‘Mr Lancaster’ and his Detachable Locks.
Is that a Lancaster lock-plate or are you just pleased to see me?
Gunmakers had a relatively small number of improvements to make regarding the efficiency of mechanical operation during the last quarter of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th Century. If we are to broadly chop the phases of predominance of certain types of sporting gun into chunks, this period could best be described as the Era of the Hammerless Side-by Side.
Anson & Deeley kicked it off in a major way with the 1875 ‘boxlock’, which may not have been the first hammerless gun, but it was the game changer; having been in continuous production ever since at the firm that started it, Westley Richards, and used by every major (and most minor) gunmakers in the world.
Half a century later, in 1925, a perusal of the sporting estates of Britain would have shown sportsmen almost universally wielding hammerless side-by-side shotguns. The over & under style had certainly been introduced successfully, with the Boss of 1908, the Edwinson Green of 1912 and the Woodward of the same year. Die-hards and older men could still be found using the odd hammer gun. However, over & under guns were something of a novelty at this time and hammer guns distinctly old fashioned. It seemed the settled style for most sport was either a boxlock or a side-lock of the type with which readers will be very familiar.
While Purdey and W.M Scott kept up their patent privileges on the double under-bolt and associated spindle respectively, other makers used a variety of alternatives in order to avoid paying royalties. However, lock-up of snap-action guns was, during the period, fairly settled. Other quests for gunmakers to discover perfection covered single triggers, ejectors and safety. Of course, tweaks to improve longevity, promote ease of maintenance, reduce cost of manufacture and other such peripheral issues continued.
One such diversion was the concept of the hand-detachable lock. The advocates of such a system would say it makes the gun easier for the owner to strip for cleaning and lubrication. It requires no tools and obviates the problem of unskilled hands and poorly fitting turn-screws damaging the slots in lock-pins. They might also point out that it enables the owner to quickly remove the locks and hide them elsewhere when travelling, for reasons of security. Furthermore, if required, a spare set of locks can be carried and replaced in their entirety, should a spring or other part fail. This operation could be carried out without tools, by the layman, anywhere in the world; a bonus for those going on long trips to uncivilised places, which could last for years.
Detractors would point out that on a game gun for use in Britain, such supposed benefits are irrelevant, since the gun will be returned to a skilled gunmaker for servicing; and the unskilled have no business inside the workings of a gun. The familiar side-lock of the Holland & Holland type with a lever on the lock-plate is prone to unwinding as it is put in and taken out of a gun-slip repeatedly: sometimes leading to locks falling off in the field and getting dirty or lost. If you have ever owned an AYA No.2, you know exactly what I mean!
The concept was applied to both side-lock and boxlock guns: Westley Richards still make the Deeley & Taylor system of hand-detachable locks for a boxlock and it remains a best seller.
No to be sidelined, the firm of Charles Lancaster applied some design skills and took out a patent for a hand-detachable lock of a distinctive style to be used on side-locks of their own manufacture (although most seem to have been made for Lancaster by Charles Osborne and carry a prefix ‘0’ to the serial number. Lancaster guns with an ‘0’ prefix are ‘B’ quality, while those with ‘00’ prefix are ‘C’ quality.
The Lancaster patent lock is doubly distinctive in that it houses a novel lock-pin and clasp, as well as having a forward section that fits neatly into the recess in the bar, which, compared to a standard shaped plate, provides a greater surface bearing area and lessens the tendency of the plate to move under the influences of wear or tension.
Now, it must be remembered that when we talk of Charles Lancaster, we must remember that the wonderful gunmaker who founded the firm that bears his name was long dead by the period under discussion here. He had handed the firm over to his son C.W. Lancaster, who, in turn, died in 1878. The new ‘Mr Lancaster’ was, in fact, Henry. A. A. Thorn. Thorn, interestingly, styled himself ‘Charles Lancaster’ for business purposes and even used Lancaster’s name when writing on the subject of guns and shooting.
Thorn was inventive, enterprising and accomplished. He understood the importance of good gun fit and proper coaching, becoming an expert in both, even coaching the famous American trick-shot Annie Oakley. His book ‘The Art of Shooting’ remains a classic.
Lancaster developed the idea of ‘detachable locks’ as the catalogues called them for use in the ‘wrist-breaker’, a leg-of mutton shaped back-action side-lock made by the firm, and, more unusually, a version of what Thorn called a ‘solid bar lock’.
The mechanism comprises a slightly tapered (slotless) lock pin, with a recess milled around it, close the end. This slots into a cleverly made disc, which is shaped to provide three sprung arms converging on the centre. The lock pin ‘clicks’ into place and is held under tension by the three spring arms.
To release the lock, simply press a dowel or similar object into the protruding, rounded, end of the pin; it clicks out of its secure position and can be drifted through and the lock removed by hand. The lock is of the back-action type with a three-pin bridle. The forward limb of the lock plate is phallic in profile, with a lipped forward edge. It fits perfectly into the machined slot in the bar. The engorged ‘head’ of the phallus ensures the lock plate cannot slide backwards or forwards, but must be perfectly aligned when the lock is re-positioned.
Henry Thorn died in 1914 of influenza , aged fifty nine. He was in charge of the firm, and known as ‘Mr Lancaster’ for thirty five years. The guns made under his direction spanned the golden age of invention in the British gun trade and he was spared the terrible spectacle of the First World War and the subsequent destruction of the genteel Edwardian idyll and its fabled embodiment of England and Englishness. Thorn’s familiar social order would vanish shortly after his death but his guns remind us of the vigour and optimism of his heyday.