Little’s apparently changed in British driven game-bird shooting since Queen Victoria sat on the throne. Many of us still use guns made in her reign. Our shooting suits are built to a 100-year-old pattern. And we still bellow fruity oaths at labradors that have deserted us to chase rabbits. But appearances can be deceptive. Amongst those tweed-encrusted figures you will increasingly spot some wearing a dash of cashmere or silk,for the chaps have been joined by the ladies. Our Annies have finally got their guns.
A lady photographed a Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds (Courtesy of Holland & Holland)
Women participants now comprise a significant sector in the UK shooting market, with ladies-only shooting clubs—such asThe Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club and Country Girls UK—barely keeping pace with the demand for clay pigeon and game-bird shoots. Gunmakers have not been slow to cater for this trend, with all the big makers—such as Beretta, Browning, Blaser, Perazzi, and Zoli—rushing to make guns specifically tailored for the female form.And as with all change, there have been trailblazers,ladies who’ve been shooting since girlhood.Rosie Whitaker, a lethally accurate grouse shot,was taught by her father, Sir Joe Nickerson, a titanin the British shooting scene who had the enthusiasm and wherewithal to shoot six days a week.
“I shot my first bird—a pheasant—when I was nine,” says Rosie, “with a single-barrelled .410. My father wanted me to learn to make the first shot count and not rely on a second barrel. I then progressed to a 28-bore when I was 14 and that’s when I realized, ‘Wow, I really can shoot!’” Today, she uses a pair of made-to-measureSpanish 20-bores, a present for her 18th birthday, and very, very few grouse get past her.
Serena Cross (née Williams) also uses a pair of Spanish20-bores, usually on the family shoot at the ancestral home, Caerhays Castle, a fairytale confection overlooking a Cornish cove. “I‘acquired’ them from Dad when I was 13 and somehow forgot to give them back…” she admits. Serena regularly shoots 30 to 40days, everything from the grouse and high pheasants to wood pigeon and rabbits, though her favorite game bird is undoubtedly the woodcock. Her prowess is such that she balances working on her new brand for lady shooters, Phoenix Sporting, with a role as brand ambassador for James Purdey & Sons, the world-famousLondon gunmaker. Serena thinks that “most of the women who shoot really well are tomboys. We’re stylish but we can get down and on without making a fuss or wishing to have attention drawn to us because we’re women.”
The Duchess of Cambridge during a pheasant hunt. (Rex Features)
Her views are echoed by Nicole Escue Brocklebank-Fowler, who likes to shoot with other women so long as they are “kick-ass girls doing it seriously and not smothered in pink.” Born in Washington, D.C., she’s lived in the UK for 20 years and is currently the director of real estate for the Bank of Montreal. Taught by her father to plink cans in the backyard, she took up game shooting properly in 2003 and, like many women, attended the women’s shooting course at the Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds,London. Like very many women, she favors Beretta 20-bores though hers have had their stocks fitted to her measurements.
“Hunting Party, Grouse Season, Ayrshire,” 1936 (National Galleries of Scotland)
Sally Prendergast, a farmer’s wife and owner of the Side-by-Side country lifestyle shop, also uses specially-adapted Beretta 20-bores and doesn’t expect—or want—men to make a fuss about her sex. “I don’t want people thinking of me as a ‘lady’ Gun,” she says. “I just want to be treated as another sportsman in the field.”That said, you would not mistake Sally for a man. She always dresses beautifully and “loves the Purdey range for ladies, especially their culottes.” Culottes are also the first choice for the elegantKaylie Bloxham, keen shot and founder of Bloxham PR, and forRosie Whitaker, who’s especially fond of those by Miller and Drake,which she teams with “proper, silk-lined leather shooting gloves, a Musto shooting coat with good cartridge pockets and a baker-boystyle shooting cap.”
Warmth, stye, and functionality also determine the wardrobes for Serena Cross and Nicole Escue Brocklebank-Fowler. Serena likes her clothes “to fit like a second skin, so lots of silk and cash-mere under a Purdey Field coat,” while Nicole’s “tweeds fromHolland & Holland and Purdey’s are always worn with anHermes scarf and masses of cashmere.”All of which brightens up the usual sludgy colors of theBritish shooting scene as more women take up the gun, a trend that’s only set to grow according to Claire Sadler, vice-chair of the the UK’s largest shooting organization, the BritishAssociation for Shooting and Conservation, who points to the recent surge of women applying for shotgun ownership. Her views are mirrored by Tania Coxon, who founded The CountryGirls just 10 months ago and has found “demand just completely mad, with every clay and game shooting day we arrange selling out almost immediately.
As a result, most men in the UK are likely to be sharing their shooting days with women in the future, as many of us do now.And that’s only good for our sport. But the boys had better keep up, because the ladies have normally been trained very well. If you miss your bird, the chances are they won’t…
HM The Queen (center) at a shooting party in 1958 at Meigle, Perthshire,with Lord Elphinstone (left) and Lady Dalhousie (right).