My main area of interest is the centre-fire breech-loading era from 1861 to 1939. To me, the period provides what I think are the most interesting, varied but still usable, guns available. However, I’m often called upon to explain how the period began, so I’m inclined to take a step back a few years to the birth of the modern breech-loader and see what started the ball rolling.
By 1850, Muzzle-loading had been the accepted method for loading sporting guns since barrels and gunpowder were first combined in hand-held ‘fowling pieces. Some exotic experiments had been conducted over the years but the man of wealth and taste still loaded his gun from the muzzle, rammed home his wads, powder and shot and put his percussion cap on the nipple prepare for each shot.
Earlier, the diaries of Col. Peter Hawker provide us with an amusing and enlightening account of the forays of a sportsman equipped with the traditional shooting accoutrements of the early 19th century.
Hawker was born in 1786 and died in 1853. He began his sporting career with flintlocks and lived to see the pin-fire breech-loader introduced to the London crowds at the great Exhibition of 1851, where he also exhibited his wild-fowling equipment, punt guns and some of his own inventions.
The gentleman sportsman of the early Victorian period, represented by Hawker at the newly built Crystal Palace, was unknowingly witnessing the beginning of a furious period of innovation in British gun-making.
The spark that was to set off this powder keg of activity was the embodiment of a continental idea, one which Hawker had previously called ‘a horrid ancient invention, revived by foreign makers’, that is dangerous in the extreme’.
Exhibit 1301 at the Great Exhibition, which took place in London from 1st March to 15th October 1851, was a breech-loading gun with self-contained ammunition. The patent was that of Casimir LeFaucheux and it attracted the attention of a London gunmaker, also exhibiting his wares.
Joseph Lang, son-in law to James Purdey, is largely credited with taking the ‘French Crutch Gun’, as it was disparagingly referred to in certain quarters, and introducing his version of the LeFaucheux to the British public.
David Baker and Don Masters suggest the actual conduit was the gunmaker Edwin Charles Hodges, who made a copy and sold it to Lang. Whatever the truth, Lang was quickly advertising that he had a breech-loader ‘ on an entirely new principle, the simplest and quickest ever offered to the public.
Lang also claimed his gun ‘combines strength and durability’. Unfortunately, he was over-stating this, as his forward-facing, single screw-grip, under-lever gun suffered from the LeFaucheux weakness of the bolt being rather too close to the hinge and being prone to shoot loose quickly. Another commentator, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallway, called Lang’s gun ‘a crude fore-runner of the modern breech-loader’.
Examination of these early pin-fires also indicates they were built too light and on frames that were flimsy when compared with later guns, which generally have stronger bars, deeper fences and barrels thicker at the breech end.
Despite its shortcomings, Lang’s breech-loader represented a relatively fast loading, nice handling and lightweight game gun. The 1850s saw pin-fire gain in popularity as new patents vied with one another to provide the perfect combination of strength, reliability and speed of loading.
As mechanisms improved, pin-fire cemented its place in the market. Initially, successful patents cured the action of weakness, with inert ‘slide and drop’ mechanisms like Dougall’s and Lancaster’s working better than most. Later, loading speed was improved with the introduction of snap-action guns.
By 1860 pin-fires were safe and dependable. The problem was the ammunition. Having to deal with the small protrusions from the side of the cartridge was not convenient, either for carriage or loading and detonation was not yet failsafe.
Charles Lancaster introduced an alternative to the British public around 1856. His slide and drop action was excellent and his ammunition, called ‘base fire’ was promising. However, his attempt to hold a monopoly over manufacture and the distribution of ammunition contributed to its failure to catch the wider imagination. The majority of breech-loaders continued to be made on the pin-fire system. It would take another Englishman, bringing another continental patent to these islands, to create the momentum for a proper replacement for pin-fire. That would not happen until 1861. And that is a story for another day.