Car terminology can be a tricky thing to navigate, even for those of us who are around it a lot. And sometimes it’s not very clear even if you understand that there is a difference – AWD versus 4WD, anyone? Of course, there are also some terms that people just generally take for granted and don’t give much consideration. Like, for example, that here in the States we call small 4-door cars with a trunk ‘sedans,’ whereas they’re called ‘saloons’ in England and other parts of the world. And while we’d love to clear everything up, there’s one term we’d like to focus on specifically here.
That term is, of course, ‘shooting brake.’ If you’ve spent any time in the car world – obsessed collectors and casual fans alike – there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen it at some time or another. But, unless you took the time out of your day to hunt down the meaning, origin, or other examples; you likely just looked right past it. Well, believe it or not, the term ‘shooting brake’ actually has some interesting history behind it. And that’s what we’re here to illuminate today: what, exactly, is a shooting brake? From its origins, to its evolution, and to contemporary examples, we’ve mapped it all out in the following guide.
Origins Of The Term
To really get down to the nitty gritty, the term has to be broken down into its subsequent parts, as both came from different times and therefore mean different things on their own. And it’s not until you put them together that you get the present meaning we have for it today. To start, we’ll look at the possible root of the term ‘brake.’
We say possible root because, as the word ‘brake’ is not what one might call a concrete innovation, it’s not entirely clear exactly when it came to be and how it got there. Also, to be clear, we don’t mean the thing that slows down your car – at least not in this case (although there’s reason to believe that they share a similar etymology). For our purposes, the word can be traced back to pre-automotive times when a large carriage chassis. The idea was that, in order to “break” ornery or otherwise unwieldy horses, a person would attach to them this robust wagon, thereby taming the spirited beasts.
The ‘shooting’ part of the term is much more straightforward. You see, it’s a term of function – a wagonette (AKA a small wagon) that had enough seating for a full team of men, their guns, and their ammunition and was suitable to take out shooting parties. So, placing the word ‘shooting’ before a type of vehicle serves to explain its purpose, much in the same way a race car is a car that races. Or at least it used to explain its purpose back when hunting outings were a more regular thing in the British isles likely during the late 1800s to the early 1900s. In fact, early safari vehicles (which served much the same purpose) were also referred to as ‘shooting brakes.’
Simply put, a ‘shooting brake’ is a wheeled transport – either pulled by horses or propelled under its own power – with enough rear cargo space to fit people and all the equipment needed to go on a hunting trip. Granted, it’s unlikely that a contemporary example of such a vehicle – especially a sporty one – might be used for such a thing now, but that is, in fact, from where the etymology derives.
Evolution Of The Species
If you were or are now aware of any modern shooting brakes, you might be wondering how, exactly, they got from a hunting party transport to the long-cabin sporty sedans or coupes they are today. Thankfully, the evolution can actually be traced to some degree – and with a bit of extrapolation on our part.
We don’t think anyone will disagree that hunting, especially in the leisurely classic English sense, is a rather expensive hobby. Most typically, its a practice of the more well-to-do sect of society. As such, most folks who owned shooting brakes back when they were people- and gear-carrying wagons were fairly rich. So it makes sense that, as motorized vehicles took over the jobs that horse-drawn carriages once held, the term would transfer over to the luxury custom motor vehicles owned by the same upper-crust class of society.
You see, the original vehicular shooting brakes were motorized wagons that had been customized and altered specifically for the purposes of sportsmen and hunters. As vehicles became more refined and hunting declined, the term was thereby applied to custom-built luxury estate cars (we’ll touch on what an estate car is later) – such as those built by Bently or Rolls Royce. As time went by, the term fell back toward the mean and now applies to sedans or coupes with an extended cab and a hatch-bearing rear end.
Shooting Brake Vs. Station Wagon
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “shooting brakes sound an awful lot like station wagons.” And, in truth, you’d be correct. In fact, if you look up shooing brake in the dictionary, it is literally defined as a “station wagon.” So, how does one tell the difference?
Unfortunately, that’s not such an easy problem to tackle, as there technically isn’t a difference between the two. Some might say that station wagons are 4-door whereas shooting brakes feature 2, but there are plenty of shooting brakes over the years that have had 4-doors. You might also hear that station wagons are typically more boxy and family-friendly than shooting brakes. And while that’s generally true and shooting brakes are often much more sleek and sport-focused, it’s not carved in stone as fact. Truly, your best bet to tell the difference between the two is by referring to what the manufacturer and the car world at large calls the vehicle. If “shooting brake” is in the title of the vehicle or is used as a descriptor, that’s what it is.
This is where the term ‘estate car’ comes into play. In case you aren’t familiar, an estate car is pretty indistinguishable from a shooting brake, as well. The purpose of an estate car, originally, was to function much in the same manner as a shooting brake – that is, carrying a hunting party and their gear – but was also refined enough for city travel and transport. Now, however, shooting brakes are pretty exclusively road-going vehicles (albeit most often with a sporty style and performance), so the distinction is null and void. What is a bit helpful, however, is knowing that ‘estate car’ is to ‘station wagon’ what ‘saloon’ is to ‘sedan’ – meaning that the difference is typically that one is British whereas the other is more widely used in the United States.
But what about hatchbacks? Yeah, we know, they also have a lot of the same features as all of the aforementioned vehicle types. The biggest distinction here: hatchbacks tend to be shorter in length and a measure taller, whereas shooting brakes are longer and shorter. Still, there’s definitely an argument to be made that all of the above vehicle types are generally the same. Truth be told, your best indicator is always going to be general consensus and maker designation. You can think of it like burgers at fast food joints. A Bacon Double Cheeseburger at McDonald’s is virtually the exact same thing as a Baconator from Wendy’s (at least in the makeup of their constituent parts), but they both have different names as given to them by their creators. The same goes for these vehicle types, for the most part.
Contemporary Shooting Brake Examples
Much to the chagrin of fans of the vehicle category, shooting brakes are not nearly as popular as they ought to be. That being said, there are still plenty of worthwhile examples that have been recently manufactured and released on the market. Take, for instance, the Ferrari FF (pictured in the hero image of this article). Not only does this vehicle have an incredible pedigree, but the under-the-hood performance – a whopping 651 horsepower rating – elevates it to a class of its own and puts it squarely in the realm of supercar. It’s sleek, it’s fast, and it actually has some room in the back for more than just a carry-on bag.
The 2018 Jaguar XF Sportbrake (pictured above) is another good example – and also serves to illustrate the station wagon vs. shooting brake debacle – boasting a roomy boot, seating for up to 5, and an impressive 380 horsepower produced by the V6 engine under the hood. Sure, it’s not the sleekest and most impressive shooting brake out there, but we’d certainly not label it a station wagon and be done with it.
If we absolutely had to come up with a concrete definition for what a shooting brake is, it would likely be this: a relatively sporty 4-wheeled sedan-style car with above average performance specs, an extended cabin as opposed to a trunk, and the phrase ‘shooting brake’ worked into its name or official description. Sure, that’s a bit wishy-washy, but that’s the best anyone can do with a vehicle category that isn’t widely agreed upon even in the world of cars.
Hypercars vs. Supercars: What’s The Difference?
“Shooting brake” isn’t the most confusing terminology in the car world – not by a long shot. In fact, the distinction between high performance vehicles is arguably more difficult to grasp. We’ve tried to trace the history and explain the debate in our article on the difference between hypercars and supercars.