Everything you need to know about how to conduct yourself out game shooting!
Shooting etiquette is a combination of common sense, good manners and above all safety. But there are a few quirky things that fall into game shooting convention. If you are new to this world, I hope this will help for your first few days out in the field. Whether a walked up or driven day, a guest or paying your own way, I believe it is a privilege to shoot game; as such you should treat everyone, from keepers to beaters, from hosts to caterers, and even your quarry, with absolute respect.
It is a real treat to be invited shooting, so respond to your invite in a timely fashion. Make sure you know where to meet on the day and at what time; be punctual. Shoot days take a great deal of organising and are often run to a tight schedule.
Be well prepared with your kit; there is nothing worse for a host to have to start kitting out their guests with stuff they have forgotten just as the Gun Bus is about to leave for the first drive! If you’re the only lady in the line, which more often than not is the case, other guns won’t have a spare pair of size 6 wellies or a hair tie! If it’s a CGUK day, however, it will be a different matter and everyone will want to help you out and there will be plenty of hair bobbles and CGUK garters or caps going spare!
My advice is:
Two weeks before
Make a Master List and ensure you have everything on it
If not beg borrow or steal … or go shopping!
Two days before
Get everything together; with a probable early start you don’t want to be rummaging around looking for ear protection or garters in the dark whilst trying not to wake your partner!
Clean your wellies/boots, shooting jacket and gun slip
Ensure you have the right cartridges for your gun and quarry. Check the gauge, load, shot material (lead/steel/bismuth), shot size and wad type. Other guns are quite vigilant and you will be found out and teased if you have inappropriate ammo!
Also running out of cartridges is a “school boy error and will not please the Keeper or host!
Make sure your gun is clean, safe and works.
Be Well Minded!
If you are new to game shooting, you must let your host or Shoot Captain know. Arrange a minder for your first day or two out, for both yours and everyone’s safety and peace of mind. Game shooting is unpredictable in its nature and it is easy to get carried away with the moment; you need to learn what is a safe or acceptable shot, or what you are and aren’t allowed to shoot. A minder will ensure you are safe, explain how the shoot and the drives work, and help you with quarry identification and your fieldcraft; they will load for you and may give you some shooting tips too!
Dress to Kill
You should be dressed appropriately for the day; some days are smarter than others, but either way, be well turned out. You don’t have to wear tweeds but jeans or tracksuits are a no-no; I’ve witnessed guns being fined for inappropriate dress. Part of it is about showing respect for your quarry and all involved in the day, but if you think about it, proper shooting kit is practical for the job and the weather. The choice of ladies shooting clothing is much improved but it can be hard to find clothing that fits well, is comfortable and that you can actually shoot in; you do need to be able to move to shoot well!
Pegs and Stakes
On arrival there’s usually half an hour of a welcome coffee/tea and chat. This is an opportunity to get to know the other guns and get a feel for the tempo of the day!
If it’s a driven day, you will be asked to draw your peg number or you may be offered a shot of sloe gin, revealing your peg number at the bottom of the empty beaker! Always a good start to the day! You can then establish who your neighbouring guns are which helps when you can’t remember your peg number!
Be ready to participate in a sweepstake for a bit of fun and added interest to the day, so bring a few extra notes; it will be frowned upon not to take part. The challenge may be to guess the number of birds shot or birds plus shots or shots minus birds etc. Some work quite hard on the maths to pick a winning number, taking into account the quality of the guns, weather, wind speed and direction, day of the week! Don’t stress, just pick any old number! It’s a bit of fun, usually for a worthy charity!
The Shoot Captain or host will brief the guns; pay close attention to this as it will contain important information about safety and what you can and can’t shoot.
For safety, it is often stated “no ground game” i.e no foxes, rabbits, hares. This must be adhered to and if broken you are unlikely to be invited back.
For conservation, it may be said “no woodcock or English Partridge” or “cocks only” at the end of the season. If you break this rule you will be in for some stick and will probably get a fine too, probably paid to charity. Pay it willingly!
For interest it maybe stated “no white pheasants or Reeves pheasants”. Breaking this rule will undoubtedly come with a financial penalty, but some enjoy the challenge and the resultant banter! Make sure you have the cash to pay up if you do! But check first these birds are not the pride and joy of your host otherwise you maybe escorted off the premises! I saw someone shoot a Reeves pheasant and they had no idea it wasn’t a normal pheasant! Know your quarry or shooting may just get more expensive!
The briefing will also provide other important information such as: numbering from left to right or right to left; moving up 2 or 3 after each drive; live on your peg; a whistle or horn at the end of the drive. Never shoot after the whistle even if you have the best bird of the day go over you just after it! You may also be asked to refrain from shooting pigeons until after the first pheasant or partridge has been shot at, although I have seen the host of the day do just that having asked everyone not to. But he was the host!
So ready for the off! Whether traveling in a Gun Bus or separate vehicles, don’t hold everyone up. Take everything with you need for the morning or afternoon. Gun Bus banter is usually good fun with crazy spaniels jumping on your lap and boisterous Labradors everywhere. Take it in your stride and enjoy the chaos and anticipation of the day!
Always acknowledge and say “Hello“ to the beaters, pickers up and the Keeper at whatever point of the day you see them and have short a chat if there is time. Your attitude to those working hard to provide you with a good day will be noted!
Outstanding in Your Field!
Once on your peg, check where your neighboring guns are, which is not always obvious; they may be on the other side of the hedge or a back gun. Are there are pickers-up behind you or flankers to the side or in front? Safety is paramount and the epitome of shooting etiquette. Never bring a closed gun up in front of anyone, so pick your spot to bring up the gun. Never shoot into a wood or a hedge; keep your barrels high and always have clear sky around them.
Shooting your neighbours’ birds before they have had a shot is considered persona non grata, unless they are reloading or you have that competitive relationship with them! “Wiping their eye” is more acceptable, but again depends a little on your relationship with your neighbour! You don’t want to annoy people too much!
Safety during the drive is paramount, from taking the gun out of the sleeve broken and checking it is empty to the reverse when putting it away; from closing the gun into the ground in front of you and raising it away from any beaters, and shooting high with clear sky around. You can never be too careful!
Depending on the day and number of birds, don’t be greedy and shoot at everything, pick your birds and enjoy watching others shoot if you are out of the action. Do not shoot low birds either in front, to the side or behind. Needless to say, if your shooting is considered unsafe or uncouth, you will not be asked back again.
Complement the beaters on the drive when they come through at the end. I enjoy chatting to the beaters and pickers up if I get the opportunity. They are so often interesting characters and I like to feel there are no “them and us” barriers; we could not have the day without them.
Count and mark your birds so you can ensure you are properly picked up at the end of the drive or can direct the picker’s up of where to send their dogs and for what bird, advising them of any pricked or winged birds too. I like to enquire of them later if they found such a bird so I can thank them and praise their dog for the good work.
Quickly dispatch any wounded birds; a sharp knock on the head with a priest is best. Wringing their necks or twirling them round by their head is disrespectful but if there’s no other option don’t be afraid to take the quickest form of action.
Always pick up your empty cartridges unless you are told otherwise and someone comes round to collect them.
Highs and Lows
Back on the bus, if you noticed some good shooting, it is nice to compliment others on their prowess. You can brag a little about your own shooting; “I had a cracking hen bird” is as much a compliment to your host, but too much bragging is annoying! Equally don’t complain if you were out of the action; it happens! Instead, comment on how much you enjoyed watching good shooting or how well the birds flew. Most of all don’t moan about your own poor shooting, it’s very dull to listen to unless you can be funny and self-deprecating about it and get everyone laughing!
Acknowledge shared birds or better still offer it as your neighbour’s bird; it is more generous in spirit, even if you know it was yours! It will make them feel good.
Be cheerful, even if the weather is wet; it’s better than being in the office!
Fancy a Tipple?
It’s nice to take a hip flask full of your best homemade brew, in my case sloe or blackberry whiskey or rhubarb gin! My favourite is my hubby’s damson whiskey! Normally you can pass this around for everyone to have a slurp, but in current Corona times, you get to keep it to yourself! There can be a lot of alcohol on offer on a shoot day, and it would be quite easy to drive home quite sozzled! Not only would this mean losing your driving licence, but it could also mean the end of your Shotgun Licence too. Also, you need to be fully in control of your gun for obvious reasons. A little alcohol is acceptable but knows your limits. If you are a novice to game shooting, you need to have all your wits about you, so I suggest abstention!
Thanking and tipping the Keeper is an important part of the day. You will not get a return invitation if you omit to do this! With regard to the amount for the tip, if you are not sure, check with the other guns or your host; a general rule of thumb is £20 for every 100 birds in the bag so for a 110 bird day the tip would be £40. Make sure you have some change in notes so you have the right amount; you cannot ask for change back from the Keeper! If in doubt give more. Pre Covid, handing over the tip was a quirky slightly awkward moment, putting the required notes (not loose change!) in your hand and “seamlessly” transferring the money over to the Keeper when you shook his hand at the end of the day and he passes you your brace of birds! In Covid times this had to go by the wayside and the money is just handed over. A friend of mine wrapped her tip in a disinfectant wipe and then smothered it in hand gel and then shook hands with the keeper, but she did know him quite well!
Do write promptly to thank your host for the day. Some people take a small gift, which is a nice gesture but not generally expected or essential.
Tea and Cakes
Game Cards are usually given out at the end of the shoot by the Keeper who often joins the guns for tea with a roundup of the bag and number of shots i.e how hot the guns were! I enjoy chatting with the Keeper about the day and the shoot. They are often great characters; there are a few grumpy ones, but on the whole, you can learn a lot from them. One thing is for sure, they’ll have a good measure of you as a gun, as they don’t miss much or what they do miss will be reported to them by the beating team! A compliment on your shooting from a Keeper is one to remember!
Belt and Braces
You will usually be offered a brace of game to take home, sometimes in the feather, but often these days pre-prepared and oven-ready, which is great. I believe that you should eat what you shoot and feel it is rude and dismissive to decline. If you don’t like pheasant, there will always be someone who does, so you could give them away. Alternatively, you could use the cold game for dog training.
P’s & Q’s
Check with your host if it is OK to bring your dog. Ask the pickers up on the day If they would mind if your dog picks a few birds. They are there to do a job but most appreciate you would like to work your dog too. Ensure your dog is well behaved especially if you are on a smart shoot!
Inform your host if you are bringing a Minder or a Loader and ask if you wish to bring your partner; don’t just turn up with them as catering arrangements need to be made. Partners will eat with the guns but Loaders usually eat with the beaters.
In my experience, most hosts do not expect a day in return, but it is nice to do this if you are in a position to do so; many people are not, and your host will probably know this, so don’t feel guilty about it. The important thing is to let them know how much you enjoyed and appreciated the day. It is, however, nice to be able to offer some form of reciprocal entertainment more suitable to your pocket, say a gun on a simulated game day, or an evening at the theatre or supper out. I have never come across such snobbery in twenty years of shooting such that I was not invited back to a shoot because I could not return the day; I have merely experienced huge generosity by many people who love shooting and hopefully my company too!
Shot of the Day!
If you really want to endear yourself to your host and fellow guns, you could make some chocolate brownies or similar cakes for Elevenses or bring along a box of chocolates to share on the gun bus! Always a hit!
As a novice to game shooting, I would recommend you do a few days in the beating line. It is a lot of fun and it also helps you understand how shoots work; you are then better informed as a gun, and you can also speak knowledgeably with the Keeper, the beaters, pickers up and other guns about game shooting.
Always have your gun in the slip unless you are on your peg shooting. I witnessed recently an old boy on the gun bus with his gun closed and unsleeved with the butt on the floor and barrels pointing upwards and he walked to his peg with the gun closed and barrels slung over his shoulder! There were many young shots on the day, so not only in fear of our safety but also that they would think this was acceptable, I pulled him up politely but firmly in front of everyone, mentioning my credentials as a shooting coach and stating what he was doing was not safe. He took his dressing down quite well but said no one had ever told him that before!
If you are unsure about your quarry, don’t shoot it! Better than being locked up for shooting a protected species.
If you are off balance, don’t shoot; it’s not worth it.
Loaders and Minders will need paying and tipping.
Don’t take double guns unless you are asked to do so.
Make sure you have your shotgun certificate with you.
Enjoy your day, and make sure your host and other guns also enjoy theirs! If every gun’s etiquette is impeccable everyone will have a great day!