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GUN ACTIONS

There follows a basic introduction to the guns which shaped our sport. We begin in 1853 with the genesis of the centre-fire concept as applied to the still relatively new breed of breech-loading guns. We will conclude with a look at the modern British over & under guns currently on offer.

The Lancaster Base-fire

Introduced in 1853.

Type: Back-action hammer gun

Cocking System: Manually cocked external hammers

Bolting System: ’Slide & Drop’ system with locking lug on the lump engaging the standing breech. Operated by an inert rotary under-lever acting on the lump.

The Lancaster base fire gun was less remarkable in its outward appearance and mechanics than in the ammunition designed for use with it and its means by which detonation was achieved. Externally is resembles a conventional back-action hammer gun with upright hammers of ‘hare’s ear’ form, the breasts of which connect with strikers, which in turn emerge from the breech face to detonate a centre-fire cartridge very similar to those used today.

To the eye of the sportsman at the time however, it would have looked unusual for this very reason; the pin fire arrangement with hammers falling onto the upward-facing projecting pins being the norm. The under-lever operation differed from both the Lefaucheux (forward facing under-lever) and the Dougall ‘Lockfast’ (side-lever), though the ‘slide & drop’ action would have been familiar.

The ammunition Lancaster provided for use with the gun resembled a modern shotgun cartridge case, except that the base contained a copper-covered disc with four piercings. On this disc was a detonating compound that ignited upon the impact of the blunt firing pin, the resultant flame reaching through the pierced disc to ignite the powder charge.

The Lancaster base-fire gun did not achieve the success it perhaps deserved. At least part of the reason for this was the fact that only Lancaster retailed ammunition for the gun, a fact which many sportsmen apparently found inconvenient or suspicious. This monopoly ultimately proved counter-productive, though the principles of the centre-fire system certainly bettered those of the pinfire then in general use, as would be proven within a few years. I have never seen a Lancaster base fire cartridge and if any reader has one, I would very much like to see it.

Pinfire guns maintained their predominance after the demise of the Lancaster base-fire and it was almost ten years before another design challenged it seriously. The design in question was that of another London gunmaker, G. Daw, of Threadneedle Street, in the City, who patented improvements on those of Schneider in 1862 and offered for sale the first successful centre-fire shotgun, one that this time would truly catch the attention of the public.

Daw, like Lancaster before him, sought to restrict the use of his gun and his cartridge to his own firm. However, the ammunition manufacturers Eley Brothers successfully challenged him in court, thereby opening up the usage and development of guns on the centre-fire principle to all others. The shooting world would never look back and to date nobody has radically improved upon the centre-fire principle, though ammunition has become more diverse and refined over the decades.

 

The Daw Centre-fire Gun

Introduced in 1861

Type: Back-action sidelock hammer gun

Cocking System: Manually cocked external hammers

Bolting System: Snap-action under-lever engaging bites in the lump.

As with the Lancaster base-fire before it, the Daw centre fire gun was not outwardly revolutionary. In most respects it was a normal back action hammer gun with a lever over the trigger guard which, when pressed forward, operated an under-lump bolting system. The hammers however, fell, not onto the then conventional pinfire pins standing proud of the breech end of the barrels, but onto strikers, which entered the action at the fence and emerged from the standing breech face to strike a centre-fire cartridge, essentially of the modern form.

After Daw introduced his centre fire gun, which was widely adopted and modified, the gun in general use, as offered by all the top British gunmakers, became the centre fire hammer gun, either of back-action or bar-action form. (It is interesting to note that during all the transitional periods from one type of action to another, traditionalists held back from progress. One encounters disguised centre-fire guns from this period with hammers that reach over to the top of the breech in the pin fire style; the breasts of the hammers invisibly connecting with the centre-fire strikers. In later years, one finds hammerless guns with dummy hammers and boxlocks and trigger-plate guns with dummy side plates).

Hammer guns of the period vary in the type of mechanism adopted to open and close them, in the locking systems holding the breech end of the barrels tight to the face of the standing breech and in the shape and proportion of the hammers employed to connect with the strikers.

During this era of undisputed hammer gun supremacy, a number of important patents were introduced, many of which were to find a use well into the hammerless era. Birmingham gunmaker Henry Jones patented his ‘screw-grip’ in 1859 and this proved to be a truly user-friendly, secure and reliable barrel bolting system. It may not have been the first, but it proved beyond doubt that breechloaders were the future. The Jones screw-grip was an inert but very strong system of locking the barrels by means of a rotary under-lever. A screw attached to the under-lever entered the action bar from below and, when turned, engaged with slots in the barrel lumps, pulling them down tight onto the action flats or, in reverse, forcing them upwards and releasing the grip.

Though rapidly superseded by the quicker ‘snap action’ locking systems (as on the Daw) for use on game guns, the Jones screw-grip continued to find favour for heavy double rifles and large bore wildfowling guns, where strength and reliability outweighed speed. It was incorporated into guns and double rifles of all qualities, including ‘best’, well into the 1890s. I (DH) recently viewed two Holland & Holland guns of the late 1880s designed for use in India, one was a single 4-bore hammer gun and the other a double 8-bore ‘Paradox’, also a hammer gun. Both featured the Jones screw-grip, although made by a first class maker 25 years after the top-lever, Scott Spindle and Purdey double under-bolt combination had become the norm.

In 1862, Westley Richards, of Birmingham, introduced an extension of the top rib, which engaged with a hole in the top of the breech, was secured by a top-lever worked bolt engaging with a slot in the rib extension and opened by turning the lever to the right. Subsequent patents on the top-lever theme by William Powell of Birmingham in 1864 (in which the lever is lifted up) and Thomas Horsley of York (in which the lever is pulled backwards) also proved to be sound. While workable (and initially intended) as the sole means of barrel bolting, the top-lever really found its true worth when used in tandem with two other inventions.

The first of these was the Purdey under-bolt, patented by, that most famous of London gunmakers, James Purdey in 1863 and developed further in 1864 and 1867. Initially the Purdey bolt was operated by a lever integral with the trigger guard, the so-called ‘thumbhole lever’, which took a number of variations before passing out of fashion. It was also used in tandem with a side-lever or a lever that fitted under the trigger guard. All these operations improved on the Jones screw-grip because they were ‘snap actions’ which required nothing more of the operator than closing the barrels and breech together in one movement. The Purdey bolt automatically closed, acting on a spring to force the under-bolts into the bites in the lumps to lock the barrel-breech connection solid.

The second of these important inventions was the patent of another Birmingham gunmaker, William Middleditch Scott (of the firm W&C Scott). In 1865, he developed a means by which the Purdey double bolt could be operated by a top-lever. It involves a vertical shaft from the top lever to the under-bolt, operating on a cam, and quickly became the most widely used means by which to open and close a breech-loading shotgun. Visit any leading British, Spanish or Italian gunmaker today and unless you specifically ask for something else, your ‘best’ side-by-side gun will be operated by a top-lever acting on Purdey double under-bolts, via a Scott spindle.

Early centre-fire hammer gun locks operated as their percussion muzzle-loading and breech-loading pinfire forebears had. The hammers had to be manually placed at ‘half-cock’ after the gun was fired. Work beginning in 1863 and finding workable perfection in 1867 was to become known as the ‘Stanton rebounding lock’, after the famous Midlands lock-maker of that name. Rebounding locks automatically move the hammer back to a position just above the striker after firing. This enabled the gun to be opened after discharge without the need to manually return the hammers to ‘half-cock’; significantly speeding up the cycle as well as being safer.

The highest development of the hammer gun was arguably reached by around 1870. The use of the Purdey bolt and Scott spindle, operated by a top lever was applied to graceful and efficient guns using either back-action or bar-action rebounding locks (though Stephen Grant and Boss continued to sell side-levers in significant numbers in preference to top-levers). This style of gun as a ‘best’ shotgun continued, with minor refinements, to be the choice of many customers until well into the 1880s, the developments in hammerless guns seemingly passing unnoticed.

Hammer guns of various grades continued to be manufactured by many of the most famous firms, and in all qualities, until well into the 20th Century. To many it must have seemed that the perfection of the sporting gun had been realised. The forty year-old sportsman, buying a centre-fire breech-loading hammer gun with rebounding locks in 1870 would, after all, probably have taken to the field in 1850, as a twenty year-old, with a percussion muzzle-loader.

However, the inventive minds of the Victorian gunmakers had a lot more to offer and their next step was to take the hammers from the outside of the lock and place them on the inside. It was an idea that first flowered in the form a gun that would become universally known, somewhat inelegantly, as the ‘Mousetrap’.

 

The Murcott ‘Mousetrap’

Introduced in 1871.

Type: Bar Action hammerless sidelock. Also offered as a trigger-plate action.

Cocking System: Lever-cocking.

Bolting System: Purdey double bolt or single under-bolt and additional round-bolt projecting from the action face into the top rib. Operated by snap-action under-lever. The gun also had an incorporated safety bolt, operated by a lever on the standing breech.

By 1871 the centre fire principle was well established and Theophilus Murcott of 68 The Haymarket, London offered his lever-cocked hammerless side-lock to a public used to hammer guns and made around 100 specimens, advertised as having the following qualities: “rapidity of action, perfect security, non-liability to accident, extreme simplicity of construction.” Other makers also offered the gun, made under licence, a notable example being WW Greener, who later bought Murcott’s business.

Automatic lever-cocking had never been seen before and the Murcott was well received in the sporting press, was successfully trialled as a game gun and as a live pigeon gun and was the precursor to other successful hammerless designs such as the Gibbs and Pitt, The Woodward ‘Automatic’ and four years later, the Anson & Deeley.

Though, lever-cocking hammerless actions did not ultimately stand the test of time as a concept in the way the later barrel-cocked Anson & Deeley has, the Murcott heralded the beginning of the end for guns with external hammers. These had been the norm as flintlocks, percussion guns, pin fires and centre fires for a period of almost 200 years. After Murcott, shooters had to wait only four years for the modern boxlock to emerge and five more to see the perfection of the modern sidelock.

Though a significant number of diehards stuck to the old external hammer style of shotgun, (including notable shots like the Marquis of Ripon and King George V) more and more gunmakers and shooters concentrated on the hammerless gun as the way ahead. The hammerless gun was considered by influential writers such as Walsh, Thorn and Greener to be faster, safer, neater and, in the spirit of the age, more ‘modern’. In terms of manifest destiny, the hammerless gun was sweeping away the Old World style of hammer gun in favour of the clean lines of the beckoning 20th Century. The rush towards a self-cocking self-ejecting gun with all moving parts internalised was unstoppable. All these features first appeared in 1874 with the Needham ejector gun.

 

The Needham Ejector Gun

Introduced in 1874.

Type: Hammerless trigger-plate Action with integral ejector. Also made as a sidelock.

Cocking System: Barrel-cocking.

Bolting system: Under-bolt engaging in a bite in the front lump, operated by a snap-action under-lever.

In April 1874, London gunmaker Joseph Needham produced a barrel-cocking hammerless double gun with an automatic ejection system, using the mainspring to eject each fired cartridge automatically. This gun was the first to feature split extractors in the modern style so that each cartridge could be ejected in isolation from the other. It was not met with universal acclaim but it certainly prompted a great deal of hard thinking among the gunmaker-inventors of the day.

The concept would take 15 years to develop fully into what a modern shooter would recognise as the perfection of the sidelock, side-by-side, ejector, double gun, but Needham’s gun had all the desired features in one (perhaps not very neat) package. After Needham there were no more really ‘big’ ideas. From here on it was a case of refinement and perfection as far as sidelock design was concerned.

The hammerless sidelock ejector is ‘the gun of the present’ in the shooting world of 2005 and we can trace its roots directly back to Needham, who in 1874 truly produced ‘the gun of the future’, something that many others have presumptuously claimed over the years.

While the Needham ejector gun packaged all those very desirable features into a shotgun for the first time, development was not entirely linear from that point onwards. Two Birmingham men were, at the time, working on a radically different approach to the building of a hammerless gun and theirs was to be the first which can be said to have had real and lasting success. However, Needham’s business, like Murcott’s would soon be swallowed up by WW Greener and his ideas for ejectors would be developed into Greener’s self-acting ejector gun’

 

The Anson & Deeley Hammerless Gun

Introduced in 1875.

Type: Boxlock.

Cocking System: Barrel-cocking

Bolting System: Westley Richards top-lever bolted ‘doll’s head’ rib extension.

This ground-breaking invention of two employees of the renowned Birmingham gunmaking firm Westley Richards, William Anson & John Deeley, is today universally recognised as the ‘boxlock’. It has been made in huge numbers and in all grades, from the very lowest-grade tool to the traditional ‘best’ English quality, since it was first patented in 1875. The design is radically different from either of the preceding sidelock configurations in that it abandons the idea of locating the lock-work on plates fixed either side of the action and instead locates them inside it, in recesses machined into the underside of the hollowed-out action itself.

The lock-work of the Anson and Deeley is brilliant in its simplicity. It has four parts: The cocking lever, the tumbler, the mainspring and the sear. All are mounted on three pins that fit into holes drilled through the side of the action body and are sealed into the action by means of a removable bottom plate.

The gun is cocked automatically by the fall of the barrels. As they fall, the cocking lever rotates on its pin and presses upwards on a forward-facing projection on the tumbler. The tumbler in turn rotates backwards on its own pin until the bent on its rear-facing surface engages with a forward-facing sear, holding the tumbler at ‘cock’. The mainspring, located above the tumbler, is compressed by the same movement; making the gun immediately ready to fire. It was initially bolted solely by means of the 1862 Westley Richards top-lever and doll’s head but quickly adopted the top-lever, Scott spindle and Purdey under-bolt as an operating mechanism. This simplicity of operation and minimalist approach to lock-work made the A&D a huge success. It was easy and cheap to manufacture, very resistant to weather and almost maintenance free.

The boxlock was made possible by the great strides in Victorian engineering, as it made use of the improved machining operations that had become available to gunmakers, as to other industries. Much of the initial work could be carried out by precision tools and the gun could be finished to a high or low grade, as required. The boxlock is a very robust, almost service-free action that has excellent water-resisting properties and has proved very reliable in tough conditions. Mid-grade side-by-side boxlocks of British manufacture were the Ford Mondeos of the gun trade in the years 1875-1970 and brought reliable, serviceable, hammerless double guns to the masses. Thousands are still doing good service in every country of the World and, as second-hand purchases, still make sound investments and practical propositions to the shooter on a budget today.

However, at the time the Anson & Deeley was forging a reputation and being built in ever-greater numbers, under licence to Westley Richards, rival gunmakers were manoeuvring to develop the idea further.

 

The Greener ‘Facile Princeps’ and ‘Unique’ Hammerless Guns

Introduced in 1880

Type: Boxlock.

Cocking System: Barrel-cocking.

Bolting System: Purdey single or double bolt operated via top-lever & Scott spindle with Greener rib extension and rounded cross-bolt: ‘Treble Wedge Fast’.

The success of the Anson & Deeley boxlock was immediate and Westley Richards protected it with patent rights that lasted for 14 years. Any gunmaker wanting to build a boxlock had to pay Westley Richards a royalty for each gun made (15 shillings seems to have been the going rate). Victorian gunmakers were not keen on paying for others’ work and many got busy trying to invent a similar gun that was different enough to get around the patent protection. WW Greener built Anson & Deeley guns under licence but was characteristically quick off the mark with his ‘Facile Princeps’ of 1880. This was not the first patent derivative of the Anson & Deeley, but it is commonly encountered and became well-known because of the litigation that it precipitated between Greener and Westley Richards; two ‘alpha males’ of the Birmingham gun trade at the time.

Greener’s ‘Facile Princeps’ (Easily the Chief) is basically the same as the Anson & Deeley but differs in that the cocking levers for the two tumblers are operated by a single cocking stud on the lump and will work without the forend in place. This was enough for Greener to win the court battle, which he took great pleasure in boasting about in his later writing. In appearance, the Greener design is notably more rounded in contour, especially towards the extremity of the action bar, typically with ‘shoulders’ at the mid-point.

The ‘Facile Princeps’ led to the development of another Greener boxlock – the ‘Unique’, which had an ejector system built in to the design, activated by the mainspring. Major Burrard, writing in 1931, felt the Greener designs better than the Anson & Deeley, largely because the shorter bar and thicker standing breech of the Greener action imparted strength and because the altered positions of the internals facilitated better regulation of the trigger-pulls.

The Greener boxlocks are also notable for their use of a side-safety catch. This provides for a stronger hand in the stock, as less wood needs to be removed. Most were made non-automatic, reflecting Greener’s personal preference and his distrust of safety catches in general.

Greener developed a reputation for specialising in boxlocks and championed their merits over sidelocks in The Gun and its Development, which ran to nine editions. The pinnacle of his production was the ‘G-Grade’, based on the ‘Unique’ ejector gun. Greener had a dedicated team of his best men working on these guns and they are of the very best quality possible. Perhaps his best-known example is the ‘St George’ – a G-Grade with chiselled-relief engraving of St George killing the mythical dragon, and other patriotic imagery. The very precision of the finer Greener boxlocks eventually worked against them; they required very fine engineering skills and a mind that understood the design to make and regulate them properly. In the hands of the jobbing gunsmith in the provinces or abroad, they were too easily destroyed, gaining them a somewhat unfair reputation for unreliability. In the 1920s, Cogswell & Harrison’s ‘Avant Tout’ boxlock suffered from a similar fate because of its unfamiliarity to many provincial gunsmiths.

After World War 1, production of the G-Grade ceased and the boxlock as a ‘best’ gun seemed to have had its day. The public was settling into the belief that the ‘best’ gun was a bar-action sidelock ejector and, consequently, most gunmakers concentrated on this pattern for their highest quality output, rather than continuing to offer ‘best’ boxlocks when they were becoming unfashionable.

Most subsequent English and foreign producers of boxlocks reverted to the Anson & Deeley pattern, rather than Greener’s, and made them extensively in mid and lower grades (as boxlocks proved, quality-for-quality, to be cheaper to make than sidelocks). However, the boxlock had one more significant phase of development to enter: one in which it would continue to manifest itself as a ‘best’ gun to the present day.

 

The Deeley & Taylor Hand-detachable-lock.

Introduced in 1897.

Type: Boxlock.

Cocking System: Barrel-cocking.

Bolting system: Purdey double bolt operated via top-lever & Scott spindle with Westley Richards ‘doll’s head’ lever-bolted rib extension.

Leslie Taylor was the manager of Westley Richards at the time of the patent and teamed up with John Deeley to develop the boxlock concept to new heights. Though robust and requiring very little routine maintenance to remain serviceable, one criticism of the original boxlock was the difficulty of getting at the internals for repair or service without specialist tools and knowledge. The Deeley & Taylor concept was to mount each lock on a separate plate and insert it into the action via a hinged bottom plate.

The Westley Richards product of this patent is of beautiful quality, with a delicately rounded action and a shaped ‘fancy back’ to the action where it meets the wood. It allows for either lock to be removed by hand, without any tools, and be replaced with a spare in a matter of seconds. It is impossible to put the lock in upside down, back to front or in the wrong side.

Those travelling overseas for long periods could simply order a second or third set of locks and in the unlikely event of a malfunction, replace the damaged or faulty lock in situ. For security, locks could be removed and stored elsewhere, rendering the gun useless, until the parts were reunited. The design also removes the need to drill a hole through the action to receive the tumbler peg, a significant point of weakness in a conventional Anson & Deeley, as this is close to the radius, the part of the action-bar subject to most stress when the gun is fired.

The Westley Richards ‘droplock’ (a somewhat careless moniker) is still offered by the firm and in 2005 costs a little over £36,000 in its basic form.

It would be easy to believe that with all the success of the Anson and Deeley and its imitators in the mid 1870s that the hammer gun had by then been left behind as an old-fashioned concept. However, patents continued for improved hammer guns for a number of years and a good example of the work then being undertaken is the self –cocking hammer gun.

 

The Hughes Self-cocking Hammer Gun

Introduced in 1875.

Type: Bar-action sidelock hammer gun.

Cocking system: Lever-cocking.

Bolting system: Snap-action under-lever operating a rotary bolt, which engages slots in the lumps.

Edwin Hughes was the long-serving manager of the firm of Joseph Lang and his patent lever-cocking hammer gun is generally found on guns bearing that name. It is notable because it was patented in the same year as the Anson & Deeley and, while workable and pleasant in use, was doomed because the winds of change were blowing across the gunmaking world and hammerless guns were destined to become the favoured style. Developments of the hammer gun became something of a blind alley and the Hughes self-cocker is a good example. WW Greener, writing in 1891 noted “An attempt was made about 1876 by some gunmakers to substitute a self-cocking gun for the hammerless, but the attempt signally failed.”

The gun itself is a simple and robust design. The lever is located under the trigger guard and when pushed forwards to open the gun, via a neat variation of the rotary locking bolt, also presses upwards on two projecting lugs on the inside of the lock-plates, cocking the external hammers automatically. The gun is not fitted with a safety catch, in common with hammer guns of the period, and has been criticised for this omission, some observers (including the writer David Baker, who owned one for a time) believing it unsafe.

After a spate of inventions for self-cocking hammer guns running well into the 1880s, the idea fell into general disuse. Most hammer guns encountered from the mid 1880s to the late 1920s are conventional bar-action or back-action guns, manually cocked and increasingly fitted with ejectors, either at the time of manufacture or by later conversion. However, the Italian maker Abbiatico & Salvinelli resurrected the idea in the 1990s and offered a self-cocking bar-action hammer gun called the Castore.

Successful though it was, hammerless gun development was not perfected with the patenting of the Anson & Deeley action or the numerous variant ‘boxlocks’. Three other significant avenues of hammerless gun development were successfully pursued. These were the trigger-plate lock, typified by the 1879 MacNaughton and the1882 Dickson, the back-action hammerless sidelock, such as the successful 1878 Scott & Baker action (as used on Holland & Holland’s ‘Climax’) and the hammerless bar-action sidelock, such as the 1880 Beesley patent that became famous as the ‘Purdey’. Their respective makers claimed the superiority of each type and all were made in significant numbers, proving successful both as shotguns and as double rifles.

Sidelocks developed into the hammerless era directly from hammer-era patterns; all hammer guns are sidelocks. They have all their lock-work mounted on plates either side of the action, with the mainspring located either in front of the hammers, in the action bar, or behind them in a recess in the hand of the stock and are known therefore as bar-action or back-action sidelocks.