Punt Guns

I have been in touch recently with Pete Humphreys, son of the man who brought Roaring Emma, the sporting writer James Wentworth Day’s 140- year old magnum 8 bore Joseph Lang, back to England. Pete is an all- round sportsman himself and heir to a rich heritage, especially in wildfowling, and a font of what may seem to be arcane lore to an American.

 Americans, when they think of England, usually picture “driven” shoots and reared pheasants, using guns that cost as much as my house; more a rarefied and difficult mixture of farming and a shooting game than a communion with the wild. English coastal wildfowling, with its big guns and more egalitarian nature, is less familiar. In England, punt guns were for adventurers and romantics, not poachers or market hunters*; the possibility of a big shot was balanced by the difficulty of stalking birds on open water and the danger of going out on winter seas in a kayak- like craft, armed with a cannon that might weigh over 100 pounds. Some seasons you might get only one or two good shots; in Colin Willock’s book The Gun-Punt Adventure, published in 1958 and covered in my new book on sporting books, his first season’s best shot was all of seven birds!

My old friend John “Johnny UK” Hill says it well: “… long may a few, specialist, intrepid ‘fowlers ply the wild estuaries around the UK!… I have seen them depart from [wildfowler, conservationist, and artist] Peter Scott’s lighthouse at Sutton Bridge, and later return, counting them back like old time aircraft, as if the weather changes, it can be a very dangerous activity. Local knowledge of tides, sandbanks and weather is crucial, [though] mobile phones and improved rescue services have mediated the modern day risk a little!” In a crowded island, the edge of the sea is still the edge of wilderness, danger, and adventure.

If you simply look at a punt gun you can see it is big, but how big? The one illustrated in the post below– here is a shot from the gunner’s perspective– is one of three DOUBLE punt guns made by Holland and Holland, this one in 1900; it weighs 250 pounds and shoots twenty ounces of shot from each barrel.

Its owner also has a single- barreled Patstone with a 1 3/4  bore that shoots 32 ounces of BB’s with 5 of black powder! (They got one shot last year). The Holland is, like all of its maker’s products, something special, and has what may be a unique feature; according to Pete “The locks are set up so the 2 shots go off with a tiny delay… when the first barrel goes off, the gun lifts and the birds jump.  The second barrel goes a split second later to shoot through the flock as it lifts.” Or at least this is the theory; I suspect getting such a shot is still a product ot determination, skill, and luck.

Below, some illos from the ninth Edition of Greener’s The Gun (1910), showing various punt gun actions. The last is a single H & H; put two side by side and you have an approximation of the one in the photos.

* Probably the greatest slaughter for commerce was accomplished with 12 bore repeaters rather than big guns. Browning patent autoloaders were favorites, though market hunters favored (prohibited) extended magazines. The number of birds rather than the nature of the tool was still the only factor that affected conservation, though I suppose banning a tool was not as stupid as, say, banning Italian immigrants ( a solution advocated along with banning Browning A5’s by the irascible William Hornaday).

Understandable Error, Matt!

I don’t know about a banana (see Matt’s comments below) but most Americans would see a double rifle from England, with its barrels arranged side by side, as a shotgun. We have not quite NEVER built a double rifle here but I would be surprised if we had built over 100 in the last century. Everything from our hunting habits (long, open country shots) to the expense of “regulating” doubles, which like everything about them is done by hand, works against this. (The English and European demographic for hunters, restricted to expensive private land for the most part, skews much higher than ours; no US mag, however pretentious, could call, as a review in The Field recently did, an 18,000 pound gun “modestly priced”. And The Field isn’t even pretentious– just comfortably what it is.

Here is a “typical” VERY Best London side by side shotgun, perhaps my favorite, a Boss in 20 bore. As it could go for over $100,000 used I will never own one unless like one lucky writer I know I am given one as a present by an older man who is retiring it.

Another shotgun, a Churchill, rather stouter…

The next two are rifles but without seeing the iron sights how would you tell? The first is a classic Rigby with its distinctive “dipped” lock plates, in .470 Nitro (rather like the small shotgun but BIG rifle bore of .410, and just one actual caliber lower than Bond’s .500); the second, also by Rigby but made in California I think– very long story– is what is known in my circles as the Lion Porn gun, proving that money does not convey taste though it may buy craftsmanship…

Incidentally Ian Fleming’s brother Peter, who wrote books that are among the 25 I would take to the proverbial desert island, especially News From Tartary (you should also read his travel companion Ella Maillart’s Forbidden Journey; when have two such writers written two such delightfully different books about the same trip?)* shot a pair of Purdeys, rather like the Boss above, and a “.275 Rigby” bolt rifle like my friend Jonathan below. We are entering the realm of “affordable with effort” here, but I doubt I will ever own a double rifle that costs more than my house, truck,and last trip to Asia combined.

*Links still slow but both available on Amazon and other places.

Friend’s Adventures, Urban and Rural

Patrick Porter’s survival kit for Sandy, in Natick, MA:

Cole Brooks, Malcolm’s* son, takes his first elk in Montana:

“… kid drew a lottery cow elk tag for this week. Second day out at 3 in the afternoon we hiked up the side of a ridge where we’d spotted cows the evening before. I walked around a stand of trees and right into several dozen animals–maybe 50 total?–squinting into the sun behind my back. I hustled Cole into position, and with a downed tree as a rest he knocked this one down with my BRNO 7×57. 215 yards, and thank God for all that shooting practice the last six years. We spent all yesterday quartering and packing her out (including head and hide), about a mile to the truck, in wet, muddy, miserable weather…but we’ve got meat! Like I said to Cole at the end of it, we earned these ingredients…”

Strange to think I have lived in both environments…

* Malcolm has a book coming soon– watch for it in this space and others…

Rifle quiz

Pure fun for scholars of guns and readers of travel and adventure tales: how many things can you find in common on these little carbines? Oh, I will add one invisible addition for the bolt:

The first question is for tecchies; the second for readers and travelers: how many books and writers and scientists and… whatever– can you list that mention or who used either?


The Hansons are back from their Egyptian expedition with the Explorers Club flag– and will (both Roseann and Jonathan I hope) be writing something here.


“It was fantastic. Probably the most challenging driving I’ve had over such an extended journey. Many difficult climbs to cross dune chains, then 60mph blasts across huge rolling sand sheets. Our guide very, very nearly capsized his Land Cruiser on a loose side slope the first day out. Stuck fast with a dicey recovery – we anchored his vehicle with a line to the roof rack to keep it from going over as we pulled it out…

“And we felt like rock stars the entire trip. People kept coming up to us and thanking us for coming, shaking our hands, some nearly in tears.”

Born to Hunt

John Barsness has just released his latest book, Born to Hunt, a collection of essays that ranges from his home in Montana to Africa and the Arctic, along with more obscure destinations like Norway and Ireland.

If you read magazines you surely know that John is one of the most prolific “gun writers” alive, as well as one of the most experienced hunters. What more casual readers may not realize is that John, who started as a poet (and the son of a Montana-born English professor) is one of the most lyrical hunting writers around, as well as one who has truly lived “the life of the hunt” (which is also the title of his last collection of essays). He and his wife Eileen Clark eat more game than anyone else I know, including me — and we eat far more game than domestic meat. They are also both good writers.

This collection, though well-rooted in the Rockies and the north country and alive with elk and mule deer, moose and caribou and grizzly and the ways of the Inuit, roams as far afield as John has — which is to say as far as anyone I know who was not born with a trust fund. If I have one (minor) whining complaint it is that his only mentions of game birds are glancing if elegant asides on such as sage grouse; I’d love to see more bird hunting.But this is a book about big game and food, and maybe as befits a sixty-ish hunter, mortality.

John knows the Real Things and Big Truths. On wilderness, he quotes Teddy Roosevelt saying that Roosevelt “…grew up in the cradle of 19th century civilization, part of an aristocratic New York family, but felt healthy humans needed occasional time with naked nature.” Roosevelt said of hunting and the wilderness that “the wilderness hunter must not only show skill in the use of the rifle and address in finding and approaching game, but he must also show the qualities of hardihood, self-reliance, and resolution needed for effectively grappling with his wild surroundings. The fact that the hunter needs the game, both for the meat and for its hide, undoubtedly adds zest to the pursuit.”

He also knows that real hunting, where you pack everything out, is brutally hard work as well as fun. Eileen has badly compromised lungs because of a rare disease, but is one of the hardest hunters I know. She “…packed half the ewe out on her back a round in her 30-06’s chamber as we hiked through grizzly country smelling like fresh blood. You cannot buy a day like that, or meat that tastes like mountain meadows, or the God’s-eye view from timberline, where the mountains rise in a line from Canada and the prairies disappear in the earth’s curve. The only way you can find that particular part of the Rockies is to climb it yourself, each step like the hard pulse of a mountain’s heart.”

He knows the scarier truths: that when you are out there in the wilderness, asleep in a tent, “…there come memories beyond our five external senses, deeply imbedded reminders that there isn’t much separating us from all that is around us, whether the darkness beyond the fire the stars wavering in the heat waves from the wall tent’s stove pipes, are lions or grizzly bears.” But he knows purely funny truths too, including one that I have noticed myself, birding with an old PH in Hwange in Zimbabwe: “African professional hunters, unlike many North Americans, don’t regard bird-watching as a subversive if not actually wimpy activity. Russell, who shot hundreds of elephant and buffalo on control, proved just as adept at identifying a saddle-billed stork or a cape teal.” There are even nuggets of useful advice and hard-earned knowledge — the skills you need to ride in a horseback pack hunt; the fact, that seems utterly unremarkable to me, that you are as likely to find good meat on a big-racked bull as on a fat doe (I think over-privileged trophy hunters use the cliche of the inedible big bull as an excuse to give away the meat. The more for me!)

Finally there is a poet’s delight in pure writing. To find a big mule deer “…his hard land must be entered softly without breaking the horizon with our bi-pedal stance. We must ease inside — and then sit down, like some high country accountant and pore over the same land again and again, rechecking the same columns of numbers, until we find the big-antlered anomaly in all that tilted space.” Or, on Cape Buffalo “We probed the herd’s perimeter like infantry, armed only with my .416, Russell’s old .458, and just enough adrenaline to make buffalo appear like black holes in green space.

Go to Rifles and Recipes and buy this one. And The Life of the Hunt, and Rifle Loony, and Eileen’s big cookbook (perhaps the most useful game cookbook ever; after all, what other cookbook writer eats no domestic meat?) or, with confidence, just about anything else there.

And here’s John with his latest, post-book buff, taken with that CZ .416, which I sold him a long time ago and he modified to be something like Harry Selby’s– the story is in Rifle Loony.

PLF 2: Letters from Geoffrey Household

Sadly, I never corresponded with Patrick Leigh Fermor, but I did for many years with the adventurous old “suspense” story writer Geoffrey Household (as so many perceptive critics wrote, he was so much more than that, including a naturalist, a regionalist, and a chronicler of the same old lost Europe that Leigh Fermor also celebrated). Some of his best works are still or at least recently in print, though they were written from the thirties into the eighties: Rogue Male, in which an English big game hunter with a secret stalks a Hitler figure until he becomes the prey; 1965’s Dance of the Dwarfs, a cryptozoological novel with several twists; and the one I read first, 1960’s Watcher in the Shadows, still another tale of being stalked. Household’s knowledge of nature and animals gave him an intuition and sympathy for prey that many writers of such novels lacked.*

I will write about Geoffrey’s own work, but that must wait. Suffice to say that in the winter of 86-87, having been recently widowed, I wrote to him asking if he had known PLF, whose Woods & Water I had just finished. I figured with his background– among other things, he had lived in Bucharest and Greece for many years before the war, and been in British Intelligence– he might have. I just wanted to do something new– walk across Europe, perhaps?

Geoffrey wrote back with enthusiasm; we had written to each other for some time, and I think he was worried for me. Of course, he HAD known “Paddy” during the war.

(I’ll follow each letter with a blown- up text of the relevant part, as the handwriting of an 87- year- old- man can be as bad as that of a 61- year old with Parkinson’s– click twice and they are more legible than the originals!)

He apparently thought the matter over, then, perhaps forgetting his previous note, wrote what may have been his last letter to me in the fall before his death the next year at 88. His handwriting had deteriorated, but he could still command a phrase.

Desperados indeed. As David Pryce- Jones said this morning: “Could there be men like that again? In these thin days I doubt it…”

*Geoffrey’s short story collections are not “suspense” and are much harder to find but worth the effort. Start with Sabres on the Sand or The Europe that Was.

UPDATE: In the introductory essay to the NYTBR ed of Rogue Male, linked above (click on “See Inside”), Virginia Nelson writes “…One can’t help but wondering if his path crossed that of the notable English picaro Patrick Leigh Fermor…”

UPDATE 2: The wonderful Patrick Leigh Fermor blog is now on our blogroll (right). More to come I’m sure…

John Vaillant’s The Tiger

Here it is, Q- Philes– John Vaillant’s The Tiger: a True Story of Vengeance and Survival is finally out this week. It is better than good– my favorite book of the year so far, and a likely classic in my rare favorite genre, that which documents (to use a book title) “the edge of the wild”, that interface where humans and “nature” are not artificially separated but in conflict or cooperation, acting on each other.

Tiger is a non- fiction book that reads like a novel, set in “Primorye”, the Russian Far East– not “Siberia”, despite its desperately cold winters– but rather a huge block to the east and south of Siberia, a rugged place of mixed deciduous forests, few roads, a flora and fauna mixing the temperate and the subtropical (like leopards and tigers), inhabited by a never- prosperous populace now eking out their lives by such expedients as beekeeping and subsistence poaching.

Its protagonists are a single huge tiger, a ragged bunch of drunken poachers, and a patrol of anti- poaching rangers dedicated to protecting tigers over a huge area, with no money and inadequate tools. The beginning, as an unnamed hunter and his dog approach a dark cabin on a freezing evening, is a masterpiece of tension and quiet terror; the ending is utterly cinematic but real (the book is based on over 200 interviews). In between, Vaillant skilfully cuts from one “protagonist” to another, building an almost unbearable tension even as he dramatizes the serious issue of Asian poaching.

He manages to evoke sympathy for a man- killing tiger that outdoes any in Corbett (at one point he drags a mattress out under the shelter of a spruce to await his next victim in comfort; waits for another IN HIS BED; toward the end,`a la Kipling’s “Letting In the Jungle”, he appears to be contemplating the elimination of a village), but also for destitute subsistence poachers tempted by the Han Empire’s eternal appetite for animal parts, and above all for the underpaid, overworked, and threatened Russian rangers, who use SKS’s in 7.62 X 39 (on brown bear, moose, and sadly tiger if they must) because they are the BEST rifles available! (Regular readers will recall previous posts on my love/ hate for this working man’s rifle and cartridge– more later, but I would never use it for such animals if I didn’t have to!) On the other hand, a scene where a poacher pulls the trigger on an ancient Mosin and, instead of the firing pin falling, in the words of James McMurtry it “didn’t, quite…”, doesn’t end well; perhaps the rangers are doing the best they can.

(In fact, my only extremely minor quibble with the book is re firearms: if you know a bit it can be momentarily confusing; if you don’t, though, you won’t even notice. But a poacher’s badly- handloaded 16 gauge single- shot shotgun is not a “rifle”, and using a thing like that to try to poach an Amur tiger is the exact kind of drunken Russian foolery that is likely to bring on Nemesis, on wheels, with no brakes…)

But really, a quibble– this is an amazing book, one to stand with Arseniev and Corbett, its worthy predecessors. Annie Proulx sent me an early galley, asking that I return it as soon as I finished, and I was so blown away I asked– well, demanded!– another copy from the press, to quote to my friends until the real thing came out months later. On the Amazon site she says:

“The Tiger is the sort of book I very much like and rarely find. Humans are hard-wired to fear tigers, so this book will attract intense interest. In addition to tiger lore and scalding adventure, Vaillant shows us Russia’s far east and its inhabitants, their sometimes desperate lives interwoven with the economics of poaching and the politics of wildlife conservation… This is a book not only for adventure buffs, but for all of us interested in wildlife habitat preservation.”

Another good writer, Sy Montgomery’s friend Liz Thomas, adds:

“In it are chilling accounts of human encounters with tigers—but these encounters, however fearsome, convincingly demonstrate the role that these enormous cats continue to play in the natural world. Equally compelling are the people of Primorye, those who of necessity must hunt the tigers, and those who would preserve them. To call this book a page-turner is an understatement.”

I rarely quote other writers in praise of a book I like– as anyone who knows me knows, I am secure in my opinions (!) But in this case, I think this book is so good I want to remind readers that writers I respect and who like MY writing– “friends of Q”– are as over the top about The Tiger as I am. Run don’t walk…

Lauren’s first fox

Lauren reports from Mongolia:

I’m amazed at how fast training progresses here! I’m about 150 km south of Olgii, outside a town called Daluun near the Chinese border. The falconers in this area only fly passage eagles, and luckily, its been a great year for fox. You won’t believe, but I’ve already seen eleven fox caught by eagles! When entering new eagles, they often use a make-eagle. The make-eagle system works well, I think. The slips are often so distant, the flights so big, that it helps focus a new eagle on that object scooting along the horizon, and what the game is, when another eagle is pumping hard after it. There hasn’t been any crabbing at all – the first one grabs the head and then the second takes the body. Interestingly, when my eagle was first flown with the make eagle, she would mirror the other eagles movments, pitching up high and coming crashing down. Now she’s flying on her own and is developing her own style. In general, the fox is killed, the eagle fed the tongue, and then traded for a hare leg.

Training was very simple – riding the horse was a form of manning in the beginning. The eagle was so focused on keeping its balance that it didn’t worry about other things, like bating. We called to the fist, then to the lure, then to the fist on horseback, and finally used a bagged fox that another eagle had caught to gauge her attitude toward foxes. She took it easily. The first week of hunting we used the make eagle – they took three foxes together, my eagle always coming in second but I think learning a great deal. The second week we flew her alone. She had some close calls right off the bat – knocking the stuffing out of a fox but failing to hold it.

Her first kill happened like this: The fox was running in a straight line maybe two hundred yards off. She left the glove (we had a bit of height, maybe 50ft off the ground, not much) and tried for a straight-grab. The fox dodged to the side at the last second but she didn’t hit the ground and was able get back her speed and try again. This repeated itself and then the fox ran around a gigantic stone that was on the ground. It was an oddly placed stone on the steppe, and was maybe thirty feet tall and fifteen feet wide. At this point my eagle pitched upward, looked down over her shoulder as the fox circled, and then dove and collided with it as it made it around the stone. It was particularly fun because this land was fairly flat, so it was easy for me to spur my horse to a gallop and race over there. I felt really intrepid! Usually its steep hillsides and I’m just plodding along downhill to try and reach the eagle.

The second kill was the opposite – we were on a precarious mountainside named “difficult stones”. The eagle jerked like it saw something so I released her (I prefer out of the hood, but you get many more flights if you don’t) – she flew quite far, pumping and serious, out of sight to another side of the mountain. We chased and found her halfway the mountainside down on a fox. It was incredibly steep though, and not real ground – all loose stones and sand. I was terrified! I had to get off my horse and walk it down – I fell constantly and was absolutely exhausted by the time I reached my eagle. She had killed the fox by then and so I quickly traded. I wish I’d seen the flight, though!

She’s been lucky and has only had minor bite marks (by a big fox she grabbed that broke loose) but my teacher’s eagle really got some nasty bites. It hasn’t affected her enthusiasm for killing foxes, but it looks very bad and I’m hoping they don’t get infected.

 How’s New Mexico this time of year? I really miss you guys and, certainly at times, the comforts of home. It can be quite tough out here, sometimes depressing, but I do love it and feel like I’m learning worlds.
PS – Canat talked with Mongolian officials, and I can export my eagle if I’d like!! Well, at least the paperwork is possible on this end.


Next, photos!