The history of the shotgun and shooting, from the reign of Henry VIII to 1800. How bird shooting went from its infancy to the eve of the sport we know today
The history of the shotgun and shooting doesn’t start with Colonel Parker, or Edward VIII, or Holkham Coke’s. The shooting of game in England started during the reign of Henry VIII, the six-time married colussus whose predilections changed the fate of England. Henry owned a collection of breech-loaders, although in the sixteenth century it was the crossbow that found favour above the shotgun.
The history of these early weapons, before the advent of breech-loading, is a fascinating business. There are some exceptional historical pieces on display from the Royal Armouries archives. The current inclination for shotguns may hanker towards the 10 most expensive gun’s in the world, a list of the most exceptional guns you will find anywhere. Or perhaps the world’s 20 best shotguns are what one covets most. But each of these exceptional modern shotguns owes their development to what came before.
HISTORY OF THE SHOTGUN AND SHOOTING: HENRICIAN ‘HAILE SHOTTE’
Most sporting weapons, however, were essentially a more lavish version of the military matchlock or arquebus, with muzzle-loaded barrels mounted on rudimentary but highly decorated stocks. Ignition was achieved by a trigger that pressed a glowing slow-match (a cord treated with saltpetre) on to a priming pan, from which the charge was ignited through the touch hole.
At first, single shot was used for target-shooting and four-footed game; by the 1540s multiple shot was also used, at this date cut from lead sheet. By the end of his life Henry possessed 41 such “Haile Shotte peics”, clearly used for birds. These were obviously pretty deadly, as an Act of 1548 at-tempted to ban the “shoting of hayle-shot wherby an infinite sort of fowle is killed and much gaym therby distroyed” and lamented their uselessness to military training. These weapons, loaded with shot, can be regarded as the remote ancestors of the modern shotgun.
As for fieldcraft, 16th-century and most 17th-century shooting consisted of approaching birds from cover and taking them on the ground or, more commonly, on water.
A tantalising reference in the mid 16th century to “persons as dayly do shoote in handegonnes, and beat at the fowles in rivers and pyttes” hints that walking-up of a sort was also feasible. High-angle shots, however, were impossible with matchlocks, as there was nothing to hold the priming powder in the pan and, anyway, the weight of many guns required the use of rests. Black powder can kick like fury and the butt was normally pressed into the shoulder, although some were held to the cheek, the recoil being partly absorbed by the weapon’s inertia.
The slow pace of the operation kept bags relatively small. But the range of “fair game” was far wider than now – a certain Henry Macwilliam was licensed in 1567 to shoot 37 varieties of bird, including swan, chough, cormorant and (yes) “chickens”. In addition to variety, the sheer abundance of birdlife in the English countryside, most of it centuries from enclosure and further still from pesticides and other pressures, must have made for an exciting and rewarding exercise.
SHOOTING WAS A MINOR PURSUIT
The history of the shotgun and shooting demonstrates that shooting remained a relatively minor pursuit both as a fieldsport and as a way of taking birds on any scale for the table or for sale: the latter depended on a different armoury of equipment, including nets, lime and traps. In the 16th century shooting was also specifically restricted (however ineffectively) by successive statutes and, since the late 14th century, taking any game had been permitted only to men worth £2 a year. By the 17th century, inflation had widened the franchise, although shooting was limited by equipment costs, but an important Act of 1671 limited the taking of game to those with a landed income of £100 per year. Nor was shooting universally popular among sportsmen. In the 16th century, when still a rarity, it was violently opposed, particularly by falconers, as the noise and smoke scared off their quarry.
TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES IN THE SHOTGUN
Meanwhile, the technology was changing, driven by the shortcomings of the matchlock. A more advanced and more weather-proof system – the wheellock – was already in existence by around 1500 and was first depicted by Leonardo da Vinci, no less. This used a complex arrangement whereby the trigger released a spring-driven wheel, wound up with a spanner (the first use of this term) that struck sparks off a piece of iron pyrites, held in a “dog” (similar to the cock of a flintlock). Such weapons could be afforded only by the rich, noble and royal, and many examples are fabulously ornate.
Overlapping chronologically with both matchlock and wheellock, however, was the flintlock, the best-known, most commonly used and longest-lived of the pre-percussion ignition systems. This was not only a considerable technological advance but was cheaper than the wheellock to produce. A piece of flint was mechanically struck by a supporting “cock” against a “steel” or “frizzen”, igniting the priming powder and then the main charge. Guns with these locks or, technically speaking their precursor the “snaphance” lock, are first referred to in the 1540s and examples survive from the 1570s.
New technologies had little immediate impact on shooting techniques but certainly made things easier. The soldier/sportsman Gervase Markham (died 1637), wrote in 1621, “’Tis better it be a fier Locke or Snaphaunce [than a matchlock], for it is safe and better for carriage, readier for use, and keepes the powder dryer.”
The art of shooting flying began with stalked or walked-up birds shot taking off, akin to rough-shooting today, although the typically low shots would now seem unsporting. Shooting overhead or at gamebirds in full, fast flight could be attempted with the new guns but was rare before 1600. The earliest reference to the practice may be the illustration in the Venetian Giacomo Franco’s Habiti d’huomini (Gentlemen’s Attire) of 1609, which shows flying duck being shot going away, from boats, with retrievers busy in the water.
Tellingly, in England the practice was omitted from a textbook of 1644 and may have been a recent introduction when Richard Blome published The Gentleman’s Recreation – the first English book to deal with shooting flying birds – in 1686. Blome included an engraving showing a pair of duck well up in the air being fired at by one gun with a second taking aim and a third waiting to bring his piece to the shoulder; a spaniel bounds forward to pick the still airborne birds.
The 1696 edition contains a remarkable picture of men shooting and bringing down birds (probably pigeon, perhaps partridges) from the saddle; shooting pistols and carbines from horseback was standard military practice.
HISTORY OF THE SHOTGUN AND SHOOTING BIRDS ON THE WING
Shooting at birds on the wing was not wholly about better sport but about results, as Blome explained:
“When your Game is on the Wing, it is more exposed to Danger; for if but one shot hits any Part of its Wings so expanded it will occasion its Fall.”
He also advised on how to hit the target, introducing but dismissing the concept of lead:
“Some are of the Opinion that must Shoot something before the Fowl, otherwise it will be past before the Shot can come to it: but that is a vulgar Error, for no Game can fly so quick, but that the Shot will meet it,” citing the breadth of pattern.
He then introduced the idea of overhead shots:
“I am of the opinion, if the Game flyeth as it were over your Head, that ’tis best to aim at the Head; and… from you, to aim as it were under its Belly.”
By the early 18th century overhead shots were being attempted more widely, suggesting the flighting of wildfowl and, perhaps, the driving of other birds. This is illustrated in Pteryplegia: or, the Art of Shooting Flying of 1717, a long and fascinating poem and prose Dedication by the Oxford Don George Markland. Clearly an experienced shot, he notes that: Five gen’ral sorts of Flying Marks there are;/The Lineals two, Traverse and Circular;/The Fifth Oblique, which I may vainly teach;/But practice only Perfectly can teach. The novelty of the practice in England, however, is shown by his admiration for the French, “so expert at the gun”, reflecting their longer experience.
SHOOTING DEVELOPMENTS PROMTED SHOTGUN DEVELOPMENTS
Prompted by developments in the sport, guns, too, evolved both mechanically and in lightness and handling. Blome recommended a shorter barrel than was customary in the 1680s, “about Four foot and a half in the Barrel, and of pretty wide Bore something under a musket” (a 12-bore). A superb example of such a gun, made by John Shaw (best-known pieces 1674-1702) exists in the Royal Armouries’ collection. It weighs slightly more than 11lb and, as the writers can attest, comes superbly to the shoulder. Over time, barrels got shorter still. Thomas Page’s The Art of Shooting Flying Explained of 1767 (a longer and more technical work than those of Blome and Markland) recommended 32in for early season work and, for “after Michaelmas, the birds by that time… grown so shy, that your shoots must be at longer distances”, 39in, adding, “if you intend one gun to serve for all purposes… a three feet barrel or thereabouts” would be ad-visable. Such guns anticipated the range and killing power of a modern shotgun, Markland recommending Full forty Yards permit the Bird to go/The spreading Gun will surer Mischief show.
While the flintlock and trigger-to-bang time continually improved, the next major innovation was the addition of a second barrel. The earliest examples of guns with barrels held together by soldering rather than the stock were French side-by-sides of the 1730s. However, these were slow to catch on in England, the Shooting Directory of 1804 dep-recating their usefulness and equating their French origin with “a great many other foolish things”. Nevertheless, the great English gunmakers Ezekiel Baker, Henry Nock and the Mantons were already producing superb examples, which, with the formerly full-length stock (as long as the barrels) reduced to a “half-stock” (resembling a fore-end), looked much like modern guns.
Rapidity of fire increased with the application of percussion ignition early in the 19th century, especially with the perfected percussion cap of about 1830. However, it was the introduction of a fully functional hinged breech in the 1830s and then of cartridges containing primer, propellant and projectile – and reliable firing pins – that saw the birth of the modern shotgun.
The rest is another story: rapid rates of fire led to driven shooting as we know it, swaths of countryside transformed and, through English technology, craftsmanship and wealth, the unrivalled excellence of the English gun.
By Mark Murray-Flutter and Edward Impey
Mark Murray -Flutter is senior curator, firearms at the Royal Armouries and Edward Impey is the director-general and master. The Keucks, Bales and Greener guns and the Southwell portrait are among the 630 items on display in the Hunting Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, the national museum of arms and armour. The museum is open daily from 10am until 5pm. Entry is free.