Although not as well organized as the NCFTGA, there are small and equally exclusive groups of field-trial guns scattered throughout the country, and they are very much stereotyped by their consistent marksmanship as well as by their home ports. Eastern gunners in general, and particularly those who shoot retriever trials, come right out of Abercrombie & Fitch's windows. They wear conservative tweed shooting attire, lean toward expensively conservative English side-by-sides and always wear green Tyrolean hats so bedecked with medals and badges that, as one proper Bostonian puts it, "The sheer weight of the damn thing gives me a headache." West Coast guns are always suntanned and outgoing and they lean more to "gun club" fashions. The real dandy of the bunch is Paul McClure, a Los Angeles insurance agent who is a top springer gun. McClure wears custom shooting sweaters with leather patches, black gloves, yellow glasses and a leather belt pouch for shells, and he shoots a German-made Krieghoff Crown Grade over/under with game birds and dogs engraved in gold on the receiver and labels from international pigeon shoots pasted on the stock. At the springer national, McClure clashed beautifully with Midwesterner Big John Findorff, a railroad man (Northern Pacific) from Wyoming, Minn., who sports a goatee, a black corduroy shooting vest embroidered front and back with gaudy cock pheasants and a "made-right-here-in-America" Winchester Model 21 side-by-side.
To keep in practice between trials, most guns hunt birds in season and then fill out the rest of the year by shooting at public and private preserves, as well as in live pigeon competition. "It doesn't hurt to bang away at clay targets, either," says Imrie, "but it's the rare trap or skeet expert who makes a good trial gun. It's simply too hard for him to forget the calibrated angles that become so mechanical in trap and skeet and learn about all the vagaries of live birds." A good case in point was the champion trapshooter who was invited to gun at a retriever trial in Reno. The judge asked the guns to kill 25 pheasants, which would be used during the trial as part of a double-marking test for the dogs. The trapshooter stepped up next to the bird thrower and, with all those patches on his jacket—50, 100, 200 straight-proceeded to miss 10 birds in a row. He walked back to his car and drove off.
In retriever trials live pheasants and ducks are thrown for the guns while the dogs are on the line. The object is to kill them so they fall in a precisely defined area—rarely more than 40 yards from the guns, but farther than that from the dogs—so that each dog has the same test. Explains one retriever gun: "At best, it's very artificial. But there is so much money in trialing retrievers today—it costs thousands of dollars to train and qualify a dog for the national, and the best candidates may change hands for as much as $20,000—that the owners insist on absolutely uniform tests."
Leonce Fuller, a San Francisco realtor who was captain of the guns at the 1967 national retriever stake, concedes that from the gallery the whole thing may appear rather humiliating for the guns. "I mean, there they are in front of all those people, two guns shooting at a pen-raised bird thrown out right in front of them," says Fuller. "Well, a good thrower, holding a pheasant gently by a wing and a leg, can hurl it out and up—he uses an underarm motion much like pitching horseshoes—a whole lot faster than a wild pheasant can get up out of the grass in a real hunting situation. The guns have to get right on it and drop it precisely where the judges want it. If they don't, it's a 'no bird,' and the dog has to be taken off the line and brought back later for a rerun. Since reruns can work for or against a dog, it is no longer a uniform test. Of course the throwers have to be consistent also, because the guns can only shoot where the birds are."
Shooting where the birds are is the precise summation of the technique, and field-trial guns dearly love to discuss the art ("It's an art, not a science") with anyone who knows the difference between recoil and choke. Assuming the average shotgunner knows that he shoots fewer live birds in 10 years than the official gun does in five trials, there are some fine points of trial gunning worth noting. Most trial guns prefer the single sighting plane of the over/under with a raised metal rib. Springer guns use long barrels (30 or 32 inches) bored tight for long shots, whereas retriever guns like shorter, more open barrels that give wider patterns at closer ranges. Although they all shoot "European style"—they mount their guns after the bird is flushed or thrown—most trial guns eventually settle on customized stocks that are straighter (higher at the comb) than factory field stocks but not necessarily as straight as trap stocks. Explains Dr. White: "You get the same sight picture every time you bring the gun up, and since the majority of birds are climbing, you want the center of the shot pattern just above the point of aim so you can see the bird as you hit it."
The real art of wing-shooting is how to lead a bird, but even the best trial guns can't explain how they do it. Says Leonce Fuller: "Some guns insist that they swing through the bird, shoot and keep following through, in the approved manner. Others say they spot-shoot—point the gun at the bird, pull ahead of it, snap the trigger and stop their swing right there. Actually, I think most of us combine the two. Really it's an impression of timing and instinct, and trial guns simply instinct better than most shooters."
One thing all trial guns do agree on is never to volunteer any information about a dog's performance to the judges. "We are not supposed to second-guess the judges either," says one springer gun, "but sometimes you just have to help give a dog the benefit of the doubt. At the national several years ago, a gun waiting for his turn on the line was following along just behind the judges when he spotted a cock pheasant hunkered down in the grass right in front of him. Now the dog running at the time had just gone through that piece of cover, and if the judges had seen that bird get up, they very likely would have thrown the dog out of the trial for passing it by. Well, the gun calmly pinned the pheasant down with one foot until the judges had moved on 50 yards or so, and then let it take off. After all, the gun is supposed to be the 'good right arm' of the handler and the dog, and we all know that pheasants are notorious runners. That bird might have run in there after the dog went through. Anyway, it says right here in the rule book: 'Guns are to be seen and not heard, except for their shots.' "