There a few greater sporting pleasures than unpredictable partridge, but follow Michael Yardley's 12 expert tips to ensure you can handle any Englishman or red-legged partridge with aplomb this season
Partridge shooting is a pleasure, but their unpredictability and potential to deceive can create pitfalls. Perfect your technique to impress in the line this season, advises Michael Yardley, with his top 12 expert partridge shooting tips.
Partridge is excellent for newcomers to game, it’s cheap, readily available and provides fantastic sport – but it can be accused of being bland. Follow The Field’s 10 best partridge recipes for enough inspiration to see you through a season of supper parties.
PARTRIDGE SHOOTING TIPS
There are few greater sporting pleasures than a day on a well-tended Norfolk or Lincolnshire partridge manor. A good keeper and his team will maintain a steady but not too predictable flow of birds over the guns. It takes huge effort and experience to achieve this. Even on well-managed estates there may be the occasional blank drive; partridges are less predictable than pheasants. The good keeper will, however, keep trickling his birds over the line as well as offering the occasional rush to challenge the guns. Range does not have to be extreme to provide excitement; some of the best shooting may be at close to mid distance (where there can be similarities with grouse and a similar shooting technique may apply). Nor do bags need to be large to provide ample sport for a team of guns with the right attitude.
Redlegs (Alectoris rufa) are the main partridge quarry these days. They were probably introduced here from France in the 17th century to supplement the native grey (Perdix perdix), which is smaller and tends to be more tightly packed when flying in covey. As well as dedicated driven partridge-shoots (which became popular in these isles from the middle of the 19th century), mixed shoots, where partridges are presented with pheasants, are now common later in the season. The quarry is nearly always redlegs as greys are scarce except on well-keepered, traditional partridge manors. Old-school sportsmen (and a lucky few current guns) opined they offered the best sport but few now have the opportunity to shoot wild English partridges. They remain a joy to behold, hugging the contours like mini fighter jets while making a distinct chatter.
The “high partridge” shoot, for which they are shown as mini pheasants, typically pushed off high grounds in Northern and Western regions, is a modern fad for which I cannot muster much enthusiasm, though I recognise the challenge of rangy birds provided the attempt to beat the guns does not become too extreme. Traditional partridge-shooting, where birds are shown over hedges and spinneys, has a special beauty and does not rely on range to be testing. It is a long-evolved sport, in harmony with its habitat. Within that classical tradition, I also love to walk-up partridges over pointers or setters. Occasionally still practised in Britain, this is the predominant form of partridge-shooting abroad and I have enjoyed it in the US, Canada, southern Africa and in much of southern Europe and the Balkans. A bag of only a few birds can provide a great deal of sport (watch the dogs and don’t get caught wrong-footed).
PARTRIDGE SHOOTING TIPS: TACKLING DRIVEN PARTRIDGES
How should one tackle driven partridges? Some say that they are a soft quarry as they don’t usually fly that fast. This may be true but they are potentially deceptive because their rapid wing beat and glides can lead to misjudgment. A partridge typically flies at about 30mph, a pheasant at about 35mph (sometimes higher), a pigeon in straight and level flight around 50mph, with wildfowl faster still if not coming in to land. Partridges, especially when they are close in, may be missed in front if their speed is wrongly assessed, although misses behind and off line are common, too. Partridge are, nevertheless, best shot with a fairly instinctive approach based on good visual discipline. They don’t normally need much conscious forward allowance when engaged at mid-range or less (the artificially high birds are another matter). Indeed, if you start getting too neurotic about lead, it may actually damage your performance.
Although the birds are not flying that fast, partridge-shooting can become a frantic business when birds explode suddenly in all directions. Safety must be kept in mind and excitement controlled. Select your mark carefully and see sky before taking the shot. Keep the muzzles up and finger extended along the trigger guard when not shooting. Don’t swing through the line but when the time comes, however, get stuck in and don’t wait too long to see if it’s “your” bird. Experienced partridge-shots can be impatient of too ponderous, too pheasant-like, an approach. I know of a case where an old gun said to a guest with a passion for shot and cartridge counting: “For goodness sake man, get a move on.” Some shots can be assiduous in regard to what they think is proper etiquette. Partridge-shooting is not pheasant-shooting. Arcs are not absolute when a covey explodes over cover in front of you. Assuming you have a safe, jolly team who understand muzzle discipline, it may be a good idea to have a pre-drive word with fellow guns along the lines of: “Don’t be too concerned about what is mine and thine when the birds start coming.” Better still, ask the shoot captain to cover this, as driven partridges are best enjoyed with a bit of gusto.
Partridges need to be shot well in front without delay or prevarication (ideally, take your first bird out at about 30yd). They need to be shot with a certain precision; the cardinal sin is to “brown” a covey. To master these birds requires a well-practised, efficient mount and perfect locked-on focus every time. Walsingham’s dictum “don’t check” applies. Because the speed of partridges may be misjudged, some may inadvertently rush to a stop having accelerated the gun. So, don’t rush excessively but don’t be a slowcoach either.
Shooting well at partridges, as with other birds, requires attention to footwork. You need to create a stable platform: feet should not be too far apart and you should be in a position to step right and left into line easily as required (returning to centre quickly after a shot to the flanks). Don’t obsess on style, although overly bent knees and pushed out bottoms are to be avoided. A comfortable, fairly upright stance is the thing, one that allows you to maintain balance and swing and to step easily right or left (if a bird takes me by surprise on the right I may try to transfer weight to the right foot). Niceties tend to break down under pressure.
PARTRIDGE SHOOTING TIPS: CHRIS BIRD’S ADVICE
Chris Bird at the Holland & Holland Shooting Ground (one of our most brilliant and thoughtful instructors), gave me this advice on technique: “When traditionally presented, I advocate treating partridges much like grouse. I would usually mount onto the bird’s tail and moving through the head and beak with a very direct, instinctive, coordinated movement. The importance of getting the power for the swing from a good mount can’t be over-emphasised… if you like, it generates the power behind the bird. It has to be a mount, more-over, coordinated to a single, individual, pre-selected bird. Partridges fly in coveys for the same reason fish swim in shoals – to confuse the predator. So don’t be confused and stay concentrated on one bird at a time.”
Bird, who keeps a cool head, advocates taking your first mark at medium height when there is the option, so that after the shot has been taken the gun can be raised to the next bird. This offers two advantages: first, visual contact is immediate; secondly, the accelerating gun is moving up as its barrels approach the line. He also prefers to stay mounted for the second shot to enable a move directly to “where I want to end up – say a foot in front of my next chosen bird” and emphasises the importance of locked-on visual contact. “I tell guns to imagine that they have a ring or hoop on the end of the gun and that their chosen bird is always within it. This ensures muzzle target connection and that the target governs the timing.”
As discussed, the main problem in partridge-shooting, as with most shooting of live quarry, is poor timing. This becomes especially apparent on mixed days. People often remark that they have better success on the partridges or the pheasants; that’s probably because they are approaching both in the same way. In all forms of live-quarry shooting, a good mount onto the bird, “connecting” with it in a fundamental sense, is all important. If you connect well, if you stare the bird to death, much of the hard stuff is accomplished by natural hand-to-eye coordination. Poorer shots often seem to have no real relation to their mark, often starting too far away from it and moving sloppily in relation to it. They lack co-ordination; one might even call it empathy. The good and great performers seem to have eyes like laser beams. Once they have chosen a bird, they are with it until the head falls.
PARTRIDGE SHOOTING TIPS: GETTING PLENTY OF SPORT
As for guns, choke and pellet size, almost any double-barrelled sporting gun can be pressed into service for partridge-shooting. If killing birds was the only objective, a 28in barrelled, open-choked, over-and-under skeet gun would be effective early season. I love, however, to use a 28-bore early season (my favourite is a 30in EELL Beretta). Later, I will pick up my 32in, 20-bore over-and-unders. These guns are balanced, well forward and seem to suit partridges (possibly because the balance puts a break on excessive lead when they are used instinctively). Side-by-sides are often seen partridge-shooting, too; they have the advantage of good gape and rapid reloading. A pair of well-balanced, vintage guns is well matched to a lovely, traditional day.
Chokes should not be too tight (quarter and half is what might usually be advised in a 12-bore, or improved and half). My small bores are a little more tightly constricted for clean hit-or-miss shooting. Pellets and payload, like chokes, are personal but for 20- or 12-bore, I use 30g 6s early season. Later, larger pellets and payload (32g 5s) give me confidence for mixed quarry. You can’t go wrong with 30gm 6s; 7s will also kill partridges and pheasants well without inflicting excessive damage.
To ensure you have plenty of sport, be quiet when you walk to your peg as on most shoots now you will be “live” when you get there. Select your ground if you can and remember flat is always better. Keep still and stay alert. It is all too easy to be surprised as partridges tend to come on quickly and unexpectedly – a bit like the swarming Imperial fighters in Star Wars. When the action starts, choose and lock your eyes onto your chosen mark. Keep your head down until its head falls. Don’t mistake a young pheasant for a partridge early season. Be careful about shooting behind the line, some shoots frown on it (if in doubt, don’t). Wear safety glasses and hearing protection. And, most importantly, savour the day.
ARCHIVED CONTENT FROM 2015 – 12 TOP TIPS FOR THE NEW SEASON
Partridge shooting tips can help all guns, not just the novice shot. A day partridge shooting is a day shooting the most English of gamebirds. They may have them in Spain or love partridge shooting in Portugal, they might immigrate from France, but the hedge hopping partridge shows best in our green and pleasant land. So when you do take to the field, heed Mike Yardley’s partridge shooting tips for the best day possible.
PARTRIDGE SHOOTING TIPS
The attitude and the location of the shoot is all important. My preference is usually for the old East Anglian estates. That is, if the estate has the right owner or shooting tenant and a right-thinking gamekeeper.
2. QUALITY OF THE BIRD
Partridges are regularly sold around the same price but birds are definitely not all equal. Try and find those that are worth the trip and the price. You want proper sport, not feathered clay pigeons lobbed over the nearest hedge.
3. KEEP GOOD COMPANY
Finding the right group of people to shoot with is as important as finding the right shoot – you need fellow guns who share your sense of sport: safe, jolly guns who recognise what a good bird is and won’t raise a gun to a poor one unless it’s to administer the coup de grâce.
4. DO YOUR RESEARCH
As they say in the Army, time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. By taking the time to look into the day you will get the sport you want at he price you need.
5. NUMBERS, WITH QUALITY
I don’t need numbers: 100-250-bird days provide an enjoyable experience as, sometimes, bigger days do not. I shot a 350-bird day a while back at a famous estate and remember thinking the last 100 birds were forced and a waste of my host’s money. But that’s not to say the bigger days are in any way wrong provided the quality is there.
6. HOW ARE THE PARTRIDGE PRESENTED?
In British partridge shooting there are two styles of presentation. Partridges are either high, perhaps too high, mini-pheasants in effect, or they’re redlegs shown like greys in the traditional English manner over spinneys and copses. Both are challenging.
Then there are the many shoots where the partridges are somewhere in between, with the birds coming over at 20yd to 35yd. These, too, can give good sport if approached in the right way.
7. SHOOTING REDLEG PARTRIDGE
- One of the most challenging partridge-shoots that I have ever been to presented fast, strong, birds at mid height but, critically, at longer (but not silly) range. Shooting with a 28-bore, the birds coming fairly evenly (something so hard to achieve), I had one of the best partridge days of my life. The keeper stood behind me and we took tremendous satisfaction in the longer birds when the wind got behind them. (The smaller-bore gun improved my day and, tightly choked, promoted head-down, hit-or-clean-miss shooting.)
- If you do go on a bad shoot, the birds will be too weak and easy and you will get no pleasure from it. You will also perform poorly, because your heart will not be in it. You may have to endure lunch listening to your new-gun neighbour’s interminable and smug account of his extraordinary consistency and kill-to-cartridge ratio. In fact, one of the great truths of shooting is that no one is much interested in anyone else’s shooting unless he is a royal or named Digweed (which amounts to the same thing in our eccentric community). Shooting poor-quality birds is bad for your technique and for the reputation of the sport as well as your pocket. Poor-quality partridges, like poultry pheasants, are not only boring but no test of a sportsman.
- Don’t expect high birds where the topography makes it unlikely. Partridges naturally hug the ground rather like grouse but flying slower, somewhere near the 30mph mark usually, whereas grouse and pheasants are up to 10mph faster under normal con-ditions (and sometimes much more). I am not particularly fond of high partridges, anyway. The concept of beating guns with distance irritates. I like to shoot good, strong partridges at sensible ranges presented in the classic English manner or walked-up over pointers – which still has a special charm. Indeed, the partridge was once our most popular gamebird.
8. SHOOTING TRADITIONAL ENGLISH PARTRIDGE
- The traditional English way of showing driven partridge, developed in the mid 19th century, suits their natural flight pattern very well.
- To do it justice, one should try to take birds well out in front, at 30yd or thereabouts. This is truly challenging wing sport and allows for a second shot. A bird behind, however, at £30 or more a pop, is barely worth the effort and certainly not the money.
- To be a decent partridge-shot, keep quiet both when walking to and on the peg. In my experience, partridges are more sensitive to sound than just about any other feathered quarry species. “Live on peg” is often the rule when partridge-shooting (and if in doubt ask).
- Keep your wits about you and stay alert and don’t go for early pigeon. Partridges tend to come on rapidly and unexpectedly. You must be able to spring into action quickly.
- You must constantly be thinking about safety, too.
- With lower birds and more open chokes (not my preference, but commonly used) there is a real need for caution. Think about your arcs of engagement and safety angles carefully before you start shooting.
- With English partridges, the cardinal sin was “browning” a covey, in other words not picking your mark but firing into the concentration of birds. With modern redlegs, especially in early season, the problem can be a mass of birds that’s not quite a covey but more than enough to confuse. You must pick your bird every time. Decide on it as a safe and proper shot and “stare it to death” as you bring the muzzles to it.
- Partridge-shooting can be a fast business but you must not rush. Good preparation and address will help. When the action starts you may want to have a fairly high ready position, so the gun does not have to travel far to the shoulder. I don’t normally worry greatly about seeing lead deliberately at close and mid ranges provided visual discipline and focus lock are maintained. But there are some caveats.
- Close birds (the one’s you shouldn’t bother with and/or come on you suddenly) and tall ones are often missed in front. This is because they are not flying as fast as you might think. Keep the gun high and don’t let yourself get wrong-footed.
- I tend to shoot game in Stanbury fashion with front shoulder over front foot (the left as a right-hander) and straight but relaxed back. But occasionally a lower – but shootable – bird will catch me out to the right, most notably when I am flank gun with no one to that side. Not having time to move my feet, I may adopt the Robert Churchill technique of deliberately transferring the weight on to the right foot to facilitate this shot (this is may be practised on a skeet layout on a clay-shooting range on stations six and seven shooting at the “high house” bird).
9. NO NEED FOR LONG BARRELS
Don’t be overgunned. You will not need a long-barrelled, heavy 12-bore. My suggestion is for a handy 12-bore with barrels of conventional length or a 30in 20-bore. Side-by-side or over-and-under does not much matter but the speed of loading of the side-by-sides because of their increased gape may be worth considering. You will not normally want your high-pheasant gun on a partridge shoot.
10. USE THE RIGHT LOAD
Don’t overdo the loads, either. Partridges are small birds and don’t need large shot sizes or extreme payloads (though I must confess to a degree of hypocrisy on this and the previous count as I tend to shoot 5s at just about everything these days through my 32in Guerini 20-bores). Sub-1oz (24g or 25g) of 6 shot will do the job perfectly well and be easy on the shoulder, too. If you use more than an ounce, it is only for confidence.
11. KEEP AN EYE ON LINE
Very few birds are truly straight on. Remember to keep the barrels perpendicular (over-and-unders) or parallel to line (side-by-sides)when they are anything other than true, straight incomers. Or, if you prefer, shoulders parallel to line. On higher birds make an effort to start on the tail feathers or just behind and push through. Note the line, “insert” the muzzles on it and push on holding line as you swing. If you fail to connect on high partridges consider whether you are missing in front (because they are not quite as high as you think). Or, if you are really convinced you are behind, start by deliberate effort with the muzzles a yard or two behind the bird – in other words, about as far behind as you wish to go in front.
12. BE ON RED ALERT
Always stay on red alert when there are birds in the air. Make sure your neighbours realise, as you do, that one must commit to the shot instantaneously as birds break hedges. “After you”, isn’t going to work here because the birds are not “committed” to line. It’s probable that you will “poach” birds that might be your neighbours’. Don’t let this spoil your day but sort it out with the team before the day (the host should do this). Assess the ground. Take a good look at the height of the hedge and if the shot’s safe be prepared to shoot birds that cross your front, too. You will often see them following the line of the hedge (and being missed repeatedly by the rest of the line). If possible, avoid shooting behind; if you have to, because a bird is pricked, be extremely careful and consider where others may be.
Partridge shooting tips in a nutshell
- Scan your zone in front, ready for that sudden but well-considered shot or two.
- See the first bird, point your gun at its head, push on and fire.
- Next customer… Don’t over-swing, always remember the line, always see sky.
- If you move your feet, keep returning to centre as soon as you can.
- Watch out for the smaller body and different colour of Englishmen and let them fly on.
- Don’t overlead but do keep your head down and your eyes focused until you see the bird’s head fall.