Englishman Richard Blome’s 1683 colored engraving depicting two duck hunters shooting flying at ducks with a long fowling piece and one hunter shooting setting, with a water spaniel for retrieving, while each have a helper holding an extra fowling piece to hand to the shooter(s) after he/they have fired and for reloading the just fired firearm.


One can hardly imagine any kind of shooting flying being done when a matchlock was almost the only kind of sporting gun in vogue. Before the matchlock, guns were fired by holding a burning wick to a “touch hole” in the barrel igniting the powder inside. A shooter uses one hand for firing, and a prop to steady the gun.

The first device, or “lock,” for mechanically firing a gun is the matchlock. Powder is held in a “flash pan,” and ignited by a wick, or match, in a movable clamp. Both hands remain on the gun, vastly improving aim, after aim had been taken and the waterfowl gauged for distance and velocity

It is doubtful at what time guns were first used as sporting arms, but early French and Italian works seem to indicate the close of the fourteenth century.

The matchlock, which came into use about 1420 or 1430, was a welcome improvement in the mid-fifteenth century and remained in use even into the 1700s, when it was much cheaper to mass produce than the better classes of firearms with more sophisticated ignition systems. The matchlock secured a lighted wick in a moveable arm which, when the trigger was depressed, was brought down against the flash pan to ignite the powder. This allowed the hunter to keep both hands on the gun, improving his aim drastically. The gun had its weakness, though. It took time to ignite the end of the wick, and it was difficult to keep the wick burning in damp weather, and it was easily seen at night, so shooting flying was all but impossible.

Although first depicted by Leonardo da Vinci around 1500, the next major advance in firearm development and by far the most important invention of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the wheellock, invented in 1517 in Germany, which generated a spark mechanically.

Curiously enough, it was the sporting world rather than the military men of the sixteenth century that took up the wheellock. By it, the carrying of the slow match was rendered unnecessary, the priming being fired by a spark from a pyrite fastened in the hammer, which latter was pressed against a revolving steel wheel which was moved by a strong spring.

With the wheellock’s appearance in 1517, for the first time, conveniently small and portable firearms could be made. Documentary evidence and a handful of surviving firearms show that by the 1520s the wheellock gun was enjoying a growing popularity in both Italy and Germany. For civilian use, the wheellock ignition supplemented and gradually re­placed the matchlock. The matchlock gun required a con­stantly available source of open fire with all its attendant disadvantages both in hunting and militarily. The only advantage of the older system was its simplicity and much lower cost of manufacture.

On the European continent, the Thirty Years’ War (a series of wars between 1618 and 1638) kept the gunmakers busy and fully employed in the perfecting of military weapons. However, these military guns were not a convenient weapon or easy to handle, so when peace prevailed, the improvement of sporting arms was developed, and special attention was given to the production of better balanced and more suitable weapons for sporting purposes.

Following the matchlocks and wheellocks, the snaphances were listed among the first weapons, along with the matchlocks, brought to Virginia in 1607. Reaching its prominence in the Netherlands, the snaphance was “the first form of flintlock to appear on the European scene and in the New World.”

Sometime in the late 1500s, a lid was added to the flash pan design. To expose or protect the powder, the lid had to be moved manually. That was the snaphance. The true flintlock mechanism was designed to push back automatically the lid and spark a flint at the same time. The flintlock ignition system reigned for two centuries, with virtually no alteration. Here the matchlock was almost strictly used as a defensive weapon.

So, the wheellock merged into the snaphance of Holland, which merged into the true flintlock. Many of the matchlocks and wheellocks were converted into flintlocks in the latter half of the seventeenth century by colonial gunsmiths.

An early mention of firearm and its description as a fowling piece is found in Englishman Gervase Markham’s book, entitled Hunger’s Prevention, or the whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land (1621). Several modes of conducting the sport by “nets and guns” were described. Then he stated, “The next engine to these is the gun or fowling-piece, which is a general engine. The gun may serve for any fowl, great or little whatsoever, for it hath no respect at what it striketh; of the fowling-piece you shall understand that to be the best which is of the longest barrel, as five foot and a half, or six foot, and the boar indifferent.”

In 1621, Edward Winslow, of the Plymouth Colony, echoed Markham’s sentiments, advising prospective colonists to “Bring every man a musket or fowling piece; let your piece be long in the barrel, and fear not the weight of it, for most of our shooting is from stands.”

In 1620, there arrived at Cape Cod on the Mayflower at the newly founded Plymouth Colony, from England, a shipment of “Arms for 100 men.” It was the best planned and best equipped expedition that ever left England to colonize North America. One of the very first things to provide for after the important matters of transportation, food, and suitable clothing, was an adequate supply of firearms for defense and hunting. There were shipped “80 bastard muskets, with snaphaunces, without rests; six fowling pieces, six and one-half feet long, musket bore; four fowling pieces, five and one-half feet long, bastard musket bore, and 10 full muskets, 4 foot barrel, matchlocks with rests. They also had molds to make shot, of all sorts, as musket bulletts, pistol bullets, swan and goose shot, and of smaller sorts.” Hunting served a twofold purpose, as it offered recreation to the settlers and helped provide food for the table.

The exact meaning of bastard bore has eluded modern scholars, but apparently meant a smaller caliber, probably the Dutch carbine caliber 16 bore barrel that the British would later adopt for their own carbines and fusils. Not only firearms were needed, but also needed was gun powder, shots of various sizes, and sufficient quantity of match for matchlocks and of flints for firelocks of flintlocks.

In 1648, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote that the Indians “are full of pieces all over, both fowling pieces, muskets, and pistols. They have also their molds to make shots, of all sorts, as musket bullets, pistol bullets, swan and goose shot, and of smaller sorts.” Here the snaphaunces dominated the flint-type arms.

In one respect, the English colonies were somewhat ahead of their European counterparts in recognizing the superiority of the flintlock, or firelock system. As early as 1646, the Plymouth general court allowed only flintlocks or wheellocks for town property.

The long smoothbore fowlers were designed more for waterfowling using hail shot than fighting wars using round balls. They had barrels ranging out to seven feet, with a range of about 50 yards. Throughout the seventeenth century, matchlocks waned in popularity with the introduction of flintlocks, the snaphances and “true” flintlocks.

The colonist’s traders, in the mid-seventeenth century, had their own blacksmiths and gunstock makers who began converting matchlock and wheellock firearms into flintlocks which were overwhelmingly preferred by the Indians, as the glow of the match pre-warned their enemies and game. From the matchlock, gunstock makers manufactured the gunstock while the blacksmith attached the flash pan, the trigger mechanism and the snaphaunce flintlock to the barrel.

Within a generation, the Native Americans became experts with the snaphaunces, but mostly with the flintlocks, both using sparks instead of a glowing match to fire the gun. The snaphaunce lock firearm during the mid-seventeenth century was the most advanced flint-operated firearm that the Dutch produced. With these two firearms, by the mid-seventeenth century, more Europeans began the practice of fowling, shooting setting, at first, mainly for stationary birds such as ducks, pigeons, turkeys and partridges, before shooting flying.

In the seventeenth century, very long guns were developed in the Netherlands for hunting waterfowl. When the Dutch immigrated to America, it was natural for them to bring their long fowlers with them or to order one. A letter received in 1651 by John Baptist van Rensselaer, from his brother in Amsterdam when he had just become director of what was to become Albany, New York, advises him that he is being sent “a gun having a barrel of five feet long, made here by Abram Volckerts. . . . I hear from mother that you ordered a gun from Jan Chopp, which seems a little too wide a bore; otherwise, it is good.”

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch guns used for waterfowling in the colonies were long fowlers, often five or six feet in length and used primarily as a hunting gun rather than a military weapon. Fowlers produced in the eighteenth century constituted the first truly “made-in-America” guns and this style later became known as the Hudson Valley fowler.

Examining Hudson Valley fowlers today indicates the long-barreled guns in America followed the characteristics of the Dutch long fowlers, They were produced up and down the Hudson River from Albany to Philips Manor. The first American Hudson Valley fowlers date from about 1700 until production ceased around the time of the Revolutionary War. Hudson Valley long fowlers were made in New York from the latter half of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century.

Designed to deliver massive hail shot loads to rafts of waterfowl, the greatest number of these long fowlers were found in Hudson Valley, where the settlers made good use of them during waterfowl migration. In addition, other areas where long fowlers were made were Rhode Island, western Connecticut, and Boston.

When gunsmithing began in the colonies, it consisted only of assembling imported parts because gunsmiths, working in individual shops, were incapable of competing with facilities that existed in England, and the high premium placed on space aboard ships precluded shipping gun stocks. Therefore, the American long fowlers were assembled with stocks of native American walnut, maple or cherry, while the flintlock mechanisms were often obtained from obsolete European military muskets and the barrels imported from England, Spain and Holland.

On November 10, 1663, New Netherland requested “50 or 60 good snaphaunce locks. We are tolerable well provided here with gun barrels. If your Honors would please to let us have 50 or 60 gun locks, we could have them put together here.” Gunsmiths were a fundamental part of the early American economy. About 2,400 worked as gunsmiths in the period 1607-1840.

The popularity of these long fowlers in America is shown by their wide use not only on the Hudson River but down into Virginia, as attested to in accounts of Virginia gunsmith James Geddy. He advertised in the Virginia Gazette that he was offering “Fowling pieces, of several Sorts and Sizes.” In 1738, his ad read: “Gentlemen and Others may be supply’d by the Sub-scriber in Williamsburg with neat Fowling-Pieces, and large Guns fit for killing Wild-Fowl in Rivers, at a reasonable rate.” A long barreled waterfowler was brought to him one year later for replacement of the lock and stock. He remarked, “About Six Months Since, a long Gun, about 6 or 7 feet in the Barrel, was brought by a young Gentleman of Gloucester County, to me, in Williamsburg, to be Stock’d and Lock’d; . . .”

Samuel Caruthers, a gunsmith of Philadelphia, ran an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette for their July 8, 1762 issue where he offered “a neat Assortment of birding and fowl-ing pieces . . .” More specifically, a birding piece had a smaller barrel length and smaller bore and was lighter than the long fowling piece, although the terms were often used interchange ably to mean either one.

The earliest documented evidence of fowling pieces being made in Pennsylvania is an advertisement of Thomas Palmer, gunsmith of Philadelphia, which appeared in the March 7, 1773 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette: “Have for Sale, a quantity of well-made rifles, of different lengths and sizes of bores, which I will insure to the Purchasers, to be as good and handsomely fitted up as any in America; I likewise make Fowling Pieces, of different sizes, such as has been approved by Gentleman of this City.”

The fowling piece was not a convenient firearm, nor easy to handle, until about a century after the invention of the wheellock in 1517, when in 1610 the true flintlock was developed in France, with an early factory established for the manufacture of fowling pieces at St. Etienne (France) during the early part of the sixteenth century.

At St. E ti inn, gun maker, Marin le Bourg e ois, created the first true flintlock weapons for King Louis XIII shortly after his accession to the throne in 1610. Throughout the 17th century, flintlocks were produced in a wide variety of models.

Tulle, France was also well known for producing the popular hunting gun for trade to American and Canadian natives, French Colonials, and hunters during the early 18th century in the North American Colony of New France. The fusil de chasse were lighter and handier than French infantry muskets, making it better suited for shooting flying. In 1716, the Governor of New France requested “600 fusils de chasse from Tulle, because they are the best. The Natives know them and will not accept any others.”

The now accepted definition of a French or “true flintlock” was provided by Torsen Lenk in 1939. He insisted that the steel and pan cover must be one unit, and that the sear be vertical and capable of both full- and half-cock positioning, via notches cut in a tumbler. The earliest known guns that met his standard date to about 1610 in France when the Norman artist, gunsmith and inventor Marin le Bourg e ois made the first true flintlock for King Louis XIII. It would remain as the principal small arm ignition type for 200 years and was not known outside France until about 1640 when it would force the snaphaunce into obsolescence.

I might add that firearms innovation started with sporting and other personal arms which “were either made to order for affluent patrons or exhibited the inventiveness of the master gunsmiths.”

Following the invention of the flintlock, which ultimately revolutionize firearms design, wing shooting or “shooting flying” became popular with the French nobility during the first half of the seventeenth century. These long muzzleloading smoothbore flintlock fowlers were specifically designed for hunting waterfowl. Because a long fowler permitted but a single discharge, it was designed to take a large number of pellets. This in turn required a large charge of propellant. Moreover, because the black-powder propellant of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was of poor quality, the barrels were made quite long to insure that the full charge would be consumed before the shot left the barrel; hence the term “long fowler.”

If we accept the evidence of the artist, the earliest known portrayal of shooting flying is that by Gy a como Franco, a Venetian, who published a 1609 illustration that showed many Venetian noblemen shooting flying at geese and ducks with matchlocks with the stock resting against the shoulder and with long bows from a gondola, and stated by one writer “bringing them down by the boatloads.”

In Germany, one, if not the first author to speak of shooting flying was Baron Hoh berg in his book, published in 1682. He mentioned in 1638, during the Thirty Years’ War while he was quartered at Bremen, that he first witnessed this “noble and pretty sport” when Mathais Medici, an Italian wealthy prince, was practicing “air-shooting,” or shooting flying, as it was called.

In 1686, Englishman Richard Blome, noted in his Gentleman’s Recreation, that “it is now the mode to shoot flying, as being by experience the best and surest way; when your game is on the Wing it is more exposed to Danger or if but one shot hits any Part of its Wings so expanded it will occasion its Fall.” It included illustrations of the strange new practice. One showed ducks being shot in 1683 on the wing and “shot setting,” while another showed partridges being engaged from horseback and shot flying. The guns in use were distinct too—a long fowling piece with a barrel of about five feet in length for ducks and a shorter and lighter style of gun called a birding piece for partridges.

Thomas Fairfax, of London, England, who wrote in 1689, said of shooting flying: “Some are of the opinion that you must shoot before the bird, otherwise it will be pass before the shot can come to it, but this is a vulgar error. Yet I am of the opinion that if the game flyeth, as it were over your head, that it is best to aim at the head; and if it flyeth from you, to aim as it were under its belly; and it is found best to let the game fly a little past before you let her fly; for thereby the shot will better enter the body.”

In America, perhaps, the first reference to shooting flying was in Obadiah Turner’s journal, dated July 28, 1630, at Lynn Massachusetts: “Of birds we saw great store . . . very shy and quick a-wing, but our sportsmen, nevertheless, do bring down great plenty.” In 1632, merchant mariner David De Vrease from Holland landed near present-day Lewes, now Delaware, there to establish a whale hunting station and agricultural settlement called “Valley of the Swans.” In December of that year, de Vries’ cousin, shot at a large gull flying overhead. “As he had a fowling piece with him, and he being a good shot on the wing, brought it down,” this according to de Vries’ account.

Reverend Johannes Mega po lensis wrote in his 1644 diary that “We have here [New Amster-dam, later New York], a great number of all kinds of fowl . . . which sport upon the river in thousands in the spring of the year, and again in the autumn fly away in flocks, so that in the morning and evening anyone may stand ready with his gun before his house and shoot them as they fly past.”

These appear to be the first direct references to shooting flying in America—42 years before Richard Blome’s Gentleman’s Recreation (1686) pictured “shooting flying” in England.

By 1660, the flintlock fowling piece had become well-nigh universally accepted as a standard lock. As sportsmen began to shoot flying, a demand came for shorter, lighter and more manageable arms, and the wooden forends were cut down to a little more than its modern counterpart, and the barrel shortened.

In England, George Markland, a fellow of Saint John’s College in Oxford, in his poetic but practical little volume, the Art of Shooting Flying, published in London and Dublin in 1727, is one of the earliest works in English to give instructions on how to shoot flying birds with a gun. He also noted that English sportsmen of that era had not attained the same degree of skill as their French counterparts. “It’s as rare for a professed Marksman of that nation to miss a bird as for one of ours to kill. But as I have been since informed, they owe this excellence to their education.” It was also attributable to the greater skill of early continental armorers, who made light and handy firearms before the English did.

Englishman Thomas Gent, in his The Ancient and Modern History of the Local Town of Ripon, 1733, wrote some good lines on shooting flying, to which he annexed a print of a fowler shooting a bird on the wing. Here are some quotes from one of his poem:

His Birding-Piece the wily Fowler takes,

And War upon the feathered Nation makes.

Whirling, the Pheasant mounts and works his Way,

Till Fate flies faster, and commands his stay;

See the flushed Woodcock through the Glades,

Till Death arresting his swift flight invades;

The Stock-doves fleet, the strong winged Mallards rise,

The Charge of Death overtakes ’em with Surprise.

Moreover, the Sportsman’s Directory, written by Londoner George Montagu in 1792, said: “The rage for shooting was never at a higher pitch than at present . . . the art of shooting flying is arrived at tolerable perfection,” and it was at this period that English gunmakers began to lead, instead of follow, those of other nations. From the end of the 18th century, shooting may be said to have annually grown in popularity, and it was not until the close of the 18th century that shooting on the wing became at all common. After that time, it became so universally practiced as to make shooting setting with a shotgun unsportsmanlike.

Our sporting forefathers, however, were stout fellows, who knew nothing of luxury in shooting. A true flying shot seems to have been taken occasionally from the shoulder when a suitable opportunity occurred, but the sportsman who did this, and did it successfully, stood out from his fellow sportsmen. His practice was the subject of remark, and he was pointed out as a man who “shot flying” to distinguish him from the one who “shot sitting.”

So much we may justly infer from Joseph Addison, who, in his “Spectator” papers (1712), says that one named Sir Roger de Coverly refers to a yeoman friend who would be a better neighbor if he did not kill so many partridges and “shoots flying.” This was written in 1711, eleven years after a writer gave his readers hints on using the gun on flying waterfowl—in his 1700 book The Experience’d Fowler.

This at a time when the flintlock had largely superseded the matchlock in the hands of sportsmen, who by 1700 had recognized the superiority of the flintlock. The guns of 1805, as hunting weapons, in handiness and excellence of workmanship, left nothing to be desired, however unreliable the flint mechanism. They were well balanced and as easy to bring to shoulder as a modern gun.

The flintlock reached its highest development in the fowling pieces made at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The invention of drop shot (uniform pellets of lead) by William Watts in 1769 improved accuracy, and the great English gunmaker Henry Nock’s “Patent Breeching” designed a new breech in 1787, which offered much faster, more efficient ignition than that of previous flintlocks. This enabled shorter barrels and therefore a practical double-barreled gun.

The final improvement to fowling pieces was the Reverend J.A. Forsythe’s invention of the detonating percussion lock, patented in 1807. When the trigger was pulled on a detonator or percussion firearm, the cocked hammer struck a percussion cap, resting on a raised nipple, which created a spark. A tiny hole permitted the spark generated by the snapped cap to ignite the powder and create the explosion, which fired the shot from the muzzle of the gun

This greatly improved the firing mechanism which rendered guns less vulnerable to dampness and therefore made them safer. Invention of the Forsythe lock, which combined with Watts’ and Nock’s improvements, greatly increased the appeal of waterfowling as a sport.

Inventions and innovations in fowling pieces culminated in the superb double-barreled shotguns of Joseph Manton, who opened his London shop in 1793. These purpose-built, fowling-pieces were lighter and longer barreled than other shoulder guns and often beautifully decorated which inaugurated the era of the fine fowling piece. The long fowler was designed to kill as many waterfowl in a shot as possible, while the smaller birding fowler was designed to kill smaller game birds like quail, grouse, etc.

The flintlock guns were in common use for over two centuries until it was replaced by the percussion cap and, later, cartridge-based systems in the early to mid 19th century. Until breech loaders were accepted, the percussion fowler and the percussion double gun became the well-equipped wingshooter’s gun of choice. In 1873, the guns making up the stock of dealers in the United States were three-fourths muzzleloaders and one-fourth breechloaders. Ten years later, the proportion was very nearly the reverse. Breechloaders, during that 10-year period, had been vastly improved and become cheaper in price.

Shooting flying truly did not become popular and common until the advent of the percussion lock, with the English rightly credited with perfecting the percussion lock double gun for shooting flying as we know it today.

Then came the hammerless gun and many old timers gave up hunting instead of switching over to a breechloader, as it was hard to find a good flintlock anywhere. Endless ingenuity and labor was expended upon the perfection of the breechloader. Every part of it in turn, from the muzzle to buttplate, engaged the brains and hands of competing makers. Actions were improved, locks simplified, new devices added here and there, and the whole made stronger, more compact, less complicated, and less liable to malfunction, until the gun of 1883 was a marvel of beauty, simplicity, and execution, fully in keeping with the mechanical progress of the age.

The American experience with shooting flying gained momentum after the Civil War when Charles Parker introduced his first commercially made “fowling piece,” saying in an early advertisement in 1868 that “Much care is bestowed to make it what the Sportsmen need—a good gun,” made with Damascus steel barrels, pinfire, hammer guns that utilized the transitional cartridges of the late 1800s.

To enumerate even more, the noticeable points in the evolution of the perfected sporting gun of today would require a volume. As guns belonging to a past era quickly passed to the forgotten, the fowling pieces which we have today for shooting flying, pumps and automatics, marched into existence and the love of waterfowling is our inheritance.

We waterfowlers of today should delight to learn what manner of men the early colonists and adventurers of the republic were, and with what weapons they held their own against a hostile environment—eking out scanty crops and scantier earnings by trapping and hunting, and on the eastern seaboard, at least, secured a large part of their food from the immense numbers of swans, ducks, geese, cranes, plovers, curlews, and rails, which then, at certain seasons, were found in enormous numbers.