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
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.
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.