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Odd Survival of the Punt Gun
David Lampe
December 14, 1964
It looks like a quaint and clumsy museum piece but it is still used by hunters in English coastal waters
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December 14, 1964

Odd Survival Of The Punt Gun

It looks like a quaint and clumsy museum piece but it is still used by hunters in English coastal waters

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Punt gunners have to be intrepid oarsmen, too, for wild birds only alight in flocks in the more inaccessible places. No punt gunner thinks it too much to row 20 or 30 miles just to get in position. When he finally is out on the saltings—the tide-swept river-estuary mud flats where the sparse reeds still form natural feeding places for ducks, geese and curlew—the hunter ships his oars, sprawls on his belly and peers over the barrel of his gun. He must now propel his punt noiselessly, using a pair of small wooden paddles shaped like oversize paper knives, keeping his bare hands in the water to the wrists—water that would be frozen if it weren't so salty.

When he sees a flock of birds on the water 100 or more yards in front of him, he scoots ahead gently, hands still working under water. If he feels his paddles stir the mud, he strains to recall the depth of the water. Should his keel rub bottom now, the current or the wind may spin him around, pointing his gun away from his targets.

Cautiously he closes on the birds. If conditions are right, he may wait until he is within 40 or 50 yards of them to be sure of a good shot. If conditions are only so-so, he'll fire at 70 yards.

He sights along the barrel, cautiously adjusts its elevation with a gadget that looks like a pool shark's bridge, and makes a mental note of the fore-and-aft movement of the punt. No use firing when the prow is too low—or too high.

He is ready to pull the trigger—but probably he won't. Instead, he bends his knees slightly, then gently taps his toes on the decking of his punt. The birds crane their necks alertly. As he hears an anxious fluttering of feathers he fires.

At first all he hears from his gun is a c-r-r-r-ack. A 12-foot flame spurts from the muzzle. The kick is largely absorbed by the hemp. And if the hunter measured his charge of black powder carefully (probably underloading, using only an ounce of powder for every seven pounds of the gun's weight), that also lessened the kick. Black powder burns slowly all the way up the barrel—especially the punt-gun variety, which is as coarse as uncooked rice.

The flash has died, but the hunter still cannot see through the dense cloud of smoke between him and his birds. Most of the birds—there may have been hundreds—doubtless got away, but if the hunter hears a few wounded ones thrashing wildly in the water, he will grab his oars and row swiftly into the carnage. Then he will reach under the foredeck of the punt for his 12-bore to finish off the wounded.

How many carcasses can the hunter expect to pick up after a shot? Well, in 1946 an Englishman claimed a score of 103 widgeon with one shot, and even this may not be an alltime record. These days, however, the average kill is from five to 10 birds. During the entire 1962-1963 season the leading full-time professional punt gunner on the Essex-Suffolk estuaries got only 180 birds—no more than he used to kill each week before the war.

If the birds are dying out, why don't the punt gunners give up—or at least turn to more conventional shooting? Or are they the kind of hairshirted Englishmen who thrive on frustration? Even the professionals, who spend half their lives in punts, say that no two shots are ever alike, that the wind and the lighting conditions out on the saltings are never the same twice, that the birds' actions are never predictable, that somehow the guns never fire precisely the same way twice, that this is a sport they go on learning till they die.

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