First and foremost, you must establish whether you’re at the end or the middle of the line of butts. If you’re on the end you could be situated not far from a flanker whose job it is to beat the birds back toward the shooter. He will typically raise his flag up to let you know where he is and so you don’t shoot towards him.
In the practice butts at Honesberie Shooting School, we have solid markers on the left and right to prevent the gun from swinging through the side of the butt toward your neighbour, but on the moor these would typically be canes pushed into the ground. The beaters might be a few miles away from you but once the horn goes it is absolutely paramount that everyone turns and shoots out the back.
On all the moors than I’ve had the privilege to shoot or load on there’s been a horn and it’s important to listen out for that, because depending on the wind it can be quite hard to hear, but typically when the beaters get to 300-350 yards, that’s when the horn goes off.
A lot of shooters might ask the loader to hand them the gun ready to go but my preference would be that the gun has the safety on when pushed into the hands of the shooter, rather than the alternative.
Depending on how small the butt is, your loader would always be behind you, shutting the gun into the floor and the front of the butt, while keeping their index finger over the side of the action, and then bringing it up over the butt. From a safety point of view, you should always be wearing glasses in case someone pulls through the line in the wrong manner, which sadly can happen.
Grouse are disguised in the heather so the right colour glasses – yellow, orange or maybe even purple – will help pick out the bird in the distance. Occasionally you get birds above you and off the top of hill peaks or cliffs, but they could also be breaking over the horizon and following the lie of the land low towards you. This is where having the right coloured lenses will be more important; birds against the heather on dark, cloudy days are hard to accurately pick out.
In terms of shotguns, the trend is moving more towards over-and-unders because of lesser recoil and better pointability, but a huge number of good shots still use a side-by-side. The beauty of a side-by-side on the moors is that it’s lightweight and quick, and is easier to reload. You could go down the route of choosing a 20-gauge if you want something a bit more lightweight and you can fit a few more cartridges in your pocket. You could even go down to the 28-gauge if you want to make things a little harder. There are some 28-gauge Perazzis that are slick handling but do have a little more weight behind them to manage recoil, and they’ll move far quicker than a 12-gauge 30” Beretta or Browning.
Typically, game shooters would shoot from the top barrel first, and some manufacturers have made their guns with non-selectable triggers, so the top barrel can be reloaded more easily if you just fire one shot.
Depending on individual preference you could have Half choke for the first barrel and ¼ choke for the second. Maybe more experienced people would prefer to use ¾ choke to take a bird right out in front and then ¼ or Half.
A No. 7, 28-gram cartridge is a very good load to use for grouse if you’re out shooting in August, and then maybe later on in the season you could try a 30-gram No. 7 or even 32-gram No. 6 cartridge as the birds get stronger and faster.
Unlike pheasant shooting, coveys of birds will be out in front and low, so you will want to get your first shot off at the front bird in time to get a shot off at the second bird behind.
How you shoot the bird depends on the weather conditions; it could be a hot, sunny day in August where the grouse are lethargic or it could be a gale force wind where they are coming at you like bullets. When they’re coming in coveys, a lot of people think they can shoot into the middle of them rather than connecting to an individual bird but that’s not the case.
Many people may have shot pheasants and partridge for years and they often give the birds far too much lead. Grouse only requires a minimal touch onto the front end of the bird, rather than getting excited by the speed and whipping way in front of it. It feels like they’ll be shooting where the beaters are and most people have been told they need to see sky before firing, but the general technique we use to teach grouse is connect to the bird and then move forward to its beak and pull away slightly.
When shooting behind, rather than pointing your gun towards where the grouse are coming from, you will need to adopt a position that’s half turned with the gun ready but out of the shoulder so you can spot where the birds are and be ready to turn and fire. These birds follow the undulations of the landscape, so typically they are falling away. Typically people miss because they are stood on their back foot; you need to make sure your weight is forward so that as the bird follows the landscape down you can stay underneath it.