Hunting with shotguns first began in the 17th century with the matchlock shotgun. Shotguns were loaded with black powder and lead shot through the muzzle in the 17th century to the late 19th century. The transition from muzzle to breech loading guns was largely driven by innovations made by English gun makers such as Joseph Manton, at which time wildfowling became extremely popular in England both as a pastime and as a means of earning a living, as described by Peter Hawker in his diaries. Early shotguns with Damascus barrels are safe to shoot with black powder charges but their range was limited, originally up to 25 yards . With the introduction of steel barrels and smokeless powder in the late 19th century this improved significantly, with the invention of choke this was eventually extended to 60 yards.
The nineteenth century is considered to be the “Golden Age” of wildfowling. The development of guns had made shooting flying birds practical and, at least initially, there were plenty of inland marshes and coastal areas supporting large numbers of wildfowl. Duck shooting was a means of subsistence for “peasantry” according to Hawker but during this golden age it became increasingly attractive to gentlemen and sportsmen. Shooting expeditions in boats with “water dogs” became acceptable, as did attending flights, when duck move about in the early morning and late evening.
With the growth of cities the need for more food became greater and the spread of railways in the 19th century made it easier to deliver fresh wildfowl from the coast to these cities. Market hunting started to take form, to supply London especially, with fresh ducks and geese. On the coast men would go out in wooden boats to the estuaries hunting, sometimes with large shotguns. Inland they set up “decoys” or ponds with small channels leading from then equipped with traps to capture duck. They would take large numbers of ducks each day and, with efficient transport, be able to get it to market very effectively.
Regrettably with the industrialisation that accompanied this period there was a great reduction in habitat. Harbours were built; Marshes were drained for agriculture, roads and houses built; human activity increased greatly. The excessive harvesting of duck and the popularity of wildfowling as a sport also took its toll on numbers of birds available leading to reduced opportunities. Commercial shooting became less profitable and many gentlemen preferred the predictability of driven pheasant shooting to the rigours of wildfowling.
With the beginning of the twentieth century proposals were starting to be made for the protection of birds and preservation of habitat. It was in this climate that a far sighted Stanley Duncan and John Anderton formed the Wildfowlers Association Of Great Britain & Ireland. This organisation took wildfowling into the twentieth century and eventually evolved into the current British Association For Shooting & Conservation. WAGBI, and later as BASC, has been instrumental in formalising and defending wildfowling for future generations as well as taking a lead in many conservation initiatives.