Not Just Another Boring Boxlock!
The terms Boxlock and Anson & Deeley have become synonymous but let us begin this piece with a simple question: When is a boxlock not an Anson & Deeley? Answer: When it is a Ward Target Gun, A Facile Princeps, an Empire, an Emperor, a Beesley spring-opener, or a myriad of other ‘body action’ guns which externally resemble the Anson & Deeley so closely that most observers think they are all the same.
The Original Boxlock
The guns we now generally recognise as boxlocks, with the distinctive silhouette, first took shape in 1875, when the gun trade at large was looking to create a hammerless gun which looked good and worked well. Most attempts had been based on making side-lock hammer guns with the hammers on the inside, though some work on trigger-plate actions had started to show promise. Murcott’s 1871 ‘Mousetrap’ patent had trigger-plate-lock and side-lock variants.
Anson & Deeley approached the problem with a fresh and radical design that had little to do with gun actions previously adopted or adapted by other makers. The machining-out of a solid body, and the mounting of tumblers on lateral pivots within it, cut-out the need for a lot of metal lock parts. All it needed in addition was a mainspring and a sear. To cock the lock, a lifter projected through the knuckle and acted directly on the tumbler to cock it automatically, when the barrels dropped.
Overnight, the hammerless gun became a viable reality: a gun which was simpler, had stronger limbs and fewer of them. It was clean of line, un-fussy, impressively water and dust resistant and relatively maintenance free. In addition, it lent itself to mechanised production and standardisation of parts. It was a winner and everyone started making it, paying Westley Richards, the patentee and employer of the inventors, a royalty for so doing.
The Anson & Deeley action, with or without minor modifications, was made in significant numbers throughout the last half of the ‘70s. Westley Richards kept ‘The First Anson & Deeley’ (engraved as such) gun for John Deeley’s personal use, but it was not completed until 1878! There are Greener guns built on the A&D action dated reliably to 1877, so ‘the first’ A&D remains something of a mystery.
Anson & Deeley boxlocks from this period were the state of the art. They are often found of superlative quality and beautifully engraved with stunning wood and the very finest workmanship. The favored means of bolting these early guns was the Westley Richards bolted top-lever with ‘doll’s head’ rib extension. These are jointed on the circle and are effective as stand-alone bolting systems. However, the 1865 patent Purdey double under-bolt was soon added to make a ‘treble-grip’ action that was to remain in favour in Birmingham for the next half century and became a standard feature in boxlocks. Westley Richards stuck with their ‘Number 3’ action with their own lever and bolted doll’s-head, but most of the trade went over to simpler Scott or Greener lever work when these became available.
Many makers were happy to produce Anson & Deeley guns, pay the royalty due and market the boxlock in a range of qualities, as their own gun. However, it did not take very long before a whole host of them were at work trying to circumvent the patent or improve upon the original design.
By 1880, single triggers and ejectors had been added to the Anson & Deeley action so it was the full package. Again Westley Richards were to the fore – Deeley patented both his box ejector and his single trigger and they were effective when applied to the boxlock. The forward movement of the mainspring upon discharge proved a useful ejector trip.
In its Westley Richards incarnation, the most recognisable, and one of the finest hammer less actions was encapsulated. The lockwork, action body, the bolting, the opening/closing operation, the single trigger and the ejectors all proved to be long-lived and successful. However, the gun trade in the 19th century was in a state of constant innovation and it did not take long for variations on the theme to emerge.
The first shock waves were created by that bombastic giant of the Birmingham trade, W.W Greener. His Facile Princeps looked like a boxlock but had refinements. It was sufficiently different in operation – crucially the cocking operation, where it utilised a stud on the lump, rather than a pair of cocking dogs, which slot into the forend to create a lever as in the Anson & Deeley. Greener won a series of court cases and no longer had to pay a royalty when making his hammerless gun. However, as soon as the patent expired he went back to offering Anson & Deeley models as well. Greener’s refer to their own actions as ‘body action’ guns and use the term ‘boxlock’ solely when referring to the Anson & Deeley action.
Greeners went on to develop numerous other models that look like boxlocks but are not Anson & Deeley guns. The Empire, the Monarch, and the Emperor are all unique and distinct, though there are few external cues to this when the guns are assembled. Externally some Facile Princeps and Anson & Deeley models made by Greener are hard to tell apart.
Greener’s first effort, the ‘Facile Princeps’ (Easily the Chief) significantly differs from the Anson & Deeley in that the cocking levers for the two tumblers are operated via a Y shaped arm, by a single cocking stud on the lump and will work without the forend in place. 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.
Greeners developed a reputation for specialising in boxlocks (though the firm still hates the term and refers to ‘body action’ guns to differentiate their various models from the A&D) and W.W Greener 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 was introduced in 1897 with a Purdey double-bolt, operated via a top-lever with Westley Richards ‘doll’s head’ lever-bolted rib extension. The doll’s head is also jointed on the circle as the primary bolting. The Purdey bolt is secondary.
Leslie Taylor was the manager of Westley Richards at the time of the patent and teamed up with John Deeley to enable the locks of the Anson & Deeley to be removed in-tact, like a sidelock. 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, often 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, the major 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 for a little over £36,000 in its basic form. Historical variations are many. The removable floor-plate can be found on guns with conventional locks as well as on detachable ones. Later floor-plates are hinged rather than removable, which is a sensible precaution and lessens the likelihood of losing it.
One avenue of improvement on a design is to increase the quality and functionality of the product. This is emboded not only in Greener and Westley Richards production; innovations like the Smith self-opener (used widely by Churchill) and the Beesley self-opener (most often found in guns by Charles Lancaster) look like conventional boxlocks but are significantly more sophisticated. However, the most crucial contribution of the boxlock concept to the advancement of sporting guns was the increase of production on an industrial scale, thereby side-stepping the traditional bench-made, hand-crafted, unique pieces that dominated the British trade.
Th boxlock concept opened the way to mechanised production and a number of British firms invested heavily in making the large scale production of reliable, quality boxlocks into reality. Foremost among these, and spanning a period from the 1880s until the start of the Second World War were firms like Bonehill, Webley, Cogswell & Harrison, Ward & Sons, and BSA.
The British gun trade had always relied on a large number of related trades coming together to produce firearms. Different firms made the locks, pins, furniture, barrels etc and someone else fitted them together. Every gun differed from every other and each had to be hand-fitted by a skilled man. The military realised this was a bad system as early as 1842, when the government began to invest heavily in the arms factory at Enfield Lock with machinery imported from the USA.
The established gun trades in London and in Birmingham were very resistant to the establishment of a government-owned arms factory and saw the move to machine manufacture as a major threat, petitioning a Select Committee in 1854 that machine-made guns would be too expensive, wasteful of raw materials and lacking the quality of hand-made guns and rifles. Mass-production of military weapons at Enfield gained momentum in the 1850s and BSA was founded to produce machine-made guns in 1861. While military production quickly became mechanised and standardised, with interchangeable parts and simple assembly the norm, the sporting gun industry remained reluctant.
‘Best’ guns would always have to be demanding in the number of man-hours expended, for they were made with an eye on perfection rather than cost. The more humble fare for the general public, for export and for working service rather than sporting excellence had a lot to gain from being produced using mechanised means. As the 20th century progressed, mechanisation enveloped a great many industries that had previously had a craft structure and gunmaking was to prove no exception.
To exemplify the methods then being developed in the production of component parts and the subsequent assembly of sporting shotguns, we can look to the large and important Birmingham gunmaker C.G Bonehill, operating out of the large ‘Belmont Firearms and Gun Barrel Works’.
By 1900 Bonehill was able to offer a wide range of shotguns and double rifles and the machine-made boxlock was the staple of his trade. However, before looking to the action itself, let us consider Bonehill’s approach to making the barrels.
Traditionally, Damascus barrels had their lumps dovetailed in place, as did early steel barrels. Later came the ‘chopper-lump’ barrel which most discerning sportsmen seek nowadays on any ‘best’ sidelock. Bonehill had ditched both in favour of an assemblage of what he called his ‘Patent clip lump and extension top piece’. This consisted of the two barrel tubes, machined to fit flush with a machined lump with integral connecting piece, which clipped into the top-rib. When joined together, they formed a very strong barrel, all the parts of which were machine made. The maker claimed it ‘…makes it impossible for a top piece or underneath lug to come off’.
Bonehill contended that it would cost twice as much to make the same components and assemble them by hand as it cost him to do using machines.
What is more interesting is that Bonehill boxlocks were ‘…made within the factory by machinery from the best material, on the interchangeable system’.
Let me repeat that: ‘The interchangeable system’. Now, here is a new concept to the maker of sporting shotguns. To date all guns had been made individually, one part being added as the last was completed. Nothing was interchangeable! If you had a pair of identical guns, labelled ‘1’ and ‘2’ you could not put the barrels from number ‘2’ on number ‘1’; they would not fit!
Now we have makers like Bonehill pumping out identical guns with parts from any one that will fit any other one; or which are ‘mathematically correct’ in the parlance of the advertising in his catalogue. The actual interchangeability of parts from one ‘Interchangeable’ gun to another is questionable; they were, after all, made in various sizes and model variations. Perhaps they did need some basic fitting but the idea that parts could be ordered and fitted, even with some work necessary at the final stages was still a big step forward for a trade which had, until that point, only produced one-offs.
To discover the specifications of the guns being produced this way, we can again refer to published material. Bonehill tells us that his Machine-made hammerless shotguns (of which he claims to have sold 3,000 already) have the following specifications:
- The guns are barrel cockers.
- They have perfect trigger safety arrangements. The trigger safety is made in one piece and locks the triggers until the thumb piece in the top strap has been pushed forward to cover the word ‘SAFE’. It can be automatic or non-automatic, as desired.
- They are fitted with intercepting safety bolts superior to any yet invented, which render dual or premature discharges impossible. These blocks act in front of the hammers and effectually block their progress until removed by the pulling of the triggers.
- They have screwed-in steel ‘bushes’ in front of the breech action, which hold the independent springless strikers. They act as a check, preventing gas from entering the interior mechanism.
- The mechanism is mathematically correct and this together with its great strength and the ease with which the guns are manipulated, render breakages and disorder improbable.
Twin themes are embodied in the Bonehill approach to gunmaking: quality of materials and scientifically designed components, allowing for guns with great strength, reliability and shooting qualities to be produced at low prices.
Bonehill’s interpretation of a ‘best’ boxlock or as he calls it a ‘Best hammerless ejector with box-shape breech-action’ is an A&D, square bodied gun with top-lever, double triggers, recessed ‘church window’ chequered panels with diamond drop points , straight-hand stocks, disc-set strikers, intercepting safeties and full-coverage scroll engraving. Barrels could be ‘finest steel chain twist damascus’ but the maker recommends ‘finest steel barrels’ with ‘patent clip barrel lump and extension top piece’. A pair cost £75.00
Bonehill’s interchangeable boxlock, sometimes known by the name ‘Belmont Interchangeable’, after his works, is made from 36 component parts (excluding the action body). Any of these parts could be ordered as replacements or spares from the maker and fitted without the need of a specialist finisher. Regardless of the grade of gun, every internal part was the same, the only part available in different grades was the top lever, ranging from 3 shillings for a plain ‘A’ grade to 4s 3d for a higher ‘D’ grade.
Bonehill’s boxlock shotguns ranged in price, according to exterior finish, from the ‘No.1’ at £13.10s at the lowest end to the ‘No.4’, costing £23.5.0 at the highest. Ejectors could be added to any model for an extra £6.00. The lower grades have semi-pistol grips, flat side panels with drop points, top-lever, Greener cross bolt, intercepting safety, Purdey under-bolts, Deeley & Edge forend catch, minimal engraving and are described as ‘ a perfectly reliable but inexpensive weapon’. The ‘No.4’ gun is ‘set up as a best gun in every respect’. It has the same square action with greener cross bolted top extension, but is profusely engraved and has chequered side panels with drop points and fancy borders to the chequering to the hand and forend. Wood is ‘the very best selected curly figured walnut’.
Double rifles built on the same interchangeable action cost £21.15s and Cape guns with a shot barrel in 12-bore and a rifle barrel in .577/.450 could be had for between £20.5s and £32.5s depending on finish.
It has often been lamented that the British gun trade did not move with the times and that it took foreign firms to grasp the need to mechanise gun production. However, as we have seen from this one example, British gun factories in Birmingham long ago established the machine made, interchangeable principle.
Bonehill had been pushing machine-manufacture friendly designs since 1877. Clearly, such forward thinking alone was not enough to cushion the industry from the tumult the next half century was to bring to bear. Bonehill and other British makers, like J.P Claborough, had solid export trades with the USA and appeared to be going from strength to strength until that most capitalist of countries betrayed its faith in the free market when it introduced the McKinley tariff in 1890.
This imposed a charge of thirty five percent plus six dollars on every imported gun and almost overnight broke the back of several large gunmaking businesses in Birmingham’s gun quarter, allowing American makers, like Parker, to succeed with what was an inferior product. Had the market been allowed to decide which products survived and which failed, one cannot help but wonder if Fox and L.C Smith would have lived beyond childhood.
On the eve of WW2 British retailers were offering functional Birmingham-made boxlocks at very low prices. Parker Hale listed their cheapest ‘Model Twelve’ non-ejector guns as ‘Birmingham made’ and if the advertising copy has any truth in it they were successful: ‘So great is the demand for these guns that delivery cannot be promised with certainty and of course a minimum choice is allowed at the standard price’. The plain boxlock illustrated has all the modern features of top-lever, Purdey bolt, Scott spindle, top-strap safety slide, Hackett snap forend catch. Stock length could be specified at no extra cost but anything else like a semi-pistol grip stock or adding cast was charged for. The basic price was a mere £8.8.0. Their ‘Model Fourteen’ had a little engraving and more graceful fences and the forend catch was the Anson pattern. This sold for £10. 10. 0.
Slightly more expensive, but still machine made, were the BSA models, available through the 1930s. These were standard Anson & Deeley pattern boxlocks ‘Produced in an up to date factory by the most modern methods’. They featured Jessop’s fluid pressed steel barrels with Norman 1911 patent dovetail lumps. BSA made much of the improved quality of steel used. The action was made of toughened nickel steel and the working parts from chrome vanadium steel.
For £15.0.0 retail, BSA could deliver a ‘Standard Model’ non-ejector with 28” or 30” barrels and straight-hand or semi-pistol grip walnut stock. The Anson forend was used and 2 ½” chambered guns weighed 6 ¾ lbs. A 2 ¾” chambered version weighed 7 ¼ lbs. Adding ejectors brought the price up to £18.0.0. For comparison, a Browning A5 semi-automatic with a five-shot magazine cost £11. 5. 0 in basic guise and a Browning over/under ejector cost £19.10s.
Birmingham firms were not alone in developing mechanised factories for the production of boxlocks in order to take advantage of the profits available from producing large quantities of well-made guns in lower grades than hand-built ‘best’ or second. Edgar Harrison addressed the prospect of machine-based manufacture as early as 1879 with the introduction of his ‘Desideratum’ boxlock model, having invested in the necessary machinery in Harrow.
By the early years of the 20th century, Cogswell & Harrison had a thoroughly modern factory in London’s Victoria, making what the firm refereed to as ‘close to form’ production techniques. This produced accurately made components which were then hand-fitted at the bench by skilled gun-makers and the degree of finish applied would decree the final quality and cost of the gun. Teasdale-Buckell wrote ‘…it enables Cogswell & Harrison to sell a sound, London-made hammerless ejector gun for fifteen guineas’. The factory was fully operational and produced the entire gun; the only bought-in component being the barrel tubes.
This philosophy echoes modern CNC manufacturing processes now used by the top London firms but for decades scorned in favour of hand-work at every stage. In this regard, Cogswell & Harrison was a firm ahead of its time but misfortune befell it in the form of two disastrous fires, which hindered their progress and financially hamstrung them and the Second World War, from which business never fully recovered.
These largely standardised and machine-made guns, mostly variations of the ‘Avant Tout’ ejector variation of the Anson & Deeley action handle very well and are attractive. It is not surprising that many survive and are easily available today in the sale rooms. Perhaps because of their machine-made hearts they are undervalued by today’s collector and make sensible choices as additions to a collection, as a ‘knockabout’ gun or as an inexpensive first gun for a young man.
By 1914 Churchill was having most of its boxlocks made in Birmingham and applied time-saving Greener lever work to the cheaper ‘Prodigy’ models and Scott lever work to those of higher grade. Churchill at the time hinted at his disdain for these practices saying “In cheaper guns the handwork is considerably less and the cost of production much reduced. It requires very little use to convince the sportsman of the superiority of the handmade article”. Perhaps his attitude indicates the reluctance of the Trade to fully embrace machine production as an improvement rather than a compromise.
However, others continued to innovate to feed the lower-ends of the market. The soul of the British gun trade was found in the values of the ‘best’ gun and the hand-crafting that went into producing no-compromise excellence at every stage of the manufacture of every part of the gun. However, the heart which kept the body of the trade alive was the middle ground. As the 1800s became the 1900s, this meant boxlocks: reliable, presentable and functional guns with a range of prices. Mechanisation was the key and the boxlock, as we have noted before, lends itself to factory production better than does the sidelock, with its numerous parts and their necessarily tricky fitting and regulating.
The Birmingham firm BSA were well-used to producing weapons on production lines by 1900; they had made plenty of machine guns and rifles for the armed services on them. BSA began as an association of Birmingham gunmakers in 1861. They had woken up to the need to embrace machines if they were to compete in the production of military rifles with the American gunmaking factories. They diversified into cycle and motorcycle production and later applied their machine-made philosophy to sporting shotguns.
With the increased demand for shotguns of utility grade that were sound and reliable, the company began producing double barrelled hammerless non-ejector guns in the 1920s. Ejector models were available for a little more money.
The action was the typical Anson & Deeley type and the gun conventional and plain in most respects. An innovation that distinguishes the BSA is the method by which the steel barrels are constructed. Barrel tubes were formed with integral lumps but the two were then dovetailed together. This increased the width of the breech ends of the barrels.
As a low-priced gun, BSA made extra efforts to emphasise the strength of the construction and the high quality of the materials used. The effect was a plain, serviceable and safe gun that could be bought and used with confidence for the sum of only £11.50 in 1923. BSA chose well-proven mechanisms for each working part and conventional proportions for wide acceptability. The Anson push-rod is used in the fore-end, the stock had a 14 ¼” length of pull, barrels could be chosen from 28” or 30” options and chokes were set at Improved Cylinder and Full Choke.
The use of machinery instead of hand labour, rather than lowering the quality of materials or workmanship, was the reason for the low price. Burrard attested to the strength of the action and the superiority of the BSA over similarly priced ‘budget’ guns from Belgium, where both quality of materials and workmanship were comparatively poor.
BSA offered a number of variants of the gun – ‘Standard’ and ‘de-Luxe’ versions with 2½” chambers and a wildfowling version with 2¾” or 3” chambers. Despite its austere appearance and wide breech end, the gun actually handles rather well and is pleasant to shoot. It is certainly a better gun than the AYA Yeoman but by the time the Spanish pretender was selling profusely in the UK, the BSA was long gone
The BSA was not the only attempt at meeting the challenges of cheap overseas imports. Ward and Sons of Birmingham produced their ‘Target Hammerless Gun’, which was patented in 1918 and offered for sale in the early-mid 1920s. The gun is very plain, retailed for around £11.00 and although appearing to be a conventional Anson & Deeley action, employed coil, rather than leaf, springs. It has distinctive conical fences of the ‘Leeson’ type and was clearly aimed at the same market as the BSA. However, success was fleeting and by the end of the 1930s the Target Gun had vanished.
Perhaps best typifying the mass production boxlock model is the Webley ‘Proprietary’ Hammerless Gun, introduced in 1900. It is a conventional Anson & Deeley action, with top-lever and Purdey bolts and available in many variations until 1979.
Webley & Scott, the merger between the old firms of P. Webley and W & C Scott maintained a presence in the market longer than most. They did offer ‘best’ sidelocks but the mainstay of their production was the Anson & Deeley type action, which became known as their ‘Proprietary’ hammerless model from 1900. This continued, spawning a number of variants including; the Model 400 (1900-1946) fitted with a Webley Screw-Grip, Model 300 (1922-1939) with a Greener Cross-bolt, Model 500 (1925-1946) fitted with the Webley Screw-Grip, Model 600 (1927-1946) only as a non-ejector and Model 700 (1947-1979), including the more highly finished 701 and 702 versions. All featured top-lever operation, Purdey under-bolt locking via a Scott spindle and Anson push-rod type forends.
These guns were made in a variety of grades and weights and single and double triggers variously offered. They were designed to enable parts to be machine-made as far as possible, with dimensions being machined close to the tolerances required, before hand-finishing was applied as the final stage. This enabled production time to be reduced and output to increase. The final model, the 700 series, was produced in large numbers but prices rose through the 1970s and with foreign competition taking an increasing toll, production ceased in 1979; and with it the last real gunmaking factory in England, producing decent quality guns at prices the average shooting man could afford, closed its doors.
The Webley 700 continued to find a use with the resurrection of the W&C Scott name by the Harris & Sheldon Group in the 1980s and it featured in W&C Scott badged models such as the ‘Crown’ and the ‘Kinmount’. This venture was eventually absorbed by Holland & Holland and the 700 became further adapted, with the addition of a removable hinge-pin and chopper-lump barrels, to become the Holland & Holland ‘Cavalier’ and later the Holland & Holland ‘Northwood’. Production of these ceased in the 1990s.
History has shown that the bulk of the Birmingham trade did indeed shrivel and die as a consequence of two world wars and the decline of Empire. Actually, WW2 was something of a coup- de-grace;, WW1 had already inflicted fatal wounds. While some top British firms have survived into the 21st Century producing relatively few ‘best’ guns for wealthy customers each year, the Birmingham boxlock has been replaced by the Italian, Belgian or Japanese over & under as the workhorse of the shooting community and the Spanish (and to a lesser extent the Italians) have dominated the side-by-side market in the ‘affordable’ bracket since the 1980s. In the 21st Century even Turkish firms like Yildiz are forging a market share in the ‘budget’ sector.
Where can you find a boxlock by a British firm today? Tony White developed the action further and made some very fine examples but today has shifted production to side-locks. He told me, echoing a theme I have heard in gun-making circles all over the country, that while mass producing boxlocks on a production line may be significantly cheaper than doing the same with side-locks, bespoke production costs are not significantly different, and the demand today is for ‘best’ guns. That being the case, side-locks are generally preferred.
A.A Brown & Sons will still make you a best boxlock and the originators of the action, Westley Richards, are standing firm with their flagship model. Managing Director Simon Clode told Vic Venters a few years ago; “London may have the better name, but I think we have the better gun”. When one examines a Westley Richards double rife, exhibiting all the famous features made iconic by the generations of gunmakers who have supplied them to elephant hunters and adventurers, who’s lives depend on the reliability, functionality and accuracy of the weapons they use, one cannot help but concur. It is fabulous that Anson & Deeley’s brainchild, perfected so early by this great British firm is still the weapon of choice in that most demanding of all roles.
The history of the British boxlock and the various innovations on the theme which proliferated in the years 1875 – 1940 is a fascinating one and I have only been able to scratch the surface in this article. What my investigations and observations have shown is an anomaly in the current market. Boxlocks and their variants are hugely undervalued because people don’t understand them. My advice to buyers at present is this; do your homework and look for best quality boxlocks while you can still find them because they represent better value for money than anything else.
Next time you peruse the rack at your gun shop and dismiss the latest arrival as “just another boring boxlock”, take a bit of time to examine it. It may be very much more than it first appears to be.
Diggory Hadoke’s new book ‘The British Boxlock Gun & Rifle’, published by Merlin Unwin is available from October 2012.