Royalty and Tobacco Spitters

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

Helens. Then everyone runs around the billowing smokescreen to see if anything is falling.

Then comes reloading, which takes about the lifespan of a bird dog. Wingshooting with flintlock is leisurely, to say something nice about it.

Caplocks were developed in the early 1800s and eliminated the delay between the fall of the hammer and the detonation of the powder charge. But you still had to load from the front end. There's always the delicious thrill of wondering if a lingering spark will ignite the powder you're pouring down the barrel.

Even with the inconvenience of muzzleloading, breechloading took a long time to develop and become accepted. The first experiments date to the early 1800s, but it was nearly 50 years before a gunmaker, Charles Lancaster, developed a centerfire cartridge and an extractor that gained fairly widespread acceptance.

With fast locks and fast reloading, gunners could concentrate more on shooting technique and less on wondering when the gun was going to fire. In a book called Shooting Flying, written about the time of the Civil War, author A. A. Watts gave advice, in verse, that holds true today:

"Look at but one, with both your eyes;

Then elevate the tube with care,

Still gazing on the bird in air;

Follow it not along the sky,

To take formal aim, but try

To draw the trigger just as you

At the gun's end the object view."

Nash Buckingham, the best-known of the classic upland bird hunting writers, once told outdoor writer John Madson, "Suh, you must learn the art of restraint."

Buckingham's credo was to avoid hasty shots, but mount the gun smoothly and do exactly what Watts recommended: pick a target, swing the barrel through it and fire as the muzzle passes the target, then continue the gun swing (the follow-through).

Hunters have been trying to learn that simple art for centuries, and those of us with flawed gun styles still can't fully absorb the lesson. I once asked a deadly quail shot how he did what he did, expecting arcane talk about angles and leads and so forth.

"I just put the muzzle," he said, "right on their little feathered rear ends and pull the trigger."

Wingshooting is that simple for good shots, especially in this era of the modern quail gun.

Today's bird gun is an amalgam of several centuries of gunmaking innovation. There are specialized chokes, shot loads, powder charges and ignition systems that make the gun as good as it can get just for birds.

The double-barreled gun, whether over/under or side/by/side offers two chokes, on a set of interchangeable choke tubes. A single barrel gun limits you to a single choke. However, choke tubes allow an almost infinite variety of chokes and many modern guns come factory-threaded to receive tubes.

Ammo shelves abound with choices: light loads for smaller birds; "high brass" loads for the big birds, especially pheasant. Shotshell size can range up to 3 1/2 inches.

Most bird hunters settle for a single shot size, most commonly No. 7 1/2 or No. 8, and vary the powder load according to what bird they're hunting (or how well their gun patterns with given loads).

Bird hunting has evolved from a peasant dressed up in a cowhide, herding uneasy partridges into a net, to today's birdshooter with a double-barreled gun that weighs six pounds or less and is a marvel of technology.

Shooting flying birds now is far removed from Charles II unloading an arquebus at a flying bird from a moving horse, but no king ever enjoyed the bird fields any more than does today's Missouri bird hunter.

It has been a 400-year trip and as long as there are bobwhite quail in the fencerows and leggy bird dogs to follow, it'll be a continuing journey.

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