An English version of my article published in Sports Afield Russian Edition 1-2014.
Reproduced with permission from the publication.
New technologies often cause concerns among hunters. The new possibilities that the new fangled stuff gives to the user breed fears that the hunting will cease to be sporting, that the novelty will lead to extermination of the game, and even that the guy with the new stuff will get an unfair advantage over yourself. It gets to where new hunters who are after high-tech stuff begin to feel a little guilty about that. However, in the last 200 years hunting has seen many innovations. Did they all, or any of them, fulfill the doomsday omens uttered by the conservatives at the time of their appearance?
In the history of hunting, there wasn’t an innovation which was universally acclaimed and never met with resistance. Even the Forsyth’s ‘detonating gun’ faced some serious opposition. An “English Gentleman” from the pages of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” hoped that all “men of conscience and with a reflective turn will militate most venomously for the suppression of this new invention“, which, in spite of its “many vulgar advantages“, if applied to the military, “would threaten within a few years to destroy not only armies but civilization itself“. The same can be said about any innovation introduced in the almost two centuries which passed since the “English Gentleman’s” 1818 article.
The main concern seems to be that, like the “English Gentleman”, many hunters think that introduction of high technologies will make hunting too successful, which will lead to extermination of game. History, however, suggests that there isn’t a direct relation.
For example, elephants in South Africa were brought to near extinction with rather low-tech muzzleloading weapons. The first ivory hunters, like W. Cotton Oswell, rode the elephants down on horseback and shot them almost point-blank. In the ‘fly’ regions, where horses couldn’t go, hunters such as F. C. Selous made even greater bags than Oswell by arming a few native followers with cheap big bore single barrel muzzleloaders and having them all crawl to a herd and open fire collectively. Cripples were then tracked by the blood spoor and finished – or weren’t. Anyway, the bags of the early ivory hunters were not much less in numbers than those achieved by Karamojo Bell, Arthur Neumann, and other pioneers of the nitro magazine rifle.
When it comes to deterioration of game, advances in transport seem to have a considerably greater effect than advances in weaponry. The biggest destruction of fauna in history followed the development of steamers and railroads. Improved transport not only brought along more hunters and ensured that the product of their hunting could be sold easier and at a greater profit. It also carried the settlers, who occupied the best land and water sources, interfered with the animals’ migration and reproduction, ‘fought vermin’ and brought along new disease with their prize cattle. This sort of progress killed more African game than Cordite.
In some countries, the numbers of game actually went up as weaponry progressed. In England, for instance, by the first half of the XIX century, most winged game had been shot out to unbelievably low levels. Writers like Peter Hawker complained that their bags decreased from one opening day to another. Hawker’s diaries tell how a report that a pheasant was spotted on his land made him forget everything and chase the bird – the last bird in the county – for days until it was bagged. He blamed the decrease of game on bad weather during the breeding season, poaching, egg-hunting by field workers – anything but his own doing. But the case in point here is that Hawker and other British sportsmen of the day achieved exterminating bags by the method which modern hunters would call one of the most ‘sportive’ – with flint guns over pointing dogs.
A generation or two later, driven shoots were in vogue, and the hunters switched from muzzleloaders to pinfires, then centerfires, which in turn evolved to hammerless ejectors; with three such guns and assisted by two loaders, a hunter could shoot as rapidly as it is possible for a human. The top shots, such as Ripon, Walsingham, Dhuleep Singh, counted their bags by hundred, if not by thousand. And yet, the country was swarming with game. In fact, the more progress was achieved in making guns, the more game there appeared to be. The answer was ‘wildlife management’. By protecting, feeding, and helping with reproduction, gamekeepers could provide just about as many birds as the hunters could shoot. Innovations in gunnery which helped hunters get more were immediately followed by more birds reared by the keepers.
A more modern example is the use of night vision sights for boar hunting in certain regions of Russia and Byelorussia, where it is legal. In fact, in many shooting preserves a hunter wouldn’t be welcome if he or she doesn’t have one. According to the managers of such preserves, the use of night vision devices allows the hunter to take boar by stalking at night when the animals are feeding on the crop fields. This method is even more sportive than driven hunts, with less disturbance of animals, and more predictable harvest, because it allows every hunter to be accompanied by the gamekeeper who can control which animals are taken. Overall, this leads to more efficient boar management – but the night stalk is only possible if night sights are used, otherwise the hunter can only discharge the gun into the first animal he or she sees, causing numerous cripples.
Another case in point is that new technology is, almost by definition, expensive – and so, at least initially, is only used by a few affluent sportsmen. Their number is too limited to have a substantial impact on game, and besides, sportsmen are rarely if ever responsible for extermination of game in most times and places – it is the ‘pot’ and market hunters who usually do that.
The paradox of wildlife management is that when it is successful, the biggest problem is not that the hunters might shoot too many, but that the hunters might not shoot enough – leading to overpopulation, which in turn causes more problems with disease, crop depredation, and so on. In this situation innovations that improve the efficiency of hunting only contribute to preservation of game by making the harvest more predictable, with less overshooting, crippling and disturbance.
The second issue about the innovations is that they make hunting less sporting and cause a degradation in hunting skills. This is not entirely true. ‘Sporting’, basically, means ‘difficult enough’. The level of difficulty of a task is linked to the level of satisfaction one gets from completing the task. If the task is too easy, there’s no sense of achievement – in other words, no fun. But when the task is too difficult, there is no satisfaction either – you can’t enjoy something you can’t achieve. Needless to say the level of difficulty of getting an animal under certain conditions depends not only on what equipment the hunter has, but also on the hunter him- or herself.
Hunters start from zero level of skills and adapt themselves to the level of skills required by the available equipment. Later, as skills are more developed, the chase becomes less challenging – and less satisfactory. To go on enjoying it, the hunters need – and do – practice self-imposed challenges. The more advance in the technology, the more interest to hunting with bows, muzzleloading and other historic weapons is there.
I remember two articles in different hunting magazines which I recently read. One of them was about a contemporary archery hunter who stalked and shot a ram at 20 yards. In the other the author insisted that a hunter who is after mountain game must be able to make 700- and 800-yard shots. The second article also mentioned an over-100-year-old picture of a hunter who killed two magnificent rams with a flintlock rifle; the author couldn’t believe the old-timers could take rams with such weapons.
You could take these as proof that the hunting skills deteriorate by technology, but I see here simply narrow specialization. The long-range hunter probably couldn’t compare with the old-timer in stalking, but would likely outshoot him with any rifle, modern or flintlock. The long-range hunter refined one skill – shooting – at the expense of another. Likewise, the archer abandoned the rifle-shooting skills and refined stalking skills in their stead. What is important is that their overall level of skills is likely not inferior to that of the old-timers.
The next point about innovative technologies is that they destroy old traditions. But traditions that have a solid practical foundation behind them are surprisingly difficult to destroy. A case in point is the traditional British driven shoots. Semiautomatic shotguns haven’t elbowed their way in even today. If you ask why, the most common answer you will hear is ‘traditions’. A deeper view, however, reveals some pragmatic factors at work. With hundreds of quick and difficult shots that a hunter has to take each shooting day, the ‘feel’ and balance of a double become more important than having another shot. Besides, as compared to the classic method of shooting two or three guns with loaders, the semi’s advantage in rate of fire becomes marginal at best. According to the calculations of George Teasedale-Buckell, one of the leading shooting writers of the early XX century, to gain an edge over three double guns and two loaders, a shooter would have to use six semis and five loaders – which doesn’t really sound very practical.
In the two centuries which passed since the “English Gentleman” made his case against Forsyth’s invention, many more innovations which make the percussion principle look a child’s play, from breechloaders to laser rangefinders, were introduced. The nature and civilization, however, are still standing. Hunting, and technologies available for hunting, are only one of a number of factors which influence wildlife, and there isn’t a direct connection between the numbers of wild animals and technologies available to hunters. New technologies do not make hunting less sporting either. Taking it easy or doing it the hard way is the choice of the hunter, and most hunters, when hunting becomes too easy, take the hard way voluntarily. Nor do innovations degrade hunting skills in general. Modern hunters who use obsolete weapons and hunting methods usually perform as well or better than the old-timers for whom these ‘low-tech’ things were the best available. Culture and traditions are not something permanently fixed – they evolve with the humanity, and no amount of rhetoric can change that.
In other words, development of new technologies for hunters might be a problem – but I don’t think it’s too much of a problem. There are more urgent concerns out there – habitat loss and attempts to place legal limitations on hunting and gun ownership to name just a few – which are much more dangerous for the future of hunting and require much more attention.