Carrying his over/under shotgun at relaxed port arms, with his right hand around the pistol grip and the stock resting lightly against his hip, Dr. Alden D. White, a general surgeon from Alameda, Calif., kept his eyes on the English springer spaniel that was quartering the high sedge grass 35 yards ahead of him. Suddenly the dog raised its head, sniffed the air, and then bolted forward and flushed a cock pheasant. The bird beat its way up out of the grass and towered, presenting the kind of shot that pheasant hunters like. But Dr. White did not shoot. Instead, over a period of perhaps four or five seconds, in a series of easy, fluid movements, he carefully planted his feet, brought the gun slowly up to his shoulder, pressed it firmly against his cheek and waited until the pheasant was sailing along in full flight some 65 yards away. Then he snapped the trigger and neatly folded the bird.
"Good Lord " a bystander observed as Dr. White broke his gun to eject the dead shell, "either that fellow is showboating or else he's got the right combination of magic shotgun, golden pellets and luck working for him."
The good doctor, of course, was not showboating. He was the captain of the official guns at the English Springer Spaniel National Championship Stake, and, as they always do at a national, the judges had instructed Dr. White and his team of five guns to let the pheasants get out to maximum shotgun range—or even beyond—in order to give the spaniels tough marks and long retrieves. Nor was Dr. White shooting anything fancier than a field-grade Browning over/ under with standard 12-gauge loads—no golden pellets. As for luck, the guns' unofficial tally sheet pretty well discounted that. During the three-day trial held at Crab Orchard Wildlife Area in Marion, 111. last December, the six official guns shot at some 500 pheasants, most of them at distances between 45 and 70 yards, and managed to put better than 90% of them down dead in the grass. Another 2% or 3% were runners (wounded birds that fall and then run) the dogs were expected to hunt out and bring back. In all, fewer than 20 birds out of 500 escaped the guns, a phenomenal score considering the range and the pheasant's reputation for absorbing lead pellets without missing a wingbeat.
The exclusive group of official guns who work the major field-trial stakes in the U.S.—for springers, which compete under the toughest and least artificial trial conditions, and for retrievers and the pointing breeds—are probably the best wing shots in the country, or anywhere. But Dr. White is quick to point out that the guns' scores are only part of the game. "Sure we have a ball," he admits. "We like to shoot, and you can certainly pop a lot of caps on birds at field trials. But we are really here to shoot for the dogs, and that is far more complicated than it sounds."
Consider a few of the split-second decisions that a gun must make every time a bird is flushed in a springer trial. He must learn quickly how to read each individual dog in the trial in order to be ready when it starts making game. At the flush the guns have to heed wind direction, the bird's angle of flight and the position of the dog (the dog must hup, or sit at the flush and stay until the bird is down and the handler gives the command to retrieve) and then be able actually to place the bird—kill it so that it falls at least 40 or 45 yards from the dog. This often means that a gun must not shoot, but instead pass the bird along to the next gun over, with no time for signals, in order not to drop it too close to the dog. In the early stages of a springer trial, when the dogs are run in braces, two wing guns and a center gun work together as a team. In the last few tests the dogs are run singly and only two guns are used.
"No matter which breed of dog you shoot for," says Dr. White, who has shot for them all, "trial gunning has some of the precision of clay-target shooting and some, but not nearly enough, of the elements of real hunting. It's not as difficult as long-range pass shooting at ducks in a high wind, but it is very specialized. The toughest part is the pressure. One flub and the gun can shoot a dog right out of the trial."
Not so very long ago shooting dogs out of a trial was an occupational hazard that handlers and owners had to live with. The birds usually were quick-shot at such point-blank range that in springer trials it was not at all unusual for an inexperienced gun to drop a bird right on a dog's head—which often resulted in the dog's breaking and being thrown out of the trial. Things have improved considerably in the past 15 years or so, partly because professional handlers and owners complained loudly enough to the field-trial committees and partly through the efforts of serious trial gunners. One such is Jim Imrie, an insurance man from Napa, Calif., who 10 years ago drew up the bylaws for the Northern California Field Trial Gunners Association, Inc., the largest and best-organized group of qualified trial guns in the country.
"We just got fed up with dodging and ducking loaded guns and seeing dogs shot out of trials," says Imrie. "Since a trial gun has to watch out for the dogs, handlers, judges and the gallery, he's got to be a nut on safety. That is our first prerequisite for membership. We insist, as do most trial committees, that our members use double guns—over/unders or side-by-sides. The only time a double gun is not loaded is when it is broken, and we keep them broken except when we are on the line shooting. Next, naturally, is the ability to consistently hit birds. Third is that nebulous term 'sportsmanship,' which eliminates anyone who only wants to get in some extra shooting."
To join the ranks of this exclusive group, a prospective gun is sponsored by a member who first squires him through training sessions with professional dog trainers and then invites him to informal trials for the various breeds. "The gunner who proves himself at these informal trials is a good prospect," says Imrie, "because he is faced both with overeager amateur handlers who do things like dart in front of him at the crucial moment and with dogs that frequently break and run wild." The final step—which Imrie calls pressure gunning—is taken at American Kennel Club licensed and member trials in which dogs can earn points toward a field championship. "If the prospect has gone strictly to the dogs and. is not shooting for himself, and if he is thoroughly brainwashed on safety, then he's in."
The NCFTGA currently has 27 members who make themselves available for trials throughout the West, and many of them are invited to shoot in national championships. As one member puts it: "Not only do we have a name as long as a shotgun barrel we are probably the only incorporated group—and that eliminates the Mafia—which offers experienced guns for hire." Actually, the NCFTGA is a nonprofit group and members usually pay for everything except their shells at trials.