A most unusual aggregation of sportsmen who call themselves Club Limited and who gather as often as 10 times a year to hunt and fish in choice sporting areas from Newfoundland to Mexico, gathered recently at James H. Van Alen's Separate Farm in Millbrook, N.Y. for a most unusual pheasant hunt. What they came for was a preserve shoot, European style—the type of shoot that can start a sportsman's argument in this country quicker than a man can pull a trigger.
A hundred or more years ago Continental sportsmen came to the conclusion that a pheasant flushed off the ground was not a very challenging target. For all his beauty, he was slow and loomed large in the eye of the hunter. They decided, therefore, that a more sporting way to shoot pheasants was to drive or release them so they would fly fast and high over gunners stationed in the open or in blinds, commonly called stands.
The system worked, and found high favor. Today it is the most popular form of shooting from Britain (SI, Nov. 25) to Czechoslovakia (SI, Oct. 7). But in many American eyes it has been considered unsporting, and some critics have denounced it as a form of wanton slaughter on a par with plinking sitting ducks. Obviously, neither Host Van Alen nor the members of Club Limited held either of these extreme views. I was undecided—but went along to find out.
The first day of the Millbrook shoot, a Thursday, was warm and clear and a light westerly breeze brushed the mellow Millbrook farmland. Grouped outside the Separate Farm gun room were 17 members and guests of Club Limited from as far away as Detroit.
December 2, 1957
They included such diverse business interests as John C. Hauerwass, president of the U.S. Steel Company Products Division of New York; Jack Boone, sales manager of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. of New Haven, Conn.; M. C. Gale, president of the Monarch Edsel Co. of Hempstead, L.I.; Joseph Pickard, executive vice-president of the U.S. Trust Co. of New York, and many others shown on this page and the pages following. Also present were Van Alen's son Jay, a senior at Yale, Gilbert Schafer of Cleveland, also at Yale, and Julio Noyes of New York. Jimmy Van Alen, 55, songwriter, poet, journalist, first-rank court-tennis player and enthusiastic international sportsman, outlined the shooting procedure with gusto and great emphasis on observing safety precautions. Then shell bags and shotguns were shouldered and everyone hiked a quarter of a mile to the shooting area.
The area was grass-covered and bumpy, but dominated by a hill approximately 150 feet high (see map). At the top of the hill was a square enclosure of pine trees and boards. From here, as Van Alen had explained, the birds would be released. The tree enclosure, some 20 feet in height, would not only force the pheasants to fly high when released but would also protect the men releasing them from stray shot.
Ringing the bottom of the hill were 32 stands (see map). Each stand was shielded with what looked like small signboards so that it would be impossible for one gunner to shoot another regardless of where he aimed at an incoming bird—a safety feature developed by Van Alen.
When all club members and guests had been assigned to stands, a whistle blew, and two of the three red flags flying over the hill came down. This signaled gunners that a release was about to begin and warned them to stay in their stands. The whistle blew again, another flag was run up, and almost immediately a cock pheasant went clacking skyward.
The bird cleared the trees and came boring downwind high over a stand aptly called Rocket. Rocket's gun boomed twice and the bird kept going. He was finally dropped on the second shot, from one of the outside stands.
Bird after bird came off the hill. Some dropped at the first shot, but I was surprised at the number that ran the gamut and landed unscathed out of range. I was less surprised after I had my first shot. The bird clamored above the hill and flew directly toward me. I crouched behind the cornstalk cover and hoped he would not swing off. When he was about 30 yards in front of me I stood up. I suddenly realized that, since the bird was flying at me and rising, I would have to hold over him to gain proper lead. So I held over, and the gun barrel blocked out the pheasant. Rusty at best on such blind shots, I switched plans and decided to take him right above me. He whistled over at 80 feet. I swung and missed with both barrels. He was moving faster and more erratically than any pheasant I had ever flushed anywhere. At that point any negative opinions which I might have held concerning so-called live bird shoots were drastically revised.
When 40 pheasants had been released, the whistle blew again, signaling the end of the first round, and everyone moved one stand to his left. In this way each shooter got a chance from a variety of positions. High point of the shoot came in the afternoon with the release of a white pheasant. For bagging it, Earl F. Ranft, president of Dabar Haulage Co. of Jersey City, collected Club Limited's daily jackpot.
All in all, 350 birds were released to 22 guns that first day; 214 birds were killed. I had 52 shots and accounted for seven birds. The second day 350 were flown and 220 killed. This adds to a total of 700 pheasants released and 434 harvested, for a percentage of 62. Considering the fact that Club Limited is comprised of men who are excellent shots, the figure hardly represents a slaughter. Rather it is indicative of a highly sporting shoot, as far as demands on marksmanship are concerned.
There probably isn't a sportsman alive who, having tried and been rewarded with the merits of the European type of hunt, will not still miss the thrill of a dog making game in wild cover or the startling burst of a flushing wild bird. But a man can't have everything, and the Van Alen-type shoot—if lacking in these respects—has great appeal for the man who enjoys a sporting challenge and who is limited in time rather than means. Van Alen will arrange a pheasant shoot for seven to 20 guns at a minimum of 20 birds a gun. At $5 a bird this amounts of $100 a day per gun. At the moment there are few other such public shoots in the country. But, as more and more men turn to preserve shooting in the future, it is likely that shoots such as Jimmy Van Alen's will come into their own. They will have to. There simply doesn't seem to be any more sporting way to shoot a pheasant.
VAN ALEN DESIGN FOR PHEASANT SHOOTING
[Black Square]SHOOTING STATIONS
PHEASANT RELEASE POINT