Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Midland Game Fair

So, yes, I went to the Midland Game fair and, yes, it was an absolutely superb day out. I'd never been to one before and had no idea what to expect - I didn't know if I was going to love it or be bored stupid and regret the whopping £17 it cost to get in. But I really shouldn't have worried, it was close to being Hubert-heaven. I could have spent one whole, happy day just sitting in the falconry arena and watching the beautiful, spooky, dappled-white-and-ochre barn owls swoop about; I could have passed an equally fine day just watching mesmerised while a pack of infinitely patient sheepdogs herded a flock of geese. There was so much I wanted to see it was just mind boggling; I left feeling that one day was nowhere near enough and if I were to go next year I'd pitch a tent and stay the whole weekend.

Getting there, though, was a pain in the bum. Like a fool I'd decided against the scenic but wiggly back-lane route and chosen instead to cycle down the fast, cramped and choc-a-block-with-4x4's nightmare that is the A5. It took me an hour and a half of sweaty pedaling and the tally of cursing at careless motorists came to about a half-dozen bursts of standard-grade swearing plus one fit of furious and obscene screaming (some bugger who missed me by a scant foot at 70mph).

I finally pedaled over the brow of a hill onto the site itself and was just gobsmacked by the scale of the place. I set off at once down Gunmakers Row and there I peered at rank after rank of shotgun & rifle stands and the unbelievable crowd of people. Then I gawped for a while at bloodhounds and ferrets before I realised I was absolutely shattered and needed to flop with a coffee & bun right then or risk keeling over. Nicely recharged with carbs, caffeine and tobacco I set off for the Air Gun quarter.

I spent hours there: marveling at the unreachably-expensive but gorgeous Daystates; admiring the tidy and determined-looking new BSA's; frankly coveting the Falcon PCP pistols; puzzling a bit at the Gunpowers (they do look bonkers but I'd still have one); shooting terribly on the ten-metre match range; pondering pellet lubes; chatting very happily, as ever, with Tony and Tracy (both worked off their feet) at the Sandwell Field Sports stand; seizing the chance to finally eyeball a Weihrauch HW75 - in other words, having a bit of an air-gun orgy. Knackered once more I was forced to sit down, gobble a pasty and gape at the milling throng of fellow air gun fanciers (including one dapper bloke sporting a suit & plus-fours all made out of Realtree camo).

Then I set about trying to say hello to some of the writers I hoped would be there. I was in luck: I had the great pleasure of a conversation with the editor of Sporting Shooter, James Marchington.

James' Blog is simply the place to look if you're at all interested in reading a serious, intelligent and often very funny treatment of the contested politics in the UK shooting scene; he's a great advocate for shooters, has a fund of great stories to tell and I would have nattered with him gladly for hours.

After saying cheerio to James, I spent a while chatting with the friendly folk at the new Airgun Shooter magazine: with Mathew Manning (whose nice-looking book Hunting with Air Rifles: A Complete Guide has just been published) and with Nigel Allen - the editor - about the pro's and con's of paper versus net publishing for airgun writers (yes, it's a shame, he thinks, that so much great writing languishes in unreachable magazine archives but putting it on the net at the moment seems like a vast amount of work with very little obvious financial return for the writers). Then I wandered over to talk a while with Jim Tyler, the veteran shootist of AirGun World who was kind enough to give me a few photography tips (don't try stalking rabbits with a huge digital SLR round your neck, for one).

For me - a gonzo amateur airgun writer - this kind of chance to speak with so many professionals in one place was worth the sweat and cursing of the journey all by itself.

With the day almost done I threw myself back into the crowded streets of the fair; caught a display of gun dogs joyfully pulling dummy birds from a lake; gazed at something like a hundred magnificent hawks, falcons and owls; considered the sharp-suits, cut flowers and champagne on tap in the 'Weath Management' marquee - then found a shooting range.

I'd never fired anything beyond an air rifle before but here - after deciding against ten shots for a tenner on an AK47 - three quid bought me an enjoyable eight shots on a bolt action Marlin while a fairground PA thundered out, of all things, Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit'.

I rubbernecked a while in the knife stalls in the hope I could find a little folding Fallkniven near the reach of my wallet (not a chance) and then found my eye taken by the work on one of the smallest stalls. A young chap called Oliver Davison had, he told me, built a propane forge in his own back garden, taught himself the craft and was now producing fine pocketknives that seemed perched half-way between utility and jewelery. Lovely things.

Shiny objects aside, a lot of the day's pleasure came from pure people watching. Much of my past was spent in cities so it's still fascinating for me to get glimpses of lived lives that I wouldn't have been able to guess at while I was crammed in the Tube under Oxford Circus: blokes from farms in their Sunday best; falconers from Devon comparing scars; flawless tweed on landed youth and camo-clad lads from Shropshire towns - all of this is fascinating for me. And everyone had a dog, or more often had five dogs - and it seemed to me that no one there would have so much as batted an eye at the notion of someone bagging the odd rabbit for tea...

Near the end of the day a bloke packing up his stall said, 'Hey, do you want some beer?' He pointed at a crate of John Smith's, 'I'm off now and I don't want it - help yourself!' I thanked him sincerely and did what he said.

Really knackered by then - and dreading the A5 - I sat down to stoke up on hot chocolate and jam butties. Munching, I cursed myself for not bringing a map to help navigate the back lanes when suddenly I remembered - of course! - I had a Sat Nav on my phone.

So, recalling the great day I'd just had and vowing to go to another one soon, I cycled home smiling along the peaceful lanes of the Staffordshire countryside - pausing for a beer half way - while a nice lady robot told me which turnings to take.

Frugal lunch chez Hubert...

Tapping up my take on the Midland Game fair I'm disturbed by tum rumblings. There's no bread in the flat and I can't be arsed to walk to the shop. There is a rabbit I shot last night - but cooking that will take a couple of hours. Open the cupboards: 'Savoury Rice Cakes', a couple of months old - and ketchup. O.K. Fry the liver & kidneys in butter with a sliced tom, liberally coat rice cakes with ketchup, slap on the fried stuff & eat.

Marvellous. Lick the plate clean.

For pud, coat another rice cake with some home made damson & apple jelly I was given. Pretty damn good.

Back to writing...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The River Cottage Mushroom Handbook

A free gun wasn't the only good thing to come through my front door yesterday - I got my copy of the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook by John Wright in the post as well. It's my first mushy book and I ummed & ahhed long over the choice between this and 'Mushrooms' by Roger Phillips - the classic foragers guide.

Too restless to sit down at home I took it to the yard of the Swan pub in town and - while seeking the remedy for my ills in Old Speckled Hen and Irish Flake - read the first fifty pages or so.

It's funny; I chuckled, I 'laughed out loud', even. John Wright is clearly a walking encyclopedia of all things mycological but he's also possessed of an infectious dry wit. So as well as being useful it's a thoroughly enjoyable read (perhaps a shade more so if you're off your head on weapons-grade tobacco and and strong ale).

Pretty much the first thing he writes in the book, though, is: Do not use just one book as a guide when picking wild mushrooms.

Ah well, O.K then - I needn't have ummed & ahhed - I should have just got them both. I'll remedy that too.

Friday, 17 September 2010

A Meteoric Gift...

A bloke came to my door today with a gun. 'This is for you', he said. 'Oh, blimey!' I said, 'thank you very much indeed!'

The bloke - my upstairs neighbour - has just sold his flat and was having a bit of a clear out. 'It's been sitting in the back of my wardrobe for years and years,' he said, 'I thought you might like it?' I do like it,' I said, 'In fact I'm chuffed to bits!'

I spent a good while thanking him - and vowing to help shift his wardrobe & sofa next week - then threw myself into the Net to research this wonderful gift.

Turns out it's a Mark 4 BSA Super Meteor in .22. It was made - so I soon discovered - in Birmingham between 1974 and '78. New, it put out pellets - possibly quite-tricky-to-find 5.6mm pellets - at about 8ftlb. Cracking the barrel revealed that the breech seal had totally disintegrated so I hot-footed it over to T.W Chambers' site and bought a new one for a modest £3.24.

Then I cleaned out the remains of the old seal, fettled a few marks and scratches off the stock and applied a wee bit of gun oil. The mechanism felt smooth and everything seemed to work just fine (though of course I can't fire it till I get the seal in the post). That done, I just marveled at it.

A new gun. Out of nowhere. Sing Hosanna!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

'Rabbit Stew' - Giving hunting a bad name?

I joined the Weihrauch Owners Forum yesterday and posted in the 'Welcome Lounge' folder where you can introduce yourself. I put a link in to the blog and edited my signature there to link to this blog as well. This morning I got a message from site Admin:
Hi mate
I have deleted the links to your website...reference to hunting whilst not being quite up to scratch accuracy wise...wishing to take potshots at Pheasants with a catapult and while you yourself don't advocate using a pistol for vermin control/hunting in the blog reference is made to it.
We have to look at the big picture and how airguns and airgunners are portrayed in airgun forums and no-one wishes to add fuel to the anti's fires, hope you understand and continue to be part of this forum.
Several members of the forum had greeted me in the thread itself and so this morning I added this reply:
Hi all,

...and many thanks for your greetings. It's nice to be welcomed on board.

I was rather startled this morning to find that my first post here had been edited - a link I put up to my blog had been removed and the same link in my signature had been deleted. Perhaps it was remiss of me to put a link in my signature? After all, I'm a newbie here and I have no idea whether or not there's a policy to forbid links in signatures or to ban external links completely. I've had the same link in my Airgunbbs signature for about a year so I assumed - perhaps wrongly - that this would be OK here. If that's not the case and there is a blanket ban then I apologise.

I received a PM from a forum admin saying that the link had been removed because the content of my blog would, in effect, 'add fuel to the anti's fires'. I have to say that this saddens and baffles me a little. I take the question of hunting ethics seriously and this is something I've treated - I hope - in some depth on the blog (or at least as far as my abilities allow). I write 'question' of hunting ethics because I do think that this is a field in which there are genuine questions - rather than hard and fast answers.

I'm aware, of course, that hunting is a practice that is itself 'under fire' at the moment. I suppose I think that the discussion is already lost if we as hunters adopt as our own the 'standards' - the false standards, I would say - that the so-called 'anti's' judge us by. We make a rod for our own backs in this, I would say.

So I would invite any forum members who were so inclined to visit the blog and - if they find anything there that they disagree with or find contentious - to engage in discussion with me and the other blog readers there. (Obviously, I won't include a link to the blog now but I write there under the same pen name as I have here.)

Best regards,

Monday, 13 September 2010

Air Rifle Shooting: Still learning how to zero, hold, breathe and fire...

Hunting a couple of times a week over the last eighteen months I've now got this shooting thing sorted, have I? I must have learned how to shoot by now, surely?

Well, no. Learning is still something I do every time I go out - as my session yesterday made clear.

A beautiful day. Out in the fields I plonked down against a fence and - soothed all the while by the pastoral music of the M6 motorway directly behind me - popped fifty-odd shots thirty yards across a field into little A5 paper targets I'd pinned to the base of a tree. I'd scrawled a series of biro circles on the paper, all roughly an inch in diameter.

My first effort appalled me: a ragged, two-and-a-half inch spattering, low and to the right, with flyers out to four inches. A thoroughly miserable group. Clearly my zero had drifted but I was still all over the place in terms of group coherence.

I took off the scope adjustment covers and gave it two clicks left and two clicks up. This is lazy of me - it's better to do the horizontal and vertical adjustments separately but it's just not the way my head works.

Well, O.K. That's a little better. Slightly tighter, somewhat closer.

As I carried on shooting I began to become more aware of how I was holding the rifle and how I was breathing when I let go of the shot. My instinct is to hold the gun tightly - left and right hand both - hold my breath at the point that I fire and use the whole fleshy pad of my index finger to pull back on the trigger. For me that's natural, it's instinctive - but it's all wrong. Tony at the Penkridge Air Rifle Club has several times said to me, 'You've gone blue, lad!' when I finally drew in a great whooping breath after a rigidly tense and airless ten seconds of trying to get a shot off.

I began to make the effort to keep the cycle of my breathing regular as I watched the cross hairs rise and fall on the target - trying to pull the trigger in the pause between my breaths rather than manufacturing a longer interval by ceasing to breath at all. Things started to get better.

Another two clicks up. Another two clicks left.

I began to think about my grip on the rifle and the way I squeezed the trigger. I've learned that it's vital to let springers rest on your hands and move freely when you fire them - fighting the recoil by holding tight only makes things worse. So I tried to pay attention to how I was holding the gun. When I'm firing groups the idea 'God, I'm a lousy shot! Gotta get better!' usually ends up making me hang on for grim death, tense as hell. So with each shot now I tried to loosen my mortice-like grip on the stock and relax while I fired.

Once again, the group got a little better. Two more clicks up; two more to the left.

Tony has also mentioned trigger-finger placement to me at the club, 'Just use the tip of your finger,' he'd said, 'right at the base of the trigger - that's all you need.' So each shot I took I tried to notice how I was touching the trigger. 'Rekord' triggers on Weirhauch rifles are famed for their sensitivity - they really do repay your attention and the less force you exert on the trigger, the less you make the gun wobble when you shoot. The less it wobbles, the more accurate the shot.

Still a little bit shy of the centre mark, I gave the scope adjusters one click up and one click left. Then - relaxed as I could get, holding the rifle loosely, breathing evenly and using only the tippy-top of my finger on the end of the trigger - I fired off five shots.

Whoa! A heaven-sent group, a thing of beauty! You'd better stop shooting right now, I thought, and get your camera out before you put a flyer in there and mess up the pretty picture...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Catault now with 'Theraband' elastic...

Well, B&Q did have a rotary cutter (in the wallpaper aisle) and it was three quid, as it turned out. I marked up the elastic, as below, 4 strips - since I'm going to use the bands doubled - 22cm in length and each one tapering from 25 to 15mm.

Attaching the bands to the catty using the 'over the top' method (since the doubled bands wouldn't go through the small holes in the arms of the catty) was easy. I secured the bands with another very thin strip of Theraband wound round many times and then tucked under itself. I did the tuck by winding the last of the elastic over the ends of some long-nosed pliers then wrapping it round again before grabbing the very end of the strip with the pliers and then pulling them out from under the bands - thus trapping the end very tightly. I used the same method to attach the bands to the pouch. A few snips with the scissors to trim and bingo: Tidy!

A few test pulls reveal that this set up is frighteningly powerful compared to the - I now see - extremely weedy square profile elastic that the catty came with.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Hope Bourne Obituary

"A small but wiry figure, she was often seen in pursuit of wood pigeon, deer, rabbit or hare, wielding her American-made .22 rifle or 12-bore shotgun – "What one didn't get, t'other did," she would say. To feed herself, as well as shooting for the pot, she fished and grew vegetables. She ate 1lb of meat a day (some of which was none too fresh) and drank from a stream."

Complete obituary of this remarkable woman here.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Photograph of my arse...

...with a new toy I got in the post today (courtesy of a well-know online auction site).

I spent a while over the summer talking with a traveller bloke who was doing some 'community service' ('...So I said to the copper, "If you take these handcuffs off me I'm going to hit you." He took the handcuffs off me - so I hit him.'). He did a lot of hunting & fishing for food and he and I hit it off a little by talking about this together - and I really learned some things from him.

For one, I think he was quite genuinely surprised when I said that I took a knife with me when I went out hunting rabbits. 'Gut them? No, no, I don't do that, I squeeze all the innards out through the arsehole. I pick them up by the front legs, press down with my thumb on the belly and push it all out. I can't do it as fast as my dad, mind. My dad can do it in a second. Unbelievable, my dad is...'. But what about eating the liver and the kidneys, I asked? 'No,' he said, 'I don't do that,' and he wrinkled his nose in disgust.

He told me that he'd often go out with just his catapult and that he'd been using it since he was a boy. He'd learned to use it by going out with his father when they were all working together picking crops down south in the summer; they'd get wood pigeon, rabbits - even the odd duck - and put it all in a cooking pot outside with peas and potatoes from the farm.

It's easy for me - very easy - to imagine that I can pick up this kind of skill by just wanting to; it's a romanticism that I'm an easy prey for. Probably, for myself, I'll just end up using it to ping a few pebbles down the railway track at the bottom of the road. I know that there's a giant learning curve with catapults before you can become even remotely accurate with them. That being said, there were a couple of times in the summer, walking up the back lanes into the hilly farmland nearby, when a pheasant would pop out through a hedge in front of me and all I could do each time was watch them scurry away while I wished I had something useful to hand...

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Webley Tempest!

I popped into Morrisons supermarket in Stone today and after inhaling a plate of liver and onions with mash & peas in the cafe there (superb, by the way, better than any restaurant meal I've had this year) I paused on the way out by the bulletin board where shoppers can post their own smalls ads. What did I see?


Good grief! A Webley Tempest! The classic English eccentric pistol! I rang the chap up, hot-footed it round the corner to his house and there it was: black, brooding & absolutely immaculate on his kitchen table. He invited me to test-fire the pistol so we retired to the patio from where I duly popped a pellet into his equally immaculate lawn: fut!

'Well, great,' I said, 'Yeah. I'll take it. Do you want to haggle?'

'No', he said.

'No, sure, of course not,' I said. 'Here's fifty quid.'

It's a .22 but it turns out, and I didn't realise this till I got it home, that it's a 5.6mm .22 rather than your bog-standard mainland-European 5.5mm! So it's an Imperial Webley rather than a metric one!

A little bit of research and - phew! - it turns out that there is actually a pellet that'll fit this thing, the classic and very well-regarded 5.6mm Eley Wasp - great!

...except they don't make 'em any more! Well Eley don't anyway, they went bust or flogged the brand name or something and now they appear as:

...note the missing 'Eley' - and allegedly (this is the word to use so I gather if you want to avoid getting sued for libel) they're not quite as good as they used to be.

An alternative - and a good one, since they make damn good pellets - turns out to be the H&N Field Target 5.54mm which, while they are as rare as rocking horse poo and/or hen's teeth in the shops, can still in fact be found on t'internet.

So, we'll see.

(PS: By the way, for massively skilled modifications to Webleys (and a host of other airguns) look no further than the always-astounding and absurdly modestly-titled 'Another Airgun Blog'. The section on Webley mods is here. )