A turn of the century gunsmith displays a normal duck hunting shotgun and the enormous, outlawed two-gauge ‘punt gun’

A rich heritage of hunting

by Andy Bryenton

The art of crafting decoys to assist in duck hunting is one, which fascinates participants in the sport. Ducks have exceptional senses, and so carefully painted, realistic and even moving decoys have been developed during the years to baffle bird’s brains and secure a successful hunt. The oldest date from the time of the pyramids, when Egyptian noblemen and women hunted ducks on the Nile, using throwing sticks and painted decoys.

The sport was so popular that writings still exist in which hunters thousands of years ago complain of their ducks being snapped up by crocodiles, or a hunt being ruined by a hippo wandering into the marsh. In those days, the first ducks caught were burned as an offering to the gods, who, with their animal-faced aspects, were thought to be present in all parts of nature and could ensure good hunting.

Roman duck hunters worked hard with bow and arrow to catch enough of the valued fowl for the emperor’s extravagant feasts, while in the middle ages falconers trained birds of prey to hunt ducks on the wing. The very best were sourced from icy lands like Norway, Sweden and Iceland, where the already acute eyesight of falcons and hawks was even further accentuated, evolved to scan the blinding white snow-fields for white-furred prey.

As the taste for duck grew, and restaurants were invented to feed the new middle classes, huge ‘punt guns’ were developed to shoot a hundred birds at a time. Banned now, in the 1800s these monster shotguns were used from rowing boats on the English fens, and a poor shot could sink the hunter or split his boat in two with recoil. Modern hunting guns are usually 12 gauge; the biggest punt guns were two-gauge, or big enough to fit a grown man’s forearm into the barrel.

The most common ducks in New Zealand, the mallard, were introduced by colonial settlers who did not understand the impact they would have on native bird populations. Thus, here at least, hunting season is a vital check on the overbreeding of an alien species. While old methods such as colossal punt guns, crossbows, throwing sticks and falcons are no longer popular, the end result of a good hunt is still well appreciated; a delicious roast dinner!