Increasing the bag by decreasing the odds
A London 'best' boxlock by E.M. Reilly, circa 1892.

A London 'best' boxlock by E.M. Reilly, circa 1892.

On a warm October day in South Dakota last season, an unusual event took place: Five hunters took to the cane rows, each armed with a shotgun made in England before 1900.

One was a sidelever Boss with Damascus barrels, another a vintage H&H; there was an early Westley Richards boxlock, a John Blanch hammergun, and my own E.M. Reilly boxlock with its 30-inch Damascus barrels.

The chambers were universally 2½-inch, and we were all using appropriate ammunition: One or 1 1/16-ounce loads, with #6 or #7 shot. The average velocity was in the 1,150 fps range—standard game loads without a hint of magnum.

Not the right choice for wild and free South Dakota pheasants? Perhaps not, according to both the ammunition makers and most of the people writing about such things. The trend today is toward heavy loads with at least 1¼ ounces of shot and maybe as much as 1½. Tales abound of pheasants flushing wild, forcing shots of 50, 60, or even 70 yards in some hallucinogenic accounts.

You might ask whether we were hunting truly wild birds or planted pheasant, and the question is legitimate given the practices found in South Dakota (and elsewhere) these days. The answer is, they were wild birds hunted under wild conditions. The farmland was private, and the limit was three roosters per day, per each.

The wet weather meant very little of the corn crop had been harvested. With little open ground, we hunted in plots of cane or in CRP grass that sometimes reached to our shoulders, hoping we could find a bird if we downed one.

Our dogs were two old friends, Broto the Gordon setter and Leon the English setter. Both are big rangy animals, and both were a year older and more experienced than when we hunted last. They worked close, ranging back and forth in front of us, but in the long grass, points were considerably less common than flushes. There was by no means a shortage of pheasants, but there was a shortage of walking them up on a steadfast point.

Our procedure was to station some guns along a break that would encourage running pheasants to fly, and then the rest of us, with the dogs in front, would walk through the grass to push the birds. Sometimes it worked; other times the birds would hold and then flush as we approached; most often, though, the birds would bunch and then flush in flocks of a dozen or more. With many birds in the air at the far reaches of practical shotgun range, it wasn’t easy to pick out a rooster and get any kind of reasonable shot.

With birds erupting far out, you would think we would be at a disadvantage with our light game guns and loads. But it didn’t turn out that way.

My Reilly has a wide-open right barrel and a “choke” left barrel: .004 and .036 inch of constriction, or roughly cylinder and extra-full. When the gun was made (circa 1892), choke was a recent development, and the nuances of constriction had yet to make their appearance. This was also true for most of the other guns in the field that day.

My ammunition was Baschieri & Pellagri “High Pheasant” 2½-inch, with 30 grams (1 1/16 ounces) of #7 shot. I like this for the Reilly, which weighs only six pounds, four ounces. The B&P Gordon-system base wad is gentle on both gun and shooter, but terrifically effective.

The other ammunition in the field that day was Gamebore or RST, all 2½-inch, all standard English game loads.

Tommy de Grey

Tommy de Grey

Ring-necked pheasants are the most popular game bird in the United Kingdom, so British ammunition makers know what they require. Except that the vast majority of pheasants shot there are driven birds, and incoming pheasants present a different picture than outgoing birds or crossing shots flushed by a dog. On the other hand, the English make a fetish of shooting “high” pheasants (archangels), so it probably evens out.

Prior to this five-day venture to South Dakota, I hunted with the Reilly once, for wild bobwhite quail in Georgia, where it acquitted itself well with B&P 7/8-ounce loads of #9s. I didn’t know how it would react to the heavier High Pheasant loads. Perhaps I was tentative. Whatever the reason, the first night I came in with two pheasants to show for about a dozen shots, and was feeling distinctly incompetent.

I couldn’t think of anything to do differently in terms of gun or load. In terms of shooting opportunities, though, I could do one thing, and that was to be highly selective. With no choke in one barrel and too much in the other, I would have to pick my spots carefully, and hope that luck would present me with enough suitable flushes.

We began day two with a long drive through some CRP land whose dense grass was shoulder-high. The pheasants moved off in front of us, toward a mown road that separated two large patches of grass, with another lane down the side separating the grass from tall corn. The dogs bumped birds, and those that flushed veered immediately into the corn, avoiding our standing guns.

Finally, a raft of pheasants rose and shots scattered up and down. I picked out one rooster and dumped him into the corn, then noticed another in the air and took him with the left barrel. He crumpled and fell near the first one, or so I thought, and I raced over to collect the bag. I found the first bird, stone dead, but never did find the second one. My first double with the Reilly goes into the book, alas, as “unconfirmed.”

And that was the last time I fired the gun’s left barrel. The reason? I never needed to. Whether I relaxed or gained confidence, I don’t know, but a half-hour later I dropped another rooster that rose from the cane and beat to my left. And after lunch, Broto pointed a big rooster among some pines; the bird flew straight, the gun boomed, and Broto pounced.

What followed was about as unusual for me as breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. On day three I collected three birds with four shots, did the same on day four, and on the last day came in with two birds in the bag and one bird unfound: three more shots, all from the wide-open right barrel, at ranges from about 10 yards on a fledgling rooster that flushed from under my feet, to a high climber, to a couple of hard-flying crossing shots 30 or 35 yards out.

Counting two birds I downed but didn’t find, the final tally for the last four days was 13 birds with 15 shots.

I mention this not to boast about my shooting but to point out the effectiveness of gun and load under circumstances that many would insist required heavier loads and tighter chokes. The others in the group, similarly equipped, delivered their quota of birds at the end of each day, most from doing just what I did: being careful to wait for the right shot, and not taking pokes at far-off birds.

As it turned out, we all had more than enough good chances to get the birds we wanted without leaving many wounded out in the corn. In fact field conditions, more than equipment limitations, dictated that we hunt by guile and patience. With the corn uncut and the grass so high, we wanted to take close-in birds to ensure we found those we downed.

Broto and Leon found and brought in their share of pheasants for us, but with so many birds around it was difficult for them to sort out one scent from another.

No hawks.  No coyotes.  And dreams of pheasants.

No hawks. No coyotes. And dreams of pheasants.

On the last afternoon, we ventured once more into a patch of trees called Broto’s Wood, because the big Gordon always seems to find something there. This time he acted strange, as though on a running bird, and I circled a thicket to find Broto nuzzling a tiny, panicky gray tabby kitten. With no mother to be found and no habitation for miles, we brought him home, named him Tommy de Grey (after Lord Ripon), and fed him a bowl of warm milk and stewed pheasant. He slept in a cartridge box on the long drive home from South Dakota.

Wieland didn’t need another cat, but Broto would never forgive him if he left the kitten for the hawks and the blizzard that struck South Dakota a day later. If the red gods gave him 13 pheasants with 15 shots, they also gave him Tommy de Grey, and one doesn’t say no to the red gods.

This article appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal in April, 2009.

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