Tales of the Exceedingly Strange (I)

Not the greatest photo, but it will do. This is a Purdey, with Damascus barrels, dating from 1881. Not quite what you see out of the corner of your eye when focusing on the target, but doing that caused the camera image to blur into vague nothingness. This is actually closer to what the eye perceives. That day on the trap field, nothing was visible except the bead. Nothing.

by Terry Weiland

Every so often, something happens that defies explanation. On a trap range last week, something occurred that I have never before experienced or even heard of.

Shooting by myself, with the Garmin Xero S1 radar unit set up, the goal was to see where a pair of century-old live-pigeon guns were shooting, relative both to what I was seeing, and to each other. There’s no need to go any further into it than that, except to say one was a Purdey, made in the early 1880s, and the other a W&C Scott Monte Carlo B, probably made about 30 years later.

The Purdey has Damascus barrels with a traditional concave rib, polished and blued, and a lone, tiny bead at the muzzle. The Scott, being of a vintage when big-money pigeon shoots were being held all over and technology was progressing apace, has a raised rib, cross-hatched, with generous ivory beads both at the muzzle and mid-barrel, not unlike a modern trap gun.

Conditions were what we used to call, in the days of silver-bromide photography, “cloudy bright.” There was a gossamer layer of clouds uniformly covering the sky, and the sun was just visible through them, with its light diffused.

At one point as I was shooting, conditions became such that I could see the barrels to align them with the top of the trap house, but as soon as the bird appeared and I swung to follow it, the barrels completely disappeared. I mean, gone! Like they were no longer there. With the Purdey, all that was visible was the lonely little bead, floating way out there on a uniform sea of steel grey. The barrels so accurately reflected the sky that they disappeared into it.

W&C Scott pigeon gun with cross-hatched rib and two beads. Not radically different, given the lighting, than the Purdey with its normal, polished rib. Both, however, give the “converging railroad track” effect of a side-by-side.

The sun was up and to my right — it was around noon here in Missouri, if that tells you where the sun would have been — but that didn’t really matter.  Whether I swung left, right, or straight up, the barrels dissolved into the clouds.

I switched to the Purdey’s other set — blued fluid steel — and they did the same.  So did the barrels of the Scott, although there I was greatly assisted by the cross-hatched rib and two white beads.

We are always told that, in wingshooting, you should look at the flying target, not the barrels, and that’s certainly true.  However, we always see the barrel — or something — peripherally.  There is a difference between “seeing” and “looking at.”  A big difference.

The century-long argument about over/unders versus side-by-sides, accompanied by the inaccurate term “single sighting plane,” often includes artist’s renderings of what SxS barrels look like compared to, say, a Browning Superposed with a raised rib. These are highly misleading, because when the gun is at your shoulder, the barrels of a side-by-side are not clearly delineated, even if you stare directly at them.  What you see are shadows and reflections.

Depending on the light, there are shadows or reflections along the outer edges of the barrels, and shadows along the valleys beside the rib, all converging at the muzzle like railroad tracks disappearing in the distance. 

Since one set converges from the left, and the other from the right, these are an aid to pointing, not a hindrance, and the bead, if any, is superfluous. As a rule, beads serve about the same purpose as an ear-ring on a beautiful woman going out for the evening. They give a dressed up, finished look.

But back to the trap field.  With the barrels disappearing as if by magic, I was hitting about one bird in two.  Worse, I was seriously disconcerted by it. Something familiar was missing, all I had left was the bead, and it was looking tinier by the shot, as lost and confused as I was.

You may be wondering if this affected the Garmin.  Indeed it did.  About 25 per cent of the time, it did not record the shot, and two or three times it flashed up a message to the effect that it had failed to track the shot — an error message I’d never seen before and have been unable to invoke deliberately since.  It was almost apologetic. The weird cloudy-bright conditions were good for neither man nor machine.

I’ve been shooting side-by-sides for almost 60 years now, and have never seen this before.  I didn’t have an over/under with me to see how it was affected, but I don’t imagine it would be much different than the Scott with its raised rib and beads.  As for the Purdey, I’ve added a roll of black friction tape to my shooting bag, to cover the length of its rib should this ever occur again.

Say it ain’t so!  Sticky tape on a Purdey barrel?  For shame!

Sorry.  You do what you have to do.


Shooting editor Terry Wieland assures us he would test the tape on a small part of the barrel first, to make sure he could get the adhesive off without damage to finish. He’d rather miss a thousand birds than damage a 140-year-old original.