Royalty and Tobacco Spitters

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

The Eastern bluebird may be the official state bird, but the bobwhite quail is whistling shrilly in the background, demanding attention from those who should know better.

The quail hunters I grew up with in Chariton County raised a little tobacco, chewed their home-grown, wore overalls, had pointers whose ribs were apparent at 100 yards, carried automatic shotguns that needed improvement to be called "scruffy," could put three quail on the ground before I got the gun to my shoulder and owed a lifetime debt to King Charles II of England.

Why? Charles II seems an unlikely patron saint of quail hunters. He was fond of hunting, wine, women and song-not necessarily in that order. But he was England's first great birdshooter and turned what had been simple meat-gathering for the pot into a sport.

The French took up wingshooting long before my English forebearers did. Louis XIV of France (you may have sat in one of his chairs) was a wingshooting ace. He once killed 32 flying pheasants in 34 shots. Try that sometime (given Missouri's legal limit, it'll take you 16 days).

During Louis' time, the English, who gave us our wingshooting tradition, still were shooting birds on the ground. Charles fled from England to France in 1651 to avoid losing his head. There's only so much wine, women and song-even in France-so Charles turned to wingshooting.

He learned, possibly from Louis XIV himself, the joys of taking birds on the wing, and when he came back to the English throne in 1660, he brought along a birdshooter's mentality that spread to the nobility and, ultimately, to those pesky North American colonists.

The idea of shooting birds began with those who wanted to eat them. Kings pretty much had their choice of menu, so they didn't have to worry about supper. But the lowly serfs did. And they devised ways to trap birds that were inventive then and are illegal today. One was to pierce kernels of grain with horsehair which, when swallowed, would lodge in a pheasant's throat and choke it to death.

Netting birds also was widespread. There was no sport to it; this was work to gather food.

Birds, being fleet of reflex and wing, are tough to gather, but several cultures have managed without benefit of powder and shot. The Aleuts of Alaska used darts that they threw with notched boards, sometimes at birds, mostly at other game.

Australian bushmen used something called a "wommera," which was similar to the historic Native American atlatl, a spear-throwing device which utilized physical laws to give greater momentum to a spear.

Just as the compound bow shoots an arrow faster than a conventional bow so did the atlatl improve spear throwing.

But spearing game birds still was a long way from tumbling them with an elegant Parker double-barreled 20 gauge.

The first shotguns were impossibly primitive for a wingshooter. A matchlock or wheellock took measurable time between ignition and discharge. You pulled the trigger, then time was suspended for what seemed like an eternity while the fire traveled through the powder chain into the chamber, where it ignited and pushed a load of shot in the general direction of the bird or birds which, by then, were almost out of range.

It simply wasn't practical. So birdshooters of 1621 were potshooters. Not to malign our neighbors to the south, but the term is established by time: they Arkansawed them-shot 'em on the ground.

Among other stratagems, bird hunters concocted a brew of lettuce, poppy, henbane and wheat, boiled in wine residue, that would make birds so drunk they'd squat stupidly while the meat-gatherer collected them.

Various elaborate ruses right out of burlesque comedy were the stuff of 17th century potshooters. The stalking horse was one. In one version, the shooter hid alongside a horse and urged the animal close to feeding wildfowl, then stepped out from behind the horse and "blooey"! Blood and feathers for half an acre.

But the silliest version of all was when accomplices would dress up like a horse. Not being the most sophisticated creatures around, game birds would accept this lumbering concoction of fabric and insanely grinning horse head as the real thing.

To their regret.

By the mid-1500s, a few European gunners were wingshooting. Japanese and Spanish gunners took birds on the wing, but the English still preferred their stalking horses and potshooting until Charles came along. The idea of taking a bird on the wing really caught fire, so to speak, when flintlock mechanisms came into use. Flintlocks were faster than wheellocks and enormously faster than matchlocks.

Jim Keefe, retired editor of the Conservationist, is an aficionado of black powder. He is gradually regressing, for he began with caplocks and now hunts with a flintlock.

Quail hunting with him is interesting because when the birds go up, there is an eruption of fire and smoke not unlike that of Mt. St. 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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