The punt gun is a
weapon of massive size and barbarous appearance for use against ducks and other
wildfowl. Mounted on the prow of a small boat, one of them can spew forth such
a hail of lead balls, rusty nails and old bed springs that it might seem more
suitable for cutting down Pickett's Charge than shooting up a raft of sitting
canvasback ducks. So formidable a weapon is it that it was outlawed in the U.S.
in 1918, and only a few specimens survive as museum pieces, relics of the days
when market hunters used them for large kills and quick profits. But punt
gunning is still a popular form of hunting in England, where—curiously, to the
nonpunt-gunning mind—the use of decoys to ambush wildfowl is considered
unsporting. So is hunting in bad weather, when the birds are handicapped in
their chance at flight from mass extinction. But these niceties aside, almost
anything else goes.
British punt guns
have virtually no stocks, and their barrels resemble rain spouts. If they are
less than six feet long, have bores of less than an inch, weigh less than 40
pounds, they are mere peashooters. Many punt guns have 12-foot barrels, and
although the maximum legal bore is now only an inch and three-eighths, some of
the older ones are as big as two and a half inches. Punt guns sometimes weigh
as much as 150 pounds and have an effective spread of at least seven feet. Set
off just once in the right direction, one of them can kill 100 birds.
Such a weapon
can't be fired from the shoulder, of course, so it is generally mounted on the
foredeck of a one-man punt—a 14-foot boat that looks like a flimsy kayak but
has deceptively heavy oak framing. All the hunter has to do is row out to where
the birds are and blast away. This sounds easy, but punt gunning is strictly a
stalking sport—and no game is harder to stalk than the canny wildfowl that
inhabit the marshlands around the coasts of the British Isles.
oldest form of coastal wildfowl shooting, punt gunning's heyday was during the
hair-shirt, cold-bath-every-morning Victorian era, when far more wild birds
flocked to British coastal waters, when far more Englishmen had the time and
the tenacity that this sport demands. The fact that fewer than two dozen punt
guns have been manufactured since World War II suggests that punt gunning is a
dying sport. But these guns never wear out (any made at any date in this
century are classed as modern), and most of the legal-size ones made in the
last 150 years are still in fairly regular use. A novice who wants to take up
the sport usually has to go looking for some aging punt gunner who doesn't have
a son, son-in-law, nephew or crony to will his weapon to and who is willing to
sell it. The alternative is to have one custom-made.
The earliest punt
guns were muzzle-loading flintlocks, and a surprising number of these are still
used. The hunters who swear by them explain that the flint striking the steel
and the flash of the powder in the pan alert the birds, giving them just time
enough to lift off the water and to begin scattering, causing the maximum
number of fatalities. Also, the barrels of flintlock weapons usually are
constricted halfway along, giving the shot a wider and more even spread, and
making these the only punt guns with any form of choking. However, keeping
flintlocks' powder dry is a major problem out on the spray-swept marshes, and
the flash pans are a hazard. Bewhiskered flintlock punt gunners have been known
to set their beards on fire.
muzzle-loaders are somewhat more popular, although percussion caps also are
susceptible to dampness. Emptied .22-short cartridges are often used.
The big guns have
an elephantine kick, of course, so they're securely roped into place on the
punts with carefully tested tarred Italian hemp. To recharge a muzzle-loader
the hunter must laboriously unharness his weapon, draw it back into the cockpit
and swab the barrel before pouring in a fresh load. While he's trying to keep
the boat steady during this operation the gunner must also bear in mind the
fact that one smoldering crumb of powder left in the barrel will, when he's
pouring in the fresh load, probably cost him an arm—or maybe even his head.
Punt-gun explosions are not uncommon.
It is not
surprising, therefore, that 80% of punt guns used today are breech-loading.
Even these have to be swabbed carefully after every shot, but this can be done
from the chamber end, without untying all those ropes. The shells for these
guns are often more than a foot long, and an English punt gunner thinks twice
about pulling the trigger when he knows it will cost him at least $3 to do so.
Professional wildfowlers who use punt guns often convert breech-loaders into
muzzle-loaders to keep down the overhead.
Punt gunning is a
sport and also a profession. The open season for shooting wildfowl on British
tidal waters is August 1 to February 20. Dredging and pollution caused by
sewage and diesel effluents have combined to thin Britain's coastal reeds,
reducing the number of places where game birds can feed and inevitably reducing
the number of birds, too.
usually go out at night, often during the chilliest time, three or four hours
before dawn. They wear as much clothing as they can get on, but nothing keeps
them really warm out there on the marshes—not the cold sandwiches they stuff
into their pockets, not their vacuum flasks of scalding tea or coffee, not even
the hip flasks of rum they carry as a life preserver in case they fall