HE was, without question, Top Gun - the greatest game shot Britain has ever produced.

Lord Ripon, never a man to hide his light under a bushel, kept records to prove it.

From 1867, until he dropped dead in the heather after a successful day's grouse shooting in 1923, meticulously inscribed game books record that he accounted for a staggering 556, 813 head.

Pheasants were his prime target - he downed no fewer than 229, 976 at his Yorkshire estate of Studley Royal and other leading estates between 1867 and 1895 alone.

Over 46 years, he also bagged 97,503 grouse, 11,258 partridges, 2454 woodcock, 2882 snipe, 3452 wild duck, 30,280 hares, 34,118 rabbits, and 382 red deer.

Little that came in the sights of his trusty 12-bores - he took three guns with him, rather than two - escaped. An entry for 1886, for instance, during a tour of Spain, records: ''Green woodpecker, hard to kill.''

An entry made during an 1876 visit to Egypt recalls: ''Brought back 44 varieties for stuffing.''

At Croxteth in Lancashire, in 1883, he claimed the incredible record of 2105 game from 2800 shots over three days, and at Lambton, on November 25, he bagged his best ever pheasant haul - 894.

Nor was the noble Lord - Earl de Grey before succeeding his father as 2nd Marquis of Ripon, in 1909 - averse to a spot of bragging.

The entry for August 30, 1887, states baldly: ''328 grouse; next highest 79. Wind puzzled others.''

Now, one of the prized shotguns of the man who once killed 28 birds in a minute has surfaced at auction.

The 12-bore hammer ejector gun with walnut stock, made in 1895 by James Purdey & Sons, is expected to fetch as much as #30,000 at a Sotheby's sale at Gleneagles in Perthshire, on August 30.

Lord Ripon gave the gun to one of his gamekeepers and it left the family in 1985, when his son sold it.

It is sold with a 1905 game book - a page of which opened at random provides more evidence of Lord Ripon's voracious appetite for shooting.

The entry for December 6, reveals that at Hutton Moor, he and a small party of friends bagged, in that single day, 1073 pheasants, 65 hares, 38 rabbits, and 16 partridges.

Nowadays, it would be considered bad form to record and compare one's personal performance with that of other guns, especially in such meticulous detail. But in Victorian England it was perfectly correct to keep score, and the claims of individual guns were balanced against returns at the end of each drive.

It is clear that his phenomenal success cannot be attributed to favouritism in the placing of guns. Nor can it solely be attributed to the fact that he had three guns and two loaders. He had an amazing eye and lightning reflexes - although it was sometimes said that he shot birds from the line of fire of other guns.

Lord Ripon, who was married to society beauty Gladys Lonsdale and was a close friend of George V, maintained his extraordinary shooting skills to the end, dying with gun in hand at Dallowgill Moor, near Ripon, aged 71, in 1923, after a drive in which he had bagged 51 grouse.

Lord Ripon achieved his incredible ''bag'', not only because of his ability, but because he was invited to shoot regularly on the very best-stocked estates at a time when game abounded.

The Duke of Portland said Lord Ripon had ''an extraordinary eye'', and another shooting pal, Lord Walsingham, wrote of how he and Ripon, shooting pheasants at Studley Royal, ''took alternate birds by mutual agreement''.

On one occasion, they killed 98 birds between them - having fired 50 shots each.

Highly-drilled loaders ensured that not a moment's valuable shooting time was lost.

But his speed sometimes caused problems. A gamebook entry dated December 18, 1885, reveals: ''Blew top off No 1 gun with No 3.''

Sometimes, however, he fell short of his own high standards.

November 19, 1907: ''404. Shot alright but could not keep up rapidity of firing.''