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The Great Guns of the Fens.

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

In 1906 Mr Henry Pickering, then 88, revealed what it was like to pursue wildfowl with a punt on Cowbit Wash in the 1840’s:

When about 20 years of age, he commenced to “paddle his own canoe,” or in other words, to manipulate one of the boats which the Fenmen used in their fishing and shooting excursions. This boat was about 16 feet in length and three and a half feet wide, and was propelled variously by a pole, a double-bladed paddle or two small paddles as occasion required. Rising on the stern was a heavy duck gun, about 8 feet long, weighing from threequarters to one-and-a-half hundredweight, and firing about 3lb. of shot.

Taking advantage of the cover afforded by the flags and willows, the practice was to creep up as near as possible to a flock of ducks at rest, and let fly before they rose. Given favourable conditions , these guns would do tremendous execution. Mr Pickering has bowled over 21 wild ducks with one shot. The great draw-back, as the gun was a muzzle-loader, and the muzzle projected far over the water, was that when it had been discharged, a journey had to be made back to land before it could be loaded again. Our informant also mentioned that he once killed eight wild swans with one shot, large bullets being needed for the purpose, as the small shot was not strong enough. He also shot 42 green plovers in one night in Bourne Fen.

Punt gun being loaded on Cowbit Wash c.1892 by Charlie Scholess
Punt gun being loaded on Cowbit Wash c. 1892

If you look at punts in different areas they have different designs. Those used on the tidal Norfolk Broads and large expanses of water such as Breydon Water would resemble the decked coastal punts used on the Wash was reliably told by Laurence Thompson of Sutton Bridge that a punt full of water would not sink and could still be navigated safely to shore , albeit requiring more effort due to the increase in weight.

The punts used on Welney Wash and Cowbit Wash had open decks as they were in shallow water and would experience little wave action or risk of swamping. Yet these had a notable difference in design in the way that the gun was mounted to absorb the recoil. Those on Welney Wash had gummels on the stock that attached a rope to each side of the boat. The punts on Cowbit Wash mounted the stock of the punt gun into a wooden shoe that sticks to the base of the punt. Both ensure that the recoil of the gun is transferred into the movement of the boat rather than the face and chest of the gunner.

In the 1990’s there was a demonstration firing a punt gun on the River Welland in Spalding (pictured above). The punt used was of the sea going variety used on The Wash. Now a gun loaded with powder and no shot can be very loud when discharged because the energy is not being used to propel shot. I suspect the load had not been adjusted, for when the gun discharged many cars parked in nearby car parks each side of the river had their alarms set off.

Punt-gunning on Cowbit Wash was highly valued and provided both meat and income as well as sport. But as the Coronation Channel diverted water from the River Welland around the town of Spalding the need to flood Cowbit Wash subsided. As the flooding of Cowbit Wash became a rarity a way of life was lost. Punt-guns rested in sheds behind Cowbit houses and punts decayed in their gardens. But the families and their stories remained.

Stories of hard frosts and a frozen Wash . Of Charlie Scholes stalking plovers with a long gun by getting his young son to hold the front of the barrel and walk along the Wash whilst he held the stock. Punt-gunners being out all night seeing the last lights of Cowbit extinguished as people went to sleep and the following dawn.

The punt-guns used by the fenmen being muzzle-loaded could effectively only manage one shot per trip. Although it would be usual to have a twelve bore or sometimes a larger gun, such as an 8 bore with them. The gun would be loaded with black powder, a cotton wad and typically shot bound together in a tube made of newspaper so that it fitted tight within the gun. Whilst such guns are capable of doing great damage to a gathered flock of wildfowl the limitation of one shot and the likelihood of not firing at all make this a sustainable form of shooting. However, I did come across an account of punt guns being used for pest control, possibly unwisely, to prevent large flocks of starlings damaging reed beds on Whittlesea Mere killing over 500 starlings:

The damage to the reeds when, in Autumn, heavy flights of Starlings came to pass the night was considerable.

Pridmore, a good authority on fen matters, among other heavy shots tells me of one in particular, from a boat, at daybreak, on the north side of Whittlesea Mere, on a reedbed. Forty-two dozen were picked up at once; and subsequently several dozen more, with broken wings were secured. The owners of the reeds were obliged to erect high platforms to stand on and shoot; otherwise they would break down acres. The discharge used to plough a lane in them; to use the words of an eye-witness to me, ‘the shots used to cut a road through both reeds and birds.’

Reminiscences of Fen and Mere by John Heathcote 1876

Not all of Cowbit’s punt-guns have lain redundant since the land dried as a tradition started in 1897 at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubillee of firing a punt-gun salute at every Coronation and Jubilee has been continued. The last occasion was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the next firing at the time of writing is scheduled for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee at 11am on Saturday 4th June 2022.

2022 Jubilee punt gun salute at Cowbit
2022 Jubilee punt gun salute at Cowbit

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