What do Guns look for in a shoot?

In an article that first appeared in Shooting Times, Guns on Pegs editor George Browne ruminates on what the modern-day visitor to a shoot is actually after.

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I have been shooting since I was 11, but it is only since August 2019, when I began working as editor of Guns on Pegs, that I’ve started to get a feel for how the shooting community thinks. I’ve had some of my assumptions challenged and I’m often surprised at the diversity and strength of opinion, even on seemingly innocuous topics. I confess that before it was my job to think about these things, I never really considered what it is that makes people want to go out shooting, or what they might want from a day. 

I am, however, learning quickly, in part because Guns are never shy of voicing their opinions on social media and in our inbox, but also because my role gives me a unique perspective. With more than a decade’s worth of data generated by our 120,000-plus members and several years of Game Shooting Census data at my fingertips, I can build a fascinating picture of what really matters to the shooting community.

Bag sizes are a perennial talking point. You might think that with my job I now flit around the country from fancy shoot to fancy shoot, accounting for scores of birds, but the reality is that I rarely shoot on days with bags of more than 200, and the majority of my shooting takes place on our family shoot, where a bag of 50 is a red-letter day. The truth is that the size of the bag has almost no impact on my enjoyment of the day.

On our family shoot, it is not uncommon to be a spectator on at least one drive and I can derive great pleasure from watching our guests and my brothers shooting well, and even more if they shoot badly. For me, shooting is about the day ‘in the round’: the company, being in the countryside, the badinage and the sense of belonging. Having a few birds in the game cart at the end of the day is a bonus. 

Bags and birds

Analysing the demand for different bag sizes is of debatable value, since ultimately it is just a proxy for the cost. For what it is worth, our data reveals that sub-200-bird days represent three-quarters of all searches made by Guns on Pegs members. When we include a shoot offering bags below 150 in our weekly newsletter, the interest is huge, and walked-up days are also popular.

The world of commercial shooting sometimes gets a bad rep. Before joining the shooting industry, I perhaps subscribed to the view that if shooting had an Achilles heel it was too great an obsession with making the bag, driven by commerciality, and not enough on the ‘peripheral’ elements that bring me so much joy.

However, Guns on Pegs has repeatedly asked members what they love about shooting, and it seems they think the same way as me: having fun with like-minded people trumps the size of the day every time. So if the bag is not important, what does matter to Guns? 

Our research shows that Guns do value ‘good birds’, but what that means is hard to pin down. My own view is I want birds that are just challenging enough that bringing one down with a clean kill gives me a sense of accomplishment, without them being way beyond my skills.

I’m not an altitude junkie, and no one wants to blaze away in futility all day, but birds that are too easy get dull quite quickly. That said, my shooting is nothing special and on some days even the most average of pheasants sails over me, blissfully unaware that I’m even carrying a gun.

Captain marvel

Beyond this, it all comes down to atmosphere and hospitality. The reviews that our members leave reveal that hosting is all important. A shoot with a grumpy captain is unlikely to see repeat visits, no matter how good his birds, but Guns will forgive a dodgy drive or two if the hosting is done right. 

No matter the shoot, the shoot captain sets the tone that allows the fun atmosphere to flourish. Our family shoot has the advantage of having multiple hosts—my younger brother, who manages the shoot, is nominally in charge, my dad thinks he’s in charge and my mother is actually in charge. My other siblings and I chip in, doling out the elevenses, showing Guns to their pegs and heckling during the morning briefing.

Speaking of elevenses, for me this is a key part of the day. We don’t have a Gunbus, so this is often the first time in the day when one gets to chat with our guests. We usually shoot through, which makes it all the more welcome to have one of my dad’s ever-popular game and chorizo sausage rolls. It therefore came as something of a surprise to me that only 67% of Guns expect to be served mid-morning refreshments when on
a commercial shoot.

Though we don’t have a Gunbus at home, I do prefer them, so I was also surprised to learn that a majority of Guns prefer to get around shoots in 4x4s. The consensus in our office is that we are happy to forgo luxury in favour of the ribaldry and bonhomie of the wagon. Are we all becoming too comfortable in our leather-upholstered, air-conditioned Chelsea tractors?

When it comes to the main meal of the day, Guns are fairly evenly split on when the shoot lunch takes place, but I find that shooting through allows one to really enjoy the festivities. On one occasion our shoot lunch was still going strong when I, accompanied by my sister’s other half, conducted a midnight raid on the wine cellar, resulting in one of us—I shall not say which—taking a tumble down the cellar steps in the dark.

This is not to say that all shoot lunches need to be uproarious affairs. According to our data, 16% of Guns’ appetites are sated with sandwiches, 23% like a pub lunch, while 47% are looking for a three-course meal. Around two-thirds of Guns believe that shoots should always serve game either at elevenses or at lunch.

Take home

Continuing on this theme, according to the 2020 Game Shooting Census, equal proportions of Guns would prefer birds in the feather and ready-dressed birds, but a larger proportion would like to be given the choice as to what they take home. 

A significant cohort would like shoots to be more proactive in encouraging the consumption of game, either by providing pre-prepared game to take home, or by offering demonstrations for those who don’t know how to dress a bird. Whenever we have a novice Gun shooting with us at home, I make a point of showing them how to breast out a pheasant as a bit of post-prandial entertainment, before sending them home with a few brace to practise on and some recipe ideas. 

Best practice

When it comes to choosing where to spend their shooting budget, conservation and a shoot’s management practices matter to Guns. In last year’s Game Shooting Census, 70% of respondents said that they would be more likely to buy a day’s shooting from an estate that had been audited for best practice. Interestingly, when we asked
shoot owners the same question, only 37% felt that being audited for best practice was important to their customers.

If you spend much time on social media, you could have the idea that the shooting community is furious over the move away from lead, but our data suggests otherwise. More than half of respondents to the 2020 Game Shooting Census said that they were keen or had plans to trial non-lead alternatives last season. Only 6% said that
a move away from lead would see them shoot less or stop altogether. 

The shooting world is not a homogenous group, so these stats must be taken with a pinch of salt; we’re talking averages and wider trends, not hard and fast preferences that apply across the board. The joy of shooting is that it is a broad church, with room for those who take their pleasure walking-up a few hedges and those who like the pageantry of a formal day. Between these two extremes, there’s something for everyone

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