Carrying his over/under shotgun at relaxed port arms, with his right hand around the pistol grip and the stock resting lightly against his hip, Dr. Alden D. White, a general surgeon from Alameda, Calif., kept his eyes on the English springer spaniel that was quartering the high sedge grass 35 yards ahead of him. Suddenly the dog raised its head, sniffed the air, and then bolted forward and flushed a cock pheasant. The bird beat its way up out of the grass and towered, presenting the kind of shot that pheasant hunters like. But Dr. White did not shoot. Instead, over a period of perhaps four or five seconds, in a series of easy, fluid movements, he carefully planted his feet, brought the gun slowly up to his shoulder, pressed it firmly against his cheek and waited until the pheasant was sailing along in full flight some 65 yards away. Then he snapped the trigger and neatly folded the bird.
"Good Lord " a bystander observed as Dr. White broke his gun to eject the dead shell, "either that fellow is showboating or else he's got the right combination of magic shotgun, golden pellets and luck working for him."
The good doctor, of course, was not showboating. He was the captain of the official guns at the English Springer Spaniel National Championship Stake, and, as they always do at a national, the judges had instructed Dr. White and his team of five guns to let the pheasants get out to maximum shotgun range—or even beyond—in order to give the spaniels tough marks and long retrieves. Nor was Dr. White shooting anything fancier than a field-grade Browning over/ under with standard 12-gauge loads—no golden pellets. As for luck, the guns' unofficial tally sheet pretty well discounted that. During the three-day trial held at Crab Orchard Wildlife Area in Marion, 111. last December, the six official guns shot at some 500 pheasants, most of them at distances between 45 and 70 yards, and managed to put better than 90% of them down dead in the grass. Another 2% or 3% were runners (wounded birds that fall and then run) the dogs were expected to hunt out and bring back. In all, fewer than 20 birds out of 500 escaped the guns, a phenomenal score considering the range and the pheasant's reputation for absorbing lead pellets without missing a wingbeat.
The exclusive group of official guns who work the major field-trial stakes in the U.S.—for springers, which compete under the toughest and least artificial trial conditions, and for retrievers and the pointing breeds—are probably the best wing shots in the country, or anywhere. But Dr. White is quick to point out that the guns' scores are only part of the game. "Sure we have a ball," he admits. "We like to shoot, and you can certainly pop a lot of caps on birds at field trials. But we are really here to shoot for the dogs, and that is far more complicated than it sounds."
March 4, 1968
Consider a few of the split-second decisions that a gun must make every time a bird is flushed in a springer trial. He must learn quickly how to read each individual dog in the trial in order to be ready when it starts making game. At the flush the guns have to heed wind direction, the bird's angle of flight and the position of the dog (the dog must hup, or sit at the flush and stay until the bird is down and the handler gives the command to retrieve) and then be able actually to place the bird—kill it so that it falls at least 40 or 45 yards from the dog. This often means that a gun must not shoot, but instead pass the bird along to the next gun over, with no time for signals, in order not to drop it too close to the dog. In the early stages of a springer trial, when the dogs are run in braces, two wing guns and a center gun work together as a team. In the last few tests the dogs are run singly and only two guns are used.
"No matter which breed of dog you shoot for," says Dr. White, who has shot for them all, "trial gunning has some of the precision of clay-target shooting and some, but not nearly enough, of the elements of real hunting. It's not as difficult as long-range pass shooting at ducks in a high wind, but it is very specialized. The toughest part is the pressure. One flub and the gun can shoot a dog right out of the trial."
Not so very long ago shooting dogs out of a trial was an occupational hazard that handlers and owners had to live with. The birds usually were quick-shot at such point-blank range that in springer trials it was not at all unusual for an inexperienced gun to drop a bird right on a dog's head—which often resulted in the dog's breaking and being thrown out of the trial. Things have improved considerably in the past 15 years or so, partly because professional handlers and owners complained loudly enough to the field-trial committees and partly through the efforts of serious trial gunners. One such is Jim Imrie, an insurance man from Napa, Calif., who 10 years ago drew up the bylaws for the Northern California Field Trial Gunners Association, Inc., the largest and best-organized group of qualified trial guns in the country.
"We just got fed up with dodging and ducking loaded guns and seeing dogs shot out of trials," says Imrie. "Since a trial gun has to watch out for the dogs, handlers, judges and the gallery, he's got to be a nut on safety. That is our first prerequisite for membership. We insist, as do most trial committees, that our members use double guns—over/unders or side-by-sides. The only time a double gun is not loaded is when it is broken, and we keep them broken except when we are on the line shooting. Next, naturally, is the ability to consistently hit birds. Third is that nebulous term 'sportsmanship,' which eliminates anyone who only wants to get in some extra shooting."
To join the ranks of this exclusive group, a prospective gun is sponsored by a member who first squires him through training sessions with professional dog trainers and then invites him to informal trials for the various breeds. "The gunner who proves himself at these informal trials is a good prospect," says Imrie, "because he is faced both with overeager amateur handlers who do things like dart in front of him at the crucial moment and with dogs that frequently break and run wild." The final step—which Imrie calls pressure gunning—is taken at American Kennel Club licensed and member trials in which dogs can earn points toward a field championship. "If the prospect has gone strictly to the dogs and. is not shooting for himself, and if he is thoroughly brainwashed on safety, then he's in."
The NCFTGA currently has 27 members who make themselves available for trials throughout the West, and many of them are invited to shoot in national championships. As one member puts it: "Not only do we have a name as long as a shotgun barrel we are probably the only incorporated group—and that eliminates the Mafia—which offers experienced guns for hire." Actually, the NCFTGA is a nonprofit group and members usually pay for everything except their shells at trials.
Although not as well organized as the NCFTGA, there are small and equally exclusive groups of field-trial guns scattered throughout the country, and they are very much stereotyped by their consistent marksmanship as well as by their home ports. Eastern gunners in general, and particularly those who shoot retriever trials, come right out of Abercrombie & Fitch's windows. They wear conservative tweed shooting attire, lean toward expensively conservative English side-by-sides and always wear green Tyrolean hats so bedecked with medals and badges that, as one proper Bostonian puts it, "The sheer weight of the damn thing gives me a headache." West Coast guns are always suntanned and outgoing and they lean more to "gun club" fashions. The real dandy of the bunch is Paul McClure, a Los Angeles insurance agent who is a top springer gun. McClure wears custom shooting sweaters with leather patches, black gloves, yellow glasses and a leather belt pouch for shells, and he shoots a German-made Krieghoff Crown Grade over/under with game birds and dogs engraved in gold on the receiver and labels from international pigeon shoots pasted on the stock. At the springer national, McClure clashed beautifully with Midwesterner Big John Findorff, a railroad man (Northern Pacific) from Wyoming, Minn., who sports a goatee, a black corduroy shooting vest embroidered front and back with gaudy cock pheasants and a "made-right-here-in-America" Winchester Model 21 side-by-side.
To keep in practice between trials, most guns hunt birds in season and then fill out the rest of the year by shooting at public and private preserves, as well as in live pigeon competition. "It doesn't hurt to bang away at clay targets, either," says Imrie, "but it's the rare trap or skeet expert who makes a good trial gun. It's simply too hard for him to forget the calibrated angles that become so mechanical in trap and skeet and learn about all the vagaries of live birds." A good case in point was the champion trapshooter who was invited to gun at a retriever trial in Reno. The judge asked the guns to kill 25 pheasants, which would be used during the trial as part of a double-marking test for the dogs. The trapshooter stepped up next to the bird thrower and, with all those patches on his jacket—50, 100, 200 straight-proceeded to miss 10 birds in a row. He walked back to his car and drove off.
In retriever trials live pheasants and ducks are thrown for the guns while the dogs are on the line. The object is to kill them so they fall in a precisely defined area—rarely more than 40 yards from the guns, but farther than that from the dogs—so that each dog has the same test. Explains one retriever gun: "At best, it's very artificial. But there is so much money in trialing retrievers today—it costs thousands of dollars to train and qualify a dog for the national, and the best candidates may change hands for as much as $20,000—that the owners insist on absolutely uniform tests."
Leonce Fuller, a San Francisco realtor who was captain of the guns at the 1967 national retriever stake, concedes that from the gallery the whole thing may appear rather humiliating for the guns. "I mean, there they are in front of all those people, two guns shooting at a pen-raised bird thrown out right in front of them," says Fuller. "Well, a good thrower, holding a pheasant gently by a wing and a leg, can hurl it out and up—he uses an underarm motion much like pitching horseshoes—a whole lot faster than a wild pheasant can get up out of the grass in a real hunting situation. The guns have to get right on it and drop it precisely where the judges want it. If they don't, it's a 'no bird,' and the dog has to be taken off the line and brought back later for a rerun. Since reruns can work for or against a dog, it is no longer a uniform test. Of course the throwers have to be consistent also, because the guns can only shoot where the birds are."
Shooting where the birds are is the precise summation of the technique, and field-trial guns dearly love to discuss the art ("It's an art, not a science") with anyone who knows the difference between recoil and choke. Assuming the average shotgunner knows that he shoots fewer live birds in 10 years than the official gun does in five trials, there are some fine points of trial gunning worth noting. Most trial guns prefer the single sighting plane of the over/under with a raised metal rib. Springer guns use long barrels (30 or 32 inches) bored tight for long shots, whereas retriever guns like shorter, more open barrels that give wider patterns at closer ranges. Although they all shoot "European style"—they mount their guns after the bird is flushed or thrown—most trial guns eventually settle on customized stocks that are straighter (higher at the comb) than factory field stocks but not necessarily as straight as trap stocks. Explains Dr. White: "You get the same sight picture every time you bring the gun up, and since the majority of birds are climbing, you want the center of the shot pattern just above the point of aim so you can see the bird as you hit it."
The real art of wing-shooting is how to lead a bird, but even the best trial guns can't explain how they do it. Says Leonce Fuller: "Some guns insist that they swing through the bird, shoot and keep following through, in the approved manner. Others say they spot-shoot—point the gun at the bird, pull ahead of it, snap the trigger and stop their swing right there. Actually, I think most of us combine the two. Really it's an impression of timing and instinct, and trial guns simply instinct better than most shooters."
One thing all trial guns do agree on is never to volunteer any information about a dog's performance to the judges. "We are not supposed to second-guess the judges either," says one springer gun, "but sometimes you just have to help give a dog the benefit of the doubt. At the national several years ago, a gun waiting for his turn on the line was following along just behind the judges when he spotted a cock pheasant hunkered down in the grass right in front of him. Now the dog running at the time had just gone through that piece of cover, and if the judges had seen that bird get up, they very likely would have thrown the dog out of the trial for passing it by. Well, the gun calmly pinned the pheasant down with one foot until the judges had moved on 50 yards or so, and then let it take off. After all, the gun is supposed to be the 'good right arm' of the handler and the dog, and we all know that pheasants are notorious runners. That bird might have run in there after the dog went through. Anyway, it says right here in the rule book: 'Guns are to be seen and not heard, except for their shots.' "