by Terry Wieland
As a teenager, poring longingly over the Browning catalogue, I was puzzled. Why, I wondered, would one of the most expensive Belgian-made Superposed shotguns be called “Pigeon Grade?” Pigeons? Like in the park? Those pigeons?
Well, yes, actually, just like those pigeons. At one time, throughout Europe and across North America, shooting live pigeons released from traps was a high-intensity, big-money game. It sounds easy. It isn’t. Anything but. Blue Rock pigeons are fast, unpredictable, and remarkably hard to kill. Dropping one from a 29-yard rise, inside a ring with a low, close fence, requires fast, accurate shooting, and a hard-hitting load.
Box-pigeon was the forerunner of trap shooting as we know it. The early Grand Americans used live birds rather than clays, and this was only abandoned in the early 1900s because birds became too expensive and hard to get. It’s surprising how many ardent trap shooters are completely unaware of this history, and it’s also where the term “clay pigeon” comes from.
In the traditional format, there are five traps, set in a row, five yards apart (20 yards from left to right) with the center trap 29 yards from the shooting line. The shooter has no idea which trap will release the bird, which must be dropped inside the ring fence to count as a kill. When it emerges from the trap in full flight, it can scoot low for the far fence or the fence on either side, climb straight up, fly straight back at the gun, or any combination of the above.
The shooter is allowed two shots, so a double gun is required. When it took root in England before 1792 (the earliest reference in the literature) they used flintlocks. These evolved into percussion, then hammer guns, and eventually into exquisite James Purdey or Stephen Grant side-by-sides, and later Boss and Woodward over/unders. Live-pigeon shooting was banned in England after 1917, but the great English gunmakers continued to make pigeon guns for shooters on the Continent and in America.
A typical pigeon gun is of the highest quality, because when big money is on the line, reliability is everything. The prize for a three-day shoot, somewhere like Monte Carlo, might have been two or three years’ income for the average man. (By the way, this is the origin of the term “Monte Carlo,” referring to stocks with high, stepped combs.)
Pigeon guns exhibit some common characteristics. They have long barrels (30 inches or more) with side clips, tight chokes (F/F or IM/F), and wide ribs. Often there is no safety catch: Calling “Bird!” and finding your safety catch accidentally “on” could cost a kill, and a lost kill could cost $50,000 in prize money. English pigeon guns usually had 2¾” chambers rather than the standard 2½ inches. They were also one to two pounds heavier, but beautifully balanced.
From the 1800s, pigeon loads were governed by rules, and eventually became standardized at 1¼ – 3¼, meaning 1¼ ounces of shot at 3¼ dram equivalent (DE). That’s 1,325 to 1,350 feet per second (fps) velocity. Shot size was #7½ or thereabouts. “Pigeon load” was an accepted term denoting a more powerful game load, such as might be used for ducks and geese.
Today, pigeon guns come on the market fairly regularly, although many dealers never recognize them as such. They might be listed as “heavy field” guns, or occasionally trap guns. Sometimes they’re priced lower than you might expect, and these offer an opportunity to own a gun of fantastic quality for less money. Former pigeon guns are suited to shooting Helice (ZZ birds), the modern substitute for box-pigeon, or sporting clays, or simply perching in the rack, looking beautifully deadly.
I won’t say that everyone should own one, because there aren’t enough to go around. But if you are a serious lover of fine guns? Absolutely.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, now owns three pigeon guns (an H.J. Hussey, W&C Scott, and the latest, a Purdey — they keep following him home) and figures they’ll keep him company even when he’s too old to shoot. One must make provision.