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Early net gun development in NZ

We would like to extend a massive thank you to James Cagney for the following  text and photos. James posted loads of cool photos and stories to FB about his father, Robin, with his permission we have collated them into a blog post here.


James wanted to make it clear Robin wasn’t the first to invent the net gun, but was one of the first. A handful of guys, mostly on the West Coast invented their own version of the net gun independently of each other around the same time in 1978.


These include the Page Brothers from Takaka, Ivan Wilson and Paul Jacobs from Reefton, Robin Cagney from Kowhitirangi in the Hokitika Valley, Roger (Buzz) Morrison from Kokatahi in the Hokitika Valley, Sam Velenski from Hanmer Springs and later the Hokitika Valley, and Nelson Thompson from Te Anau and likely others.


This was the early boom years of live capture and each of these pioneer inventors developed their own ‘secret weapon’. At the time and over the ensuing years a number of versions and variations were patented. It’s difficult to identify who exactly was the ‘first’, though James thinks that accolade might possibly go to the Page Brothers or Wilson and Jacobs.


Who was first is largely a moot point. All of these pioneers should be celebrated for the enterprising Kiwi individualists they were. Special mention must also be made of the early work Goodwin McNutt did in experimenting with Helicopter drop nets in the mid ‘70’s, prior to the invention of the net gun, and of Dave Conmee of Wanaka who later developed what become the industry standard ‘Alpine’ net gun.


During the late 70's Robin Cagney started his early net gun development at Kowhitirangi in the Hokitika Valley. He began working on them while he was with South West Helicopters.
After Robin developed his first net gun design in 1978, he continued to perfect it. At the same time he experimented with other ideas for helicopter deer live capture, one of these was the use of rubber bullets to ‘stun’ deer.


Robin was shooting for Patrick Nolan at the time, with South West Helicopters on the West Coast, this must have been 1979. Robin, always the gun guru and experimenter found that one portion of the back end of a cowshed inflation rubber fitted perfectly in the bore of a 12 gauge shotgun. Robin made rubber 12 gauge slugs by cutting these to about 1 inch in length and plugging the hole in the middle with a rubber plug and adhesive.


He worked up loads in the 12 gauge, using the carcasses of dead bobby calves as the test media to perfect the right charge, so that he had the optimum velocity at the usual ‘out the helicopter door’ range to thump the deer, without breaking the skin. He worked the powder charge up until the rubber bullet would break the skin of the dead bobby calf and penetrate, and would then back the load off a grain, so that he had maximum thump, without penetrating and killing the animal.


When Robin and Patrick tested this out of the helicopter on deer, it knocked the deer down, but not for long. Robin would aim for the neck, anywhere between the base of the skull to the base of the neck. On an early experimental run, Patrick wanted to see the deer knocked down for a bit longer so there would be more time for Robin to jump on the incapacitated animal, he wanted Robin to increase the charge. Robin insisted that if he upped the charge it would kill the deer. A dead deer was worth only 5% to 10% the value of a live one at the time.

Patrick was keen to see a hotter load in action, so he upped the powder charge - possibly by a couple more grains than required to prove the point. Anyways, next run, in the Arawhata I think, they got onto a big hind, Robin put the shot, from above, square on the spine, between the hinds shoulder blades. The rubber slug exited out the hinds brisket and the hind rolled up dead.


Back to the drawing board - Robin figured that the only way to increase knock down thump without penetrating and killing the animal was to increase the diameter or the rubber bullet. His next ‘stun gun’ was built on a Lee Enfield .303 with the barrel cut back to just forward of the chamber and a large diameter barrel threaded to the stub barrel. The large diameter barrel was something like 1.5” - 1.75” in diameter, the perfect size for a push fit of the good old ‘superball’, the big solid rubber bouncy ball, a popular kids toy at the time. The barrel was actually a re-purposed barrel off one of the old Mountain Helicopters underbelly net guns.


The superball would be muzzle loaded with a ramrod and the .303 loaded with a blank net gun cartridge. This proved surprisingly accurate and effective in initial testing, but no doubt the potential ricochet hazard of that big bouncy ball caused some concerns. By this time the net gun had established itself as ‘the tool’ for helicopter live capture and it prevailed.

"We still have the old superball stun gun. It’s away in museum storage currently, but hopefully you’ll get a chance to see it displayed in a museum sometime soon."

  Patrick                                                            Robin


A photo of Patrick and Robin back in the day with HKW, flying out of our old place at Kowhitirangi in the Hokitika Valley around the same time in 1979. They’re using one of Robin’s 3 barreled interchangeable barrel net guns.


Many will have seen the photo of Joe Collins and Stu Patton's 300 with the net around the rotor head.
Joe had been living with the Cagney's on the West Coast, this must have been late 1978 or '79. When Robin was building his early net guns. Joe had Robin build him the net gun pictured. This was Joe's first net gun. Joe was into motor cross and had a few motor cross bikes at the time. He swapped one of his bikes, a Yamaha YZ80 for the net gun build. Robin gave the YZ to his sons Grant and James. This was their first bike, they were about 9 at the time. A few days after receiving the new net gun, Joe called with the news that he had put the net into the rotors and bought the 300 down.
This must have been one of the last 'fixed barrel' net guns Robin built, as he developed his interchangeable barrel system soon after, which became the standard. Roger Morrison, also from the Hokitika Valley, developed his own interchangeable barrel system around the same time.



The following photos are some of Robin's early net gun trials with Toby Clark and John Singer in HJR, also Patrick and Marty Nolan in HJC, Hokitika Valley, 1978.


An early 2 barrel gun of Robins, this one on a Brno .308 action, and his first interchangeable barrel gun. He built a bunch of these through the late 70's - early 80's, initially for South West helicopters and for quite a few other outfits.


A photo of an early trial - modified SIG net gun. "This worked, but the bucket canister between the shooters knees probably wasn't ideal." "If memory serves me right, the SIG was Robin's very first prototype net gun. Dad used Toby Clark and John Singer's SIG, threaded a set of barrels to it, and Toby and John shot it at home out of HJR to test the concept, and see how the net behaved in the rotor wash when fired out of the helicopter.


John held the cut-off drench container with the net stuffed in it between his knees. Once they were confident that it worked and didn't shoot the helicopter down, Robin went ahead and built his first purpose built 'production' net gun for Toby and John on a LE .303 action."


The fixed 2 barrel guns on LE .303 actions or various .308 bolt actions were the early standard. This soon evolved into the interchangeable 3 and 4 barrel models, mostly on LE .303 actions in those early days.
Robins wife Maureen helped out as well. Spending many hours 'knitting' nets on the living room floor. "And sewing vinyl canisters once the 3 barrel netgun was developed by Robin. Cooked breakfast for many pilots and shooters but unfortunately went to too many funerals. Still lots of great memories."


John Dixon, pilot of HMG. Robin Cagney working on the skid gun. Hokitika Valley, early’80’s



These photos show Robin Cagney’s work from 1984 - ’85 when Robin was working with Tim Wallis and Alpine Helicopters, developing new improved net gun designs and capture devices, including a new multi-shot skid gun and helicopter portable ground traps.


A two shot skid gun was already in use. This had been designed earlier by Alpine Helicopters engineers, it consisted of twin - side by side mounted Mauser bolt action .308 net guns, each with its own set of barrels and net canisters. The photos below are of the new version that Robin developed in ’84 - ’85 with Alpine.

Robin’s version did away with the conventional bolt action and instead used compact, self-contained, reloadable steel blank cartridges that screwed by hand into each set of net barrels. The cartridges were electrically fired and were effectively the cartridge and breech all in one. The multiple net barrels were configured with each set of barrels stacked inside the other and a common net canister holding the nets. The photos are of a two shot version. The stacked nature of the barrel sets and the compact steel cartridge/breech system meant that 3 or 4 shot versions could be produced.




During this time in ’84 - ’85 while working with Tim and Alpine, Robin also developed helicopter portable ground traps. After years of helicopter hunting pressure on the wild deer populations, the deer were living the daylight hours mostly in the bush. Tim’s vision was for each of his helicopters and crew to run a trap-line of helicopter portable ground traps, trapping deer in the bush. Working with Tim and Alpine crews, Robin developed a number of different trap systems, one that fired a net from above, another that had a net pull up from the ground, with a draw string around the deer, and the one they settled on, as pictured below, that fired a 30’ by 30’ net wall up around the deer, initiated by pressure pads under the leaf litter. Tim had secured access to a French satellite that would monitor the traps.


Robin and Tim jointly patented the systems, but alas, they never went into full production or use. Just as the development of these new devices was completed and the concepts tested and proven, the live capture industry came to a halt. The Government had removed a tax incentive on deer, and the price of live deer crashed to meat value overnight. Live capture was no longer economic. The end of a remarkable era.



Robin Cagney and Morris Duckmanton working on development of the self contained cartridge/breach multi shot skid gun. The standard bolt action skid gun in the foreground has been removed to fit a prototype.
1984/85 - Robin Cagney, Ged Newlands and Tim Wallis demonstrate Alpine Helicopters helicopter portable ground deer traps to National Parks Boards. These photos must be demonstrating to either the Fiordland or Mt Aspiring National Parks Board. Alan Duncan’s place at Makarora.

Robin Cagney kneeling.

Notes on the guns used.

The Mauser action used to make the Alpine Helicopters net guns in the early 80’s, including the skid guns was I believe the Yugoslavian Zastava. This was a contemporary Mauser 98 sporter clone, built in Yugoslavia through the 80’s and 90’s, possibly as early as the ‘70’s. It was marketed in the USA by ‘Interarms’ and known by the Interarms name in the US and NZ at one point. The skid guns at this time were pretty much all .308. Blank firing of course.


The early net guns in the late ‘70’s were mostly built on Lee Enfield, and occasionally P14 .303’s. I’ve seen a couple of net guns built on .30-06 actions, including one of Sam Velenski’s and one of John Akers. We used to load blanks for both of them. I still have all the load data for each of them and dozens of others.

You can pretty much say that almost all of the very first successful net guns were built on .303’s. The .308 became the standard for the industry. A handful of .30-06’s were used. I don’t know of any other chambering used on a net gun in those days.


A blank is a firearm cartridge that, upon firing, does not discharge a projectile like a bullet or pellet. Special blank cartridges are utilized when the explosive force of a cartridge is required, but no projectile is intended. Blank cartridges were frequently employed for tasks such as launching a messenger line, tear gas canisters, or rifle grenades. In this scenario, they are utilized to propel the net from the gun.


"Through the 70’s and 80’s we used to develop loads for many of the South Island operators and load their blanks. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours as a schoolboy loading net gun blanks and .308 rifle ammo for Dad to supply many of the South Island operators. That along with possum skins and the occasional venison carcass here and there paid for all of my motorbike gas, ammunition and rifles through those days."


This blog post could not have been done without the assistance of James Cagney.

Growing up amidst the Wild West era of helicopter live capture on the West Coast and with a father who involved his sons in all his adventures, James harbored dreams of becoming a venison pilot. However, these dreams were dashed in his late teens with the collapse of the live capture industry in the late 1980s. At the age of 20, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force, where he served for 16 years — eight years as an Armorer and the subsequent eight as a Helicopter Crewman.

Following his tenure in the Air Force, James ventured into the guided hunting industry. He worked as a contract hunting guide for local outfits before establishing his own specialty Free Range guided hunting outfit a decade ago, alongside his wife Deb, their son Dylan, and with the assistance of long-time friend and guide, Jake Phillips. Operating under the name "James Cagney’s New Zealand Hunting Adventures," the outfit is based out of Lake Coleridge in the Rakaia Valley, primarily catering to American and European hunters seeking an authentic New Zealand free-range hunting experience.

Drawing from his experience of horseback hunting in BC, Canada, James's outfit also offers horse treks in the Lake Coleridge area, ranging from 2-hour sessions to 5-day backcountry treks.

James leads the NZ Professional Hunting Guides Association - Professional Hunter Academy, providing professional training to the New Zealand guided hunting industry. Additionally, he is part of a small, dedicated team advocating to the government on behalf of the hunting sector and game animal interests.

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