A woman only knows she’s a good shot when the men stop telling her she is…
Sir Joseph Nickerson
Shooting grounds are literally crawling with lady guns, especially the ones in the Home Counties, at around 9am after the school run. Over the past 10 or 15 years the different shooting schools have really pushed their marketing at women and it’s worked. Shooting instructors report that women learn a lot faster and listen more carefully to instructions than male shots – they really do get very good at it much more quickly. Some go on to become competitive clay shots and say it’s the perfect antidote to a stressful home life bringing up young children! The knock on effect is that lady guns are no longer so few and far between on the shooting field these days. This is great for the sport, and shooting certainly cannot be accused anymore of being a purely male preserve.
However, while it is no longer as extraordinary today as it was in the early 1980s to meet a lady shot on a driven day, it is still not exactly an every day occurrence and their presence can still cause a bit of a frisson of interest amongst not just the Guns but the shoot staff too. It is even less common to meet a woman who shoots as well as a man. I was at a shoot recently in Sussex and there was another lady Gun shooting which was lovely for me as being the only girl all the time can be rather awkward. We got the giggles when the shoot host who was running a very rare commercial day, stood up in the Gun bus and announced that in the 90 year history of the shoot they had only ever had one lady Gun shooting there, and certainly never two lady Guns on the same day..…. He genuinely seemed quite astounded to have two ladies in the line and I don’t think the comment was meant to make us feel particularly welcome!
It naturally goes without saying that you should treat any lady gun you come across on the shooting field with utmost respect and consideration. Any misogynistic comments or behaviour will be much frowned upon by your fellow Guns, not to mention the lady Gun herself. You may risk unleashing untold fury, which could backfire on you in the first drive later on.
However well intentioned and polite your comments are, they are unlikely to be well received. Chances are if there is a lady Gun on a driven bird day, shooting in the line, then she will be fairly serious about her shooting, and patronizing comments should be avoided. My advice here would be: keep on the safe side, don’t single her out, and don’t draw attention to the fact she is a woman shooting, just treat her as a welcome member of the shooting team.
Speaking as a lady gun myself and despite having over 30 years experience shooting, I am still prone to nerves before the day starts. The last thing I want is for some fellow Gun to go blundering in, singling me out in front of everyone, asking me questions which he would never dream of asking a male Gun, such as ‘So, how much shooting have you done?’ My advice to any male Gun would be: try and refrain from expressing surprise or delight at the fact she is shooting with you, certainly don’t enquire if she’s using ‘a little 20 bore’. For the moment, she just wants to be one of the team, nothing more, nothing less.
If you think you are under pressure on a shoot day as a male gun, you need to magnify that feeling by about 1000 to truly understand the thoughts of the lone lady Gun shooting away from her own territory and comfort zone, as she greets her fellow guests at the start of the day. She will more than likely be feeling incredibly nervous because she knows that unless she shoots straight, behaves impeccably and is every bit as good as the men, she won’t somehow be accepted as ‘worthy’ of acceptance amongst you. For years shooting was such a male orientated sport and she knows she cannot afford to put a foot wrong. What’s worse, if she does make a mistake, it won’t go unnoticed. A novice lady shot will feel this all the more acutely.
The fact that the presence of a lady Gun incites a fair degree of curiosity is just one of those things she has live with. Rather unfairly, everyone, from the fellow Guns, to the beaters, flankers and keepers, will either consciously or unconsciously, be keeping half an eye on her. Usually it’s just out of curiosity. They are just interested to see if she’s safe, or can shoot straight, or if her dog behaves, or whatever it is: if she cocks it up, she will be the talk of the beater’s wagon and you can be sure it will be ten times more noticed by everyone than a male shot. Fortunately all these worries and nerves usually dissipate if she connects with a few birds during the first drive and most lady guns relax visibly after this!
The tricky bit for any wannabe-perfect guest is at the start of the day, trying to distinguish the experienced lady Gun from the novice lady Gun. While the former just wants to be treated like the rest of the team, the latter would no doubt appreciate a little more consideration and reassurance than you would normally offer to a fellow gun. The problem is, you won’t know whether she is a novice shot or not until the day gets under way. So for now, don’t do or say anything differently than you would to a male Gun.
Women are safer shots
Lady Guns are on the whole far safer shots than male Guns, this is because they are naturally the more cautious of sexes and the majority don’t have quite the same killing instincts as men. This, coupled with the fact that they don’t tend to get plastered at lunch, means that if you have drawn next to a lady Gun, one thing you don’t need to fear for, is your personal safety. She is far more likely to be a safer shot than you. However, Your pride may come under attack…
As the first drive progresses, I would strongly recommend you don’t poach her birds. If she were a novice shot, this would be unforgivable, as it would be for any novice shot male or female and if she is a crack shot, it is asking for trouble. Err on the side of safety and leave a few of those birds flying right between you both, for her. If she dispatches them beautifully, each with a single shot, you know that you don’t need to be quite so generous the next time.
Types of Lady Guns
There are many different types of lady Guns, I have attempted to describe the main three, to enable you more accurately recognize which is which, with the intention of enabling you to better relate to lady guns, and not annoy or upset any of them, which can be dangerous and will also affect your status as the perfect guest. As you will discover, each kind of lady gun needs and deserves different handling. Just to warn you, it will be virtually impossible to work out which category a lady Gun falls into, until the first drive or two are under way.
1. The Townie Gun-Toting Chick will have recently taken up shooting, encouraged by a doting boyfriend or husband, or perhaps, because she wants to keep an eye on him! She may not be the country type exactly, but she will probably have been very well taught and she may well go for weekly clay-busting lessons. Her lack of experience will only show when a walking gun or if she has to do snap shooting in a wood. She may not have a crack at a magpie and her marking probably won’t be up to much either.
2. The Country Keenie will have grown up doing a bit of shooting as a girl, but on the whole she may have been sent as a beater as her brothers may have grabbed any spaces in the line. Now older and probably married to a shoot fanatic, she’s taken up shooting properly. Although she has come late to the sport, she will at least know what’s expected, so what she lacks in skill is made up by the fact she knows the correct form. Given enough shooting opportunities she may well turn into an excellent all round shot.
3. The Killer Bitch has shot since the age of ten and is every bit as experienced and blood-thirsty as your average male shot, and quite possibly more so. She will tuck into screaming high pigeons while waiting for the drive to start, she will land birds on your head to wake you up or prove a point. She probably shoots twice or three times a week. She may well practise clay shooting out of season to keep her eye in and is often to be on charity clay days. The term ‘Killer Bitch’ was first coined when I wrote about them in The Field in 2004 and you patronize them at your peril…
(Cartoons reproduced with the kind permission of Oliver Preston)
Clothing for the lady shot
Lady shots have never had it so good in terms of shooting clothes. There is a very wide choice as several of the more traditional companies now have a good selection of good ladies wear – such as Holland and Holland and Purdey’s. Other suppliers specialise in ladies shooting clothes such as The Really Wild Clothing Company, which was launched in 2002 and now has fourteen outlets. It was a very different story twenty years ago, when all the lady shot had available to her was men’s jackets in a size small and a very narrow selection of shooting knickerbockers (a comprehensive list of suppliers will be found in the Appendix at the end of the book).
If you are starting from scratch, I would recommend an elegant but practical tweed jacket, designed for women, but not too garish a colour, and a couple of pairs of plus fours. Some pretty checked shirts and V-neck sweaters in country colours will complete the picture. For cold days, you should purchase some thin silk polo-necks which will really keep you warm, and some fine woollen tights for under your plus fours. A lightweight waterproof jacket which can be rolled up small, and easily carried about, but large enough to cover your tweed jacket, is useful in a downpour. In addition, a pair of waterproof trousers is vital for any lady accompanying the Guns because it means she can sit anywhere and not worry she will get her trousers wet or muddy. She can peel the waterproofs off at lunchtime and know that her plus fours will be spotless.
Gloves are important for girls as they tend to suffer more than men from cold hands. Hats, of the sort that stay put in a high wind are also essential for keeping you dry and warm. (I would suggest not too much fur anywhere if you want to look the part in the UK) A good scarf is practical as it can be wrapped around your ears if the wind really gets up. Silk squares, worn as scarves may look attractive to start off with but soon turn very sorry and limp in the rain and don’t keep you warm at all.
Lady Guns on Lady Guns
Having spoken to many lady Guns on this subject, they all say that nine times out of ten the worst thing you might encounter on the field is some mildly patronizing behaviour, or some initial condescension. The words you least want to hear as a lady shot are: ‘Not a bad shot for a woman!’ but unfortunately this does still happen! As my father used to say: ‘A woman only knows she’s a good shot when the men stop telling her she is.’ This is certainly true! However, in my opinion any condescension from male Guns unintentional but they can be rather tactless. Once you have shot with them and displayed that you are safe and can shoot straight, they usually relax and totally accept you as one of the men.
A fellow lady gun, Karen Hargreaves took up shooting around ten years ago, was once invited on a double gun day. As she only had one gun, she had borrowed a pair from a friend. At the start of the shoot day, before they had drawn numbers, she had a quick practice mounting the borrowed guns to decide whether to use them or just stick with her own gun. At that precise moment her loader for the day appeared. He was clearly horrified at the idea at having to load for a lady Gun. When he saw her practising mounting her gun, he asked: ‘Have you shot flying birds before?’ Her husband, a very humorous chap replied: ‘Oh, they’re flying birds, no one told us they’d be flying!”
After the first drive the loader, rather shame-faced congratulated her saying: ‘Oh, I see you have shot flying birds before then…’
Daphne Hanbury, who grew up shooting quail at home in Mississippi came over to the UK and married a Brit in the 1980s. She is a very handy shot with her 12 bores: ‘I’ve often been the first girl to ever shoot on an estate, from down in Cornwall to Scotland. It says a lot for the host, they had no hang ups. But I had my fair share of other guns really squinting at you, and I could tell they were thinking: “She’s either going to kill us or not hit a thing”. But if you shoot the first bird of the day, you can relax! You don’t need to shoot anything else all day! The worse thing about being a lady gun is there often isn’t anywhere you can disappear to, there’s always a stop or a picker up hanging around at the start of a drive, and at the end, so many people are wandering around everywhere that you just daren’t bare your bottom!’’
As you can imagine, it’s very hard for a lady shot to properly break into shooting and be invited to shoot in her own right. The best lady shots are either married to keen shooting men and have their own shoot estate or estates, or have been born to a shooting family and have had access to it from a young age. Without these advantages, its very hard for them to rack up the number of driven days required to become a really decent shot.
Ladies’ Days for this reason, are a good way for an experienced lady shot to take part in a driven day without the added pressure of feeling ‘different’ as the only lady shot on a ‘normal’ day when the Guns will be all male. I haven’t been on many, but my experience of them is that they are immensely confidence boosting, with a pervasive non-competitive atmosphere, where everyone is totally charming to each other, if anything everyone holds back rather, not wanting to seem too aggressive! Bill Tyrwhitt-Drake holds an annual Ladies Day on his estate at East Meon and has encouraged loads of women to start shooting in the line, including his wife Philippa who now shoots regularly. Some estates use ladies’ days as flying practice for the partridges in early September, because the keeper knows that the Guns will shoot carefully and sparingly!
On the whole, experienced lady shots tend not flock to Ladies days. The Duchess of Northumberland is renowned as a superb shot; indeed the whole family shoot amazingly including her four children, two of whom are daughters. ‘I have never been on a Ladies’s Day. Because I’ve only ever shot on mixed days, I can’t really see the point of them. I think its quite patronising for a shoot owner to say: “We’ll have a Ladies Day, and husbands will stand behind”. I love to have two or three other women in the line, on a normal mixed day. We often shoot the six of us, (family), we make up most of the line, with six badly behaved dogs! There is only room for two guests…’
Frankie Duckworth, who can hold her own against most male shots, grew up in Lancashire and has shot since the age of 15, after a real fight to earn the right to start shooting. But she picked it up fast and later spent four years working as a shooting instructor… Frankie is invited everywhere and shoots as much as she can. She says: ‘I shoot badly on ladies days because you have to be so bloody polite! I shoot far better when I’ve got to be competitive and when I shoot with people who are better than me.’
Men behaving badly…
The Duchess of Northumberland has also occasionally fallen foul of misogynistic behaviour: ‘As a lady shot, you have to be able to shoot as well or better than the men… People are watching and waiting to spot the one you missed.
I was shooting grouse in Yorkshire, and I was very lucky, I was in the thick of it, and Ralph was helping me pick up after the drive, and we saw a fellow Gun come up to the butt and started flicking my spent cartridges with his stick into a pile… So Ralph took him to one side and asked him what he was doing and he said: “I’ve seen the grouse on the top of the butt, and I’m trying to work out the ratio of birds to cartridges” We couldn’t believe it!’
Thankfully these incidents of misogyny out shooting are rare and what’s far more common is for fellow guns to greet you like a long lost friend even though you have no clue who they are, because its so much harder to remember and place someone in context you have met once and shot with a few years ago, because seven or eight identikit green and tweed-clad gents all somehow merge into one distant memory… And yet you have remained etched onto their memory, which can make it embarrassing when you are scrabbling around to remember their name…
Despite the plethora of clay shooting courses aimed specifically for women and the increase in ladies’ days, a lot of lady guns remain on the clay circuit and don’t really venture out onto mixed driven days. A combination of lack of opportunity or perhaps the fear of trespassing onto what is still a very male sport keeps them away. In a lot of cases their husbands or boyfriends, although happy enough for their girlfriends or wives to buy a gun and go on a clay-shooting course, draw the line at actually sharing a gun with them on a driven day, or Heavens Above! – Giving up their own peg in the line for them. Buying two pegs in the line is very expensive, and a real deterrent for most shooting couples, who tend to share a gun.
I have heard a loathsome expression said, I think part in jest, about women on the shooting field, ‘Women double the cost and halve the fun’, but some no doubt really believe it to be true…
These days a negative reaction towards a woman out shooting is positively prehistoric but you do occasionally hear of old fuddy-duddies grumbling into their bull-shot. One can only assume these men feel threatened in some way… In a letter to The Field, in the March 08 issue a Mr David Rees of Hampshire writes: ‘In these parts it is accepted that birds are best put over the line, not in it. I have heard of isolated incidents but generally people here have concluded that the lady gun is more effective at cooking game than shooting it and the only positive to come from a ladies’ day is that you can squeeze and extra day in at the end of the season.’
Perhaps these grumbling dinosaurs have only encountered one species of lady Gun who probably let the side down, you know, the Wet and Hopeless kind of lady shot: The kind who need two men to help them over a fence, who can’t carry their own gun, who sit in the vehicle if it’s raining, they don’t mark or pick their birds, and don’t think it matters if they don’t hit a thing all day. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then go and forget to tip the keeper. If a man behaved like that, they wouldn’t be asked again, but because they are female, they somehow get away with it. This kind of lady gun does untold damage to the reputation of all lady guns, who then rather unfairly get tarred with the same brush.
On the whole, most Guns would agree that a mixed team makes for a more enjoyable day. David Hicks, an American who has made Britain his home, is a keen shot who takes numerous days up and down the country for himself and his friends:
‘I always want to put forward the best line I can, firstly in terms of safety, and secondly, socially. If anyone can shoot, is safe and amusing then great. I really enjoy shooting with ladies in the line and lunch is definitely more enjoyable with a few ladies round the table.’
Regarding any specific advice for a lady gun being the perfect guest, I would say that all the advice in this book holds good for a lady shot just as for a male shot. However, there are a few little pointers specifically aimed at lady shots, gleaned from my own experience as a lady gun, which may be of some use.
Do’s and Don’ts for lady guns:
Shake hands with guests you haven’t met before at the start of the day, but feel free to kiss them goodbye at the end of the day, this is perfectly acceptable, (unless they have been truly ghastly to you).
Avoid any garment with too much fur trimming or feathers on it – you don’t want to be regarded as a fashion plate.
Don’t wear too much make up on shoot days, for the same reason.
If a neighbouring shot is being greedy or patronizing, stand up for yourself.
If you are shooting like a drain, don’t bang on about it and whatever you do, don’t cry or walk off.
If you are shooting brilliantly, and nobody’s said anything, don’t brag but compliment your neighbour instead.
Don’t expect others to run errands for you or carry your gun just because you are a lady shot.
If it’s pouring with rain and you have forgotten your waterproofs, it’s NOT ok to ask if you can remain in the vehicle ‘just for this drive’.
Remember to take enough cash with you, for the keeper, the sweepstake, etc.
When looking for a discreet place to have a pee, always check and double check that you are well hidden, – beware pickers-up and stops!
Try to avoid using the downstairs loo at lunch: you will be trespassing on hallowed male ground.
Don’t kiss the keeper goodbye, a handshake containing his tip is all he’s expecting!
Rosie Whitaker (nee Nickerson)
For the last 17 years, she has freelanced for various different magazines on shooting and other country pursuits, particularly for Tatler, and The Field.
She was lucky enough to have a long country apprenticeship in the shooting field as she grew up in Lincolnshire, in a family who were all shooting fanatics. As a result she was encouraged to start shooting very young, aged nine. Ever since, she has shot all over the UK, and parts of Europe, but mostly in the North of England.
She is very interested in all aspects of shooting, from conservation, to shoot management and she is passionate about good manners on the field as well as good sportsmanship.
Her book, How to be Asked Again , How to be the Perfect Shooting Guest, has sold over 9,000 copies since it was published by Quiller Press in October 2009. It is also selling very well in America and is listed with one of the top publishers.
If information, contacts or advice on any aspect of shooting are required for editorial, film, TV, or radio, she is happy to come on board as freelance writer or advisor.