There is a widely held misconception in America that hunting, shooting and gun ownership in Germany is a pastime of the rich and a privilege of the powerful, with the common man left out entirely. This is quite far from the truth.
Germany enjoys a rich shooting and hunting tradition going back to the times of the early Renaissance. Shooting as a pastime to hone the skills of warfare goes back as far as the 15th century when protective societies exercised their civic duties by guarding and policing the walled cities in times of peace. Marksmanship with the crossbow and later with firearms was encouraged and great festivals were held to determine the best shots among them.
But times change and all that remains of the ancient Schützenfest are the public festivals and competitions still sponsored by a few German and Swiss communities. And instead of the rattle of musketry, one often hears only the quiet plop of the air rifle. Regionally popular is the "bird shooting" game whereby a stylized, segmented eagle is hoisted up a tall mast and the shooters must knock down the bird, segment by segment. There are several variations of this game and the eagle is made of wood for crossbow and of steel for shooting with specially made 16 gauge rifles based on the Mauser M71 action. Unfortunately, this style of shooting is falling out of popularity due to the large safety zones required in a country with the highest population density in Europe. For comparison, Germany is about the size of Oregon, yet with a population of over 60 million! Finding a place to shoot at all is becoming a real problem for all sport shooting enthusiasts and ranges are being closed every year due to safety, noise, environmental and political considerations.
Despite the great percentage of settled land, hunting in Germany has never been better. Hunting seasons are, by American standards, incredibly long and offer a variety of game wider than most US hunters could imagine. For example, the little roe deer, considered under German hunting law to be "low" game, is the most populous and widely hunted of antlered game and is found literally everywhere. Yearly harvests are around 1 million head with at least another 20,000 being killed by motorists alone. A good buck will weigh about 30 pounds dressed and have a normal maximum head of six points, but size isn't everything, especially when buck season alone runs from 16 May to 15 October!
German wildlife management is also different from the American model, it being handled almost entirely on a private basis. If the landowner is not a hunter himself, then he must lease the hunting rights to another hunter or group of hunters. Outside cities, there is no such thing as "posted" land. But the hunter who owns or leases the hunting rights for an area (Revier) has immense responsibilities. He must control predators, count game, keep an eye out for poachers and militant anti-hunting activists, pay farmers for crop damage caused by game animals, feed the game through the winter and bag the number and type of game prescribed for his area within the allotted time. For example, one small Revier of 200 hectares (494 acres) on which this author has hunted has a yearly harvest requirement of 12 roe bucks, 6 does and 2 fawns.
A very positive aspect is that, if his Revier is not too far from home, he can take off every evening after work and get in several hours of good hunting time. And, if the moon is bright enough, he can sit up all night for boar. Due to a population explosion in the 1980's, still trying to be explained by wildlife biologists, wild boar have become a literal plague, causing millions of dollars worth of crop damage yearly. But boar have increased their chances for survival by becoming nocturnal and about the only way to get one on purpose is to either sit up for him on a moonlit night or drive hunt with dogs and beaters. These two phenomena, the ubiquity of roe and the year-round, day/night, all-weather campaign against boar have caused great changes in the German hunters' equipment.
Comparing the 1970's to the present day, we find that roe deer hunters must now reckon that boar will cross their sights more often and they had better be prepared for it. German hunting law requires a cartridge having 1000 Joules @ 100 meters (737 ft-lbs. @ 109 yds) for roe with no minimum caliber requirement, but for "high" game, and this includes red, fallow and sika deer, boar, chamois and mouflon sheep, the requirement is for a cartridge giving at least 2000 Joules @ 100 meters (1475 ft-lbs. @ 109 yds) and having a caliber no smaller than 6.5mm (.264"). In practical terms, this means that the least powerful legal cartridge for roe is the .222 Remington and the smallest legal cartridge for high game is the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser.
So if you are out for roe but must shoot almost any boar, sow or piglet that comes along (there are certain restrictions), you must use a bigger caliber or else be guilty of poaching at worst and unsportsmanlike conduct at best. This has lead to the situation that many hunters have traded in their trusty .222s, .243s and 5.6x57s, typically equipped with 4x32 or 6x40 scopes, for heavier armament. Nowadays, typical bolt guns are in 7x64, .308 or .30-'06, big-bore fans often choosing the 8x68S, .300 Win Mag or 9.3x62. Large 8x56, 2½-10x48 or 3-12x56 scopes are the rule and they are almost always put up in quick-detachable mounts. QD mounts are mainly desired when a scope would be a hindrance in following up wounded game or when fast shooting at driven game is required. Thus, the roe deer hunter is equipped for any eventuality.
Depending on the terrain, game population and time of year, one gun is not enough to tackle all hunting chores. For example, in September alone, red, fallow, sika and roe deer, chamois, mouflon, boar, weasel, ermine, badger, seal, fox, partridge, dove, swan, duck and sea gull are all in season! Naturally, it is impossible to hunt all species at once, but I have often enough gotten in dove and duck hunting the same evening before returning to the high seat to wait on boar. And who's to say that on the way to the stand I don't run across a fox or marten, both of which may be shot on sight, year-round? It would be impractical to always have a shotgun, varmint rifle and big game rifle to hand, and it is just due to these varying conditions that the Drilling and combination gun were developed in the late 19th century. They have since become the trademark of the German sportsman and any self-respecting Nimrod either has a Drilling or is looking to buy one.
Admittedly, a Drilling is a pretty exotic instrument for North American conditions. It as well as the double barrel combination gun can be quite useful for turkey or squirrel hunting, but very few sportsmen are willing to pay upwards of $3000 for a turkey gun! The Drilling started out as a side-by-side shotgun with an under-slung auxiliary rifle barrel, the optimal gun for the woods-walker, forester and gamekeeper. Typically set up in 16 gauge, the pre-World War II Drilling was very popular in 7x57R, 6.5x57R and 8x57JR and was often without a scope. In contrast to years past, the modern Drilling is used today as a rifle with auxiliary shotgun tubes. This change in tactics gives us Drillings with high "pig back" combs for scope shooting, more powerful main caliber's such as 7x65R, .30-'06 and 9.3x74R and with an almost universal changeover to 12 gauge. Additionally, the right shotgun tube often gets a full-length barrel insert in 5.6x50R, .223 Remington or .22 Savage Hi-Power, all just right for roe, fox and badger. Topped with a big 3-12x56 scope using either claw or swing mounts, you now have a heavy gun far removed from the delightful seven-pound Drillings of pre-war innocence.
Now the hunter has a very specialized, yet almost universal weapon: although it has, due to its weight and stocking evolved to the point where it is no longer any good for wingshooting, many event-ualities may nonetheless be covered with just one hunting instrument. Should a fox or hare come up close, then they get it with the pelt-saving high-brass #3s or #1s (Even-numbered shot sizes are seldom asked for.). When Mr. Roebuck shows, he gets it with the small-caliber insert barrel. And should the red stag of a lifetime come into view, then the main barrel, perhaps in .30-'06, 8x75RS or 9.3x74R comes into play, it being equally capable of downing the biggest boar.
But this search for the universal arm, humorously referred to as the "egg-laying wool-milk-sow", is not to infer that the German hunter is limited as to the number of hunting guns he may have. Although German firearms law is generally more restrictive compared to America and gun registration has been such a fact of life for generations that even the most pro-gun activist does not question it, there are very few limitations to the hunter acquiring as many long guns as he may deem fit. Once the German or resident alien has taken a six-month training course and passed a difficult written, oral, practical and marksmanship test, he is qualified for life to renew his hunting license on an annual or triennial basis. If he stays out of trouble with the law and keeps up his hunting liability insurance coverage, he need merely present his hunting license at his gun dealer's and, much as in America, may walk out with any legal long gun. He has four weeks to get the gun entered into his firearms registration certificate and compliance is 100%. Since semiautomatic hunting rifles and shotguns may only have a maximum two-shot magazine capacity, larger capacity long guns require prior authorization for purchase. This is no great hindrance since magazines of any capacity may be bought freely. Just don't get caught hunting with one! At any rate, semi-autos are shunned by the majority of German outdoorsmen and women as noisy, ugly, unsportsmanlike and a temptation to the weak of will. Although the semi-auto is in reality the poor man's double gun, I have been told of drive hunt invitations warning that those who bring such "full harvesters" will not be allowed to participate. And since there is so much free hunting for the landless hunter (remember, those quotas have to be filled!), he certainly dare not risk the consequences of bucking tradition.
But attitudes change and semi-autos are mildly popular among the hunting set and very much so among certain competitive target shooters. But hunters who are handgun fanciers are pretty much out of luck. Generally speaking, hunters are allowed only two handguns and a maximum of three. Since handgun hunting is not allowed due to the power floors and to the widespread belief that it is a stunt for jaded game-killers, the only recognized need for a handgun is for administering finishing shots to wounded game and as self-protection against poachers, the local breed being notoriously ruthless and with a violent tradition spanning centuries.
Minimum requirement is a muzzle energy of 200 Joules (147 ft-lbs.). This is satisfied by the hot Geco loadings in .32 ACP, still Europe's favorite pocket pistol caliber. Many hunters will settle for one of the various S&W J-frame revolvers in .38 Special or their Brazilian equivalents and maybe a .357 Magnum. The .44 Magnum is surprisingly popular, especially among dog handlers who must frequently crawl through heavy brush to get to a laid-up stag or boar. The 9mm Luger, still called the "9mm Parabellum" in the land of its origin, is universally popular and the various domestic medium-size police models such as the Walther P5, SIG-Sauer P225 (P6) and Heckler & Koch P7 variants are considered the biggest a hunter can carry comfortably. Power and compactness are important here and a gun dealer just told me that the new Glock 26 sells like hot cross buns.
Perversely, getting a .22 pistol for target practice can actually be a problem for the hunter. Whereas every club target shooter has a smallbore he can call his own, a hunter can apply for a .22 only if he makes plausible the need for finishing trapped fur-bearers or if he competes in the so-called hunter competitions.
The handgun discipline in these competitions has a series of timed and rapid fire exercises as set forth by the DJV, Germany's national hunters' organization. Any pistol or revolver of any caliber may be used, but it must possess a manual safety and not otherwise have any features of a bullseye gun. A noted American firearms authority, upon reviewing the Hämmerli "Hunter's Model" a few years back, gave the opinion that that the gun was too light and too short for hunting. True enough, but evidently the folks at Hämmerli did not clue him in to the fact that it is a target pistol made for this special type of match shooting and not for the taking of small game.
The rifle leg has the shooter fire at full-color, life size targets at 100 meters: standing supported for roe, lying unsupported for fox and standing unsupported for immature boar. Then at 60 meters he shoots at a moving target representing a grown boar in flight. Standing supported with a walking staff, he shoots at a chamois if a moving target range is unavailable. And as in US silhouette shooting, only gamesmen shooting rifles tricked up as far as the rules allow generally take home the trophies. The shotgun leg has the shooter taking 15 clay pigeons each on the International trap and skeet ranges. The bird is called with the shotgun's buttplate on the hip and only one-ounce loads are allowed.
Bullseye and action target shooters work within different guidelines from hunters and have a slightly higher quota of handguns they may possess. As a rule, a target shooter may have up to as many as six handguns, but each purchase must be approved in advance by the registration authority (not the police) of the county in which he resides and is predicated on a substantiated need of a gun for a certain match discipline. This restriction is a never-ending source of heartburn for the avid pistolero and pro-gun activists have been working for years to raise the number of handguns allowed or to have the requirement dropped entirely. Their argument is that shooters with proven clean backgrounds are no more a threat to public order and safety with ten guns than with just one. Elements in the government and bureaucracy have not only an agenda of "so few weapons as possible in the populace", but also have some latent fear that a registered gun owner with ten guns could arm nine others in a "fifth column" crisis scenario.
Nevertheless, club shooting, whether it be with air guns, small bore, large bore, surplus ordnance, Western or IPSC, is a significant element of the mainstream German lifestyle. The DSB, the national sanctioning body for Olympic and International shooting competitions, is the largest but by no means the only national organization for the shooting sports. The DSB alone is the fourth largest sports organization in the country, outranked only in membership by the soccer, tennis and gymnastic leagues and with a membership over 1½ million strong.
Competitors shooting rifle or shotgun have an easier time than the handgun shooters. Once having been approved for their first long gun, usually a single-shot match .22, the shooter may then purchase without restriction or prior approval any number of single-shot long guns. Under German law, even multiple-barrel break-action guns count as single-shots, as do repeaters with deactivated magazines. True magazine rifles and semiautomatics are restricted in almost the same way as handguns and each purchase must also be approved beforehand, so in this respect hunters are considerably better off.
Reloaders, once they have taken an obligatory two-day training course on reloading safety and explosives law, can buy as much powder as they require although stockpiling is not possible due to the limit of only 5 kg (12 lbs.) being allowed for home storage. Traditionally, reloading has never been very popular in Germany and the vast majority of hunters still trust to factory ammo. Centerfire pistol shooters often see no advantage in reloading when their caliber of choice is the 9mm Luger. This ammo is everywhere and can often be bought more cheaply than the components for reloading it. The same goes for shotshells: practically no one reloads when they can be bought for the equivalent of 18 cents a pop.
Except for some annoying quirks in the weapons law, muzzleloading shooters have it pretty good. Single-shot percussion muzzleloaders and capping breechloaders may be bought by anyone over eighteen, the same going for multiple-barrel flintlocks, wheel-locks and matchlocks. But for some paranoid reason, public safety would be endangered if just anyone could go out and buy a double-barrelled percussion gun or muzzleloading revolver and such items must go on a firearms certificate, with prior approval, no less! Black powder, like nitro, is restricted to permit holders only.
Industry observers suspect that discriminating German soot burners are the main reason for the general improvement in the quality and variety of the Spanish and Italian replicas from which even US shooters benefit. German buckskinners, reenactors, cowboys and target shooters alike enjoy the superb quality of Swiss black powder, a true magnum propellant yet almost unknown and practically unobtainable in the States. Perhaps the best proof as to how seriously Germans take their muzzleloading is how they regularly clean up at international meets, most American teams being left in their smoke.
And just as the post-war period brought chewing gum, Coca-Cola and hamburgers, the curious pastimes of American servicemen have also left their mark. There is hardly any community of 30,000 or more that does not have at least one "Western-Klub", complete with saloon and Country & Western band. At the annual rendezvous at Schwäbisch-Hall, visitors are greeted with the sights of authentic tipis, pilgrims and booshways, cowboys, Indians and blue-coated cavalrymen. Western riding has gotten so popular it supports its own magazine. Although Napoleonic reenactments are popular enough, they are no match for the popularity of living history impressions of the War Between the States. Germans prefer to do impressions of Confederates and Indians, giving themselves perhaps a chance to play rebel in a land placing high social value on conformity and obedience.
For more modern types, Bianchi Cup, PPC and IPSC sanctioned meets flourish wherever range limitations allow it. On the down side, metallic silhouette shooters must travel to France and rifle shooting to 300 meters can often only be done on military ranges, now dwindling due to the post-Cold War reduction in forces. There is currently much interest in End-of-Trail competition, but finding a safe place to do it may be the most serious obstacle to its gaining any popularity.
Although Germany is no gun lover's paradise, shooters make the best of the situation and are constantly fighting an entrenched bureaucracy continually attempting to disarm them. The Clinton "Crime Bill" used the German War Weapons Control Law (KWKG) and §37 of the Weapons Law (WaffG) as models in determining the political correctness of civilian firearms. German shooters were quite disheartened to hear that they can now have higher-capacity handguns than their American role models, for if it can happen in America, then it won't be long in coming to Germany.
There are still many items which are forbidden and may not be owned, held, bought, sold or transferred under any circumstances: fully-automatic weapons; any object, even an inert dummy, that looks like a war weapon; any deactivated war weapon in an assembled state; any semiautomatic centerfire having more than two characteristics of a war weapon (finned barrel, pistol grip, bipod, etc.); hollowpoint handgun bullets or ammo; and several categories of exotic blunt and edged weapons. The full list is long and depressing, but if the shooter limits his interests to accurate arms having a moderate amount of firepower then he gets along well enough. Despite SKS and semiautomatic AK47/AKM variants also being available, some German enthusiasts don't understand why the American shooting public is so crazy to buy such ugly, inaccurate and poorly made ordnance.
But then, there are a lot of things about America that the Germans will never truly figure out. Like how people eat squirrels instead of feeding them. Or how tens of thousands go to a football game and it doesn't end in a riot. Or how anyone can get anywhere on time with only a 55 mph speed limit.
I guess that some things are probably better left unknown.
* The author was born and raised in North Carolina and has lived and worked in Germany for the past fifteen years. Currently employed in the German firearms publishing trade, he gets into the woods as often as he can, but it's never as often as he would like. He would welcome any inquiries addressed to him in care of the publisher.