James Wentworth Day and big shoulder guns

Perhaps because I grew up on the New England coast, living a hunter- gatherer’s life and shooting magnum twelves and tens like my father before me, I  have always been fascinated by England’s big bores– defined here as the gauges above ten that were made illegal when the first legislation to protect waterfowl from commercial gunners was passed after the first world war.

Looking back, one suspects that it was almost a class prejudice thing that spawned such an arbitrary rule; the wealthy eastern gentlemen who drafted the new rules associated big guns with uncouth Chesapeake Bay watermen, and they made an upper limit of ten gauge because nobody they knew shot anything larger. I would argue, as did conservation writer George Reiger, that bore is irrelevant; the only factor in saving birds is the number of a species you kill, and the big bores were difficult specialist’s guns used by experts to bring down single birds at a distance. If I could shoot an eight and had access to a place where I could pass shoot at high geese, I would. It is worth mentioning that you might “lead” such a goose by ten goose lengths at distances above sixty yards, where specialist 8’s and 4’s come into their own. (One of the few American masters of the big bore, Idaho’s Elmer Keith, shot a magnum ten, a gun with the shot load of a light eight, and I know two people who saw him make seventy yard shots).

Today, the working big guns that once were shot by the humble as well as the educated romantic are being “commodified” and disappearing into collectors hands, never to be shot again. (see the Holland below, which is expected to go for over $20,000 at auction). A few lower- priced big guns have been made in Spain or Italy or as English one- off guns like the big two I wrote about last week. The classic English guns are mostly being retired and hoarded or sold to the US where they can’t be shot at migratory birds, so I was delighted with the news that James Wentworth Day’s huge Roaring Emma, an 8- bore of the heaviest configuration, had gone back home to hunt on the English coast.

And yes, “she” is big. Shooting friends know my exasperation at the Nash Buckingham/ George Evans- promoted fallacy that our magnum twelves were eight bore equivalents; they didn’t equal light eights, never mind magnums like Emma, built in the early 1870’s and shot today.

Pete Humphreys on her specs : “4 1/4 chamber with brass cases made by Allen Meyers. 3 ozs of bb’s. The gun is approx 18lbs but short in the stock and handles like a 20 bore. Note that the stock has hole in it and the triggers have drilled holes so they can be wired together and fires simultaneously on a punt boat. The hole in the stock is for a rope to hold the gun on the punt.”

Further on this particular load: “… dad met Jimmy WD in the later years of his life. Dad visited him at his home and spent an afternoon with him. WD was almost blind and health failing. Dad was possessed with Emma and JWD’s writings.  They talked in great detail about the Emma.  WD had sold it on long ago.

“At one point during the visit he asked dad to located a rusty old cookie box (biscuit tin). The box was tucked in a mass of clutter as WD was a hoarder. On the tin in pen it had the words “Emma” written on it. WD told dad to open the box and inside were a handful of the original 4 1/4 inch ELEY cases that were his loads for Emma. WD told dad to take 2 for his collection. I remember the cartridges vividly. I’m sure they went with the gun to its new home.  Dad wrote JWD’s obituary for the Shooting Times.

“Dad originally had a 3 1/4 inch 8 bore and had lots of modern loads in that case length. He would shoot those through Emma to save on the good brass loads as he only had 20 cases made in 4 1/4 brass. He couldn’t figure out why his kill rate was awful with the shorter loads. He realized, with help from my father in law and a pattern plate that the pattern was being “blown” with the short cases. The combs [forcing cones?] on the 4 1/4 chambers are so big, the gases would escape around the shot and blow the pattern of the shorter 3 1/4 cases. 

“He only shot 4 1/4 cases from then on and the gun came back to life and a real hard shooting gun. Would kill geese at 50 yards like a 12 bore kills pigeons at 20 yards.

“I was standing next to my brother David when he dropped a right and left at pinks with Emma. Brilliant stuff.  We were taking it in turns to shoot her w dad watching on from the depths of the ditch we were hiding in.  Tall birds that threw their heads back and folded up stone dead to smack on the field with a loud thud. “

When I was researching this material, I came upon this photo of JWD and assorted paraphernalia in the postwar edition of his Modern Fowler.

When I looked at it I wondered about the gun and when I put it under a magnifying glass I saw the stock hole. Emma!

And here is a Holland and Holland hammerless eight, doubtless headed for some rich man’s collection. I wouldn’t mind if I thought he might shoot it.

Still to come: the story of Emma’s return to England… and better photos of “her”.

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).

Big Guns

Like pigeons (which I will soon be writing about again) big bore shotguns are a constant recurring interest of mine shared by few contemporaries– those mostly coastal wildfowlers who used tens in the US, something I was at least born into.

When it comes to Big Guns US shooting society tends to live in the state described in that ancient Firesign Theater skit: Everything you Know is Wrong. Bores larger than ten are not primarily poachers’ or market hunters tools, and are by no means all crude; most English firms including Purdey’s made them. The recoil of many is not particularry hard, because they are heavy enough– some modern  four bores weigh 16 pounds, though of course you have to lift the huge thing. Fowlers rarely kill whole flocks of ducks– more common to paddle in reach and flush them all before you can shoot. And no,  Mr. Buck, we were NOT “shooting eight bore loads” out of our big twelves; starting in the 1870’s, long case (3 3/4 – 4 1/4  inch) eights like the one pictured below were shooting loads of three ounces of shot, more than any imaginable twelve, out of each barrel; “light eights” with 3 1/4 inch shells could still manage 2 1/2 ounces!

I had a muzzleloading double four with rather short barrels back in the eighties.

Recently the English wildfowling writer John Humphreys, who had rescued James Wentworth Day’s legendary 8 bore “Roaring Emma” from the collection of a wealthy American, * placed the gun with the  Hull and East Riding Wildfowling Association, who will rent it out to hunters on the coast. It is an original and welcome concept and I would like to see it spread, or go to East Anglia, stay with “Johnny UK”, see the field my father flew out of during the war, and rent that cannon.

Wentworth Day was a prolific writer and flamboyant character who survived into the Sixties but cut a figure from another age– here he is with the 1870’s Joe Lang magnum eight Roaring Emma and his retriever, Mr. Soapy Sponge. after the Surtees character.

I have books by Day on everything from waterfowl to sporting dogs to shooting in Egypt and I bet I don’t have a fifth of what he wrote. Kipling could have made him up, or Conan Doyle. He may be prone to exaggeration, and I would not rely on him for sober history, but you can’t fault him on old guns. I think his newest was built before the turn of the  (nineteenth) century.

English enthusiasts still build big guns. Walter Hingley, the Canadian scholar who is one of my best sources for both gun and scientific stuff, sent me the above  and enough material to research for a month, including another fascinating link about a new TWO bore. I had thought that fours were the biggest “shoulder”– that is, non- punt– guns, but some people are never satisfied. It shoots eight ounces of lead. They pattern it at seventy yards.

I am delighted there are still people crazy enough to do this, especially as everything old becomes commodified, costs too much, and disappears into collector’s vaults.

*Remember, we are not allowed to hunt with these here. To quote from the article on “Emma”: “The gun subsequently ended up in the USA, where many of our old big bores go even though they cannot be used, and was eventually bought and brought back to the UK by John Humphreys. Due to his ill health he decided to sell the gun but did not want it to go back to the USA or to sit unused in someone’s collection. By selling the gun to HERWA he has ensured it remains in this country and that it will continue to be used for wildfowling. In an incredibly generous act a long standing member of the wildfowling club bought the gun and donated it to HERWA.”