Jagdtaschen - Game Bags
For most American outdoorsmen and students of history, European hunting traditions are largely unfamiliar and even perplexing to our sensibilities. Perhaps this is why the corresponding material culture of those traditions remains obscure to some of us as well. However, if you're passionate about history, traditional hunting methods and equipment, and have an appreciation for skillful craftsmanship and design, then it is likely that your imagination and interest has been intrigued by European hunting bags, and in particular Germanic game bags. In an effort to understand more about these bags and their history, I discussed the topic with several makers who have studied European hunting bags and have produced their own contemporary works inspired by or copied from their study of historical examples. The makers interviewed were Eric Fleisher, James Rogers, Steven Radosevich, and Ron Scott. Additional assistance and a veritable treasure of photographs and illustrations were kindly provided by Mr. Erhard Wolf, author of "Flintlock Jaeger Rifles: Masterpieces of Eighteenth-Century Gunmakers", and Mr. Manfred Schmitz, Contemporary Makers' European Correspondent.
So, to introduce the makers:
How long have you been making hunting bags, and when did you first learn about European hunting bags and game bags?
Eric Fleisher: I started making shot pouches in 2008 after buying a copy of T.C. Albert’s book at the CLA Show, and first learned about them around 2005 when I really started getting interested in the contemporary longrifle culture.
Ron Scott: I started making and selling some hunting bags about 1980 and produced a few per year for the next decade. About 2009 I enticed Ken Scott to conduct a hunting pouch workshop in conjunction with the Oregon Gun Makers Fair. That workshop with Ken rejuvenated my interest in the European game bag.
James Rogers: I have been doing leatherwork and attempting to make bags since the 1980’s. I believe I first learned about game bags from Madison Grant. We used to converse quite a bit when I first got interested in bags.
Steven Radosevich: I started doing leather work about 45 years ago, but only recently trying to develop some saddle makers skills. On the dust jacket of the "New England Gun" by Lindsay and Pendleton, published in 1975, is a picture of a game bag with the Cookson fowler. It has a fur or velvet flap with a knotted bag sewn to the front of the bag. This is the first game bag I remember seeing and falling for. The next bag is saw was at a gun show here in Kalispell again very large bag with deer dew claws on the flap. It measured about 12 by 14 and had a full sized flap. In the early 90's Beth Gilgun wrote a little article about how to tie up a game bag. After a lot of practice, and a lot of string, I almost have it figured out how to tie one.
What drew you to game bags in particular?
Eric Fleisher: As a bag maker, I like the complexity of the German bags. These bags have to be constructed in a particular sequence of steps. I also like the precision and accuracy.
James Rogers: My main interest in game bags was mainly driven by researching their use by the English gentleman.
Steven Radosevich: What drew me to this type of bag was the tradition of the craft. When you look at a few of these bags they have quite a lot of similarities. The bags I refer to are the bags made some time between 1780 and even as late as 1910. Being hard to date.
Ron Scott: My principle artistic profession is in creating European flintlock rifles and I found myself desiring to have appropriate accoutrements for my customers.
Are there any characteristics that are peculiar to European game bags?
James Rogers: I think the use of rings to connect the strap may possibly be characteristic to game bags due to size but not characteristic of ALL game bags. A net, partition or rings for actually carrying game in my opinion makes a bag a game bag.
Steven Radosevich: The way the trim is attached, the front seam vs. the back seam, and the way they are put together. The strap attachments with the rings. Of the ones I've got a chance to look at so far, none have had pockets on the inside but only one the outside.
Ron Scott: So far I've not yet observed a small game bag and some have been rather large.
Eric Fleisher: There are many with other types of hair-on, inlet flaps and plain leather flaps, but the ones with roe deer dew claws standout to me. Another detail is the leather covering of some of the hardware. Most of the earlier German bags I have studied have leather covered rings and strap buckles. Also, many of these bags have game hanger straps and knotted net bags.
Do you see any influence of these bags in any of the American bags you've studied?
Eric Fleisher: Most of the American bags I have studied are more utilitarian in design. The German bags are ornate in their design and complexity. They seem to be more of a status symbol rather than a purpose built item.
Steven Radosevich: You will see an occasional American bag with ring attachments but I've not seen much else that reminds me of the European ones.
Ron Scott: I speculate that these were primarily used for day excursions and not prolonged hunts, which may help with reasoning why Early American bags seem to be of a small scale.
James Rogers: I have not really seen any influence to note, possibly due to the area of my focus. Though there is documentation for the import of game bags into the colonies, I do not really think these were what we think of as “German” game bags. Most likely they were more on the line of what the English seemed to use, which were apparently ONLY for carrying game and not a hunting/accoutrement/game carrier combo. The origin for these styles were much earlier.
Do you have any theories about the origins of Game Bags?
James Rogers: Game bags have been in use for so long it is hard to speculate their origin. A plain net or loosely woven bag to carry game while hunting for more or to tote them home is an ancient thing. Even today in my neck of the woods, it's not uncommon to see someone at the crack of dawn pumping gas as the local store with a possum in a guano sack.
Do you have any theories about the culture that used them, and its relationship with our own?
James Rogers: The formal game bags we know of I believe were driven by the sporting hunter based on much earlier purse and bag type designs.
Ron Scott: I just obtained a copy of the book Purses in Pieces by Olaf Goubitz. It is an archeological examination of Medieval through 16th century leather bags, purses, and cases. It suggests a wealth of insight into styles and techniques that could shed light on origins and age of our classic game bag. Another topic of intrigue for me is the nature of original leathers used. I assume most or all were vegetable or bark tan. However, what of the color shades, odor and texture? A bit of reading revealed mention of Russian Leather as a sought after material for quality leather goods in Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Europe. A cargo of Russian Leather was discovered 1973 in Plymouth Sound by sport divers. The Die Frau Metta Catherina foundered Dec 10, 1786, its cargo of leather being preserved in a condition good enough to warrant cleaning and use for high grade shoes, wallets and watch bands in the 1990s.The characteristics of this leather are its odor of Birch oil and cross hatched grain. I have requested a sample of this leather and am looking forward to observing it.
Eric Fleisher: It is my understanding that only aristocracy were allowed to hunt in Germany. That is why I think these bags are more of a status item, than utilitarian.
Steven Radosevich: The 3 main cultures that these bags seem to show up from are England, France, and Germany, all of whom had not only the nobleman who would be able to afford a firearm and the accompanying accoutrements, but still had a class type of society in which a lot of their products either came from factories or cottage industries and were available to the wealthier class. I think our society here in colonial America, with the exception of the ruling class, were somewhat aloof from that mindset and more independent. You didn't have to get your durable goods from just one place that stuck to the old system of guilds and such. Craftsmen, just prior to and during the American Revolution were beginning to think they could start businesses without the permission of the powers that be, so it made for a little different business climate here. Even to this day there are certain societies who maintain a mind-set of the training of crafts from master to journeymen to apprentice, and the items under question are no exception.
Is there any reliable documentation as to who made them?
James Rogers: Early on, I believe they were made by professional bag and purse-makers. There are some medieval/post medieval images of bag makers and their work.
Eric Fleisher: I feel these bags were definitely made by professionals in specialty shops. I have studied a few pre-cartridge bags without shell loops, but the majority of the bags I have studied have shell loops inside. The style and construction techniques are almost identical between the early bags and the later cartridge bags. I have a reproduction Akah catalog from 1908 with several pages of ink drawings of bags that were available at that time. I believe this company still exists today.
Who was the most likely user of a game bag?
Ron Scott: My guess is that our classic game bag was a frequent companion of continental European game keepers and individual hunters. A wealthy hunter may well have been catered to by a group of servants, providing services such as chasing game, loading firearms and caring for the shot game. Thus relieving the nobleman or noblewoman of the burden of carrying their own accoutrements.
James Rogers: Depends on if they were the formal type of game bag or a sack. Also who, when and where are important factors. Formal: the gentleman sportsman; sack: anyone, including a poacher. The later the period, the more the average individual used the proper game bag. By the late 19th century, what we know as the German style game bag seemed to have been used all over.
What is the oldest image of a game bag you have seen?
James Rogers: The oldest image of a net front game bag I have seen is around 1735-50 by Hormans. During the mid 18th century period I have seen a Germanic bag that incorporates the use of a ring as a means of strap attachment on one side of the bag with a buckle adjustment on the other side. I have seen many 16th and 17th century game bag images where the bag is just for carrying of game.
Steven Radosevich: The oldest reference I can find is a few paintings from the 18th century of the knotted bags. One of a large haversack type of bag and the another by the painter Francesco Goya, from 1760-70. It's a rather longer-than-wide bag, with knotted flap decor. I've found no dated material on the game bags with the dew claw flaps.
What are your theories about the age of these bag and time span of their use?
James Rogers: ? I believe the classic game bags were in use all over the world thru the mid-20th century. I also believe most all of the bags we see today are from the mid-19th century forward. I speculate that most of them are from late 19th and early 20th century manufacture. I think many of these Germanic type bags we see are of Netherlandish manufacture during the 1890-1920 time frame.
Ron Scott: I am beginning to suspect that the wonderful game bags featuring dew claw flaps, tied net game pockets and game straps are nineteenth century items. I have been able to handle a half dozen or so original bags and from the stitch work and the fact that some sport cartridge loops, it would seem many of these are late in manufacture. Leather, as compared with firearms materials is a fragile material, either decomposing over time or being cut down and reused as the stitched seams wore out. That being the case, old specimens are not plentiful.
Eric Fleisher: I think these bags were being made in the 18th century up through the 1940’s. You can buy a brand new game bag today, but they are not nearly as ornate and decorated as the earlier bags.
What are some of the materials commonly used in game bags?
Steven Radosevich: Besides leather, some are lined with a line type product. Most of the straps are also leather, but a couple have been noted with woven straps. There is trim of a different type of leather from the bag leather, dyed red or green. There are steel and brass rings, leather covered rings or leather wrapped rope loops, or no rings at all. The flap can be plain leather, lined with another thinner leather. It can be covered with fur or fabric, embroidered, carved leather, painted, or my favorite, some kind of animal dew claws. And string! Lots of string. Linen, hemp, or cotton; woven into a net. The earlier ones seem to follow a square knot type of macramé with a small assortment of pattern, sometimes in more than one color. These knotted bags come in a one-sided variety that is sewn to the front of the bag around the front sides and bottom, or a two-sided type that is sewn to the top of the bag front.
James Rogers: Leather, woven netting, loose/coarse cloth to allow game to breathe. Sometimes metal hinges and points of entry, pull ties, etc.
With regards to some of the specific design features seen on various game bags, which do you think have a function and which do you think are just for form? Do any seem to be intended for both in particular?
Eric Fleisher: I think the knotted game bags and game hangers are more for aesthetics than practical use. You will always have some blood residue from game animals. I would not want that blood on my expensive, fancy hunting bag. I doubt if these aristocratic hunters carried their own game animals out of the field.
Steven Radosevich: At some point, the knotted bags got smaller and smaller to where the size was too small to hold anything of value. We're they purely decorative at that juncture? The small game rings, were they also for decoration?
When you had an opportunity to study an original game bag, did anything about the construction, scale, or any other feature surprise you?
Eric Fleisher: The size of these bags can vary quite a bit. It seems the average bag was around 10” wide. However I have studied a bag that was about 7 ½” wide and one that was almost 14” wide.
What are some of the stranger and more unique features you've seen on any of these bags?
Eric Fleisher: The leather cover hardware does not seem practical to me. The leather has to be very thin to form the hardware. Under everyday hard use, I would imagine this covering to wear through quickly. But as I stated before, I think these bags were special occasion status symbols.
Steven Radosevich: Some aspects of the construction are unique to these bags as opposed to bags made here. They seem to all have gussets, even on the pockets. The back-seam is sewn to the outward, with a band over it. When you sew the back to the gusset with the seam sewn outward, it automatically makes a concave surface of the back. Was this planned, (facilitating) room for your hip? The front-seam is sewn to the inside with a welt to cover the thread. The flap, although sewn to the top edge of the back is not sewn to flatten down the front and make access more restricted. Another interesting and unknown feature on these bags is a little pouch attached to the strap . Speculation is amuck .
James Rogers: There are some bags that have a side entrance at the back of the leather bag. It actually unfolds and is almost twice the width of the true bag body.
Is there a change in your work habits or approach when you make a game bag vs. a typical hunting bag?
Ron Scott: Part of the appeal of these bags is the challenge of designing a bag with the multitude of pieces that make up the pockets, strap and flap. An average project might constitute twenty individual pieces. The selection of appropriate materials is necessary to make a bag that is strong but of reasonable weight and without being overly stiff, or worse, stretch out of shape. I am finding a preference for calf and goat leather, both of which were common purse leathers in medieval Europe. I am currently using a 4-ply waxed linen for stitching.
Eric Fleisher: I was intimidated when I started to make my first Germanic-style bag. But after you look at them and break down the construction in your mind, they are not that difficult to construct. I had to refine my basic skills slightly. I have always tried to make bags like a professional harness maker would have made. The German game bags to me are the next step. You have to precise with every step of the construction. I enjoy the challenge of recreating those neat, tight stitch lines.
James Rogers: The biggest difference is due to size. If stitching a small bag, one can generally go all the way around with stitching. I usually start in the middle bottom and work both ways in stitching a big game bag to prevent such a twist in the finished bag.
Steven Radosevich: When recreating one of these bags it is an interesting challenge to include all of the original features I can, to be as authentic as possible.
What is the biggest challenge in producing a game bag?
Steven Radosevich: The hardest part of reproducing this type of bags is 1) not knowing the age of the bag and wanting to put it with an older gun, and 2), finding appropriate materials. My approach to these bags when I go to build one is to build it in my mind, inside out. Attach everything possible before the front and back go together.
Eric Fleisher: Fine, closely spaced stitches and leather covering hardware.
When you've recreated a game bag, were there any features of the originals you were compelled to omit, change or otherwise alter, and why?
Eric Fleisher: I try to make my reproduction as close to original as possible. The only thing I change about my bags is the occasional addition of an internal pocket. I have never seen an original with a pocket inside the main body of the bag.
James Rogers: I like to incorporate a removable net front for ease of washing. This is a feature that can actually be found on a few game bags but I like it for cleanliness.
Have you ever used a game bag in the field? Did you have any impressions about their utility afterwards?
James Rogers: Anyone who has hunted upland style, even with modern tackle has probably used a form of game bag. They are very useful in my opinion and I use them for all types of bird hunting as well as small game. I really like the utilization of a separate shoulder bag for game only.
Steven Radosevich: Other than at shoots, I've not been able to field test these bags but at the least the knotted bag would be good for your liver sandwich.
*Authors Note: I have used a game bag in the field many times over the past two and a half years...and they do serve their intended purpose exceedingly well, but as the makers here correctly surmise, they will get soiled quite fast...and they will also become one of your favorite hunting accoutrements. Thank you and good hunting!