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Panthers by Moonlight; with a 'Faunetta'

There are guns that turn heads and then there are guns that turn souls. This is the story of a Faunetta that does both. If the term “rare beauty” can be used to describe a firearm, there are few that merit the term, but foremost among them must be the Faunetta; the 20-bore 'shot & ball' gun from Westley Richards.

Colonel Fosbery patented his rifled choke in 1886. Holland and Holland branded it The Paradox and it remained famous in India long after the patent expired in 1899. Meanwhile, other makers developed their own versions. Famous weapons of that era include the Army and Navy “Jungle Gun”, the Cogswell and Harrison “Cosmos”, J.W. Tolley’s “Ubique”,Thomas Bland’s “Euoplia” and Charles Lancaster's “Colindian”. They all enabled the sportsman to own one weapon from which he could fire shot shells, ball, or conical bullets.

Much has been written about large-bore ball & shot guns being used on big game in India and Africa; and even on zeppelins in The Great War! Yet, the smaller bores remain something of an enigma.

In pre-war India, a fashion developed among the ruling-class for the use of smaller calibres on dangerous game. This provided bragging rights; A tiger shot with a .256 was much more interesting than a tiger shot with a .450/400. Should the small-calibre rifle prove ineffectual, every shikar party had enough bandobast for backup.

Bhopal is a princely state in central India. It is famous for its rich history, its lakes and being ruled by Begums. A friend and descendant of the ruling family mentioned to me a Faunetta and a few days later I was stunned to see the photos reproduced here. The owner of this gun was Major-General Al-Haj Mohsin ul-Mulk, Nawab Hafiz Muhammad Ubaidu’llah Khan Sahib Bahadur, CSI.

(Read more about him here: http://www.bhopale.com/history/obaidullah-khan-bhopal)

His ornately finished Faunetta was one item in a large order, placed in 1910.

The owner’s residence was Shamla Kothi and the peacocks engraved on the gun were to be illustrated sitting on the parapet of Shamla Kothi.

Shamla Kothi is now a Hotel called Jehan Numa Palace and the Faunetta still resides there, 112 years later.

It was common practice to reserve ornate guns and rifles for display only and many saw little, or no, use in the field. However, at least one ornate Faunetta actually saw action and a shikar diary preserved from the period recounts a memorable adventure in which it was a key participant. It makes fascinating reading and places the reader in the moment, Faunetta in hand, in a world far removed from the one we inhabit today.

Believe it Or Not

One mid-summer moonlit night I sat over a water pool in the heart of the jungle with the hope of shooting a panther or a bear. The previous morning there had been signs of both bear and panther in the vicinity and I noticed panther pug-marks leading right up to the pool where it had possibly quenched its thirst. The hot weather was nearing its end; there were already signs of the monsoon drawing near, with clouds looming low on the horizon. These were perhaps the last few days of the shooting season, for no sooner did we have our first heavy shower, the jungle folk were free to scatter all over the jungle rather than concentrate at their favourite watering spots.

As the light faded, I scrambled up a large rock on the hillside, where I sat facing west, looking down on the pool. I had fixed a leafy screen to

serve as cover on the rock with a little rectangular opening carefully cut-out to provide a view. On this I rested my Faunetta, and neatly arranged my cartridges and the personal belongings that were going to be my sole companions throughout that lonely and fascinating night.

The night was rapidly drawing near and all the noises in the jungle indicated that life and activity was about to begin in the animal world. I hurriedly took a last glance and absorbed all the landmarks nearby: stumps, bushes and the saplings that surrounded the pool. This was an unbreakable rule with all shikaris sitting over a kill or a water pool before dark. The practice is a useful one, in as much as one can confirm the sudden arrival of game and mark them against the objects already observed, and therefore, prepare oneself for the ordeal.

The shikari seldom has his own way. There are a hundred-and-one setbacks to face, especially on one of these nocturnal adventures. Luck was seemingly not coming my way, and as I observed, the clouds rose rapidly from the west and the breeze grew cooler and increased in velocity as the minutes passed by.

It was now about 8:00 pm, just the time I was expecting to see the moon come up behind the hill at my back. The moon rose-up and brightened the landscape ahead of me, but not for long. The clouds loomed low and now a fight for supremacy was progressing between light and darkness, the odds being altogether in favour of the latter. By 9:00 pm the little light that remained in the heavens was the silver lining bordering the soft contours of the thick black clouds.

No hope! not only was I dejected at the thought of a long weary night ahead of me, but also by the fact that I was being deprived of the little visibility that was so essential for my night's sport.

Resigned to facts, I lay down on the warm rock and stretched out my legs to make myself comfortable. Gradually the breeze increased and it

turned cooler. Then came the moist smell of damp earth and soaked leaves, and the first drop of rain hit my forehead. Now it was drizzling, soon it was raining, and then pouring, and I was soaked to the skin. My screen blew right over me and I hung for dear life to my rifle and the flask of tea I had brought.

Luckily, my coat clung to a branch overhanging the rock and I found it there the next morning. The squall lasted for about five to seven minutes, but the darkness hung on till dawn. I was soaked to the skin, but soon I felt that since the rain had ceased, the trickle of water off my person had ended, and in patches I was dry.

All right. Soon I'd be completely dry again, and, if I really did feel the cold, there was a flask of tea to keep me warm.

I had straightened the screen that had all but fallen on me during the storm. I scanned hard through the little opening and tried to make out the landmarks I had observed early that evening. "Dark as one's own grave" as they say, I could hardly see my hands. It is on such occasions that one thanks the Lord for the other senses that he has granted. When deprived temporarily of one, Nature arranges that the others come into play.

My hearing became keener than ever before. As I rested the butt of the Faunetta against my shoulder I decided to point the muzzle at what ever sound my hearing focused on. It gave me great courage and made me thank my maker.

"What is this?” I said to myself, sniffing deeply. There was a peculiar smell; it’s not so alluring either. I'd never go in for a perfume of this odour. What could it be? Then it jogged my memory. I thought, By Jove! Isn't it something like the smell I experienced when I watched the skinning of my last panther? Well, of course it is, so could there be a dead panther by the pool?

Do dead panthers smell like live ones?

All this was going through my mind like a projector focused on a screen. Then I heard a "lap-lap-lap". What now? Could this be a live panther drinking from the pool? Of course it sounded like that. I had` heard one or two drink before. I aligned my rifle on the lap-lap-lap. I'm aiming, I'm pretty near, I'm on him, that must be his shoulder. BANG! An echo of the shot resounded through the hillside. Then it was quiet: as still as ever.

How foolish I was to have fired when I could see nothing! Anyway, I must have missed him or he would certainly have given a growl. I only hope I didn't shoot a stray village dog that had loitered away from the village and come for a drink. Thank God it’s alive, but it certainly sounded like a panther lapping water. I thought I must have missed him.

Again my mind was made-up in a second as I aimed in the direction of a sudden noise and "let fly". This time I heard a few grunts and growls and the sound of something scratching at dry leaves and then again it was still. What could this one have been?

Two hours elapsed, but with all the interesting noises in the jungle, time flew by. A sambar kept on calling, the peacock sang to greet flashes of lightning, monkeys whooped. There was rejoicing in the animal kingdom, the rain had made them cool and happy.Then a few minutes’ silence was broken by a "lap-lap-lap" again. It must be a ghost, and here I am in the heart of the jungle, It’s pitch dark. Isn't that enough to scare one stiff? Now I am surrounded by ghosts!

But the "lap-lap-lap" got a hold on me again. I reasoned it out carefully. It was no ghost, it was no dog from the village, it was sure and certain a live panther, the one that had been roaming around, the one whose pug marks I had seen yesterday while making my jungle rounds.

I had twice missed the fellow. He had turned up again to give me a sporting chance and I was going to take it. Perhaps the same as one does, firing on bright moon-lit nights, I was aiming high and missing him. So aligning my rifle carefully, depending entirely on this beautiful weapon, balanced by Westley Richards (the finest gun and rifle makers of our age), I brought about a gradual pressure on the trigger and heard the report 100th of a second sooner than I had expected. There were sounds, resounding sounds all over. The echo of the report along the hill side, the "whoop-whoops" of the awakened monkeys, the peacocks calling, and through all this commotion, the sound of a gallop of "padded pugs" over soaked leaves with a crash and then a groan.

Silence again reigned supreme, which was of necessity, broken by the reloading click and another two cartridges pushed into the barrels. By now the excitement was began to tell on my nerves. After three shots perhaps I thought that the worst was over and I lay down on the rock to relax. I certainly must have dozed off for a while as it seemed a good two hours before a sudden impulse shook me from head to food and I found myself sitting and peering through the opening.

I thanked the Lord that I did not hear the "lap-lap-lap" again, though I sat keyed for another hour or so. As I looked back I could see the first welcome light of dawn appearing in the East. Soon there would be sufficient light to have a look around.

As daylight appeared and I could make out where I was, I strained my eyes towards the ground around the pool. All I could see in the blur was the contour of the pool and could just differentiate between land and water. Perhaps after waking from a normal seven hour sleep I would have been able to have a clearer view of my surroundings, but I was handicapped by being kept half awake all night and that too under not too comfortable or congenial conditions. Sight is bound to be affected under the circumstances, so I thought it best to lie down with my eyes closed for a few minutes. I may have dozed off, had it not been for the cauldron of excitement boiling up inside me.

I had to get up and look around. It was better now as there was more light from the golden dawn reflecting on the tree tops, but still it would be a good half hour before the sun would peep over the hill behind me. Before looking down on the pool I decided to have some tea from the flask. Remarkable to think how hot tea can remain "hot" in a blanketed flask; but for the staleness in the taste, it was just like having tea right out of the pot at home.

Nothing tastes better than a nice hot tea on such occasions. I was so absorbed in sipping it from the lid that I forgot all that happened during the night. A few sips reminded me that there were some cream crackers in my haversack, and if they had been saved from being soaked in the rain they would certainly taste good. Two, that were just partly wet were the best I had ever had in my life and they just proved to me that it was not the "grub" but the "yearning" that made the "grub" taste better than the “grub' itself.

Having had my breakfast and enjoyed it more then ever before, my thoughts automatically turned back to the events of the night and I found myself working out in my mind all the sorts of solutions to the riddles that had been thrust upon me. The whole thing was a puzzle. The events of the night were a jig saw that I had been tackling and now they were coming to an exciting end. Would the result be the outcome of a foolish fantasy or something worth while?

Had I accomplished something concrete, or was it that I had been through a nightmare? This was just too much for me; I sprang to my feet and examined my weapon. Yes, loaded. Safety catch? Yes, safe. I peered through the opening, on to the water pool, all around. What’s this? Then it all started to come back to me, gradually, as a child begins to discover the figures of birds and squirrels and owls and parrots hidden carefully away in the pattern of a tree drawn by an artist just to baffle the little one’s mind.

My heart beat as I first imagined, and then saw a concrete image of a panther lying fully stretched by the side of the pool. What a huge fellow. if he hadn't had spots I certainly would have said he was a tiger. But look here! Is this one panther or two? I carefully ran my eyes along the lines of his graceful back and ended at the tip of his tail. There seemed another object on the other side of the panther.

Yes, this one had spots too, yet his colour was a little lighter. Why, of course, it was his  his mate. I had shot her too; there she lay back to back with him, legs stretched in the opposite direction. I hurriedly climbed down the rock. A few roots that had girdled the rock and clung to it helped my escent. I had another look at my rifle, unlocked the safety, and quietly came out from behind the rock, the butt of my rifle resting against my shoulder, ready to fire at the slightest movement.

Step by step I walked up to within a few yards of the two panthers and by now I was quite sure they were stone dead. However, it is always better to make doubly sure. As the saying goes, "you are never sure of a dead panther until he is skinned". With my rifle still pointing at them I bent down and picked a stone and hurled it at the panthers. "Thud", another one, "thud"; they were both finished. Triumphantly I walked up and put my foot on one stretching its skin to see where the bullet had entered.

My eye suddenly caught something about fifty yards away under the trunk of a large "achar" tree. "Spots" again, sure, this was another panther. Was he wounded and crouched to charge? it sent something like an electric shock from the soles of my shoes right through my head. My rifle was against my shoulder and I had my sight lined on him. No movement, a quick look at the tail it was as still as a dead branch lying on the ground.  Still keyed up,

I moved forward step by step, each step added to my confidence and by the time I was half-way I felt more and more certain that the beast was dead. Yet again (it is always best to observe the unwritten laws) I bent down and picked up a stone to make sure that he was dead. As I bent down, I saw a movement from beneath the undergrowth, which in parts was quite thick, beyond the little open space surrounding the pool.

The movement was repeated again and again. It was no attempt to get away nor to come towards me, but something trying to rise and coming down with a crash again. It was the movement of a wounded animal, perhaps with a broken spine. It was impossible to see what it could be, as visibility was considerably marred by the thickness of the bush. Forgetting about the one I was stalking and laying the stone gently on the ground I made a quick detour for cover. The tree I attempted to reach was a few yards to the left and perhaps from behind it I would get a better view of the animal I had seen.

I did, and through a little opening I could see a panther forty yards away in the bush ahead of me, he had seen me and was looking around with a snarl. I took careful aim and chanced a shot through the cover. Luckily I hit him and just saw him roll over and obscured from my view. I rushed ahead to take a position from where I might see him again, and while doing so I had my eyes glued to the spot where I had last seen him fall. In my eager advance I came across a dry nullah about three feet deep and six feet across.

To get to the wounded panther I had to cross this nullah by jumping into the bed and climbing up the opposite bank, which was a very easy task. However, it had to be accomplished with speed and in the process there was a chance of seeing the wounded panther from the bed. The ground, being at a lower level, would make it comparatively easier to see him from beneath the undergrowth. At the same time I would make use of the opposite bank which would afford adequate cover for a final reconnaissance, prior to the assault.

I took the decision and made a leap into the nullah, which also might have been my death leap; for -- believe it or not -- I landed on something soft and springy. I hurriedly turned around to satisfy my curiosity. What do you think? It was a panther in a pool of blood, stone dead. A peculiar feeling came over me, I was shivering through fright, yet I was more horror stricken than frightened.

I had my barrel on his shoulder in a split second, but again my thoughts turned to the one I had wounded and I slowly swerved around. I could see it clearly from the bed of the nullah as the lower level gave me a better view. There was no movement. A dirty leaf dropped off a teak tree behind me and I swung around to see if the panther I had bounced on was coming back to life again.

I quietly crawled up the bank and made headway step by step towards the one I had just put a shot into. When I drew near I remembered the law and observed it, the stone I threw played its part and now I was, though only in theory satisfied, that the remaining one had also been deprived of the vigour of life. I found a log nearby and sat down on it to have a little rest; I was really tired, both physically and mentally. At least my limbs were glad of the relaxation, but I still remember my mind working at the mathematical problem that remained an unsolved terror.

This was the problem I was tackling: - "If I have fired six shots at X panthers and killed four and wounded one on a dark night, how many panthers does X plus one equal,  when I am sure of four and there are only five, and I am minus seven live rounds in my haversack"

Of one thing I was certain: even Einstein would not have taken on this one!

3 Comments

  • Capt Alok Sharma on October 18, 2021 at 6:58 pm

    Wonderful leaves me speechless

  • PAUL E SIMPSON on October 20, 2021 at 4:47 am

    A great story and well written. The writer took you right into the jungle and allowed the smells and sounds to fill the night. Thank You !

  • Per Holmseth on October 31, 2021 at 8:54 am

    The shikariis on the Indian subcontinent and the guns used there becomes more and more fascinating with all the fine posts here.

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