A little bit of very big firearms history

A reader was doing some research on 19th-century firearms, and wrote to ask me why so-called “market hunting” had been banned in the USA in the latter part of that century.  The reason was that so many waterfowl and migratory birds were being slaughtered for the “market” by commercial hunters that they had become endangered.  The tool of choice for these hunters was the so-called “punt gun“.

The history of such guns starts in the 19th century, when the rise in demand for meat in the marketplace led to mass-hunting of waterfowl. Also, the best women’s fashions at that time featured feathered hats and feather trimmed dresses and therefore there was a large demand for feathers as well. To meet these demands, professional hunters began to custom-build larger caliber weapons for the task. The punt gun emerged during this period as a commercial way to hunt waterfowl. A punt gun is essentially a large caliber shotgun. Since they have huge barrel diameters (around 2 inches or 50 mm.), they are capable of firing over 1 pound (approx. 0.5 kg.) of shotgun pellets at a time.

Since such a weapon cannot be really held at the shoulder by normal human beings because of the huge weight and immense recoil, they were often fixed to the boats used for hunting. These boats were called punts (a flat-bottomed boat with a square bow designed for shallow water usage) and designed to maneuver around shallow swamps and marshes where water birds would generally feed. This practice of attaching the gun to the punt is what gave the punt gun its name. The hunter would simply mount the punt gun facing forward and maneuver the boat to point to the whole flock of birds without startling them. If multiple hunters were present, they would all move their boats in a parallel line facing the flock of birds. Then, at a given signal, the punt guns would all open fire simultaneously. The recoil of a punt gun was so much that it would often push the punt backwards by several inches.

Since the punt guns generally fired a large amount of shotgun pellets, one of these could easily account for something like 50 birds with just one trigger pull. To increase their hunting efficiency, groups of professional hunters would often maneuver 8-10 punts into position and fire at a flock simultaneously, accounting for the entire flock at one time. In fact, punt guns were so successful in hunting that they depleted wild bird populations and were eventually banned in many US states by the 1860s. Later on, the US federal government passed a law in 1918 banning the practice of market hunting completely, as well as the fashion feather trade by 1920. Hence, the use of punt guns in the US plummeted soon after. There are still a few hunters in the UK using punt guns in the 21st century, but they are limited by law to a barrel diameter of 44 mm. and max. shot weight of 1.125 pounds.

There’s more at the link, and in this Wikipedia article.

Here are two videos showing the late shotgun guru, Tom Knapp, and a colleague demonstrating two punt guns.  Imagine that the targets were instead a closely-packed flock of birds, and you can understand how deadly punt guns were to wildlife, and why they were banned.

Not your average shotgun, that!



  1. Yep, there was one heck of a market, especially on Chesapeake Bay. Friend's grandfather did it with a 4ga punt gun, they still have it in the family!

  2. Old NFO/Peter – you need to pull Old NFO's family punt gun out of mothballs and do some demonstration firings for the amusement and amazement of the internet.

  3. For that matter, I wonder what a 4-wheeler with centerline mounted, lever action, hopper-fed, 1/4 gauge smoothbore with an oval choke loaded with rubber projectiles would do for crowd control…

    OMG, I need to patent that.

  4. I have a friend, that has a cousin, who when he was much younger, decided he would shoot his grandfather's 4 gauge. It was usually only mounted to a dock, but he wanted to shoot it from his shoulder. Being logical, he knew it would knock him over, unless he braced against a tree; which he did. It broke his shoulder, and led to the gun only being shot when mounted to the dock.

  5. I suspect that this is where the phrase regarding shooting at sitting ducks came from, and why it has very negative connotations.
    There is nothing whatsoever sporting about market hunting, any more that there is sport in raising livestock for slaughter.

  6. "Market hunting" was never really hunting at all – it was merely semi-organized mass slaughter, never effectively-subject to any sort of regulation or conservation practices, being the optimization of "efficient" killing of various wild-game species – principally, various highly-desired game birds – that were extant in the wild, in much of Europe, in Canada and most of the Americas. Before it was legally ended – and quite enforceably-so, in most places – it was responsible for the total or near-total killing-off of a number of wild-game species, most notably the Passenger Pigeons (of which it was once estimated that there were at least several millions – all of which are now gone) and several varieties each of wild ducks, quail and grouse in North America.

    It was, by any reasonable measure, a horrendously-destructive practice ecologically-speaking, one that was only really even marginally profitable for a very short time.

    It was also grossly-unnecessary, since far better-quality meat-foods can be readily obtained without resorting to such mass-slaughter methods – albeit, the far-more-civilized taking of wild game that is nowadays practiced (as actual hunting) does often make the cost of the meat (in dollars) substantially higher.

    It's good, indeed, that artifacts like the "punt guns" are still around, both as a part of history AND as a reminder of the ability that humans still retain, in some ways, the ability to mercilessly-squander clearly-finite wild game species in the pursuit of "easy" profit(s)

  7. The Passenger Pigeon is a wild example:

    Estimated to have numbered three to five billion at the height of its population, it may have been the most numerous bird on Earth; researcher Arlie W. Schorger believed that it accounted for between 25 and 40 percent of the total land bird population in the United States.[52] The passenger pigeon's historic population is roughly the equivalent of the number of birds that overwinter in the United States every year in the early 21st century.[53] Even within their range, the size of individual flocks could vary greatly. In November 1859, Henry David Thoreau, writing in Concord, Massachusetts, noted that “quite a little flock of [passenger] pigeons bred here last summer,”[54] while only seven years later, in 1866, one flock in southern Ontario was described as being 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide and 500 km (310 mi) long, took 14 hours to pass, and held in excess of 3.5 billion birds.[55] Such a number would likely represent a large fraction of the entire population at the time, or perhaps all of it.[15] Most estimations of numbers were based on single migrating colonies, and it is unknown how many of these existed at a given time. American writer Christopher Cokinos has suggested that if the birds flew single file, they would have stretched around the earth 22 times.[56]

    It's tragic end aside, it's amazing that one species could have accounted for 25-40% of all land birds.

  8. One of my Uncle's on Mom's side had one that was his fathers.

    I always thought of it more like a big blunderbuss than a "shotgun", but you can't argue with what they loaded them with.

    He said it kept the family fed during the Depression….

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