Every year, The Field rightly cele-brates the top game-shots in a roll of honour. It is a sad truth, however, that not everyone is a Top Shot. There are 75 of Them and several hundred thousand of Us. I know that – speaking personally – I cannot aspire to any such list. In fact, it is more serious than that. I have been shooting for more than 40 years and the odd thing is, no matter who’s been on my right, he’s always been a much better shot than I – by an order of magnitude.
Perhaps Field readers can offer an explanation. It defies the laws of probability. I have never found any statistical theory that could account for this weird phenomenon. But there it is. The only way to cope has been to develop a set of survival skills for these occasions.
I don’t know whether anyone would admit (even anonymously) to being in the same situation. If so, he, too, will have learnt that one has to develop a different set of techniques: how to keep one’s temper and good humour while the better shot standing next to you nails everything in sight. I have been told that should you actually shoot next to one of The Field’s Top Shots, the problem can become quite acute. Medical symptoms such as high blood pressure and ground-down molars are common. Here are some hints on how to deal with the situation.
To set the scene let us assume it is a cold day before Christmas, you are at friend’s shoot where the drives can be quite busy at this time of year and where – your heart sinks as you remember – there are some classic high-pheasant drives. On arrival you find a bunch of people you know – and also a Top Shot. And then you head off for the first drive.
The impossibly high pheasant
You wait at your peg trying to keep the blood moving in your fingers and stop your feet freezing to the ground. It is a brilliant, frosty day and high up in the blue sky above your peg a black dot appears. It is probably just a starling – no, in fact, it’s a pheasant. What a pleasant surprise.
Don’t panic. This is basic stuff and easily dealt with. Shout to your neighbour in a clear voice, “Your bird, I think”, and smile politely. Try to prevent the smile turning into a fixed grin as he nails it 100ft above your head.
The medium-height pheasant straight over you
After the heart-starter, a more conventional drive. You smile to yourself and prepare to get stuck in. A pheasant flies towards you about 50ft up. You fire with both barrels. As you watch a tail feather spiralling down while the bird flies on, eject both cartridges and turn to your neighbour and say, “The trouble is, I’ve shot nothing but grouse so far this season.” Try not to use this excuse after the 10th of December, and it loses even more of its conviction once you get into January.
The double eye wipe by the back gun
Later in the same drive a brace of pheasants suddenly appears over the treetops and, with the malice characteristic of the bird, heads straight for you. You miss an obvious right-and-left and turn to watch the back gun (who may be shooting with a 20-bore or even a .410) bring them down with two clean shots. At such moments, it is not uncommon to experience a feeling in your stomach similar to that which occurs after eating a couple of light-bulbs.
In some South American countries it is still acceptable to turn and kill the back gun after such a stunt, if he is within range. In this country, where Victorian sporting values prevail and Health and Safety has too often replaced common sense, we do not do this. Instead, doff your cap to the back gun and smile your congratulations. Then consider letting the air out of his tyres during elevenses.
The cocker spaniel
This gambit works well on a commercial shoot, where the pickers-up hoover every bird in sight as soon as it hits the ground, and none of the guns has a clue whether they’re picked-up or not. Slip the leash on your spaniel just before the end of the drive, and she will return with a couple of brace of your neighbour’s birds and dump them by your peg before anybody can work out what is going on. For readers without a cocker spaniel with this capability hard-wired into it, mine can be contacted via the Editor.
The loader with the poacher’s pockets
If you are on a shoot where a loader is required, select one with deep inside pockets and, just before the end of the drive, get him to drop a few pheasants (culled from a gamecart the previous day) on the uncluttered ground behind your peg. Make sure he remembers to remove the little bits of string from around their necks.
The magnetic thumb-stick
Here is an important excuse to remember when you haven’t managed to shoot many, or indeed any, pheasants during a drive. When your host comes up and asks how you got on, you reply: “What a wonderful drive! They didn’t come my way, of course, but it was fantastic spectator sport, etcetera, etcetera.” However this excuse lacks force when there is a small mountain of cartridges just behind you. The magnetic thumb- stick then comes into its own, as you can collect the spent cartridges during the drive without bending down and giving the game away. Make sure your shooting coat doesn’t clink when you walk off from your peg.
The twice-killed bird
This is a stratagem one often sees on the shooting field, but it requires a certain amount of self-confidence to pull off and is not recommended for any reader without a reasonable amount of brass in the make-up of his neck. Watch in admiration as the Top Shot on your right kills a high bird stone dead with a single shot through the beak, and then shoot at it as it falls to the ground. Then call to him, “I hope you didn’t mind me finishing that bird off for you. Only my dog might have been after it if it had been a runner.”
The shared bird
This works best on drives that produce very high, curling pheasants. These are birds that might be fired at legit-imately by almost anyone in your section of the line. So, fire at them. The Top Shot next door will kill them anyway, but that need not stop you walking up to him at the end of the drive as his dog is bringing back the 30 or so he has just brought down. “Wasn’t that fun?” you ask, and before he can reply, you add, “We shared an awful lot of birds on that drive, didn’t we? But that last one, I think, was def-initely yours.” It is a good idea to make sure that you are not sitting next to the Top Shot at lunch after you have used this line, as conversation can become a bit sticky.
The philosophical remark
I have heard this gambit used only once, by a very senior gun on a shoot with many delightful qualities but not noted for its high birds. In fact, the extremely sensible pheasants there had learnt that to stay low is to stay alive. So it was with considerable surprise that I watched the said gun shoot at, and then miss, one of these objects as it hurtled a few feet over the top of his cap.
I was even more surprised when I heard him say, “I think this cult of high pheasants is frightfully common, don’t you?” I can’t re-member what I said, only that it was not an adequate reply to such an observation. But I don’t think the senior gun was listening: he was just displaying defensive skills of a very high order.
If all else fails try consoling yourself with that well-known golfer’s saying, “The older you get, the better you used to be.”
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