The grouse season is now well under way, here are some top tips from Mark Osborne on how to remain accident free when shooting grouse.
There seems to have been considerably more shooting accidents on grouse moors in recent years, than used to be the case. In part this may be explained by the simple fact there have been more grouse on the moors of northern England and Scotland over the last four or five years than have been seen for very many years. However, the number and severity in certain instances of such accidents, leads me to believe that there may be additional reasons which are to blame.
Unless all of us who shoot grouse, whether occasionally or regularly, re-look at everything we do once we get in the butt, there is the potential not only for a continuing rise in the number of these accidents (grouse permitting!), but also the very real possibility that at some time, one of those accidents could prove fatal. It is also a fact of life, that at least one north of England Constabulary have confirmed that they are now treating shooting accidents as extremely serious and if any are reported to them, they are likely to take a very hard line with the perpetrator with the presumption of removing either temporary or permanently, his or her Shotgun Certificate.
There have always been accidents on grouse moors and because of the height that grouse fly at and the way they approach the butts, grouse shooting is inherently far more dangerous than any other form of driven game shooting. If you are an inexperienced driven grouse shot (having shot perhaps less than six driven grouse days), then having an experienced shot or loader stand with you makes every sense.
It seems very unwise for any novice grouse shot (irrespective of how many days pheasant or partridge shooting you have had), to shoot double guns until you have had at least half a dozen grouse days. Similarly a loader on double gun days is exactly that; he or she cannot keep you on the right track when they are busy loading the second gun.
Sadly, I am not able to give advice as to how to shoot well, but here are my 10 tips, on how to shoot driven grouse safely:-
1. Whilst competitiveness is great on the sports field and also in a business environment (to help pay for very expensive grouse shooting!), it is not only unnerving but also very dangerous when over competitiveness comes to the fore on a grouse moor.
Everyone would like to be a good shot. However, the most important thing is to be a safe shot and excessive aggression, competitiveness or indeed greed, is not at all conducive to you being a good neighbour, let alone a safe shot.
2. Many people who now shoot grouse were not fortunate to take up shooting at an early age and there are fewer and fewer people as the years go by, who learnt their sport through walked up shooting, boundary days and the like. Instead many of us have been taught to shoot in perhaps the ideal fashion, by qualified instructors. Sometimes these instructors attend a day’s shooting on the Moor. This can be an excellent way of not only giving a relative novice Gun confidence, but also to ensure that he or she does everything that they should do on the day, including shooting safely.
I have noticed a tendency in recent years for Instructors in the grouse butt, to suggest to their clients that there is no such thing as “your neighbour’s” grouse. In other words every grouse which is in range is potentially yours to shoot at. This is absolute nonsense. The etiquette of not shooting your neighbour’s birds on a low ground shoot, needs to be amended when on a moor, but they very much still apply.
It is far far easier for you to shoot your neighbour when you shoot at a bird or covey of birds going to him or her.
Where grouse are crossing i.e. flying down the line rather than coming into your neighbour’s butt, then it is obviously perfectly acceptable for you to shoot at them, when they are within range and are safe.
3. Nowadays canes, sticks or safety frames are visible on pretty well every moor. This was not the case even thirty years ago. The purpose of canes, or any form of frame (moveable or indeed on occasions fixed to the top of the butt), is to notify where the neighbouring butts are and with the more comprehensive frames, to help prevent you from shooting down the line at your neighbour and beyond. However, it is absolute folly to believe that a safety frame, let alone a cane will prevent you from shooting your neighbour. At the end of the day it is you the person shooting, who makes the final decision when and whether it is safe to shoot. A cane or stick is extremely thin and does no more than indicate a general direction of where the adjoining butts are. A frame has the theoretical ability to block out the neighbouring butt, but quite clearly if you are at the front of the butt shooting incoming grouse and you extend your left hand and effectively reach around the frame, you can very easily shoot down the line and even into the adjoining butt and beyond. The frame wherever positioned will not prevent an overly enthusiastic gun avoiding it!
Positioning the frame is absolutely essential and it is down to you the Gun not the loader to put and keep it in the right position. One of the dangers with having such safety devices is that people rely on them. I have several times heard people saying that they couldn’t possibly have perpetrated the dangerous shot, “because the frame was in the way”.
Using a safety frame will probably help you to shoot more safely. It however, will not stop you from shooting your neighbour, if you have a mind to!
4. The very best safety advice when in a grouse butt is that if a Gun only fires to the front in the 90° arc between A and B (i.e. 45 degrees either side of the mid point), then there is absolutely no chance of any Gun shooting their neighbour.
The likelihood of a dangerous shot occurring is when you shoot at incoming grouse too close to the line of butts. You have probably shot your first barrel too late and by the time you are ready to fire your second barrel, the birds are too close to the butt line to safely fire the second barrel. Some years ago I remember one young nobleman shooting a retired Ambassador in just this way!
The same occurs behind i.e. the completely safe arc of fire is between points D and E.
Many accidental shootings occur once the first horn blows. This is because at this time of the drive, grouse often flush in singles and the competitive Gun is over-keen to shoot the bird as it flies between the butts and before his neighbour can shoot.
There is an increased risk of danger when the grouse does not fly directly away from the butt line, but angles down it. The then senior partner of a large firm of Stockbrokers in the Midlands put 3 pellets in me and 6 pellets into my loader when shooting at just such a bird!
5. It is fundamental that you never swing through the line. Shooting in front, stopping the swing, lifting the gun over the butt line and then re-aligning the gun on birds flying away behind, will ensure your neighbours don’t feel vulnerable (there is nothing worse than looking down a pair of barrels!) and will make a major contribution to you shooting safely.
6. There is a natural tendency when you are shooting out of the front of the butt to stand as close to the front of the butt as possible. There is nothing wrong with this.
However, to be in exactly the same position when you shoot at a bird that has gone through the butt line, your right heel would have to be almost touching what was the front and is now the back of the butt wall. What generally happens is that once the Gun turns to shoot behind, he or she moves at least half a pace and often a pace “forwards”, thereby completely altering their safe shooting position which is where the safety peg or frame is positioned, for shooting out of the front of the butt. This means that it is much easier for the gun having moved, to then shoot down the line at a bird flying away behind.
In reality therefore, if you move your feet when you are going to take a shot behind, you should ensure that your safety frame is wide enough to allow for this, or reposition the frame to take account of your new shooting position.
7. If you are in a line of butts on a bank, it is absolutely essential that you recognise the fact that the butts further up the bank (and it may be much worse for the butts two or even three away), are much higher than you are and therefore even though you think that the shot is perfectly safe above your neighbour’s butt, falling shot could very easily rattle around the higher or indeed lower numbers. This is at the very least unnerving and can be very painful.
8. Many people who shoot, have a very imprecise knowledge of how a cartridge works. If you want to see the affects of shot, go and shoot a shotgun on a still day into a lake or other stretch of water and you will find that although the main thrust of the shot is in one clear direction (where you aim), there are very often pellets which deviate from that direction of travel, sometimes to a surprising degree. These are called “stringers” or “fliers” and are often caused by the lead being distorted as it ricochets off the barrel wall.
You therefore need to be aware that even though you believe that the shot which you are taking is safe, if you take it too close to the butt line (whether behind or in front), you may inadvertently shoot uncomfortably close to or even hit the neighbouring butt, because of these mal-formed pellets. The motto has to be to leave considerable margin for error to take this into account. These errant pellets are just as able to take out an eye or otherwise inflict a nasty injury as a perfectly formed one.
9. It is vitally important that you really do understand range. Many people who have used a shotgun for a long time, believe that it becomes ineffective over a certain distance – usually 50 to 60 yards unless using a very powerful cartridge. The Clay Pigeon Shooting Association advises that the safety margin when you fire a 12 bore shotgun should be 275 metres. This includes a good margin for error, but with many combinations of cartridge and choke, you could still blind someone at over 150 yards.
It is therefore vitally important that everyone understands where it is safe to shoot when you are one of the outside butts. Very often it is butts number 2 and 8 out of a line of 1 to 9 which have the hardest job to shoot safely from, whereas the two ends butts can often shoot safely once the grouse are clear of the flankers. It is the next butts in who have a much more constricted safe angle of fire.
Every year flankers get shot and this is almost always because Guns are either greedy, have not paid proper attention (or made the effort) to find out where the flankers are, or have no real understanding of how far pellets travel.
The same with beaters. For those Guns who insist on shooting at beaters when they are only 150 to 200 yards out, I would urge the Guns to swap places and I can assure that it is not much fun being shot at that distance!
10. Finally, perhaps the biggest change that I have seen in my shooting lifetime, has been the change in attitude towards alcohol being drunk on Shoots. At a time when we consume considerably less alcohol when driving, it does seem very strange that otherwise perfectly sensible men believe that it is prudent to consume often quite considerable quantities of alcohol during the morning and at lunch-time on a shoot day and yet in the afternoon continue to shoot at probably the most dangerous game bird in the UK. None of the reputable shooting grounds allow people to shoot after consuming alcohol. Why do we ply our guests with alcohol during the shoot day, rather than waiting until the end?
There are very few statistics about shooting accidents, but the one that I think is fairly clear cut is that there are more accidents in the afternoon than in the morning on grouse shoots. I believe there is a correlation between that fact and excessive alcohol consumption at lunch-time. In such circumstances it could perhaps be very difficult to defend oneself having shot the occupier of the neighbouring butt, when you have more alcohol in your body than you would legally be able to have and still pass a breathalyser test.
A glass of wine in moderation is fine. Anything over this does not seem sensible.
I would strongly recommend that anyone who goes out on a grouse moor and is near any shooting position, wears high quality shot-proof glasses. It only takes one pellet to lose an eye. Grouse shooting is to my mind, the most exhilarating and challenging form of driven game shooting in the UK. It is incredible fun, but any lack of concentration or “over-enthusiasm” could ruin someone else’s life and almost certainly do the same for the person who pulled the trigger.