Bird hunting is simple in America. You grab a shotgun and some shells, drive to a field and blaze away, nothing wrong with that.
Unless you’re English, in which case everything is wrong with that. Although U.S. gun laws are much better than Britain's, the English do bird hunting a bit differently, a bit more seriously. What you or any American would call a fun opportunity to shoot some doves, an equivalent Brit would call a long, complicated and highly anticipated social event. Expensive shotguns would be cleaned and readied, packs of retrieving setters would be gathered by a trainer, and every fellow shooter known would be invited for a long day of hunting, eating, socializing and more hunting.
How do you get ready for a dove hunt? Cooler, check. Folding chair, check. Get some sunglasses and you can be in position at sunrise with only five minutes of morning preparation. The English hunter must wake up earlier. Five minutes is just not enough time to collect a shooting bag, cartridge chest, picnic basket, field furniture and perhaps a Welsh setter (or four).
And that doesn’t include dress. “Dress code” for an American shoot begins and ends with dull-colored clothing that won’t startle any game. Dress code for an English shoot begins with knee socks, progresses to trousers, shirt, vest, tie, scarf, Wellington boots, wax cotton jacket, gloves, and ends with a tartan wool cap. It’s quite the costume, but what better way to honor the quarry-bird than to dress for the occasion?
Your favorite pump-action 12-gauge simply won’t do on an English shoot. For starters, it has half the number of barrels required, and if it doesn’t break open to load—well how will you cradle it over your tweed-jacketed forearm? In all seriousness though, the shotguns are centerpieces of the English hunt. The best of them are handcrafted by experts educated through apprenticeship, Europe’s ancient system of single-trade mastery. Names like Holland & Holland, Purdey and Boss are synonymous with accuracy, beauty and the all-important “pointability,” or comfort and speed with which the piece is shouldered skyward. What could an inexpensive American shotgun have over those? Well, just that—a price gap of tens of thousands of dollars; the most expensive of English side-by-sides can cost up to $100,000.
To those Brits who enjoy shooting, there is no greater social gathering. Friends turn out to compare guns and skill, and eventually enjoy an expansive meal. While that may seem “fun,” many dedicate large portions of their lives to improving as a hunter and take it all very seriously, even underneath a cheerful exterior. Perhaps that’s because expertise with a shotgun can also play a large part in social status, and is required of England’s royalty. From the Queen to the youngest, most distantly related Duke, a love of the hunt comes naturally, and current Princes William and Harry are widely regarded as some of the nation’s best shots.
So why all this ceremony, why all this importance for just bird hunting? The philosophy is simple: To understand the hunt better, work harder. Put more preparation in, more emphasis, raise the stakes and study the craft, always try to improve. Realizing the purpose of hunting is the oldest, noblest, most important idea in the sport, and nowhere is it understood better than in England.