April 6, 2022
By Joe Engesser
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Why kill two birds with one stone when you can bag 50 in a single shot? Enter the punt gun, a 19th-century megafowler designed by the market hunting industry to take down ducks and geese on a massive scale.
The first punt guns were hand-made in the early 1800s when enterprising commercial hunters along the major flyways in the United Kingdom wondered if a bigger shotgun could increase their kill counts. The resulting punt gun was a tremendous success and quickly caught on in the United States as well.
A punt gun is essentially an enormous shotgun that was mounted to the front of a shallow draft duck boat called a punt, hence the name of the weapon. Being custom firearms, the first punt guns were fairly crude compared to some later examples, usually hand-built muzzleloaders designed to spray hundreds of pellets over a wide area.
This Holland & Holland punt gun example in Rock Island Auction's May Premier includes a grey painted heavy steel barrel with a single brass bead front sight, two trunnions and a mounting point, and a massive 9 1/4 inch unprimed steel shell.
With the industrial revolution gathering steam, the United Kingdom saw a rapidly growing population that craved a steady supply of meat. In addition, 19th-century women’s fashion also drove the demand for new commercial hunting methods, as ducks and geese delivered an ample supply of feathers to decorate the popular hats of the era. Wildfowl were abundant, and punt guns could harvest the record numbers needed to fill society’s ravenous appetite.
It wasn’t long before the practice of flock shooting caught the attention of wealthy aristocrats as well. Gentlemen fowlers like Colonel Peter Hawker and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey took to the waters of Victorian England to try their hand at this intriguing new pastime, and more elaborate punt guns were developed to accommodate their pursuits.
Shooting a punt gun effectively requires a solid mount, and the most popular method was to attach the cumbersome weapon to a long, wide bottom boat. Hunters would lie flat and use hand paddles or long poles to silently ease their craft toward a flock of unsuspecting waterfowl. Once in range, the entire boat would need to be positioned to effectively aim the punt gun.
The idea of maneuvering what amounted to a miniature cannon in the general direction of a resting flock, showering them with hundreds of pellets, and spending the rest of the day collecting the fallen and wounded birds doesn't measure up as ethical by today’s standards, but in the 1800s it served a valuable role in delivering meat to market before the widespread availability of refrigeration. The numbers didn’t lie, and punt gun hunters developed coordinated strategies with up to ten boats at a time to further increase the efficiency of their deadly weapons.
Punt gun size varied widely, though many historic examples measured over seven feet long and weighed well upwards of 50 pounds. An illegal punt gun seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in 1920 was nearly 11 feet long and a staggering 250 pounds. Needless to say, the incredible recoil of these lead-belching behemoths could push the comparatively small punt boats back several feet and sometimes endanger the handler and their vessel.
The massive punt gun pictured below was built in 1883 for Hugh Cecil, 5th Earl of Lonsdale. Known as the “London Model” due to it being invented, bored, and actioned all within London, the gun measures an astonishing 115 1/2 inches from the muzzle to the rear of the stock. A similar gun purchased by an Indian monarch in 1901 proved so powerful that it sunk its boat on the first shot.
A Holland & Holland 1 1/2 Inch (1 Bore) "London Model" rotary underlever punt gun from RIAC's September 2021 Premier Auction. This example appears to be the gun pictured on page 244 of Volume 3 of the Lonsdale Library of Sports, Games and Pastimes published by Lord Lonsdale in 1929.
While gentlemen fowlers could afford to experiment and sometimes erred on the side of excess, punt gun size was more carefully considered by commercial hunters. As British author Henry Coleman Folkard notes in his 1864 book, The Wild-Fowler: A Treatise on Modern Wild-Fowling, Historic and Practical, “Experience teaches us that a punt for wild-fowling purposes should be as light and buoyant as possible; no larger than absolutely necessary; should be of easy draught of water, and capable of being propelled without over-fatiguing the punter.”
The two massive punt guns available in Rock Island Auction Company’s May Premier, a 28 pound 4 bore and a 50 pound 2 bore, demonstrate the broad variation that existed within this fascinating genre.
While modern hunting shotguns are limited by law to 10 gauge diameter or smaller, punt guns were created in 4 gauge, 2 gauge, and even a mammoth 1 gauge variant, more akin to small artillery than a fowling arm.
Most early punt guns were muzzleloaders, as there was little thought or need to add further expense and complication to a tool that got the job done. By the mid-1800s, some gunsmiths began to produce breechloading punt guns for the wealthy sporting market, and in the following decades cartridge fed models became available as well.
British author John Henry Walsh examined the differences between muzzleloading and breechloading punt guns in his 1859 book, The Shot-gun and Sporting Rifle: and the Dogs, Ponies, Ferrets Used with Them in the Various Kinds of Shooting and Trapping. Breechloaders, he concluded, were more prone to bursting and slightly heavier given their required extra length for loading, but they were easier to clean, could be loaded faster, and didn’t oblige the shooter to raise himself above the deck of the punt.
The largest punt gun bore diameters could exceed 2 inches and unleash over 2 pounds of shot at a time. At a public exhibition in 1885, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey put over 1,300 pellets into a six foot square target at thirty yards with a single shot from his mammoth 1 1/2 bore punt gun.
Author John Henry Walsh noted that the following punt gun variations were offered by a popular gunsmith in Victorian London. “The bore of the largest of his punt guns is 1 1/2 inches, weight 120 pounds, and carries 2 to 2 1/2 pounds of shot. The smallest which he makes weights 60 pounds, and carries from 3/4 pounds to 1 pound of shot.”
In the mid-1800s, celebrated British writer and sportsman Colonel Peter Hawker developed a refined variation of the double barrel punt gun. When both barrels were fired simultaneously, the second barrel, a flintlock ignition, had a short delay compared to its percussion counterpart. Hawker claimed this allowed more of the flock to rise from the water and get out in front of the spread before the next barrel was discharged.
Single barrel punt guns were already pushing the limits with their immense powder loads, and double barrel variants needed to reduce the amount of black powder per barrel so they didn’t sink their boats. This led to a perception among some hunters that double barrel punt guns were less powerful and less reliable overall. In addition, regulating a massive double barrel punt gun and calibrating both barrels would have been an expensive and cumbersome task.
Massive double barrel hunting guns found more success with big game hunters in the form of 4 bore rifles used to take on lions, rhinos, and elephants. This engraved and inlaid example from Rodda & Co. was sold at Rock Island Auction Company in 2019 for $126,500.
Critics like author Henry Coleman Folkard were not impressed, arguing, “After years of active experience in wild-fowl shooting with punt, stanchion, and other guns, I have no hesitation in condemning double-barreled punt guns as inconvenient, unnecessarily cumbersome, and totally unfit for the ordinary purposes of hunting.”
Despite Folkard’s scathing opinion, many hunters continued to follow in the steps of Colonel Hawker and employed the double barrel punt gun as their flock shooting weapon of choice.
With one trigger pull, a single shooter aiming a punt gun could take down over 50 waterfowl. Though the typical number was usually much lower, and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation estimates the punt gun average today is closer to 13 birds per shot, it’s not hard to imagine an experienced punt gunner regularly exceeding that figure and bagging dozens of birds in a single volley.
In regard to seasoned punt gun shooters, author Henry Coleman Folkard writes, “I may assert, in round numbers, that from sixty to one hundred widgeon have often been stopped by the single discharge of a large punt gun. But when these great shots are made, the punter seldom recovers all his wounded birds.”
Professional wing shooters working together could harvest an entire flock using a small fleet of punt boats. While 419 birds in one day is an often-cited American record, numerous market hunters in the United Kingdom claimed to have taken over 500 birds. Not surprisingly, these types of kill counts were unsustainable, and duck and geese populations plummeted as punt gunners perfected their craft.
By the turn of the 20th century, wildfowl populations across the United States had collapsed. Though many states had banned market hunting in earlier decades, conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Iowa Congressman John F. Lacey pushed for strong federal measures. A series of federal laws regulated punt gun hunting and eventually outlawed the practice by 1918.
Legislation like the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 prohibited the use of anything larger than a 10 bore firearm for hunting, but punt guns and other big game rifles were still fielded illegally in the years to follow. During the Great Depression, punt gun hunting saw a resurgence despite steep Federal penalties, as the need for food and extra income made the practice worth the risk for some desperate Americans.
The United Kingdom enacted similar reforms and greatly limited punt gun hunting, though the tradition has not been entirely abolished. The most recent survey from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation found that fewer than 50 punt gun hunters remain active in the U.K.
Even at its height, the demand for punt guns was modest compared to the market for more conventional hunting arms. When taking their scarcity into account, as well as the high cost of repair and replacement parts for these custom-crafted juggernauts, it's no surprise that so few historic punt guns have survived into the present. As a result, their value with collectors, shooters, and vintage arms enthusiasts has soared in recent years.
Outside of a few notable exceptions like the Fallout video game series and films such as Tremors 4, punt guns receive fairly little attention in popular culture, especially in America. Across the pond, punt gun salutes are used in various royal ceremonies, most famously in the English village of Cowbit Wash, a tradition Queen Victoria started in 1897 to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. Thankfully, one doesn’t need to be a member of the royal family to own and enjoy these unique firearms, and some of the best surviving punt gun examples are found for sale during Rock Island Auction Company's Premier Firearms Auctions.
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