"The housekeeper at Netherfield had received orders to prepare for the arrival of her master, who was coming down in a day or two, to shoot there for several weeks."
--Chapter 53 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The sport of shooting birds on the wing developed in Europe after the invention of the flintlock in about 1635. The flintlock or firelock, which used flint and steel to ignite the gunpowder, was the weapon carried by Marlborough's and Wellington's armies. The flint-lock reached its highest development in the fowling-pieces made at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. The invention of drop shot (uniform pellets of lead) by William Watts in 1769 improved accuracy. Inventions and innovations in fowling-pieces culminated in the superb double-barreled shotguns of Joseph Manton, who opened his London shop in 1793. These purpose built fowling-pieces were lighter and longer barreled than other shoulder guns and often beautifully decorated. Jane Austen's character Charles Musgrove in Persuasion was referring to a Manton style fowling-piece when he explains his reason for rushing off to Captain Wentworth. "I ought to be at that fellow's in the market place. He promised me the sight of a capital gun he is just going to send off; said he would keep it unpacked to the last possible moment, that I might see it; and if I do not turn back now, I have no chance. By his description, a good deal like the second-sized double-barrel of mine, which you shot with one day round Winthrop."
The fowling-piece was a very popular gun because of their versatility. Hunters could load them with drop shot for birds and other small game or use a single large ball or several smaller ones--buckshot--for large game like deer. The long fowler was a variation of the fowling-piece, which was designed to kill as many waterfowl in a shot as possible.
The three parts of all guns in this period were the lock, stock, and barrel. Obviously the saying "lock, stock and barrel," meaning the whole thing comes from all the parts of a gun. The lock or firelock was the firing mechanism, which included the trigger, the external powder pan, the hammer (holding a piece of flint), the frizzen (or piece of steel the flint struck), springs, and other small internal parts. The stock was the wooden part of the weapon, which held the barrel and firing mechanism, and allowed a shooter to grip the gun and steady the weapon against the shoulder. Stock makers of the 1700s used well-seasoned hardwoods like curly maple, which might be plain or ornately carved. The firelock and the barrel had to be carefully fitted into the stock. This required excellent woodworking skills. The barrel was the long tube through which the bullet passed. Barrel makers began work with a flat wrought-iron bar, which was then forged into a tube by heating, hammering, and fusing with flux. The tube was bored with a reamer to create a uniform interior. The barrel was then tested, or proofed. That involved firing the barrel with four times the normal amount of gunpowder. This was done at a stationary stand with a fuse, to prevent any injury if the barrel gave way. If the barrel could withstand this test without exploding, it was ready for use. Guns began to be proof-marked in 1637.
Over the period of development of the sport, dogs already bred to point out game birds for netting were adapted to the new sport and new dogs were bred to retrieve fallen birds. The sport of wing-shooting was a consuming passion for the gentry of late Georgian England.
So important was the sport of shooting wild fowl on the wing that Parliament always adjourned by August 12th, which marked the start of the grouse season. In fact, the date was known as the "Glorious Twelfth". Shooting Black Grouse in Scotland was one of the most desirable hunting excursions. Only a few families owned a hunting box in the north, so an invitation to shoot at a Scottish hunting box became much sought after.
Lt Col Peter Hawker, a famous Regency fowler, was known to bag 32 partridge with as many shots with his famous Joseph Manton double barreled shotgun. Hawker collaborated with Joseph Manton, the most prominent gun-maker of the day, on the improved sporting gun. The gun, with which he bagged 14,000 head of game, is on display at the Birmingham Museum. Hawker wrote the book on shooting, literally, in his Instructions to Young Sportsmen, of 1814.
As a person living in late Georgian England, Jane Austen was well aware of the importance of shooting to the gentlemen of her day. Shooting is mentioned frequently in her novels. Darcy and Bingley come to Netherfield for the shooting in Pride and Prejudice. Captain Wentworth goes hunting with Charles Musgrove in Persuasion. When asked about the character of Mr. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, Sir John can only talk of the man's pointer. These men all have shooting on their minds.
Fowling or wing-shooting, like any other sport, has its own terminology. To flush is to scare the game birds into flight from their covert or the cover where they hide. Shooting a brace of game means to bag two. The fowling season began on August 12th with grouse season, but other game bird seasons follow hard on the heels of the first season. Partridge, ducks, and geese were all hunted with gusto during the fall.
Fashionable game meats particularly fowl were important courses in an aristocratic dinner. Exotic fowl like peacocks had gone out of fashion to be replaced by game birds like woodcock, duck, and grouse.
Back to Top