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Puntgunning

This is the law I quotes,
For the flats where the sea-grass roots:- 
"Where the tide flows .......I floats,
and where I floats..........I shoots".
Landed gentry may claim rights on the foreshore mud, 
But ownership's all the same with a spring tide on the flood.
Mallard are reared under hens,
They guard the teal on the lake,
And it's all private ground in the fens,
But the wigion are mine to take. 
Out of the dark I come towards the growing light,
The lanyard under my thumb the gun laid straight and right. 
Bird watchers stretch their throats uttering dismal hoots, 
But where the tide flows.......I floats,
And where I floats.........I shoots. 
- Anon

Courtesy of I. Branford KLWNWA

http://www.puntgunner.co.uk - excellent website of a real live puntgunner!

PUNTGUNNING - BASC 'An introduction to the Sport and Code of Practice Publication

Why go after wildfowl with a gun when you can use a cannon? Jonny Beardsall discovers the joys of puntgunning (www.telegraph.co.uk)

Four Months in a Sneak Box (1879) - Nathaniel H. Bishop (1837 - 1902)

The Book of Duck Decoys - Sir Ralph Payne Gallwey (1886)

Wide-Open Waterfowling (USA)

The Duck Hunters Boat Page (USA)

PUNT GUNNING (Nick Frearson, Ch. 15, pp127-135, 'THE NEW WILDFOWLER')

Introduction

Historical research has shown that the development of punt-gunning into the sport that is known today probably took place in the first decade of the 19th century. Before this various methods of attaching guns to boats for the purpose of shooting wildfowl had been used for some time. It therefore appears that true punt-gunning has been practised for about 200 years with much of the equipment still being used remaining little changed in design. Although wildfowling has altered considerably over this period, punt-gunning is still an important and integral part of the sport

Today's punt-gunners are drawn from a broad cross-section of society and are pursuing their activity on tidal waters for sport, the days of the professional wildfowler having long since passed. Those professional gunners, who operated on both inland and tidal waters, had very different objectives, the principal one being to harvest an important food source. Their practices must be considered in the context of the times in which they lived, times before the existence of a welfare state as we know it today.

That it has much interested some of the great naturalists and ornithologists of the past is quite understandable, the opportunities to study birds and their habits being almost unique. One only has to read the works of men such as Abel Chapman, J. G. Millais, Frank Southgate, E. T. Booth and other great wildfowl authorities to realise that punt-gunning has many more attractions to its devotees than just as a shooting sport. In fact, anyone wishing to take up punting purely for the shooting aspect will very soon find himself sadly disappointed.

Punt-gunning played a most important role in securing the modern wildfowling of today. The BASC (formerly WAGBI) was founded by punt- gunners, the legendary Stanley Duncan becoming the Association's first honorary secretary and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey (perhaps the most prolific author on the sport) becoming its first President. Analysis of those wildfowlers attending the famous inaugural meeting on 7 April 1907 at the Imperial Hotel in Hull shows a high proportion of punt-gunners. If these men had not had the foresight to form such an Association, that was to develop over the years a national supporting structure of affiliated wildfowling clubs working together and in partnership for the same ends, one wonders how the sport might have suffered.

In 1967 came time of crisis, when WAGBI, under the leadership of its Director, John Anderton, and supported by punt-gunners of the time, fought a three-month battle and saved the sport from a political death: a clear demonstration that the Association would always support and fight for its members' rights and interests.

The Sport

Punt-gunning is a highly selective and tactical stalking sport involving the use of a combination of the weather, the tides, the light and wildfowl habits. It is a stalking sport that is carried out in full view of the quarry, unlike other stalking sports (for example, deer stalking) when normally cover or dead ground is used. The puntsman has to propel his craft lying in the prone position and exceptional skill, strength and physical fitness are required to manoeuvre along a tactical course, so achieving an imperceptible approach to the birds.

Success is achieved when an effective shot is fired after lesser opportunities have deliberately been allowed to pass, the puntsman sometimes making only one shot after a number of days effort afloat. Such is his selectivity that on many occasions he will stalk birds that ultimately will not be shot at. This challenge without doubt renders the sport the most difficult means of bagging wildfowl, and for this reason alone has always in the past, does now and will in the future only interest and attract a very small number of wildfowlers.

The shore gunner has to locate a flightline, then endeavours to intercept the fowl and to bag a number of birds with a number of shots. The punt-gums has to locate the fowl, then endeavours to stalk them and bag a number of birds with a single shot. Both aspects of wildfowling involve their own particular skills to bring success, measured in terms of numbers of birds bagged either by a series of shots fired by a shoulder gun or by a single shot from a punt-gun.

The punt-gunner has constraints imposed upon him that do not affect the shore shooter. The type of craft used places great restrictions on his sport, as the few inches of freeboard of a gunning-punt can render impossible many a trip in rough weather. In addition, the sport can only be pursued when the tides are at a certain height at a certain time. These restrictions mean that there are only two or three days during the fortnightly tide cycle when it is possible to punt in one particular estuary and these days, of course, can coincide with gales. A general strategy is to depart with an ebbing tide after dawn, returning with the flood before dusk, so enabling the punting and land-fall to take place during the hours of daylight.

Mallard, wigeon and teal are the principal quarry species of the puntsman, geese being very seldom shot as their daytime inland feeding habits render them most unlikely to be in the estuary when he is afloat. The puntsman's actions are always governed by modern sporting ethics and a desire to follow such a traditional pursuit in a thoroughly proper and responsible manner.

The Gunning-Punt

Gunning-punts are either single or double-handed, the latter usually carrying a slightly larger gun as two people are aboard to carry out its propulsion and the firing of the gun. Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey gave us some basic designs for gunning-punts and, a hundred years later, his ideas are still an excellent starting point for building a punt. Different versions of his plans are published in several of his works, the dimensions used in this chapter being taken from Shooting Moor and Marsh, a volume in the Badminton Library.

Without doubt, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey's designs have since been improved by a numbs of individual puntsmen, increasing both the invisibility and seaworthiness of the punts that they have built. Up to 6 inches flare on the sides will make a punt much drier in a sea and give her more lift from the waves. Four feet of beam, which might be considered as the minimum for a double punt, should be carried well forward if she is to float a heavy gun, so placing adequate buoyancy underneath its weight. Larch, yellow pine and marine plywood are all excellent timbers for the purpose, as are modern glues, epoxy resins and fixings.

In some areas, notably Norfolk and Essex, local additional designs of punt have been in existence for a very long time, these craft often being undecked, which I consider greatly reduces their seaworthiness. Apart from ease of construction and the resultant saving in cost, one can see little advantage in such a type.

Gunning-punts are painted a shade of pale grey similar to that of a kitiwake's back. Variations of this colour will produce greater invisibility depending on the structure of the estuary punted, as glistening wet mud or dry sand do give different light reflections along a tide edge. An off-white hat and clothing should be worn as, like the punt, its occupants are silhouetted against that area of sky that merges with the water.

Stalking, Setting and Methods of Propulsion

Of the two great skills in the sport, one is the handling of the punt, the other being the firing of the gun (described later). One has to control and propel the punt with a minimum of noise and movement and with a maximum of speed, special attention being given to the head and to the arm that is driving the craft, seamanship also being involved. Movement, particularly of the head, is the largest single cause of the quarry spotting the approach and it is essential that one should lie down and start the stalk from a distance at which the birds are oblivious of one's actions - generally a greater distance than is appreciated.

Do not start your approach until you are fairly certain that you can float into range, as you are most unlikely to get more than one chance, although this may involve waiting for the flood tide. If your stalk fails on account of running aground or you decide that it is inappropriate to fire and the birds still remain settled, depart as carefully as you approached, so leaving them undisturbed. Should the stalk fail with the birds seeing you and lifting, remain motionless in the punt until they disappear, so causing them little alarm.

It takes several seasons to develop the skills of controlling the punt and to learn that tactical course that gives an imperceptible approach to your quarry. In simple terms, the punt is propelled along a heading just slightly off the birds. so concealing the movement of the arm until the moment when a direct course is taken, just as the required range is being reached. Up-wind stalks are generally more successful than down-wind ones.

There are three main methods of propulsion used when stalking. Sculling with a single oar through a rowlock on the stern can be used in deep water, but its disadvantages are the difficulty in concealing the moving hand and its lack of power in strong winds and tides. Again in deep water, side paddling is a means of manoeuvre when a small hand paddle is held in either hand, the strokes being made entirely under water by feathering of the blades. Such paddles are generally 2 ft 3 in, in total length, with a blade length of 1ft 8in. and width of 3.75in., being weighted so they float vertically. Again the disadvantage of this method is lack of power combined with the fact that there is a moving arm to conceal on either side of the punt.

Setting-poles are the third and most powerful and controlled means of driving the punt, provided that the bottom can be reached by one of the varying sizes usually carried aboard. The setting arm operates through a hinged or removable section of cockpit coaming and poles of the following Lengths are generally considered suitable: 2ft 6in., 4ft, 4ft 6in., 6ft, 6ft 6in., 7ft, 8ft. Such poles have two prongs and should be weighted so they sink to the bottom and then stand vertically, a four-pronged version being necessary for use on softmud. A lead shoe reduces noise on a bottom of rock or gravel. These setting-poles should be of flat section with tapered edges, approximately 2.75 in. in width up to the handle, as apart from lateral thrusts steering the punt, the trailing of the pole between strokes acts as a rudder.

Rowing and sailing are the two means of covering large distances; 8ft oars work well for a double punt and 7ft ones for a single. A leg o' mutton sail is the least complicated rig, and with a little ingenuity, a spare oar can be used as a mast, so reducing the amount of equipment on board: a sail with a luff of 6ft 6in. and a foot of 6ft drives double punt satisfactorily.

Current legislation prohibits the use of a mechanically-propelled boat in the immediate pursuit of any wild bird for the purposes of driving, taking or killing it. There is certainly no place for an outboard engine in punt-gunning today and there has not been one by tradition either. The use of an engine, apart from bringing the sport into disrepute, directly conflicts with the ethics of modern puntsmen who wish to preserve a pure and traditional pursuit for the future.

The Punt Gun and its Firing

A punt-gun is simply a big-bore shotgun generally too large to be discharged from the shoulder and therefore fired from a punt. However, this is not always the case as 4-bore is normally considered to be the smallest size of punt-gun.

The other great skill is in firing the gun, which may be either breech or muzzle-loading, both types performing equally as well if correctly loaded and primed. Some muzzle-loaders have had their ignition systems converted for the use of a black powder revolver blank, generally of .32 or .38 size, as commonly used in the making of a breech-loader's cartridge, a modification that has improved their reliability. Muzzle-Loaders are usually slightly lighter in weight than their breech-loading counterparts, not having a breech plug and action. They are more complicated both to clean and load, but just as effective as the breech-loader that is more commonly in use today. Efficient cleaning is of great importance, hot or boiling water being a most satisfactory method of removing black powder fouling from the barrel.

Punt-guns are built using the same standard formula as for smaller shotguns, namely that a minimum of 6 lb of ordnance is required to deliver one ounce of shot. The following table quoted from The Complete Wildfowler Ashore and Afloat by Stanley Duncan and Guy Thorne provides a very useful guide to dimensions and loads, although variations of these standards undoubtedly work well. By law a punt-gun is limited to a maximum of 1.75in. diameter internal bore measurement, with most punt-guns in use today being considerably smaller in size.

Size of Bore
Weight
Length of barrel
Charge of shot
Charge of black powder
1 to 1 1/4 in.
50 to 75 lb
6ft 8in. to 7ft 6in.
8 to 12 oz
1.5 to 2.5 oz
1 3/8 to 1 1/2 in.
80 to 120 lb
7ft 9in. to 8ft 0in.
16 to 20 oz
3 to 3.75 oz
1 5/8 to 1 3/4 in.
130 to 150 lb
8ft 0in. to 8ft 6in
22 to 28 oz
4 to 4.75 oz

 

Punt-guns may look like large shotguns to those unaccustomed to seeing them. However, per head accounted for, their shot charge is probably no greater than the accumulated total of shot charge of a number of much smaller cartridges fired by a shoulder gun. In short, a large shotgun to shoot a number of birds with one shot, as opposed to a number of birds being shot by a series of shots from a smaller shotgun.

A fact often overlooked when considering large bore guns is that the effectiveness of such guns decreases with size; the greater the load, the smaller the percentage of pellets reaching the target as a result of distortion and friction during passage through the barrel. Dr Charles J. Heath (a past president of WAGBI) addressed his thoughts to this matter amongst other problems and developed his famous chamberless design for wildfowling guns: the modern plastic cup wad used in standard cartridge manufacture assists with this same problem.

The screw-plug action is probably the most common and simplest type, having been made in several forms. One design uses a dovetailed head on the cartridge base that slides into a corresponding slot in the striker face, so enabling both action and cartridge to be screwed into the breech as one unit.

Punt-guns are loaded with coarse-grained black powder, oakum providing excellent wadding and BB as the best all-round shot, No. 1 being the smallest size recommended.

Two 16 oz breech-loading punt guns each with screw plug actions, the dovetail enabling the action and cartridge to be screwed into the breech as one unit. Both central and side lever cocking systems are employed on these guns. One, built by Messrs T. Bland and Sons (Gunmakers) Ltd. London, has provision for the breeching rope to be threaded through the stock itself, the other being fitted with trunnions on the barrel.

There are basically two methods of absorbing the recoil of punt-guns, the boot-jack system having now more or less been consigned to history. The simplest arrangement is the use of a breeching rope passed through a hole in the stem of the punt, laid along her foredeck and attached to trunnions on either side of the gun's barrel and positioned approximately 10-12in. behind its point of balance. Some guns have provision for the rope to be threaded through the stock itself. Nylon rope with that fibre's shock-absorbing properties serves the purpose well, as does hemp manilla.

Also used is Colonel Peter Hawker's recoil spring system, later adapted by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey. Here the barrel is mounted on a spring-loaded swivel stanchion which drops into a sliding block on the punt's floor, the block itself being attached to the punt's stem by a breeching rope led underneath the foredeck. This more complicated system has several advantages: the gun is automatically balanced when shipped on account of the fixed position of the stanchion. With the absence of trunnions sighting can be done along the side of the barrel rather than along the top of it, so lowering the gunner's head; and in the event of a capsize, the gun immediately falls off, so relieving the stricken punt of its weight. In this context every gun when aboard should have a buoy-line attached to it, the rope being of sufficient length and strength to raise it from the bed of the estuary. The only disadvantages lie in the maintenance of the springs and the breeching rope that is concealed under the decking and which requires regular inspection.

The elevation of the gun, which is mounted in a gun-crutch, is adjusted by use of a long-handled gun rest that slides along the slope of the foredeck, so raising or lowering the muzzle: the gun can either be fired with the barrel supported on the rest (best taken the instant the duck raise their heads) or, as in the case of a flying shot, with the barrel swinging above the rest and controlled by downward pressure on the stock.

A single-handed gunning-punt equipped with breeching rope recoil system attached to trunnions on the gun's barrel.

A double-handed gunning-punt with gun mounted on Col. Hawker's underdeck recoil spring breeching system. Note watertight inspection hatch in foredeck for access to breeching rope

Another elevating system involves the movement of the breech end by a threaded stanchion revolved by a rope and pulley block. In the single punt, there is little option to firing the gun on the rest and aiming it with the punt, one hand only being available for this task, the other being employed for setting.

Generally speaking. there is only a split second in which to pull the trigger lanyard, any delay often resulting in failure. It is in fact remarkably easy to miss with a punt-gun, as chronicled in many books on the sport, although perhaps hard to understand by those who have not tried their hand at it.

A punt-gun should never be discharged unless you are absolutely certain, right up to the very moment of firing, that it is correct so to do. Many factors can affect this decision - that you are certain no protected species are involved (easily determined by use of binoculars at the short range involved); that the quarry are placed in a way that will produce a clean shot; that you will be able to collect your bag and that it will not be swept away by wind or a fast tide; that your actions will not spoil the chances of any shoulder-gunners.

Every puntsman should set himself a personal standard of when it is worth firing a shot, realistically related to the size of his gun, and to both the potential and circumstances of the area where he is afloat. If ever in doubt, do not shoot, particularly if one is unable to see clearly.

Above all, you must be certain the range has been correctly judged, as this is the most important factor in ensuring a clean shot. This can be particularly difficult when lying so close to the water level, distances often appearing less than they really are. As in all wildfowling, the skill is to get well within range of the quarry and not in achieving a spectacular long shot. Sixty yards is an ideal range and shots at over seventy yards should not be taken. If BB shot is used and the pattern correctly placed on the quarry, it will be found that at sixty yards distance, the birds will mostly all be cleanly killed. It should not be forgotten that the effective range of a punt-gun does not vary substantially from that of other large-bore shoulder guns.

When considering the range, remember it is the distance to the furthermost duck at the back and not to those at the front that matters. Shots at birds floating on the water, particularly if rough, are rarely satisfactory, the most successful ones being made at lifting or flying birds. If fowl rise time after time and lust out of range, do not pursue them, as the stalk is most unlikely to succeed and is only moving them unnecessarily. Birds floating and resting at high tide should be left.

After the Shot

When a punt-gun is fired at the correct range, loaded with BB shot, and its pattern placed correctly by a true aim, birds are cleanly and instantly killed. It is possible, and by no means always the case, that one or more duck may have been struck by the charge, but are not dead, as can happen in all types of sporting shooting. Such birds are traditionally and, I feel, most unfortunately, known as 'cripples', referred to in similar cases as 'pricked'. 'runner' or 'winged'.

If there is a winged bird it must immediately be gathered, before those that are dead. In this task, the puntsman is very well placed as amongst exposed mudflats and in estuary channels there are few hiding places. He is afloat, able to cross channels and carries a standard 12-bore shoulder gun in his punt so enabling a bird to be shot, should this prove necessary. The experienced gunner prides himself on never knowingly losing a wounded bird and indeed this should be the case. Departing fowl should be closely watched as sometimes a bird which has been shot cleanly in the heart or lungs will collapse after a matter of several seconds, quite dead, and is easily collected. These have been described as 'droppers'.

Safety

The dangers in correctly practised punt-gunning are few, certainly no more than in many other sports, and such dangers that can arise generally result from ignorance, folly or poor seamanship. The loading, unloading and handling of a punt- gun requires great care, especially if carried out with cold hands or in adverse conditions, but is after all only a matter of common sense.

The weather and particularly wind speeds perhaps pose the puntsman with his greatest dilemma for it is often in bad weather and strong winds that the best chances are to be found. A punt with a combination of its low freeboard and considerable overall length cannot survive a big sea, although it is surprising lust how much a well-designed hull can cope with when handled well.

If encountering bad weather, it is essential that water is baled or pumped out as fast as it is shipped and not allowed to accumulate. The gun is best brought inboard to trim the craft and stowed on the door, so lowering the position of its weight. A tight and well-fitting cockpit cover should always be carried to keep out large waves, in which she cannot live, the only option then being to walk the punt along in shallow water to shelter. With a correctly made cover, she should not ship water and will float the gun and the gear whilst the seas break over her: it is essential that the cover has a skirt of approximately 2.75 inches lying on the decks in addition to its fall down the side of the coamings. If it is not so made, it will be found that waves rolling up the decks and slamming against the coamings tend to squirt water upwards between the coamings and the cover and thus, of course, inboard.

Remember that the predicted heights and times of tides, as published in tide tables, can be affected considerably by the weather and particularly by strong winds. This is of great importance in estuaries where the tide may flood as a bore. A compass, baler or pump, waterproof torch, distress flares, first-aid kit, spare oar and rowlock are all items that should be carried, as are a suitable anchor with adequate length of warp. Mud pattens may be needed for areas of quick sand and very soft mud, but such places are better left unvisited. A life-jacket of the modern slim type is comfortable to wear and helps to retain body warmth in cold weather. The correct and proper maintenance of a punt, punt-gun and all equipment is an essential to overall safety.

The Disturbance of Wildfowl

The word 'disturbance' is becoming more commonly used by those opposed to sporting shooting and particularly to wildfowling, its convenience being obvious: however, it has to be determined exactly what constitutes 'disturbance' and when that is decided, whether or not it significantly affects the birds. The twice daily flooding tide, splashing and playing seals, birds of prey, mobbing greater black backed gulls and other predators all move wildfowl. but is this 'disturbance'? I suppose it probably is as birds are 'disturbed', but then their lives are always on the move whether it be in their daily habits or greater factors such as migration.

Shipping, commercial fishing, aircraft, bait digging. shell-fish gathering, dredging, water sports of many types, gunnery ranges - the list is endless -can again move fowl, particularly when newly arrived. But is this really creating significant difficulties for the birds in achieving their essentials of feeding and resting? It is encouraging how some of our estuaries with their factories, oil refineries, power stations and other industrial developments hold substantial populations that appear to be living satisfactorily in such circumstances and how birds have shown their adaptability by changing habits, when necessary.

As mankind changes the environment, perhaps it should be considered satisfactory if wildfowl also change their habits in order to cope with the altered conditions. This they largely appear to be achieving and, speaking in general terms, the populations of quarry species have suffered no drastic declines.

But what of punt-gunning in this debate? In carrying out this stalking sport, the puntsman will try to create a very minimum of 'disturbance' to wildfowl and the surrounding area as it only spoils his own sport, just as when deerstalking. A punt is only a boat, but one that is operated in a way that specifically tries not to 'disturb', which cannot be said of the ship, the fishing trawler, the yacht, the power boat, the canoe and the wind surfer - all seen in our estuaries during the shooting season.

Today and the Future

Wildfowling has been described as the pursuit of quarry species of wild duck and geese for sport with the use of a smooth-bore shotgun either on foot under certain conditions by boat, this specifically including the use of traditionally built and manually propelled gunning-punts.

Today's small number of punt-gunners have a well-organised and corporate voice through the B.A.S.C., their parent organisation. that rightly provides guidance for those pursuing this sport - an integral part of the whole sport of wildfowling that must stand united if it is to have the future that it deserves.

The sportsman conservationist and pure conservationist have common cause as the destruction of habitats and resultant loss of species is in neither's interest. With goodwill and understanding there is room for both, but the massive contribution made by shooting interests in creating, preserving and managing wetlands over very many years must not be overlooked by the modern protectionist. In the absence of such effort, he might have a great deal less to enjoy today.

It is likely that the decline in punt-gunning that has taken place throughout this century will continue, as more punt-guns pass into collectors' hands, not to be used again. Other guns, punts and their equipment are falling into disrepair through age. However, the future belongs to those who care deeply about it and to those who are prepared to solve the problems of today. The present generation of wildfowlers and punt-gunners hold the sport in trust knowing that its continuance largely depends on their actions, a responsibility I do not believe they will abdicate.


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