What in the world is a punt gun? Is it used on fourth down when all else has failed? Well, in a manner of speaking, you could say it was sort of a last resort. I will have to go back in time to explain.
The punt gun was used when you wanted to hit a lot of targets spread over a wide space. It was big in a class of already large bore firearms. In fact, it was of exceptionally large bore in a class of large weapons. A punt gun is a type of extremely large shotgun that was used primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for shooting large numbers of waterfowl for commercial harvesting operations.
Typically, these shotguns are too large for an individual to fire from the shoulder or even carry alone. However, unlike crew served weapons, punt guns can be aimed and fired by a single person from a mount. The mount was typically found on a small watercraft known as a punt.
These punts were basically a flat-bottomed boat with a square bow created for shallow water usage. They are capable of maneuvering around the swamps and marshes where waterfowl are generally found. It was this practice of attaching the gun to the punt that the name is derived.
The story of the punt gun starts in the 19th century when the rise in demand for meat in the marketplace led to mass commercial hunting of waterfowl. Parenthetically, women’s fashions at that time featured feathered hats and feather trimmed dresses. This caused a large demand for feathers as well. Of course, we all know what happens when fashion gets involved. Remember the buffalo and the beaver?
To meet the commercial demands of ladies’ fashion, professional hunters began to custom-build larger caliber weapons that would be up to the task of taking more birds more efficiently. The solution to the demand was the emergence of the punt gun as a commercial way to hunt waterfowl. Essentially, it is just a very large caliber shotgun.
Many of the early models appeared as over-sized versions of the shoulder weapons of the time with full-length wooden stocks and a somewhat normal-sized shoulder stock. Later variations did away with the full-length stock. Then, the more modern models added mounting hardware as part of the gun. This allowed the gun to be fixed to a pintle on the punt. That’s fun to say. Pintle on the punt. Pintle on the punt.
Anyway, because these firearms were much too large to be held at the shoulder by any normal human being, not to mention the huge amount of recoil one would have to withstand, the solution was mount it to the punts for hunting. Remember, they had huge barrel diameters (around 2 inches), capable of firing over 1 pound of shotgun pellets at a time.
Typically, a hunter would mount the punt gun facing forward in the direction of travel. All he then needed to do was to maneuver the boat in the direction of the birds.
When in range, the boat was aligned to the general direction of a flock of birds. When that was done, the shooter would be confident that the gun was also pointed or aimed correctly. If he accomplished that maneuvering without startling the flock, he could reap a big harvest. Additionally, if multiple hunters worked in unison, they would all open fire simultaneously. It must also be noted that the recoil of a punt gun was such that it would often push the punt backwards some distance once fired.
Because the punt gun fired many shotgun pellets, one of these guns could easily account for as many as 50 birds with just one shot, depending on the dispersion of the flock. It didn’t take long for the hunters to realize that they would increase their hunting efficiency by hunting in groups. Groups of professional hunters would often maneuver 8–10 punts into position and fire at a flock simultaneously. This could account for the entire flock at one time.
In fact, punt guns were so successful hunting in groups that they decimated wild bird populations. Eventually, they were banned in many U.S. states by the 1860s. To help stem the slaughter in the United States, the Lacey Act of 1900 banned the transport of wild game across state lines.
The commercial hunters were still so efficient that the U.S. federal government passed a law in 1918 banning the practice of market hunting completely, as well as the fashion feather trade in 1920. Hence, the use of punt guns in the U.S. soon fell out of favor. While use and possession of punt guns is still legal in the United States, Federal regulations prohibit their use in migratory waterfowl hunting.
Believe it or not, there are still a few hunters in the UK using punt guns in the 21st century. However, they are limited by law to a barrel diameter of 44 mm and maximum shot weight of 1.125 pounds.
Punt Gun Design
There was never any form of manufacture of punt guns from the U.S. firearms industry. They were custom-built by the professional hunters that used them. This meant that many of them were crudely designed, but they were usually sturdily built. Most of them were muzzle-loaders with a percussion cap or flintlock firing mechanisms. Since these weapons were custom built, weight, height, and length varied widely.
The weight could be anything from 44–100 pounds. Their length varied from 7–16 feet. There was better support for punt guns in the UK, where the punt guns were designed by sporting manufacturers. The UK guns were typically of better quality than the homemade designs available in the U.S.
The Prestigious firm of Holland & Holland offered models using breech loading and standardized shotgun shells, in both brass or combined paper and brass base in the 1890s via custom order. Double-barreled models also existed, typically in the smaller 8-gauge loadings.
In most cases, those guns were work-guns with little additional adornment in surviving examples. Those appearing in modern auctions have signs of being repaired or upgraded in some fashion, such as upgrading a flintlock action to a more modern percussion system or refinishing by rebluing the piece.
According to Eunan O’Halpin’s book Defending Ireland, a local defense force unit of the Irish Army in Co. Louth was equipped in 1941 with a number of flintlock weapons that had been gifted to them. Among these guns was a weapon described as being a “nine-foot [long] blunderbuss,” which could be more commonly understood to be a punt gun. Talk about a little known fact about WWII and the desperation required to draft punt guns to stall the Nazi invasion.
In the United Kingdom, a 1995 survey showed fewer than 50 active punt guns were still in use. When used, they are typically ceremonial. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 limits punt guns in England, Wales, and Scotland. There are restrictions on punt gun usage across the country, most of which insist upon smaller barrel sizes and less ammunition. In ceremonies, the guns are used mostly to celebrate royalty.
Since Queen Victoria requested a punt gun salute at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, there has been a punt gun salute at every Coronation and Jubilee over Cowbit Wash in Cowbit, Lincolnshire, England. Indeed, during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, a 21 punt gun salute was fired. The punt gun rounds were fired separately, followed by the guns all being fired simultaneously.
Though the ducks are breathing a sigh of relief, these interesting firearms still live on in ceremonial life. Though North America’s waterfowl are safe from punt guns, ducks across America are disappearing today due to widespread habitat loss. If you care, please support Ducks Unlimited or a similar conservation organization.