Rushworth Historical society was recently presented with an unusual and certainly historic exhibit in the form of a gun punt. The punt, used originally for wild fowl hunting and which is in very good condition, was kindly donated by Mr Ray Whiteacre of Rushworth.
One glance at the punt, now located in the wagon shed at the side of the museum, will reveal its most unusual appearance. These vessels were built up to and sometimes more than fourteen feet in length, flat bottomed as per any other punt, but with little more than twelve inches freeboard. They were pointed at bow and stern and in the last minutes before any shot was fired from the massive gun mounted over the bow, by means of small paddles attached to the hunter’s hands whilst he lay prone on the deck of the punt.
The low freeboard and flat bottom made for a boat with a very low profile. It also meant that even to sit in this vessel could seriously upset the stability with disastrous consequences for the hunter. To lay full length in the bottom of the punt was therefore necessary. The result of course was that this punt could make way effortlessly over weed beds in mere inches of water.
The shotgun normally used in these ‘gun-punts’ in the mid 19th century when these punts were most commonly used was a massive muzzle loading, black powder weapon with a caliber of up to two inches. This meant of course that the gun’s recoil punching into the shoulder of the firer would have been sufficient to crush muscle and bone. This was overcome by bracing the gun by means of ‘breeching ropes’ which ran above and below the deck boards to absorb most of the fearsome recoil. In many cases such guns were fitted without the usual shoulder stock.
Being muzzle loaders, the reloading process involved with such a gun was slow and could take up to half an hour. Before reloading the shooter usually made for shore where often he would stand alongside the punt waist deep in water. Just as time consuming, would have been the lengthy gun cleaning process, following each punting expedition. This was a necessary operation resulting from the fouling of the coarse-grained black powder charges and oakum wadding used in those days.
Historical accounts tell of punt hunters returning from their ‘fowling shoots’ with their boats loaded to the gunwales with dead ducks. The sheer quantity of ducks and other wildfowl slaughtered must have been staggering and would no doubt bring forth howls of protest from today’s more discriminating and conservation-minded shooters. But the activities of these ‘punt gunners’ must be viewed in the context of the era in which they lived and struggled to make a living.
Punt gunning as a means of bagging large numbers of birds in as short a time as possible seems to have had a parallel in the United States and almost certainly was transported to that country and to Australia by the early English or European settlers. The punt gun, with its capacity to kill dozens of birds with one well aimed shot would have been a logical weapon by the standards of the time.
Mike Wellington Treasurer, Rushworth & District Historical Society