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What is in a name: Fowler, Fowling Piece or Shotgun.

posted Dec 16, 2013, 7:56 AM by Peter Lucas

    An advertisement for an H&R Shotgun recently caught my attention.  The advertisement suggested that that the term "shotgun" originated in America in 1776.  The clear implication was that the shotgun was something of an American invention.  

    According to Wikipedia, th
e first recorded use of the term “shotgun” occurred in Kentucky in 1776.   No reference is given for this factoid and I have been unable locate any supporting original source material indicating the context for the original use of the word "shotgun."   While I have not been able to find the exact source of the term "shotgun", my research indicates that the term most likely originated along the American frontier about the time of the American Revolution.  However, this does not mean that the shotgun was an American invention.  The name “shotgun” was merely a new term for a "fowling piece" which had been in existence for decades.  Indeed, what we now consider to be a shotgun was referred to as a "fowling piece" through out both America and Great Britain well into the 1800s.  

    Today, the terms Fowler, Fowling Piece and Shotgun are all applied to a firearm which intended to shoot at flying birds. This was not always the case. This article attempts to trace the use and meaning of the terms fowling piece, fowler,  and shotgun over time.   
What (or more appropriately who) is a Fowler

    Originally, a fowler was a person, not a gun. A fowler was a person who hunted birds or fowl.  After the invention of the firearm, fowlers certainly used guns to harvest birds, but the art of fowling was not limited to shooting.   The distinction between a fowler and his gun, is borne out by the dictionaries published during the 18th Century.     According to A General Dictionary of the English Language by Thomas Sheridan (1780), the term fowler referred to a sportsman who pursued birds.  See: alsoDictionarium Britannicum:(1736) [a fowler is a bird catcher].    The guns used by the fowlers were called fowling pieces. See: 1728 Cyclopaedia which defined a fowling piece as a portable firearm for the shooting of birds.

  It is easy to forget that the sport of "fowling"
predates the invention of the gun by thousands of years.   There are several references to fowlers in the Bible. See: Psalm. 91:3; 124:7Prov. 6:5Jer. 5:26Hos. 9:8Ezek. 17:20Eccl. 9:12 .  Prior to use of fire arms, fowling took many different forms including the use of  rapacious birds (such as eagles or hawks), nets, snares, bird-lime, dogs and other devices.   

  The illustration to the left from Gentleman’s Recreation (1688) depicts a variety of fowilng techniques.   In the foreground two fowlers are deploying a net over a covey of birds which have been discovered by what appears to be a pointing dog in crouching position.  In the background of the illustration,  a flock of birds are seen being herded into a funnel shaped net by a fowler who is using a horse for concealment.  Presumably, this herding technique was used during the molting season when the birds were incapable of flight.   

   In addition to the use of nets, a common method of fowling was the use of an adhesive substance known as "bird lime" which was used to catch birds much like modern fly paper. The bird lime adhesive was spread on  nets, branches, twigs, or other vegetation.  Once landed on the adhesive, the birds would be become stuck making it easy for the fowler to catch them. A popular form  of bird lime was
made from holly

    Early matchlock guns proved useful for certain types of fowling.  While match lock guns were not well suited for shooting at flying birds, they were highly effective on stationary targets such as roosting birds.  Fowlers developed a variety of techniques for approaching flocks of birds.  Special low profile boats were developed which allowed the gunner to stealthily get within range of flocks of waterfowl.  On land, fowlers concealed themselves behind a "stalking horse" as they approached flocks of birds on the ground.  The illustration to the right shows a fowler using a stalking horse to approach waterfowl.  

    The flintlock was developed in France in approximately 1615.  With the development of the flintlock, it became practical for the Folwer to begin shooting at flying birds.   By 1688 Richard Blome, the author of Gentleman’s Recreation, stated that “it is now the mode to shoot flying.”   The gun used by the fowler was termed a "fowling piece."

      As wing shooting became popular, guns began to adapted to the needs of the fowler. The fowling pieces of the time were often light pieces which were formed to swing through a bird in flight.  By contrast, the guns intended for military uses were generally referred to as muskets.  As a general rule,  muskets were a sturdier weapon, with thick barrels and a means for attaching a bayonet.