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What in the World is a British Game Gun?

by Bill Hanus

It turns out that the English and American shotguns and shooting techniques are separated by more than the Atlantic Ocean. In Game Gun, Rich Grozik defines the English Best game gun like this: "Straight-gripped stocks with slender forearms complement hand/eye coordination like no other design. Pistol grips and ponderous forearms serve only to depress the instinctive response of hand to gun, and eye to target. Handling dynamics, then, is one of the game guns’ greatest credentials."

Don Zutz, in Shotgunning Trends in Transition, takes it a step further by describing British game guns in combination with their shooting style. "Their slender, straight-gripped game guns are lethal when used with the technique devised for them. Both the British game gun and the so-called ’Churchill’ technique are far more dynamic than the long, heavy-barreled guns ... employed by so many stateside hunters."

In an effort to quantify this "slender, straight-gripped game gun", I measured the circumference at the wrist of a 28 gauge Holland & Holland game gun. It measured 3 15/16 of an inch. This helps define the "slender" aspect of the game gun and, of course, begs comparison.

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You and the Churchill Method
The first expression I could find of the Churchill shooting technique was in the 1922 Churchill Best Guns, a sales brochure. "Success today goes to the man who, so to speak, throws up his gun and looses it off without thought or calculation. Study and practice lie behind this simple act, but its successful accomplishment depends on...."

My take on the Churchill shooting technique is that a game gun as described above is required, and that a "straight-gripped stock with slender forearm" gun has to have some cast-off for a right-handed shooter. There are many other considerations of course, but it is obvious that any system that requires you to keep your eyes on the bird while bringing up the gun and firing as it touches the shoulder, is going to need some cast in the butt stock.

Grouse, woodcock and quail in heavy cover offer narrow windows of opportunity. Those who score on such game may in reality be closet Churchill shooters, or use poke `n shoot, intuitive or instinctive shooting styles adapted to their needs. Whatever the case, all would agree that as far as guns are concerned, "handiness is everything."

Contrasts with the American Shooting Technique
Don Zutz writes "the self-taught style of most American bird hunters ... is a slow, jerky, two-part move with 1) the gun first being brought solidly to the shoulder and the head wiggled into place before 2) the swing is started after the flying mark." On top of which Zutz says, "American 12-gauge side-by-sides always have been heavier, topping 7 pounds with any conventional barrel length and tending toward a weight-forward condition. Doubles of this sort are simply not the ultimate as responsiveness goes; thus, a lot of America’s most collectible doubles have draggy handling and swinging characteristics akin to those of repeaters."

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You may have noticed that many old doubles seem to have low combs or lots of drop at the heel. I suspect that many early makers substituted low combs for cast. When a round-faced person "cheeks" a high-combed, cast-neutral gun, his face pushes the stock down and to the right, causing the gun to shoot high and to the left. By lowering the comb or the drop at heel, the old-time maker may have been trying to get shooters to "jaw" instead of "cheek" the stock and minimize the facial push down and to the right.

In any event, Don Zutz completes the idea. "For although many American-made doubles are now cherished collectors’ items, they gained those values primarily because of scarcity and rarity, not because of their shooting qualities."

"Handiness is Everything"
The Churchill Best Guns brochure contains what I think is one of the best discussions of gun balance found anywhere in print. "In this connection we emphasise (sic) the distinction between ’live’ and ’dead’ balance. The later can be obtained by the addition of lead to the butt, in fact, the centre (sic) of gravity of a gun may, by that means, be shifted to almost any desired spot. But ’live’ balance cannot because it is the quality which determines the ability of the gun to receive the motion willed by the shooter. A gun which is ballasted fore and aft is always sluggish."

"To Receive the Motion Willed By the Shooter"
To be able to "throw up your gun and loose it off without thought or calculation" translates to American as, "at the instant of the flush -- your shotgun should become an extension of your will." We owe our English cousins special thanks for the "slender, straight-gripped" game gun designed, it seems, to be an extension of your will.

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