were, understandably, very nervous indeed at finding themselves in charge of a platoon of giggling adolescents armed with rifles. They hammered the safety rules relentlessly into our silly heads, supplementing the instruction with Ministry of Defence movies portraying, with staggering gruesomeness, the consequences of poor discipline with guns and explosives. Full of the ghoulish instincts normal among early-teen boys, we enjoyed the gory movies as much as we did the shooting, but we got the point.

The effect of these stern early lessons on one's adult field-shooting skills is analogous to the result Freud ascribed to over-rigorous potty training. The dog points; the grass moves; a bird comes up. Okay, where's the damn safety on this thing? Got it. Now, where'd the dog go? There he is. Where's Tom? I see him. Where's Vin? Got him. Where's Randy? Over there, right. Great, now where's the bird? In birdie heaven by this time, that's where, with a good measure of my companions' shot in him. I felt like Mr. Winkle in The Pickwick Papers.

        Bang, bang, went a couple of guns; — the smoke swept quickly away over the field, and curled into the air.
        "Where are they?" said Mr. Winkle, in a state of the highest excitement, turning round and round in all directions. "Where are they? Tell me when to fire. Where are they — where are they?"
        "Where are they?" said Wardle, taking up a brace of birds which the dogs had deposited at his feet. "Why, here they are."

So far as fictional descriptions of field sports go, by far the most inhibiting scene for the beginner is the one at the end of Alan Bridges' classic 1985 movie The Shooting Party. Lord Gilbert Hartlip, the best shot in England, is secretly competing with young Lionel Stephens — secretly, because competition is unsporting in these pre-WW1 aristocratic circles. (Earlier in the movie His Lordship had been caught — oh horror! — practicing.) He shoots out of turn at a low-flying bird, fatally wounding one of the beaters. "You were not shooting like a gentleman, Gilbert," growls the furious host, played by James Mason. It was one of Mason's last roles; and, I have always thought, one of his best.

Incompetent or not, I hope I at least shot like a gentleman. Standards in these matters have of course changed since 1913. We heard something of this from our guide, a local fellow possessed of a great love for his dogs and an abundance of riveting stories about the endless hours he spends training them for the field. What he did not have much love for was cell phones. He told us of some doctors he had taken out shooting: "And we're out here, the dog spots a bird, and I turn to the doctor, and he's on his cell phone giving out a prescription! And I'm saying 'Look! the dog's pointing!' and the damn fool doctor's talking into his damn cell phone!"

Our guide had only one dog to help us on this outing, a handsome Brittany spaniel of supernatural stamina. We traversed those fields for three and a half hours, covering perhaps four miles altogether at a middle-aged slow walk. The dog was tacking back and forth at a run in front of us the whole time when not pointing. He must have run ten miles at least, and it was a warm day. I thought darkly of my own pampered pooch, who, after a leisurely breakfast, saunters round our suburban block, and snoozes for the rest of the day. Well, well, there are dogs for use, and dogs for companionship, I suppose.

"There's a Cabela's in Hamburg," one of my companions mentioned over lunch, naming a nearby town. "Have you ever seen one?" I said I hadn't, so we took in the Cabela's on our way home. Cabela's, in case you are as ignorant as I was, is a national chain of country-sports megastores — everything for the hunter, fisherman, camper, and gun enthusiast.

What a store! The product lines are impressive enough — from black powder to GPS gizmos, from crossbows to collapsible camper's toilets — but the star attraction at the Hamburg store was an artificial indoor mountain with, all over its slopes, stuffed wildlife that would do credit to a natural history museum: bears, wolves, deer, lions. There was a big indoor pond, too, home to several handsome trout (real, not stuffed).

The customers, I couldn't help noticing, were all old-stock Americans — a crowd of faces you could have cast a Civil War movie from. "Not a Democrat in the whole place," murmured one of my friends. Probably not true. I'm sure there are still unionized working-class Americans whose faith in the Party of the Little Guy has survived every round of shot in the arsenal of the modern Left — financial corruption, open borders, race favoritism, elitist sneering — and who still, at weekends, makes it to a haven in the woods, like that blithe bird I missed.