The covey split and a partridge flared to my right. It was a sunny October day, Guns in shirtsleeves lining a swell of rolling Norfolk headland. Terry dipped behind my shoulder as I mounted, â€œYour bird!â€
I had been anxious in the night and couldnâ€™t eat the motel breakfast. I checked out wearing breeks, gartered socks, brogues, Tattersall shirt and Labrador motif tie, the receptionistâ€™s astonishment skidding to a halt just before turning to laughter.
The drive to Shoot Hut was a worry-laden eleven miles and I ended up parking amongst jovial beaters. The Shoot Captain spotted my mustard socks and worried look, strode up and shook my hand, â€œHello, are you our novice?â€
I have flown aerobatics, been cornered by African buffalo, threatened with an AK47 – yet nothing has undressed my confidence as much as my first ever driven-game shoot.
What gun? Which cartridge? Should I wear tweed or moleskin?Â Shoot Stanbury or Churchill?Â How much to tip?
If you are a novice this season – male, female, young or old – the first thing to say is, relax. Many Guns, beaters and Captains are only too pleased to help with advice and guidance. Do not be afraid to ask.
Most novices worry first about their gun. If you are blessed with an acanthus engraved heirloom in a pig-skin motor case by all means take that – but the rest of us should use the gun with which we are most familiar.
Days are long gone when over-and-under shotguns were frowned upon (though carrying a semi-automatic will not win you friends). Twelve, sixteen or twenty bore all do the business when pointed where the bird is going. Fret not about choke; if your gun has fixed chokes, so be it, if you have multi-chokes, you wonâ€™t go far wrong with quarter and half. On my first shoot, I used a William Powell Perseus with 30â€ barrels choked a quarter and a half.
Spare a few moments pondering cartridges but not too long. Each Gun will advise a particular brand, their choice arising from pride, prejudice or depth of pocket. For 12 gauge guns 30g of number six will put most game birds in the bag â€“ but always use fibre wadded ammunition and remember some shoots will ask you to carry a few non-toxic shells in case of duck or geese.
If you are an exceptional shot, ignore the next bit; if not, take lessons at a sporting clay ground. Here, research pays dividends. Find an instructor that shoots game or loads for game shots. He or she will be a mine of shooting etiquette, safety advice and sage words as well as quickly improving stance, mount and accuracy. This is truly well-spent money.
Buying a shooting suit is a daunting prospect. I suggest you donâ€™t. For a lowland shoot showing pheasant or partridge stick to the classics â€“ Tattersall style shirt or blouse, sporting tie or scarf, moleskin breeks and shooting socks will get a good look without blowing the bank.
Choose a smart tweed gilet for early days or a good shooting coat later in the season. Keep your feet dry and retain grip with rugged-soled ankle boots or good wellingtons. A tweed or moleskin cap will top you off nicely and donâ€™t forget a pair of brogues or similar – these will spare you muddy embarrassment at lunch time if the shoot room is nicely carpeted.
Useful accessories include cartridge bag and warm gloves but essentials are ear defenders and safety glasses. Look after your eyes and hearing, they are precious. For informal days a game carrier or bag will come in handy, though bigger shoots invariably have a picking up team.
Always carry your shotgun certificate and donâ€™t leave home without adequate shooting insurance from BASC or CA. Increasingly popular is shoot cancellation and gun cover, Guns on Pegs offering an excellent package.
If your shoot is several hoursâ€™ drive from home I advise staying overnight close to the venue. The last thing you want to be is late. Arriving at your peg relaxed rather than smouldering about traffic or road works is the best way to start your day. Consider staying over after the shoot, then you can re-live your best shots with a drink in hand. Sporting hotels will securely store your gun overnight. Take sensible precautions if not. A motor case is ideal â€“ keep your gun slip for use in the fields.
Many shoots insist on novice guns being partnered by a loader or instructor. With prices from Â£40 to several hundred pounds for a top-flight instructor, this is a priceless addition to your day and you will learn much. Shoots advise on local loaders and instructors and donâ€™t skimp â€“ the right man or woman will not only improve your shooting but will know each drive and keep you and fellow Guns safe – as well as helping carry coat, gun and cartridges.
Donâ€™t take your dog on your first day â€“ especially if Fido is also a novice. Youâ€™ll have plenty to do without a spectacularly excited spaniel or lab tied to your leg.
What to expect on the day? Many well run commercial shoots publish where and when to meet. Take shoot contact numbers and map and allow ample time. Avoid running late but if it happens call the shoot.
Before arrival you should know your quarry, likely number of drives, expected bag and any included catering. This might range from pork pie in a barn through to breakfast, elevenses, lunch and afternoon tea in a castle.
A gunroom, Shoot Hut, pub or hotel often plays host and may serve hot drink and bacon rolls on arrival. Here you will be met by Shoot Captain or keeper and after pleasantries and safety brief peg numbers will be drawn. With a busy day ahead and much to remember, you will bless the moment you hired a guide or instructor.
If your day expects a modest bag then there is no point taking 1000 cartridges. I know an enjoyable shoot where a pocket-full will last until the birds are tied up; bigger bags demand more shells and further stock in the gun bus or car. On my first 150 bird day I took 250 Eley Grand Prix and used just 43. Take plenty with you and seek advice from your loader, Captain or keeper about how many to carry to the peg.
Transport around commercial shoots may be in gun bus or trailer whereas family days could include walking between pegs and others may expect you to drive yourself. Make sure your vehicle is capable of travelling off road and enquire beforehand if unsure of the terrain.
Standing at the peg for the first time can be a mixture of high octane anticipation and terror. Pickers-up and dogs may be at your back, beaters unseen ahead, guns lined either side, your heart thumping. You may be live at the peg (meaning you can shoot immediately provided it is safe) or waiting for horn or whistle to signal the start â€“ either way get ready quietly and efficiently.
Make sure the ground is as flat as possible; arrange your cartridge bag in front; put your empty slip and coat well out of the way. Instructors and loaders will do it all for you, explain where it is safe to shoot and soothe your nerves â€“ and nowâ€™s the time to make sure your mobile â€˜phone is switched off.
Take a moment to breathe then enjoy every minute as there will never be another day like this one. Sooner or later birds will cross the line, gunfire will crackle and your guide will get you on your first bird â€“ itâ€™s what youâ€™ve been waiting for and what I was waiting for on my first day.
â€œThere!â€ whispered Terry my loader as a covey of partridge hurtled across the stubbles towards us. The sun beamed and I was in shirtsleeves as my first ever driven partridge split from the covey and curved up to my right.
In that moment I forgot every shooting mantra and shot by instinct. I didnâ€™t count 1, 2, 3; I didnâ€™t recite bum-belly-beak. I simply raised the gun and down came a partridge.
An hour later I was delighted when a man in a bowler hat stepped from the hedge and offered Champagne and hot sausages. Elevenses is a much enjoyed tradition and, with a few drives to recall, you may find yourself grinning with delight â€“ as I was. Take it easy on the drink and heartily thank those who have lugged your treat into the fields.
You may shoot through, foregoing lunch until end of the day, or retire from field and wood for a proper lunch by the fire. Relax, but not too much. Think of the beaters, keeper, loader, helpers and dog handlers that may not be enjoying the same comfort. A tin of chocolates, a cake, a bottle to share or just a chat will be warmly welcomed.
Early in the season you may be on afternoon pegs under bright, low sun. Beware drives that put birds between you and that glowing orb. Tinted shooting glasses can help but carefully planning where you can shoot without being dazzled will be of equal value â€“ you donâ€™t want the best bird of the day to cross the sun at the moment of mounting.
After the last drive youâ€™ll head back to Shoot Hut, hotel or pub perhaps for cream tea or pint. The Captain or gamekeeper will announce the bag and thank all concerned. Donâ€™t forget to express your own thanks to beaters and dog handlers and especially the keeper.
As your first day draws to its end, you may be happily exhausted. If youâ€™ve done your best, dressed your best, been courteous and safe you will go home smiling. Driven game shooting is a warm and welcoming place and your first day should be unforgettable.
Before you go home it is tradition for Guns to receive a brace of birds from the keeper, sometimes in the feather, sometimes dressed. This is the time to finally express your thanks and appreciation for all the hard work, planning and organisation that is required to give Guns a fantastic day. It is time for the Keepers tip, often passed discretely during the final hand-shake.
You may have an anxious moment here. Too much and you look a fool, too little and you have failed to reward a hard-working man or woman – so how much should you tip? Now, that really would be tellingâ€¦.
Mick ended the day with twelve red-legs and three pheasant for 43 cartridges, a ratio of 2.87. The team of nine gunsâ€™ accounted for 168 birds for 477 cartridges, a ratio of 2.84.