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Early Wing Shooting Competitions: Some More History

posted Jul 15, 2012, 4:26 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Aug 6, 2012, 9:49 AM ]


 A prior article discussed the historical origins of wing shooting. This article discusses the origins of organized shotgun wing shooting competitions.  As discussed in the prior post, wing shooting became popular with the French nobility shortly after the invention of the Flintlock ignition system during the first half of the seventeenth century.  Wing shooting was not made popular in England until later in the 1600s when the courtiers of Charles II brought the sport from France.  The book Gentleman’s Recreation written by Richard Blome in 1688, indicates that wing shooting had established itself in England by that time.

    The exact origin of wing shooting competitions is the subject of various conflicting accounts. However, my guess is that informal wing shooting competitions began at about the same time sportsmen started getting together to go hunting with their shotguns.  The oldest account of a wing shooting competition that I have been able to locate is found in the April 18, 1770 Edition of the London Daily News.  The Article begins: 

    Considering the brilliant weather of Saturday, and the increasing interest in pigeon shooting, its is hardly surprising that there was a very large gathering at the Gun Club Ground of members and other noblemen and gentlemen qualifed by the rules to compete for the First Spring Handicap ... 

    The April 18, 1770 Article goes on to describe the results of a handicap pigeon shooting match.  The handicap was based on an increasing distance between the shooter and the "box" from which the bird was released. Handicaps ranged from 20 to 28 yards.  Unfortantely, the Article does not describe the exact location of the "Gun Club Ground."  However, it appears that there was a pigeon shooting area near Notting Hill which has been referred to as the Gun Club Ground.

    There are a couple of items of interest regarding the April 18, 1770 Article in the London Daily News.  First, while the event was denominated as the "First Spring Handicap", it is clear that shooting of this nature had taken place for some period of time.  "Boxes" were used to hold the birds until they were released.  The concept of handicapping the match by moving the shooter further from the box had already developed.  Finally, each shooter had already established a handicap.

    During the 1770s British newspapers had many articles and advertisements related to pigeon shooting.  The sport of

Advertisment from Hampshire Chronicle - Monday 14 December 1772

pigeon shooting appears fairly well developed at that time. Shooting took place at fixed distances from the "box" from which the pigeons were released.  Prizes, including silver cups, were awarded to the top shot. One example of an advertisement for an upcoming match is shown on the right.  Other examples of these types of articles include The Oxford Journal from 
10 Oct 1772 (Oxford, England); Hampshire Chronicle from 14 Dec 1772 (Hampshire, England); and, The Ipswich Journal Sat 18 Jan 1777 (Suffolk, England)  

    An early comprehensive description of wing shooting competitions can be found in the February, 1793 edition of the Sporting Magazine which was one of the first English periodicals devoted to sports. The first issue was published in October of 1792 and many of the early articles were indented as an introduction to various sporting activities.  The Article on pigeon shooting was contained in the February, 1793 issue of the Sporting Magazine was clearly intended to be an introduction for persons who were not familiar with the sport.   A copy of the illustration which accompanied the Sporting Magazine Article is reproduced above.

    In 1793, pigeon shooting was described as “exceedingly common in almost every part of the kingdom,” The sport was fashionably followed in the counties of Bucks, Berks, Hants and Surry.  During the spring season in these areas, Pigeon shooting was said to be in perpetual succession at one spot or another.  While the sport of pigeon shooting may have been more common in rural areas, it was also popular near London.  The most “reputable” events with the best shooters were said to be held at the Old Hats Tavern in Ealing, a small town near London.

     The sport of pigeon shooting was also discussed by Peter Hawker in the Second Edition of Instructions to Young Sportsman (1816).  Colonel Hawker was not a fan of live pigeon shooting stating that "the knack of killing them consists merely in firing the instant they are up, and being careful not to shoot under them."  He went on to opine that many of the very best live pigeon shooters "are scarcely third rate shots at other birds, and some of them perfect every other kind of shooting."    

    Pigeon shooting, as described in the 1793 Sporting Magazine Article, was similar to the live pigeon shoots which still survive today.   Pigeons were placed in a shallow box of about a foot long and eight or ten inches wide which was sunk in the ground, parallel with the surface.    Shooters were required to shoot from behind a line twenty-one yards from the traps which held the pigeons. (Note: the term “trap” was not used in the 1793 Article).   On the shooter's command, a string was pulled which opened a sliding lid on the trap, allowing the pigeon to take flight.  Shooters were not permitted to shoulder their guns until the bird was on wing.  Once the shot was fired, the bird was required to fall within a fixed distance from the trap in order be counted as a dead bird.  
    New pigeons were placed in the box as soon as a shoot was fired and shooting took place in rapid succession.  Up to fifteen dozen pigeons were shot at a match.   “Live” and “dead” birds were recorded by a referee with either an “I” or an “O”.   The winner of the match was determined by the shooter, or team, which killed most pigeons in the least number of shots,  

A number of sources from the 1800s indicate that the guns used at live pigeon matches evolved over time.

Article from the Morning Post, June 5, 1823
During the late 1700s and early 1800s large bore, single barrel, flint locks predominated. Over time, these large bore guns were replaced with smaller double barrel guns.   William Wellington Greener described the early flintlock guns used at live pigeon matches as “small cannons.”   

    What exactly Greener meant by “small cannons” is not known.   The illustration which accompanied the 1793 Sporting Magazine Article regarding Pigeon shooting (which is reproduced at the top of this Article), shows the shooters holding long barreled flintlock guns.  The guns were all shoulder mounted as opposed to the larger guns used for waterfowl which were mounted on a rest and aimed by use of swivels.  

    The records indicate that Joseph Manton  produced several of the single barrel guns with large bores.  Most of Joseph Manton’s single barrel guns were in the 10 to 16 gauge range.  However, some of his guns were as large as five gauge.  The most famous of these large bore guns was "Big Joe"; a five gauge flintlock owned by Peter Hawker.  Colonel  Hawker used "Old Joe" primarily for hunting waterfowl. However, these large bore guns could have also been used at pigeon shoots as well.

       By the mid-1830s shooting pigeons with smaller double-barreled guns had come into vogue.  Typical double barrel gun during this period was generally 12 gauge or smaller Many of the guns produce by Joseph Manton during this period were in the 18 to 22 gauge range.  With the use of double barreled guns, the shooting procedures where changed so that two birds to be shot at "right and left."

      The popularity of live pigeon shooting in England ebbed and flowed during the muzzle loading era.  At various times, the sport was exceedingly popular.  At other times the sport lost favor.  The primary objections to pigeon shooting were twofold: First, it was claimed that pigeon shooting had the tendency to induce gambling for ruinous stakes.    The second objection was that pigeon shooting competitions would often became “a cloak for publicans and innkeepers in the country to assemble a number of sporting gentlemen at their house, and induce them to spend their money in tavern festivities.”  The tavern festivities was a polite term for a wide variety undesirable activities frequently engaged in by men when they get together for an outing, such as shooting.  Colonel Hawker was more explicit in his book Instructions to Young Sportsman.  He described pigeon shooting as "a glorious opportunity for assembling parties to gamble and get drunk."

    During the period of 1790 through 1860 different shooting venues gained and lost popularity.  Typically, a shooting club would be formed by the several gentlemen of the time as a “respectable” shooting venue.  As the popularity of the club grew, the shoots would inevitably attract a number of “undesirables.”  Ultimately, the club would lose popularity among the “respectable” shooters and new club would be established.  Three of the better known shooting venues in the London area where the Old Hats Tavern, the Red House at Battersea and the Hornsey Wood House. 

The Old Hats Club/Tavern
    One of the oldest names related to pigeon shooting is "Old Hats" which can refer both a location where pigeon shooting took place and a pigeon shooting club.   

    The Old Hats Tavern was a public house on the Uxbridge Road at Ealing.   At the present time, Ealing is a suburban area of west London. It is located approximately 12 miles west of the City of London.  Prior to 1800, Ealing was a rural village, which made it an ideal place to hold shooting competitions.   It is not know when shooting started at the Old Hats Tavern.  However, shooting was clearly taking place by 1793 and likely much earlier.  The Sporting Magazine Article states "there had been fashionable contests at the "Old Hats” public house, on the Uxbridge Road at Ealing, near London." 

    In addition to a Tavern which used the name Old Hats, there was also a shooting club by the same name.  The exact relationship between the Tavern and the Club is not clear.  At least in later years, the Old Hats Club conducted shooting events at locations other than the Old Hats Tavern.  

   The Old Hats Club had been identified as the first live pigeon-shooting club and has been said to have established in 1812.  I believe that Old Hats Club was estaboshied much earlier than 1812.  An Article from the Morning Post (London, England) of Wed 18 May 1825 reported that "the Old Hats Club held their 49th Anniversary Dinner, at the Freemasons' Tavern. The usual festivity, vocal harmony, mirth, and good cheer prevailed."  This would place the establishment of the Old Hats Club at approximately 1776.

Article from the Morning Post - Wednesday 07 July 1824

   The name of the Old Hats Club would also suggest that it was established much earlier than 1812.   The Old Hats Club’s unusual name is said to derive from the way the pigeons were held prior to release; they were placed in small holes in the ground which were covered with old hats to keep the bird from eloping prematurely.  The old hats were tipped over by a long string to release the bird.  As noted above there are a number of newspaper articles form the 1770s that indicate that "boxes" were in use at that time to hold the pigeons in place.

  With improvements in transportation to and from London, culminating with the opening of the railway station in 1838, Ealing lost its rural nature to suburban development. As a result, the Old Hats Club moved its shooting competitions to other locations, including the Red House.

The Red House at Battersea

As the popularity of the Old Hats Tavern diminished, the "Red House" became the favorite resort for wager shooting near London.  During the height of the Red House Club's  popularity between 1826 and early 1832, the club held many events with very large prizes.  The prize for the 1828 championship match at the Red House Club was 1,000 sovereigns.  This sum would be equivalent to approximately $75,000 in current US dollars.

The Red House Club drew its name from the Red House Tavern. The Tavern was located in Battersea on the south bank of the Thames River bank near Chelsea Bridge. Pigeon shooting was conducted behind the house in an enclosure of about 120 yards square. The Battersea district of London is currently considered to be in the heart of the city. However, during the early nineteenth century, Battersea was sufficiently rural to permit sporting events to be conducted, including: horse racing, rowing and sailing competitions, and wing shooting.  

    The Red House was the forum chosen by Joshua Jenour, the inventor of the Eley Patent Wire Cartrige, to demonstrate  the effectiveness of his invention.  Mr. Jenour convinced several of the shooters to use his wire cartridge in competition held in the spring and summer of 1828.  The wire cartridges proved highly effective at the pigeon shooting matches.  Newspaper coverage of the matches indicated that the competitors were able to kill birds at longer distances than had ever been attempted.   

    By 1840 the Red House Club developed a reputation for attracting the “worst sort of characters.”   In 1846 an Act of Parliament empowered the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to form a park in the Battersea Fields, and in 1850 the Red House and its shooting-ground were purchased by them for £10,000. The Red House and shooting enclosure were removed during the mid 1850s.  

Hornsey Wood House.

   A number of sources claim that the first pigeon shooting club was formed at Homsey Wood House. It is also claimed that traps were first used here.  I have found little primary sources which associate pigeon shooting with Hornsey Wood House at an early date,  However, the tavern at Hornsey Wood was an early rural destination for Londoners.  From the 1750s on it became a popular place for Londoners to escape from the smoke and grime of the city and relax in green and pleasant surroundings. In 1758 it was reported to be the most popular resort in the area .

   The Hornsey Wood House reached its height of popularity for pigeon shooting during the 1850s and 1860s.  During the late 1850s, the popularity of pigeon shooting was once again on the rise.  By this time the Red House had a reputation as a "low" public-house. The upper class shooters of the time sought find a different location for their matches.  A contermorary source states  "for reasons which are apparent to all who are in the habit of attending the London shooting matches, the old Hornsey-wood House and grounds are now preferred [to the Red House] by the nobility and others who desire to shoot off their matches at this season of the year,    

    In 1866 the demand for public recreation spaces overtook the Hornsey Wood Tavern. The house and its amenities were swept away to make way for the new Finsbury Park.

Part Two of this Article will look at early wing shooting competitions in the United States.