J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Art and Poetry of Shooting Flying

In 1727 George Markland, formerly a fellow at Oxford, published Pteryplegia: or, The Art of Shooting-Flying in London.

“Shooting flying” was the term for shooting birds as they flew, rather than bagging them when they were on the ground or in the water. That was a relatively new approach in Britain, brought back from the Continent late in the previous century by Charles II and his courtiers.

In Pteryplegia Markland aimed to introduce his readers to shooting birds on the wing in verse. But he didn’t so much describe the experience in poetic terms as provide a how-to that happened to come in rhymed couplets. A taste:
Our Sport almost at hand, we charge the Gun,
Whilst ev’ry well-bred Dog lies qui’tly down.
Charge not before. If over-Night the Piece
Stands loaded, in the Morn the Prime will hiss:
Nor Prime too full; else you will surely blame
The hanging Fire, and lose the pointed Aim.
Shou’d I of This the Obvious Reason tell,
The caking Pressure does the Flame repel,
And Vulcan’s lam’d again by his own Steel.
Yet cleanse the Touch-hole first: A Partridge Wing
Most to the Field for that wise purpose bring.
In Charging, next, good Workmen never fail
To ram the Powder well, but not the Ball:
One Third the well-turn’d Shot superiour must
Arise, and overcome the Nitrous Dust,
Which, dry’d and season’d in the Oven’s Heat
Has stood in close-mouth’d Jarr the dampless Night.
Now search for Tow, and some old Saddle pierce,
No Wadding lies so close, or drives so fierce.
And here be mindful constantly to Arm
With Choice of Flints, a Turn-screw, and a Worm;
The accidental Chances of the Field,
Will for such Implements Occasion yield.
And so it went on for 32 pages. There were further editions in 1735 and 1767. Gentlemen could buy the first and third editions for a shilling, the second for only sixpence. Now it’s free on Google Books.

If that approach doesn’t grab you, in 1766 Thomas Page offered The Art of Shooting Flying: Familiarly Explain’d by Way of Dialogue, also a mere shilling. This book took the form of a conversation between Aimwell, a practiced hunter and marksman, and Friendly, a gentleman young enough to have just asked his father for permission to learn to shoot.

Page takes issue with a lot of the tips in Pteryplegia. For example:
Do you ram your shot as much as your powder? I think I have heard some that pretend to experience say, that they ram the powder well but not the shot. What is your opinion of this?

After some experience you will find, if your gun is clean, and the wad thrust but lightly down, that in walking the shot will be apt to get loose: and if you discharge the piece in that state, it will seem, by the small resistance it makes, as if there were no shot in it: and if you try one load pretty smartly rammed over the shot, and another with the wad thrust but lightly down, at a quire of paper, you will find the charge that is rammed will penetrate deepest, and that the shot will fly as regularly as the other which is not rammed.

Well, Sir, it seems rational enough; and I shall follow your counsel, and try it at the first opportunity, because I think it is a point necessary to be thoroughly convinced of.
Aimwell assumes Friendly has enough money to buy quires of paper to shoot at. And he no doubt does. Both men bring servants to the lessons to silently lay out targets and carry their guns.

Such stilted dialogue continues for about thirty pages. Then Page had Aimwell just give advice for seven straight pages. Finally, the author shifted to a long appendix of technical information describing his gun tests, a form I sense he would have preferred to use all along.

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