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Phil Siddell explains the subtle art of knowing when – and more importantly when not – to pull the trigger.

Posted by Airgun Shooting Magazine on 22nd Mar 2021

Phil Siddell explains the subtle art of knowing when – and more importantly when not – to pull the trigger.

Once it started, the itch on the author’s trigger finger never really went away

I’ll let you into a secret: If I go out hunting and return home empty-handed I feel … disappointed.

Yes, I know I’m supposed to have enjoyed the trip just as much for having been out in the Great British countryside, irrespective of the contents of my game bag. But I’m afraid the success of the hunt does matter to me.

This impulse is always close to the surface. If while out for a gentle family stroll I spy a bushy-tail high in a tree or hear a trout break the surface of a nearby river, I feel a deep pang of loss at an opportunity passing me by.

At 37 years of age I have, of course, shed much of the unfortunate bloodlust that typifies the young initiate hunter. However, I have yet to be cured of that itch on the pad of my index finger – the one that can only be alleviated with the release of a trigger sear.

During the philosophical musings that I’m prone to, I’ve wondered if that impulse isn’t the same that I observe in our family dog, who despite thousands of years of domestication, still starts shaking and whimpering with excitement at the flick of a squirrel’s tail.

After that pellet has left the barrel it’s no longer under your control – but it’s still your responsibility

This is a strange period in human history for the hunter and indeed meat-eaters in general. It may sometimes appear as if veganism is taking over, but as a species we are a long way from giving up on our love affair with meat.

The relationship has become complicated though, particularly for those of us who prefer to gather our sustenance from the wild in person. What was once a simple undertaking, say taking a couple of rabbits for the freezer, or thinning out the rats around a feed store, has become overlaid with all sorts of considerations that would have seemed baffling to my grandparents’ generation.

The modern airgunner has much to consider before sending that pellet down the barrel, and much to lose if unsound decisions are made.

Without doubt the future of shooting sports in Britain depends upon our ability to demonstrate its role in the conservation of our native flora and fauna.

Historically, hunters globally have been instrumental in some of the most notorious examples of species decline and extinction. In the 16th century the wolf was eradicated from England and in the 19th century the bison herds of North America were brought to their knees, to cite just two examples. Fortunately, most of the quarry we hunt with our airguns are extraordinarily resilient – just look at our friend the cottontail.

Coming home from the field empty-handed always feels a little disappointing, but it’s far better than taking an unsafe shot

However, there are so many other factors affecting wildlife’s ability to thrive that we need to be cognisant of the impact we’re having. Indeed, it could be argued that the goal of pest control must never be that of total eradication unless it’s in line with wider conservation goals such as protection of our indigenous red squirrel, or on public health grounds (sorry Messrs Scaly Tail & Co!). In short, we should seek to ensure our hunting activities are sustainable.

This may mean that we undertake a period of observation on our hunting permissions each year in order to ascertain the likely population of each species, before we ever think about pulling that trigger.

It’s well known that facilities such as abattoirs have to follow strict legislation in order to ensure the humane dispatch of the livestock it processes.

Did you know that the humble hunter is similarly legislatively obligated? In more simple terms, it is a criminal offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal.

While it’s possible to argue over the subjectivity of the term unnecessary suffering when discussing the realities of hunting, it should be assumed that anything less than a clean shot connecting with vital areas such as the brain or brain stem may cause unnecessary suffering.

While it’s of course distasteful when we don’t execute a textbook dispatch it’s also a PR nightmare for the whole of the hunting community if the incident is witnessed by someone who is disturbed by it.

For the young hunter, it’s common to be squeezing that trigger every time the rifle is levelled at a target. The mature hunter knows not to release a shot unless there is little doubt of a solid hit and a clean kill.

As I alluded to at the top of this piece, when my rifle leaves the cabinet I tend to expect to return home with something for the dinner table. As most of our quarry species are described collectively as pests, and many come under one general licence or another, it can be easy for the airgun hunter to justify their forays.

If your quarry populations are under control, then perhaps it’s time for some plinking instead

But is it time to value these animals a little more highly? After all, the wolves we once so triumphantly drove from our island are now of great interest to us, with serious consideration being given to their reintroduction in some circles.

Perhaps if the freezer is full and the bunny numbers are now manageable, it’s time to shoot fewer of them. This is an idea I’m coming around to, and while it’s never quite the same, I am beginning to realise when it’s time to head to the range for some trigger time, rather than head to a permission just for the sake of it.

By far the best salve for my itchy trigger finger is safety. Where guns of any type or calibre are concerned, I am of the firm opinion that one can simply never be too careful. It’s possible to become complacent with airguns in a way we might not with a heavy recoiling centrefire, but in my mind there is no difference between the two.

Once a projectile leaves the barrel of your gun it is no longer under your control. Decisions about safety must be made before engaging the trigger. When I began deer stalking last year it was sobering to consider that any round I fired was capable of retaining lethal energy even after several thousand metres.

I learned to look for reasons not to take a shot, shifting the emphasis to a cautious approach; something I have carried over to my air rifle hunting. If you cannot see a safe and solid backstop behind your target, do not pull the trigger.

There is much to consider before we pull the trigger, and the future of airgun hunting rests with each and every one of us

If you are unsure of the identity of your target, do not shoot. If you are unsure of what lies behind and to the side of your target (could there be a footpath or land boundary nearby?), do not shoot.

There will always be a part of me that wants to shoot all the game and land all the fish I see. I regard it as a human characteristic; the instinct to acquire a food source. However, I also recognise that I am called upon to apply reason to my actions in the field.

This is the fascinating quandary at the heart of every hunting activity: why do we hunt when we don’t necessarily need to anymore? Well, that’s another question for another day. In the meantime, I will simply work on trying to learn the subtle art of knowing when not to pull the trigger.