The Back-Action Sidelock
The strength of the back-action sidelock comes from the solid bar of the action, which does not require hollowing to receive a forward-mounted mainspring, as does a bar-lock. The mainspring in a back-action lock is located behind the hammer (or tumbler). For this reason, back-actions were put to good use where strength in the bar was paramount. Holland & Holland used back-action hammer-locks for their 8-bore Paradox and when moving into the hammerless era, continued with back-actions for their 10-bore and 12 bore Nitro Paradox. Back-action hammerless guns went out of favour as gunmakers settled on bar-actions for ‘best’ guns and boxlocks for utility guns. All ‘sidelock’ over & under guns produced today are back-actions, so the concept is alive and well.
The Scott & Baker Back Action Hammerless Gun
Introduced in 1878
Type: Back-action Sidelock.
Cocking System: Barrel-cocking
Bolting System: Top-lever and lever-bolted rib extension: ‘Triplex Lever-Grip’
The Scott and Baker patent action saw widespread service in the guns of W&C Scott, Holland and Holland and others, from 1878 until 1916. Back-action locks were often preferred for use in second grade guns or those intended for hard use in the colonies, though some critics, notably Greener, were wary of the tendency for back-action guns to be weaker in the hand of the stock than bar-actions and boxlocks, though he recommended them for use in very light guns, where strength in the action bar was of primary importance. This notwithstanding, the convention persisted. Holland & Holland, Bland, the Midland Gun Co, Charles Lancaster and Blanch all made good use of back-action hammerless locks well into the 1930s.
The Scott and Baker patent operates by means of two cocking rods extending diagonally through the action bar, effectively providing a link between the tumblers and the barrel lumps. The hooks in these rods engage with projections on the lump and when the barrels fall as the gun is opened, the rods are pulled forwards, thereby cocking the tumblers and placing the mainspring (located behind the tumbler on a distinctive, elongated lock plate) under tension.
This ‘classic Scott’ action was widely made by W&C Scott for other firms in various qualities, including ‘best’. It gained a solid reputation, being “opened and closed with ease and is pleasant to use” according to Greener, who was not accustomed to giving due credit to others’ inventions.
It is distinctive in shape with elongated back-lock plates with transparent windows through which the gold-washed tumblers could be viewed when cocked. It also, importantly, contained an intercepting safety bolt, making it impossible for the gun to fire unless the trigger was pulled. The action is also notable for the incorporation of disc-set strikers and ‘gas-checks’ (grooves running from the striker to the edge of the standing breech face intended to offer an escape route to any gasses blowing back through faulty cartridges; thereby protecting the internal lock-work from the corrosive effects of primer gasses). In its finest grades this action features in some of the most beautiful guns ever made.
The Rogers’ back-action hammerless sidelock
Introduced in 1881 (patent No. 379)
Type: Back-action Sidelock.
Cocking System: Barrel-cocking
Bolting System: Top-lever, Purdey bolts and rib extension
The Rogers’ action, patented in 1881 by two men called John Rogers is a simple design and is not included in this passage on important mechanisms because it is especially clever or complex or because it was used in especially high quality guns. It is here because it became that staple mid-quality ‘trade’ sidelock of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As gunmakers in the provinces increasingly bought their complete guns, or their barrelled actions from the big Birmingham factories, a standardisation of the types of action encountered form this period becomes apparent. The Anson & Deeley, especially the proprietary Webley versions emerge as the standard boxlock sold around the country and the Rogers’ became the equivalent sidelock.
The design is simple and aids ease and cheapness of manufacture. A cocking lever projecting through the knuckle moves upwards when the gun is opened and acts directly on the lower limb of the tumbler to effect cocking of the lock. The bridle is a two-pin type and the power is provided by a ‘V’ mainspring; the lower limb of which acts as a sear spring by bearing directly on the sear.
The Rogers’ action was subject to numerous improvements and developments over the next thirty years and in time the bridle became a three-pin type and a separate sear spring was added. Eventually, an intercepting safety sear was added and in its final development, the mainspring was positioned in front of the tumbler to become a bar-lock.
Rogers’ action guns were made in large numbers, notably by Webley, and sold to other gunmakers, who finished them to varying degrees and retailed them under their own names. Army & Navy, William Evans, Thomas Horsley and many other makers’ guns are commonly encountered built on the Rogers’ action, typically of second quality. The action is easily recognised as, unlike the norm for ‘best’ sidelocks of the period to be stocked to the fences in the style of Purdey, Boss and Holland and Holland, the Rogers’ is a shouldered action with a distinct ‘step’ between the top of the lock-plate and the fence.
The Bar-Action Sidelock
The bar-action sidelock is so-called because the mainspring is located in the hollow section machined out of the bar of the action. It requires less removal of wood from the head of the stock, as there is no spring to locate there. The trigger-pulls of a bar-lock are easier to regulate crisply, as the distance between sear and trigger is short and direct. The Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ is a classic example of the bar-action sidelock and is perhaps the most copied of its type. All the major British firms currently making best side-by-side guns offer bar-action sidelocks as the mainstay of their production. However, to many observers, the classic bar-action hammerless sidelock is the design offered by James Purdey and Sons, without significant alteration, since 1880.
The Beesley ‘Purdey’ Hammerless Sidelock
Introduced in 1880.
Type: Bar Action Sidelock.
Cocking System: Spring-cocking.
Bolting System: Purdey double bolt operated via top-lever & Scott spindle.
Former Purdey employee (bucking the trend for Birmingham gunmakers to dominate the important inventions) Frederick Beesley invented the gun, which was to become famous to the world as the Purdey self-opening hammerless sidelock, in 1880 and sold the patent rights to James Purdey, probably to help finance Beesley’s new solo venture as proprietor of his own firm, off London’s Edgware Road.
The gun was revolutionary in principle, as when open, the spring is free of tension. Upon closing the gun, the spring is compressed and the tumbler cocked by the lower arm of the main spring. Upon discharge, the upper limb of the spring presses on a cam which thrusts a rod running diagonally through the action bar onto kickers, which force the barrels to spring open and releases the tension in the mainspring. When closed, this rod presses back on the internal cam, which cocks the mainspring again.
Up to this time, guns were either cocked by the barrels, in the manner of the Anson & Deeley, or by the operating lever, as in the Murcott. In the Beesley action, the mainspring cocks the lock as well as causing the gun to spring open.
The Beesley action has remained in constant production at Audley House since 1880 and has been used for guns and rifles of all calibres and bores with great success. It remains one of the all time great designs for a gun-lock and gave its form to the generally accepted appearance of the ‘best’ sidelock. The design is complex and must be made perfectly – a minor irregularity in the size or shape of any bearing surface will cause overall dysfunction in the mechanism, which then becomes difficult to repair unless in the hands of a gunsmith with sufficient knowledge of its working principles and the skills to regulate it properly. Other makers, including Holland & Holland and Boss modified their own best sidelocks externally to give them the graceful lines of the Beesley sidelock: stocked to the fences and with elegantly smooth, uniform lock plates rather than the ‘leg of mutton’ shapes of earlier hammerless sidelocks.
The design also provides a conveniently wide ‘gape’; meaning that the barrels drop at a steep angle to the breech face, providing plenty of clearance. This makes cartridge removal, ejection, and loading very easy. The spring-opening action makes it possible to open the gun with the right hand, while loading new cartridges with the left as the old ones are ejected (it was initially produced as a non-ejector but quickly became available fitted with ejectors – generally on the Wem system, which is powered by ‘V’ springs on the over-centre principle). The re-designed post-1930s version of the ejector is stronger than earlier ones, which sometimes fail at the cross-piece in the knuckle.
Critics of the Beesley action believe it over-complicated and it is less copied by other makers than the simpler Holland & Holland ‘Royal’. However, as made by Purdey, and by Beesley’s own firm, the quality required is assured and once one has used a gun of this design, nothing else feels quite the same. The rigidity of the action bar and the balance of a Purdey-built Beesley-action gun may be immediately appreciated and the veterans of 100 plus years of age still doing good service in the field indicate the robust character of the mechanism.
A final (clichéd) criticism of this ‘self-opener’ is that it is a ‘hard-closer’, due to the firm pressure required to cock the strong mainspring upon closing the gun. This is of no consequence to one used to operating a gun of this type, the knack is to rest the buttstock at a slight angle on the hip, as one braces it from above with the right forearm and raises the barrels with the left, gripping the gun well ahead of the forend. In fact, the reassuring ‘snap’ of the action closing nice and tight every time is something one misses when using a conventional gun.
Another classic ‘London sidelock’ is the Holland and Holland ‘Royal’, which went through a series of developments before arriving at its current configuration, both externally and internally, in the early 1890s. Since then it has been in constant production and many believe it to be the finest sidelock ever made. It is certainly one of the simplest and most brilliantly conceived.
The Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ Hammerless Sidelock
Introduced in 1883 and perfected in the early 1890s.
Type: Bar Action Sidelock.
Cocking system: Barrel-cocking.
Bolting System: Purdey double bolt operated via top-lever & Scott spindle
Patented by Holland & Robertson in 1883 in its first form, further developed in 1887 and perfected around 1890, this famous action incorporates a pair of cocking levers protruding through the knuckle, which are depressed by the fall of the barrels, the rear of the cocking lever is raised, thereby cocking the tumblers. The action is simple, strong and reliable, is still made by Holland & Holland, and has been widely copied by other makers such as AYA of Spain.
The original ‘Royal’ was not a self-opener. The spring-opening system (patented in 1922) used in the modern ‘Royal’ is notable in that, unlike other guns of the type, it utilises a coil spring mounted on the underside of the barrels to open the gun, rather than the mainsprings in the locks. The other notable feature of the ‘Royal’ is the ‘hand-detachable’ nature of the locks. Rather than the lock pins being finished with a slot head for removal by means of a turnscrew, they have a neat bar, which may be pressed with the thumb and turned further to remove the threaded spindle and, thereafter, the lock plates.
The ‘basic’ ‘Royal’ was a non-rebounding, bar action sidelock, unlike the Purdey, which has fully rebounding locks. Non-rebounding locks on hammerless guns are no real inconvenience, as the drop of the barrels cocks the tumblers and relieves the pressure on the striker automatically when the gun is opened (the Anson & Deeley locks are non-rebounding). As with the Purdey, the Holland incorporates an intercepting safety sear, which prevents the tumbler from hitting the striker unless the trigger has been pulled. Later, the ‘Royal’ was fitted with rebounding locks.
The Holland ‘Royal’ is a common lock type and the ejector system is, rather like the Purdey, an over-centre type worked by leaf springs in the forend. The Holland (patented by Henry Holland) ejector has fewer parts than the Purdey. It is much copied and very reliable, rarely malfunctioning unless a spring breaks.
The Boss Hammerless Sidelock
Type: Bar-action sidelock
Cocking System: Barrel-cocking
Bolting System: Purdey double bolt operated via top-lever & Scott spindle. Early guns feature snap-under-levers.
Like the Holland, the Boss is a non-rebounding bar-lock and is cocked by the fall of the barrels. Like the Purdey and the Holland, it features an intercepting safety sear to block the fall of the tumbler if it should fall without the trigger being pulled. The Holland safety blocks the tumbler from the lower part of the limb, whereas the Boss intercepts an inadvertently falling tumbler from higher up. Where the Boss significantly differs from either the Purdey or the Holland is in the ejector system.
The Boss ejector uses a twin set of coil springs instead of twin leaf springs to power the ejectors. These are housed in the forend and operate slides, which press on rods acting on the ejector legs on the conventional split extractors. One advantage of the coil spring over the V-spring is the fact that even when broken, the spring will activate the ejector well enough until a replacement can be procured. There is also something ergonomically pleasing and logical in having the spring working in the same direction in which the empty shell is to be ejected. Cogswell & Harrison later used the same principle for the ejector in their boxlock ‘Avant Tout’.
The Boss has a number of useful features. The extractor legs raise the unfired shells to the same degree as that of an ejected shell, just slower and in a smoothly graduated manner, rather than with the sharp ‘kick’ applied to the fired shell. The extractors rise at the speed in which the gun is opened and because the shells are held well proud of the breech, insertion and extraction of unfired shells is easy with cold or gloved fingers.
The original Boss action, like the original Holland & Holland, featured shoulders on the action. It was re-modelled in the late 1890s and the gun adopted its current ‘Purdeyesque’ stocked-to- the-fences appearance.