Were the 1870s the Real ‘Golden Age’?
The magic era for the cataloguing of British sporting shotguns is 1929-1939. For some reason the 1930s have become known as the non plus ultra; the best decade, the ‘Golden Era’ in which the guns we all love were produced. A 1930s Purdey is the ‘best of the best’: easy to sell, highly sought after.
Regular readers may already have pegged me as something of an iconoclast and I hope they will be tempted to read further, because I am about to argue that ‘conventional wisdom’, to use a dreadful modern phrase, has got it wrong. It is the 1870s, not the 1930s that I have gravitated towards over the last few years and not, I would argue, without good reason.
While the wares of the 1930s gun maker offer us sound investments and beautiful shooting companions, they are expensive and not all of us can afford them. However, I do not think we lose out by looking back another half a century for our guns. Indeed, I think we get proportionately more for our investment of time and cash.
However, before I slur the reputation of the greatest decade of sporting gun production, when the British trade was in its pomp in terms of workmanship and organisation and the technical sophistication of the guns was essentially modern, let us examine further why the 1930s ‘Golden Age’ is seen as such. In socio-economic terms it is an oddity from the very start.
The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 saw a ten-year slump in worldwide economic activity and it took World War Two to herald the end of the period of financial misery that enveloped the majority of the populations of modern industrial nations. So, what was going on that makes the 1930s the supposed acme of sporting gun production in the minds of modern collectors? Why not the far more prosperous 1920s, when more people had more money?
Comparing the decades is interesting; Purdey made 300 guns in 1928 but only 100 a year from 1931-1934, reflecting the dismal times, when many of their craftsmen were sent home due to lack of work. Holland & Holland reduced their working week to thirty hours in 1932. These were hard times for gunmakers. To be fair, not every modern commentator insists on the 1930s as the key decade; David Baker has 1900 as the central point of his book ‘Heyday of the Shotgun’, but the market generally perceives the 1930s as the decade from which to buy, if you can afford to.
Here are some considerations that I believe are material in comparing pre-war guns: 1920s guns were likely to get shot quite a lot. Society was busy being social between the wars and shooting parties were in full swing. All the major developments of the modern shotgun were, by then, in place: single triggers, ejectors, bar-action side-locks of conventional ‘stocked to the fences’ form and enough time had elapsed from the initial developments of the successful patterns of each mechanism and form for them to be perfected and established as a norm. British side-locks have not significantly altered from this norm in the subsequent eighty years. The buyer of a 1995 Purdey would have collected essentially the same gun his grandfather could have walked out of Audley House with in 1925.
In comparison, 1930s guns were often shot much less. While being as technically developed as 1920s guns, they had fewer years of use before their owners had to put them away and fight a war. Many owners never returned and many that did found the austere post-war decades too economically difficult to include much formal shooting. Country houses were being demolished at an alarming rate in the face of post-war dilapidation, dropping agricultural profits, socialist tax policies breaking-up landed estates, as well as a lack of servants to run them. In many cases, heirs to the estates were in short supply, having become wartime casualties. Empire was shrinking rapidly into Commonwealth and the old days looked to have gone forever. England was past her best and the decline of the old order, its social trappings and conventions appeared to have consigned the sport of shooting to the dustbin of history.
Perhaps the ‘as new’ condition of many 1930s guns has contributed to their modern popularity. A 1936 Purdey or Holland & Holland with relatively few rounds through the mechanism and little chance for rough treatment ticks all the boxes for the modern buyer. It will safely last three or four more generations of fair use and, if kept in current condition, will be a safe haven for whatever funds are sunk into the purchase. Anyone looking for a modern sidelock or boxlock would do well to buy a 1930s example. It will invariably encapsulate all the modern features desired and the visual style and quality of the gun will be conventional and impressive. They certainly compare favourably with later output. Put a 1939 Churchill ‘Hercules’ best boxlock alongside a 1970s version of the same gun and the 1930s gun stands out in every respect.
So what is my point? Well, we have stuck ourselves with the assumption that everyone wants a best London top-lever, side-lock or boxlock ejector. Maybe they do. I don’t. I have had them and loved them and shot everything with them. Then I sold them. To explain why, I want to drift back in time to unveil the work of a slower age, when men in every sizeable town in England worked at their provincial benches by gas light or sunlight and turned out unique guns by their own hand; all different, all the best the man could deliver for the price paid. A time when individuals had their own ideas about what was going to be useful, effective, admired. Specialists existed in the rabbit-warren gun quarter of Birmingham and the surrounding districts, providing components of wonderful quality and hand-made integrity.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture shows the sophisticated appreciation of fine wood and the shaping, bending and finishing of it into chairs, tables and cabinets, which marked the age. These skills and this knowledge permeated through the gun trade. Quality wood was abundant. It was properly aged, selected for form and function and shaped by hand and eye to flow gracefully from the metal and fit the shooter perfectly in a seemingly effortless balance of shape, weight and proportion.
1870 was the start of an interesting decade. We were five years away from Anson & Deeley showing the world that hammerless guns could be simple, reliable, neat and technically efficient. (As an aside, Bonhams offered for sale the very first Anson & Deeley gun in their December sale. It was once in the collection of Westley Richards but sold off some years ago.) We were three years into the era of the rebounding lock; Stanton and others having shown the way to dispense with the old need to pull the hammers back manually to release the pressure on the strikers.
Breech loading was technically in its seventeenth year in Britain (taking the Great Exhibition of 1851 as the introductory date) but had only really been in the public eye since around 1860. Centre-fire was nine years old, Daw having patented his idea in 1861, but the previous decade had seen pin-fires still very much in demand and competing for space with centre-fire guns (and muzzle loaders) in the order books, because conservative sportsmen were unsure if the new system would prevail.
Breech loaders, of course, were, by 1870, the modern norm for the twenty-year-old sportsman contemplating a new gun on reaching his majority, their having been in circulation for eighteen years of his two decades on earth. The Jones under-lever had been reliably screwing actions to barrels for twelve years and sporting guns had become much faster to operate than users of muzzle-loaders could have imagined a quarter of a century earlier.
The craftsmen who built the beautifully perfected muzzle-loaders of the 1850s were still at the bench and applying their skills, to blend the handling characteristics of their old masterpieces into the new-style guns. To see the evidence of this, pick up a late muzzle loader and feel the perfect symmetry it shows and the natural way it mounts and swings. Richard Arnold in ‘The Shooters Handbook’ asserts that nothing modern compares favourably with the old muzzle loaders and he is not wrong. However, breech-loaders are what we require today, so let us move on and consider a late 1860s or early 1870s hammer gun. It will very likely resemble the muzzle-loader in shape, proportion and handling.
Shotguns in 1870 could do everything we need them to do. Shotguns from that decade still do. What is more, they have character. Character matters. At least, it matters to me. Now, of course, in 1870 we did not have a homogenous level of output countrywide. Guns took time to build and many delivered in the early 1870s were built on 1860s patents and mechanisms. We have to remember that lots of patents were being registered every year but adoption of them was not instant, as it is in these days of key-pad communication. It took time. This makes it an interesting decade to consider, as guns made then can be typical of their time, behind the times or anticipating trends that would later dominate.
1870s guns are individual, many are one-offs. Each one has a character. The collector of 1870s guns also has more to choose from because there was never a time when more makers were making centre-fire guns themselves, rather than ordering off-the shelf guns from Birmingham with their own names added to locks and barrels. An 1870 Pape is a real Pape, a 1900 Pape was largely a product of Birmingham, built on the generic Rodgers’ action, or the Anson & Deeley, and indistinguishable from an Army & Navy or William Evans gun of the same period and grade.
1865 saw the combination of the Purdey double under-bolt with the Scott spindle and top-lever. By 1880 this was in general use across the trade. Greener lever work was a variation used on all Greener guns and adopted by the trade for cheaper guns due to its ease of manufacture, being set behind the action body rather than drilled through it. Westley Richards persevered with their own lever-work, again a variant, more complex and less efficient ergonomically than Scott’s spindle but something of a trademark. Less resilient operating systems, like the Thomas patent top-lever bolting system and the Jones under-lever, work surprisingly well. The former is theoretically weaker than conventional bolting and the latter is slower, being inert. Does one need to worry about it? Not in my opinion.
The 1870s production model for most makers, most of the time, was the hammer gun. Bar action, back action and wood-bar models vied for favour. Top-levers, side-levers and under-levers were options and weight, proportion and balance were established. Damascus tubes from English suppliers and from Belgium were available and quality was high. Gunmakers were established as tradesmen and apprenticeships were the major form of entry. Once trained and productive, the norm was for a gun maker to continue working at the bench for the rest of his life.
Labour was cheap, time was available and standards were high. No monumental political or international events interfered with production, supply of materials or workforce and demand for guns was good throughout the trade. Business was booming. Birmingham had become rich on the supply of weapons to both sides in the American War of Northern Aggression and empire continued to supply orders for sporting guns of all types.
So, what is the archetype of the British sporting gun in the 1870s? Form will vary from maker to maker but hammers will generally be higher and more elaborate than later guns. Hammer shapes in the 1880s became more generic and less ornate, as components were supplied from Birmingham to set types, individual variations becoming minor. Hammer noses will be more elaborate. Many retain the recessed nose shape from percussion cap days, designed to prevent copper splinters reaching the eyes of the sportsman. Some will have fluted or squared off noses, others are dolphin shaped or serpentine.
Fences also often retain the beautifully carved and recessed striker borders, sometimes known as shell fences, again a hangover from percussion detonation (hence the term ‘detonating’ used by some firms to describe fences to this day). When one examines the quality, symmetry and flawless nature of this filing and finishing and the crude tools used to perform the work, it is hard not to admire and wonder at the time and skill involved in producing such shapes. Modern sidelocks by comparison look somewhat bland and straightforward, at least to me.
These were pre-choke days; remember choke was patented in England in 1866 by W.R Pape and did not gain wide acceptance until after W.W Greener proved its effectiveness in the 1875 trials hosted by J.H Walsh and his influential magazine, The Field. Barrels were bored by experience rather than science. Barrel makers and borers applied their art to good effect at the pattern plate to produce guns throwing extraordinarily even patters of a chosen load at a given distance, despite the handicap of rolled-turnover cartridges. It was a time consuming and skilled business. I like to check the undersides of the tubes on any guns I take in, to find the small stamped impression of the barrel maker which indicates the man responsible with two discrete initials.
Many of these men today are forgotten but those initials stand testament to their work and their contribution as strongly as they did on the day they were struck. Ribs of damascus steel were soldered with flux and tin to the tubes and struck-up flawlessly. I use the rib as a clear indication of original quality when assessing a gun. The best are without deviation, with straight sides and sharp and unblemished smoothness on the surfaces. Gutters are invisibly seamed and the rib blends into the tube faultlessly all along the join.
Engraving on guns of this period is most unlike that favoured today. Small rose and scroll had not yet become firmly established as the norm and high quality guns with minimal border and large scroll engraving vied with others of full coverage scrolls for favour. Clearly some still appreciated the seamless fit of metal-to-metal and wood-to-metal and did not need elaborate engraving to add further embellishment. The quality was already clearly apparent to the discerning eye. It still is. Interestingly, game and dog scenes were already emerging on gun locks and they range from the crude, to the comic, to the characterful.
To illustrate some of the attributes of 1870s guns, we shall now examine some examples that recently passed through my hands. They represent what I believe to be fantastic value in today’s market. They are still perfectly adapted for shooting game birds and remain in amazing condition for their age. Each one represents something slightly different and each, in its own way, is typical of the period. They represent fantastic quality for the money they cost and a fascinating history accompanies many of these guns. Such histories add enormously to the pleasure of ownership, at least I think so.
A bridge from pin-fire to centre-fire.
This is a John Blanch & Son 12-bore hammer gun, circa 1868. It carries serial number 3935 and started life as a pinfire, clearly shown by the plugged holes in the top of the breech ends. The proof marks show it was tested for 3 drams of black powder and 1 1/8 oz of shot. It has tight bores of .719, which is very common on Victorian shotguns. The re-proof was carried out in 1977. A good number of guns were converted like this one. It is not difficult to understand why. Having paid good money for a fine gun, only to find that ten years later everyone was using different ammunition must have been galling to say the least.
Plenty of talented gun makers were available with their patent remedies for your problem. Take off the pinfire hammers, replace them with centre-fire hammers, weld closed or dovetail a patch to seal the pin-fire holes on the top of the barrels, drill a channel through the action from fences to breech face and insert strikers, screw-in retainers and off you go; you now have a centre-fire gun.
Aesthetically the new centre-fire guns looked very much like pin-fires, so you would not look out of place in company and would have saved a lot of money. This idea of conversion was nothing new to the sportsman of the era. Many had, within living memory, converted flintlocks to percussion-cap ignition and muzzle-loaders had been converted to breech-loader; gunmakers like Thomas Sylvan of the Strand making a speciality of this business and patenting some clever ideas for adding extractors and other necessities to the guns they converted.
The Blanch in question is a delightfully balanced and finished gun. Like many pinfires, the breech ends are relatively thin in the walls; far thinner than a modern breechloader. Perhaps this is the reason this particular gun has never been subjected to nitro proof. I wonder if it would pass. Actually, I’m considering putting it through but I may just leave the old girl as she is and shoot black powder loads, which are fun anyway.
A centre-fire gun resembling a pin-fire
This is a Westley Richards 10-bore hammer gun made in 1877. Serial number 12806 has 30-inch damascus barrels with 2 5/8-inch chambers and is bored true cylinder in both muzzles. The frame, non-rebounding bar locks, pinfire-type hammers and rotary under-lever are covered with fine scroll engraving within finely detailed borders. Metal parts retain virtually all of their original hardening colour. The 14-inch highly figured stock, with engraved steel butt plate, looks re-finished, but isn’t, and it weighs 10lb. 7oz.
This gun appeared at Gavin Gardiner’s sale in August and represents an interesting moment in time reflecting the transition from pin-fire to centre-fire. As with many novel ideas, the new style looks ‘wrong’ to the conservative eye and therefore is disguised as something more conventional. Some guns of this type have dual acting hammers; noses striking the pin-holes and breasts striking removable strikers, when inserted. This allowed for both pin-fire and centre-fire ammunition to be used if necessary. It highlights the interesting developments going on in the 1870s and exemplifies just one oddity out of many that will be encountered.
Since this gun could be used with either pin-fire or centre-fire ammunition, later conversion was unnecessary and it remains in remarkable condition for its age. It was not surprising to see it make a strong £8,500 when it sold at Gleneagles. Here, original quality and current condition overcame the fact that it was a heavy 10-bore of odd proportions and features. It is certainly a very interesting gun and a very good addition to somebody’s collection.
An inert operating gun of best quality, with some interesting history.
Our next gun is a Stephen Grant 12-bore hammer gun, made in 1871. Serial number 3098, still carries its original black powder proof marks, under the London 1868 rules. Barrels carry the stamp ‘HW’ for the barrel maker and are best damascus and 30” long. The proof size ‘12’ shows the original bores were .729”. It is now seven thousandths of an inch larger, making it still ‘in proof’.
This particular gun is special to me. Having taken control of Atkin, Grant & Lang in August 2010, I felt, as Managing Director, that I should be seen in the field with a gun of the firm’s manufacture. I am lucky to have Atkin, Grant or Lang’s products as options, as all three were purveyors of ‘best’ London game guns during my favourite era. Being awkward, rather than taking a sidelock ejector from stock, I decided to refurbish this old hammer gun, which emerged from the collection of an old shooting friend and was ripe for renovation.
The gun is typical in style for a Grant hammer gun of the early 1870s. Stephen Grant was a conservative gun maker, as evidenced by his legacy of ‘best’ guns from the time he was managing director of Boss & Co, and from his own early guns. He stuck to what he trusted rather than grasp the ‘new big idea’ and concentrated on making proven designs to the highest quality. His decorative style is of very best fit and finish but with fine, restrained engraving. The lettering is a simple ‘S. GRANT’ on the locks, barely visible. How different from the quarter inch high gold-inlaid statements of various makers, shouting “London England’ to everyone within 20 paces, which began to dominate best gun output once newly wealthy Americans and Greeks started to overtake the British landed classes as customers. This Grant looks ordinary to the uneducated eye, just like any other gun. Only close inspection by the knowledgeable reveals the beautiful attention to detail that has been put into its construction and finish.
Rebounding locks emerged around 1867, the year Grant set up his own business, but were not immediately universal and this 1871 gun has the original Stanton non-rebounders of beautiful quality. Converting them to a rebound system is not too difficult and I am as yet undecided as to whether I will order it done. I probably won’t. The action was almost certainly filed by E.C Hodges and conforms to his 1866 patent. Fences are perfectly filed and delicately carved, yet still restrained and tasteful.
The combination of Purdey bolt and Scott spindle was well known after 1865 but, like many gunmakers of the period, Grant built this gun with the Jones under-lever and screw-grip, patented in 1858. It is a very secure system; simple, uncomplicated and reliable. It is just a bit slow. For me this is no problem, I have been shooting driven pheasants with a Jones under-lever equipped gun for years and don’t even realise it is slow anymore!
Another thing I love about guns of this vintage is the history so often attached to them. Silver or gold ovals on the stock normally bear a simple crest or initials. However, this one bears an inscription: Presented by General Bright to Dr Hassard. I was curious as to whom the two names might belong. Being in the fortunate position of having the company records in the office next to mine, I spent a few minutes digging through the Stephen Grant ledger for 1871. I noted that the order for number 3098 was for a Dr Hassard but nothing more was to be found except the dimensions of the gun, which are the same as the present ones: 30” barrels, 6lb 12oz, 14” stock.
However, my Friend Bill Pink of Historic Arms & Militaria was able to tell me that the life of Surgeon General Henry Bolton Hassard, CB is well documented. An entry in the London Gazette on April 4th 1871 records an event which may well be the reason for the presentation of the gun to the Doctor. It reads: ‘19th Foot, Surgeon Henry Bolton Hassard having completed twenty years’ full-pay service, to be (promoted to) Surgeon-Major, under the provisions of the Royal Warrant of 27th December 1870.‘ It could well be that the shotgun presentation was to mark this occasion of Dr Hassard’s promotion to Surgeon-Major. He was serving in India with General Bright at the time.
Dr Hassard appears frequently in articles in the British Medical Journal: 1881 saw him gazetted as Commander of the Bath for his service in the Afghan campaign, October 1884 records his departure from India, now ranked as Deputy Surgeon-General and in November of that year he was appointed Principal Medical Officer to the forces in Ireland. Dr Hassard was promoted to Surgeon-General in January 1885 and retired in 1889. He died at home in July 1892 and the British Medical Journal recorded in September of that year:
‘The death is announced of Surgeon-General H. B. Hassard, C.B., on July 2nd last. He was appointed Assistant-Surgeon March 14th, 1851; Surgeon January 26th, 1853; Surgeon-Major March 14th, 1871; Deputy Surgeon-General February 13th, 1879; and Surgeon-General November 20th, 1884. He quitted the service on retired pay November 29th, 1888. He served in the Kaffir war, 1851-53; horse shot in Waterkloof (medal); also in the Hazara campaign of 1868. including the expedition against the tribes in the Black Mountain (medal with clasp); and in the Afghan war,1879-80, with the Cabul Field Force (C.B., medal). Previous to retirement he filled the position of Principal Medical Officer in Ireland. He was nominated a Companion of the Order of the Bath February 22nd, 1881, and was awarded a reward for distinguished and meritorious service in 1888.’
General Bright, the presenter of the gun, was General Sir Robert Onesiphorous Bright KCB, of the Green Howards. In 1868 he had been with Dr Hassard, commanding the 1st Brigade Hazara Field Force during the Black Mountain Campaign. In 1871 he was posted to Brigade command in India. He may well have campaigned again with Dr Hassard in the 2nd Afghan War of 1879-1880. Certainly, their careers, largely in India, were concurrent. Bright was a decorated career soldier of note and fought with distinction in Crimea, India and Afghanistan. He died in 1896, in Surrey.
Since the day it was presented to Dr Hassard, the gun has seen relatively little use. The barrels still show over 30 thou of wall thickness, the bores are not seriously enlarged and are free from pitting. They have never been subjected to nitro proof, so I thought it time they were. First, the chambers had to be lengthened to 2 3/4” to accept the 70mm shell cases in general use these days. This would make foreign trips easier, as 65mm ammunition is hard to find in Africa. The standard proof load for both chamber lengths is now the same but lengthening the chamber is necessary. Once the proof work had been carried out we could start on the cosmetics. Always do the re-proof first, as if the gun fails, you have not wasted time and money on other work.
We also had some remedial work to carry out on the gun’s ancient repairs: the hammer spurs had been filed off and replacements welded on, then the hammers had been blacked, as had the under-lever. The blacking had to go, it is a horrible practice and it bemuses me why, so often, one finds guns so disfigured. It is a lazy mask for a poor repair. There were two possible remedies to the hammer problem. I could try and find new hammers from a scrap gun or make the best of these ones. I thought it unlikely, but actually did find a pair of hammers in our spare parts bin that would fit and were of the appropriate style and shape. They needed some filing and engraving, as they were a little corroded but they fitted the bill nicely.
The stock was too short for me and the finish was a little glossy and not to my taste, having been re-done some thirty years ago by someone in a hurry to sell the gun. I decided to strip it off, add some colour with red oil and re-finish it myself. Many clients these days demand a very shiny, hard finish like Tru-oil. I don’t like it, especially on renovated guns. I prefer a traditional oil finish, which is softer, more resilient and gives a warmer feel to the wood. It also takes longer to do. The figure was good enough to make the effort worthwhile.
I make up the formula myself from carnuba wax, raw linseed oil and terebine driers, with a little beeswax melted into the concoction and simmered for 10 minutes. The oil seems to need a year to mature before it works really well. Fresh oil never behaves quite properly in my experience. I also believe that too many people overlook the value of red oil in the preparation of re-finishes. It provides the depth and warmth that walnut can develop and without it stocks look insipid, however well the top finish is applied.
For length, I considered a leather-covered rubber pad. I generally use horn if adding 1/4” but a longer addition works best, in my opinion, if done with a pad. You can do 3/4” quite nicely this way. I decided that 14 5/8” would be good enough but I decided to use horn on this occasion. I keep the butt sole straight and do not want excessive toe. This way, you get no slippage. Chequered horn allows for a nice, secure footprint. This gun was for me so I could go with my instincts on this occasion and break from the norm. I do not suffer from recoil and value a good purchase in the shoulder over a soft contact point.
Having uncovered so much of the gun’s history and put it back into daily working condition, all its fine features once again functioning and looking their best, I was thrilled to take the gun back into my cabinet of ‘shooters’.
A snap action game gun approaching perfection of operation.
This is a Frederick T. Baker 12-bore hammer gun made in 1875, serial number 2868. It was originally made as a 13-bore, which is .710” with 12-bore chambers. Bores now measure .715 and the flats show London nitro re-proof for 2 1/2” shells. Chokes are cylinder in both barrels. While on the subject of choke in old guns: forget about it. Experiment with cartridges and your cylinder-bored guns will kill cleanly out to ranges far exceeding what most shooters would expect. I shoot everything with three points of choke in the right and seven in the left of my old J. Thompson. It works.
The Baker helpfully bears the date of manufacture in Roman numerals on the trigger guard, so deducing age is not a problem. This is not an uncommon feature on Baker guns. Another nice touch is the maker’s trade mark of intertwined ‘FTB’ in gothic script on the underside of the bar.
The top-lever system looks modern and operates naturally but is stamped ‘H Walker’s patent 1507’. I can find no reference to this but the locking mechanism involves a projection on the rear lump, which is covered by a snap-action bolt emerging from the lower section of the standing breach. It locks up nice and tight with a secure snap when the gun is closed. The gun weighs 7lb 3oz and is very nicely balanced, Quality is first rate and this example is in very original condition, save for a re-finish to the stock, which was not up to standard, so I put that right during the early autumn with my usual remedy of plenty of red oil, then scores of coats of finishing oil, built up over several weeks.
The Baker demonstrates nicely the direction in which sporting guns were heading by 1875. It features a snap-action top-lever but without the Scott spindle and Purdey bolt. Locking is by means of a projecting bolt from the breech face. The locks on this gun are rebounding, making loading faster. Hammers, in the style of the era are still high in comparison with hammer guns of the 1880s and later. Much is made by some commentators of hammers that are ‘out of the line of sight’. This is irrelevant practically, as the sight picture down the rib is between the hammers; so they could be six inches high without getting in the way. Actually, I feel that one reason I shoot better with ‘high hammer’ guns is that the left hammer stops my eye being drawn to the left side of the barrels, which it has a tendency to do when I shoot hammerless guns. It may be a fanciful idea but I don’t discount it.
Typical of the era, the Baker’s beautifully figured, straight-hand stock has a deep butt sole and a full length, engraved butt-plate in steel to finish it off. This is another hangover from muzzle loading days when the butt would be rested on the floor for loading. Once breech loading became fully established, the metal plate became redundant and chequered butts became the norm, though some guns retained heel and toe plates, to protect those fragile areas. The Baker would be a ‘keeper’ except that it has a little too much drop for me, and the fact that I have too many guns already and can’t keep them all!
The examples discussed above illustrate some of the quality and some of the key issues being resolved through patent, evolution and experimentation in the gun trade at the time. From a collecting point of view, the 1868-1880 period offers far more than other periods because each maker produced distinctive breach-loading guns on his own premises and the styles are as recognisable as they are varied. Thomas Horsley of York is a good example of this distinctive style. By 1900 his guns had become generic Webley produced boxlocks and sidelocks. In the 1870s his hammer guns carried his own stylistic preferences as well as his own patents: high hammers with spurs to activate the self-retracting strikers and his famous sliding top-lever activating the locking bolt, all beautifully shaped and moulded to the distinctively contoured and finished stocks.
Collecting is one consideration and appreciation of workmanship and acknowledgement of design and development is an interesting part of the process. However, these are guns and they are made to be shot. Most of my clients and friends love their guns from both the artistic and aesthetic angles but they also love shooting and want their guns to be up to the job. I always maintain that a pretty gun is just an object. A pretty gun that shoots beautifully is a treasure to be cherished. The 1870s sportsman was no fool. He understood his guns, had probably shot all his life and knew what he wanted. The 1870s gunsmith had the pedigree to supply just such a thing.
I do not believe fine guns should be left on the wall or locked away to be brought out for admiration from time to time. On a recent trip to South Africa to shoot spurfowl, geese and guineas I packed my 1870 J. Thompson 12-bore. I am no clay shooter but while there, I managed to win a clay shooting competition against the locals on their own sporting layout. They laughed when I un-slipped the old girl but they weren’t laughing when we added up the totals.
What are the practical disadvantages of using a Jones under-lever hammer gun against modern equivalents? I believe there are none. In South Africa we rose at dawn to head out for the long grass. Bird-dog handler Andre Du Toit and his German short-haired pointers did a fantastic job of flushing the Swenson’s spur fowl, francolin and guinea fowl. The Thompson swung straight, easy and true and down came the birds. An ounce of number 7 and ranges from 20 yards to fifty yards saw birds in the bag almost every time. The even patterns from the improved cylinder muzzles even bagged twenty one ducks and geese for twenty eight shots at one evening flight.
On doves over the sunflower fields, I shot between ninety and a hundred and twenty birds a day with a strike rate of close to eighty five percent despite the strong winds and fast, wily late season birds. The gun mounts and swings much faster than my peers’ Brownings and I got off my shots with speed and composure regardless of angle and approach. On the day, I had the best tool for the job and dove after dove crashed into the stubble to prove it. True, the inert under-lever action is a little slower to load, not helped by the lack of ejectors but this was no real disadvantage.
On a practical note, 1870s hammer guns need careful appraisal to ensure they are fit for use today. As with all guns, original quality and current condition are the key factors to start your evaluation with. These will be crucial factors in assessing the price to pay. You will pay extra for a well known name but will not suffer a loss of quality by choosing wisely from less renowned ones. Some of the very finest hammer guns and boxlocks I have seen bore the names of lesser known gunmakers like Thomas Jackson, Thomas Horsley, Frederick Baker, William Ford, Morrow and W.S Riley.
The reason some of these firms are largely unappreciated today is that they operated for the lifetime of the founder, or perhaps that of his son as well, then, like many businesses were sold and vanished. We know mostly about the gun-making dynasties like Greener, Purdey, Holland & Holland and firms like Stephen Grant and Henry Atkin or E.J Churchill, who are still making guns today. I especially like finding exceptional guns by unheralded makers from my favourite period. They can be brilliant value as you are paying nothing for the name, just for the quality and condition.
Once quality is established, it is important to also establish the proof status of the gun. Many guns of the period will have been proved for black powder only. Measure the bores to match the numbers with the original dimensions stamped on the flats. If they measure within ten thousandths of an inch of these, they are within proof. Next get some chamber gauges inserted and see if they have been elongated as this will render them out of proof unless they have subsequently re-proofed. I recently bought a neglected old H. Holland hammer gun for £100 to restore and was un-surprised to note the chambers were now
2 3/4” but the proof marks only for 2 1/2”. The gun was therefore illegal to sell until it had been submitted for nitro proof for 70mm chambers, which it now has.
Wall thickness is important, as it will tell you the amount of life left in the gun; not because you are going to shoot the walls thinner (you won’t) but because you have less scope for future removal of dents or for lapping out rust. It would be too obvious to point out that it is better not to dent your barrels or let them go rusty but I have done so now! Damascus barrels could be very thick when originally made. The Baker gun described above arrived with a minimum wall thickness of 50 thou’ but they will continue to perform faultlessly even when reduced to the high teens in the last third. Don’t pay too much for a thin walled gun but don’t be afraid of it either; it could be your way to shooting a classy gun without paying more than you can afford.
Most guns will have undergone some lapping and it is useful to establish where they are thinnest and if the thin spots are going to be a practical issue or just one affecting retail value. At a recent auction, I measured the barrels of two hammer guns on sale to find they were down to 13 thou, despite having recent proof marks. Remember that proof does not include any consideration of wall thickness. Generally speaking, clean barrels thin in the last third will still give good service and can be bought relatively cheaply; but 13 thou is pushing it a bit far, to say the least.
Look for pits and pay special attention to those facing the rib, between seven o’clock and 11 o’clock as you look down from the breech end, as this is a section of wall that cannot be measured. Check that the barrels ring true and the ribs and loop are sound. Finally, don’t forget to look into the chamber walls for pitting while you are about it.
If the gun has been re-proved, check for any changes from original; many will have had chambers extended and bear re-proof marks for longer shells and nitro powders. This makes them more practical, especially when travelling to countries where ammunition availability may be limited.
Don’t be afraid of the exotic or unusual. I find these features a particular delight and shooting in company is always fun if your gun is very different in appearance. Self-retracting strikers, grip safety bars on the bottom strap, loaded indicators, lift-up top-levers; all these features are examples of the struggle for perfection being fought by really inventive and creative gunmakers at the height of their powers. Many of the guns were made from paper drawings or from none at all, many are unique and a surprising number of them function and handle as beautifully as any gun you are likely to pick up.
Personally, I like the 1870s hammer guns much better than the hammerless designs which then abounded, in often experimental form, but many of which never saw widespread acceptance. These clumsy hammerless guns, which followed on from Murcott’s 1871 ‘mousetrap’ make it easy to understand why many sportsmen hung on to the elegant hammer guns, which traced their blood lines through 200 years of percussion gun to have reached their zenith by 1875. At this time, hammerless guns were spotty teenagers by comparison, yet to grow into their looks and shed their puppy fat.
However, as a collector, the era offers some very interesting and unusual guns, which can be bought for relatively little money due to their unlovely appearance. Look closer though: some odd looking hammerless guns can be beautifully made and exhibit gun making skills of the very highest order. Many will have been made in tiny numbers and some will be unique. This can be a fascinating area to base a collection around, as the closer you look into bizarre designs, the more interesting and attractive they become and the more pleasure you can get from shooting with them, especially as you begin to uncover their history.
Their history, of course, can be traced back to the emergence of centre-fire hammer guns, which began to replace pin-fires as the breech loader of choice during the 1860s. One such gun came into my possession recently, from the back rooms of Atkin, Grant & Lang. It was dusty and overlooked but embodies some very important milestones on the road to perfection of the hammer game gun. The gun is question is a 12-bore made in 1863 by Joseph Lang, then of Cockspur Street.
Lang had visited the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in London and had taken his cue from Casimir Lefaucheaux’s ‘French crutch gun’ to embark on a journey which culminated with a workable and strong breech-loader; one he could confidently offer to the British public without ruining his reputation. The locking system Lang settled on was a forward facing lever, like the Lefaucheaux but with a screw-grip action like the Henry Jones. It works. The gun is well balanced and light, at 6lb 12oz, it is easy to open and close and pleasant to shoot.
Originally a pin-fire, made in October 1863, this particular back-action hammer gun was converted to centre-fire early in its life. The hammers are well shaped and engraved and the conversion was undertaken with care. Only the original proof marks show on the tubes. It is a credit to Joseph Lang’s vision that the gun still seems so instinctive to use and shoot and to his courage that he pressed his vision onto the sporting public of the day.
This was the first successful breech-loader made by a British maker in any quantity and it opened the floodgates. Previous attempts, like the slide-and-tilt Lancaster, were secure but slow and inconvenient. The Lefaucheaux was weak. In 1865, Lang announced to the world, via the Sporting Gazette, that he had a breech-loader, “…on an entirely new principle, the simplest and quickest ever offered to the public. It combines strength and durability.” Indeed it does. I took mine partridge shooting in Suffolk on October 6th 2010, almost exactly 147 years to the day that it left Lang’s Cockspur Street shop in the hands of the original owner; a Captain Dundas, according to the records.
This is almost certainly Captain James Dundas, V.C, eldest son of George Dundas, a Judge in the Court of Session in Scotland. James was born on 12th September 1842 and educated at Edinburgh Academy and Addiscombe. In 1860 he was appointed Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers (Bengal). In 1865 he served in the Bhutan expedition and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
His citation for the V.C reads: ‘For gallant conduct at the attack on the blockhouse at Dewan-Giri, in Bhootan on 30 April 1865. Major General Tombs, VC, CB, the officer in command at the time, reports that a party of the enemy, from 180 to 200 in number, had barricaded themselves in the blockhouse in question, which they continued to defend after the rest of the position had been carried, and the main body was in retreat. The blockhouse, which was loopholed, was the key of the enemy’s position. Seeing no officer of the storming party near him, and being anxious that the place should be taken immediately, as any protracted resistance might have caused the main body of the Bhooteas to rally, the British force having been fighting in a broiling sun on a very steep and diff cult ground for upwards of three hours, the General in command ordered these two officers [Lt Dundas and Lt Trevor ] to show the way into the blockhouse. They had to climb a wall which was 14 feet high, and then to enter a house occupied by some 200 desperate men, head foremost through an opening not more than two feet wide between the top of the wall and the roof of the blockhouse. Major General Tombs states that on speaking to Sikh soldiers around him, and telling them in Hindoostani to swarm up the wall, none of them responded to the call until these two officers had shown the way, when they followed with the greatest alacrity. Both of them [Lt Dundas and Lt Trevor] were wounded.’
Dundas was also with the Field Force to Kabul in 1879 and was killed near Sherpur on 23rd December, when one of the mines he was laying to blow open an enemy fort exploded prematurely. It is interesting to note the co-incidence of the Afghan campaign linking Captain Dundas, General Bright, Dr Hassard, the Lang and the Grant guns.
On October 6th 2010, almost 147 years to the week that the gun left the Cockspur Street shop, I took it partridge shooting in Suffolk. The first bird that headed my way folded with a ‘crump’ of black powder and, as the smoke drifted in the still air, the next Frenchman to break cover did likewise. We accounted for a few birds did the old Lang and I on that drizzly day behind the tall hedges.
I smiled a lot without really knowing why, but I like to think that the ghost of Captain Dundas approves. The gun was the catalyst for my new-found acknowledgement of his long-past heroism. The link running through the story from his choice of gun from the founder of my firm, to me resurrecting it on this day was seemly, fitting and touching. How would the Captain have rated the chances, had Mr Lang told him, as he handed it over, that the proprietor of Lang’s would be shooting partridges with this very gun in 2010?
These 1870s hammer guns not only provide the finest workmanship of the finest gunmakers working at the bench, perhaps ever. The era also offers us an excuse to investigate the thrilling and compelling histories of many of those linked with the guns; for the mid-Victorian period is one that is truly fascinating to anybody interested in politics, adventure and firearms.