“Few people realize that when people talk about guns and shooting,” vintage-arms dealer David Moore declares amid a jamboree of Edwardian hunting clothes and elegant handmade shotguns, “this is what they are thinking about.” Forget rednecks in camouflage, lumberjack plaids, and safety-orange vests – there’s not a pickup truck or gun rack in sight at the World Side-by-Side Championships in the Hudson Valley’s Millbrook, where gun enthusiasts are sparing no expense to realize an idealized vision of the great era of game-hunting and bird-shooting that ended with the First World War.
In the world of shooting, what separates the Land Rover gentry from the Dodge dudes is the choice of weapon. Here, it’s a custom-made side-by-side shotgun, preferably crafted in the turn-of-the-century style with curved hammers reminiscent of a flintlock and detailed hand engraving. The best guns are British models – new or old – that cost anywhere in the five figures. This fall weekend, the elite British gun-maker Purdey casually takes an order at its booth for a pair of shotguns; a nice round $100,000 makes the deal worth the trip from London.
Having eliminated the riffraff, the annual championships have become something of a bespoke ball for Anglophile hunters. Alongside the gun dealers, Nicholas Granger, a Savile Row tailor who specializes in custom hunting garb, is busy chatting up potential customers and showing off a striking green suit with glowing orange patches. The women are dressed in long skirts, high-necked blouses, ruffles, and fusty brooches, accompanying men in deerstalker hats, tattersall shirts, and plus twos (knickers to the rest of us).
“I got interested in the elegance of the shotgun,” Brian Buckman sheepishly explains, cradling an ornate gun against his plaid shooting suit. “But I enjoy it for the comradeship, role-playing, and the level of behavior and luxury at these events.” Around him are men in tam-o’-shanters, others in buckskin pants, and more than a few with long, curving mustaches or exquisitely shaped sideburns. If that’s not enough dress-up, participants can up the ante at the evening’s 578-seat banquet.
The “vintagers” call themselves the Order of Edwardian Gunners, but aside from a few clay-target competitions, this is only vaguely a sporting event. “I’m not even going to shoot in the big event tomorrow,” barks the screenwriter and director John Milius, “because I’m enjoying the bullshitting too much.” He has just lent his handmade Fabbri pigeon gun to Marshall Field IV, and is content to launch into another story about John Huston’s hunting excursions during the filming of The African Queen.
For all its panache, the event has more than a whiff of the one-upmanship that lurks wherever men gather. Paul Belpasso, a Revolutionary War reenacter from Indiana, is shooting with black powder, the more authentic cartridge for his 1898 American-made Parker shotgun. But even this is a compromise. Belpasso has been agitating for the addition of another class of event: muzzle-loaded guns. That is, he wants to shoot targets with muskets. Call it Dungeons & Dragons for millionaires.