Craigie Farm in Fife is the site of Melissa Volpi’s very first black powder experience: muzzleloaders at a driven pheasant day
“All shooting is fun, but using muzzleloaders and black powder gives you more of a chance to shoot some memorable shots,” says the Laird, John Foster, while pulling his Harkom muzzleloader – made in 1830 – out of its gun slip. “This combination produces the kind of shots that overwhelm you at the time and that linger in your mind at the end of the day. One for the bath, so to speak.”
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to fire a muzzle-loading shotgun and, on a driven pheasant day with a difference at Craigie Farm, near St. Andrews, I find out.
This is a small day, comprising only five guns. But only John and Kirk Rylands, who is using his rather lovely Harrison muzzleloader with twisted barrels, are shooting with black powder – the other three guns are using side-by-sides with black powder cartridges.
“We turn round and see a cloud of smoke rise up through the trees: Arthur Sweerts de Landas has shot the first pheasant of the day”
I’m accompanying John, who is dressed head-to-toe in brown tweeds, on this first drive. We watch the gamekeeping students from Elmwood College, who are acting as beaters today, make their way through a small patch of forestry in front of us. The rustling of their plastic flags frightens two roe deer. The deer leap out of the trees into the strong light with its pinkish hue and bound across the crops in silhouette towards Tenstmuir forest.
Preparing a muzzleloader
John empties his pockets and prepares the gun. His kit consists of a black powder flask; a bag of felt wads, a shot pouch, a collection of paper wads and a little tin containing the caps. He pours two-and-a-half drams of medium black powder down the right-hand barrel and inserts a felt wad, thrusting the ramrod into the barrel, and forcing the two components together.
It is now time to administer the shot. John is using a load of one-and-a-half ounces and number seven shot, which he pours into the right-hand barrel. He hands me his shot pouch so I can get a feel for the weight: it’s far heavier than I imagined, not dissimilar to a bag stuffed with 200 pound coins.
Finally, the paper wads are pressed gently into the barrel and rammed together once more to seal the shot, before the process is repeated with the left-hand barrel. It takes John one minute to load the gun. It’s a fiddly, cumbersome process and I can’t help wondering what it would have been like to use muzzleloaders in battle. I can’t imagine the stress of loading as an army of enemy soldiers runs towards you.
Finally, John half cocks the hammers and places the caps onto the nipples. He is now ready to shoot so we scan the tree line, waiting for the sound of approaching pheasants.
Suddenly, we hear the sound of gunfire from a far-away peg. We turn round and see a cloud of smoke rise up through the trees: Arthur Sweerts de Landas has shot the first pheasant of the day. By the time drive three is over, the bag has expanded slightly but this is a world away from the industrial shoots of the Edwardian era; this is more like the sort of paltry bag the Elizabethans would have expected.