Were the 1870s the Real ‘Golden Age’?
The magic era for the cataloguing of British sporting shotguns is 1929-1939. For some reason the 1930s have become known as the non plus ultra; the best decade, the ‘Golden Era’ in which the guns we all love were produced. A 1930s Purdey is the ‘best of the best’: easy to sell, highly sought after.
Regular readers may already have pegged me as something of an iconoclast and I hope they will be tempted to read further, because I am about to argue that ‘conventional wisdom’, to use a dreadful modern phrase, has got it wrong. It is the 1870s, not the 1930s that I have gravitated towards over the last few years and not, I would argue, without good reason.
While the wares of the 1930s gun maker offer us sound investments and beautiful shooting companions, they are expensive and not all of us can afford them. However, I do not think we lose out by looking back another half a century for our guns. Indeed, I think we get proportionately more for our investment of time and cash.
However, before I slur the reputation of the greatest decade of sporting gun production, when the British trade was in its pomp in terms of workmanship and organisation and the technical sophistication of the guns was essentially modern, let us examine further why the 1930s ‘Golden Age’ is seen as such. In socio-economic terms it is an oddity from the very start.
The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 saw a ten-year slump in worldwide economic activity and it took World War Two to herald the end of the period of financial misery that enveloped the majority of the populations of modern industrial nations. So, what was going on that makes the 1930s the supposed acme of sporting gun production in the minds of modern collectors? Why not the far more prosperous 1920s, when more people had more money?
Comparing the decades is interesting; Purdey made 300 guns in 1928 but only 100 a year from 1931-1934, reflecting the dismal times, when many of their craftsmen were sent home due to lack of work. Holland & Holland reduced their working week to thirty hours in 1932. These were hard times for gunmakers. To be fair, not every modern commentator insists on the 1930s as the key decade; David Baker has 1900 as the central point of his book ‘Heyday of the Shotgun’, but the market generally perceives the 1930s as the decade from which to buy, if you can afford to.
Here are some considerations that I believe are material in comparing pre-war guns: 1920s guns were likely to get shot quite a lot. Society was busy being social between the wars and shooting parties were in full swing. All the major developments of the modern shotgun were, by then, in place: single triggers, ejectors, bar-action side-locks of conventional ‘stocked to the fences’ form and enough time had elapsed from the initial developments of the successful patterns of each mechanism and form for them to be perfected and established as a norm. British side-locks have not significantly altered from this norm in the subsequent eighty years. The buyer of a 1995 Purdey would have collected essentially the same gun his grandfather could have walked out of Audley House with in 1925.
In comparison, 1930s guns were often shot much less. While being as technically developed as 1920s guns, they had fewer years of use before their owners had to put them away and fight a war. Many owners never returned and many that did found the austere post-war decades too economically difficult to include much formal shooting. Country houses were being demolished at an alarming rate in the face of post-war dilapidation, dropping agricultural profits, socialist tax policies breaking-up landed estates, as well as a lack of servants to run them. In many cases, heirs to the estates were in short supply, having become wartime casualties. Empire was shrinking rapidly into Commonwealth and the old days looked to have gone forever. England was past her best and the decline of the old order, its social trappings and conventions appeared to have consigned the sport of shooting to the dustbin of history.
Perhaps the ‘as new’ condition of many 1930s guns has contributed to their modern popularity. A 1936 Purdey or Holland & Holland with relatively few rounds through the mechanism and little chance for rough treatment ticks all the boxes for the modern buyer. It will safely last three or four more generations of fair use and, if kept in current condition, will be a safe haven for whatever funds are sunk into the purchase. Anyone looking for a modern sidelock or boxlock would do well to buy a 1930s example. It will invariably encapsulate all the modern features desired and the visual style and quality of the gun will be conventional and impressive. They certainly compare favourably with later output. Put a 1939 Churchill ‘Hercules’ best boxlock alongside a 1970s version of the same gun and the 1930s gun stands out in every respect.
So what is my point? Well, we have stuck ourselves with the assumption that everyone wants a best London top-lever, side-lock or boxlock ejector. Maybe they do. I don’t. I have had them and loved them and shot everything with them. Then I sold them. To explain why, I want to drift back in time to unveil the work of a slower age, when men in every sizeable town in England worked at their provincial benches by gas light or sunlight and turned out unique guns by their own hand; all different, all the best the man could deliver for the price paid. A time when individuals had their own ideas about what was going to be useful, effective, admired. Specialists existed in the rabbit-warren gun quarter of Birmingham and the surrounding districts, providing components of wonderful quality and hand-made integrity.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture shows the sophisticated appreciation of fine wood and the shaping, bending and finishing of it into chairs, tables and cabinets, which marked the age. These skills and this knowledge permeated through the gun trade. Quality wood was abundant. It was properly aged, selected for form and function and shaped by hand and eye to flow gracefully from the metal and fit the shooter perfectly in a seemingly effortless balance of shape, weight and proportion.
1870 was the start of an interesting decade. We were five years away from Anson & Deeley showing the world that hammerless guns could be simple, reliable, neat and technically efficient. (As an aside, Bonhams offered for sale the very first Anson & Deeley gun in their December sale. It was once in the collection of Westley Richards but sold off some years ago.) We were three years into the era of the rebounding lock; Stanton and others having shown the way to dispense with the old need to pull the hammers back manually to release the pressure on the strikers.
Breech loading was technically in its seventeenth year in Britain (taking the Great Exhibition of 1851 as the introductory date) but had only really been in the public eye since around 1860. Centre-fire was nine years old, Daw having patented his idea in 1861, but the previous decade had seen pin-fires still very much in demand and competing for space with centre-fire guns (and muzzle loaders) in the order books, because conservative sportsmen were unsure if the new system would prevail.
Breech loaders, of course, were, by 1870, the modern norm for the twenty-year-old sportsman contemplating a new gun on reaching his majority, their having been in circulation for eighteen years of his two decades on earth. The Jones under-lever had been reliably screwing actions to barrels for twelve years and sporting guns had become much faster to operate than users of muzzle-loaders could have imagined a quarter of a century earlier.
The craftsmen who built the beautifully perfected muzzle-loaders of the 1850s were still at the bench and applying their skills, to blend the handling characteristics of their old masterpieces into the new-style guns. To see the evidence of this, pick up a late muzzle loader and feel the perfect symmetry it shows and the natural way it mounts and swings. Richard Arnold in ‘The Shooters Handbook’ asserts that nothing modern compares favourably with the old muzzle loaders and he is not wrong. However, breech-loaders are what we require today, so let us move on and consider a late 1860s or early 1870s hammer gun. It will very likely resemble the muzzle-loader in shape, proportion and handling.
Shotguns in 1870 could do everything we need them to do. Shotguns from that decade still do. What is more, they have character. Character matters. At least, it matters to me. Now, of course, in 1870 we did not have a homogenous level of output countrywide. Guns took time to build and many delivered in the early 1870s were built on 1860s patents and mechanisms. We have to remember that lots of patents were being registered every year but adoption of them was not instant, as it is in these days of key-pad communication. It took time. This makes it an interesting decade to consider, as guns made then can be typical of their time, behind the times or anticipating trends that would later dominate.
1870s guns are individual, many are one-offs. Each one has a character. The collector of 1870s guns also has more to choose from because there was never a time when more makers were making centre-fire guns themselves, rather than ordering off-the shelf guns from Birmingham with their own names added to locks and barrels. An 1870 Pape is a real Pape, a 1900 Pape was largely a product of Birmingham, built on the generic Rodgers’ action, or the Anson & Deeley, and indistinguishable from an Army & Navy or William Evans gun of the same period and grade.
1865 saw the combination of the Purdey double under-bolt with the Scott spindle and top-lever. By 1880 this was in general use across the trade. Greener lever work was a variation used on all Greener guns and adopted by the trade for cheaper guns due to its ease of manufacture, being set behind the action body rather than drilled through it. Westley Richards persevered with their own lever-work, again a variant, more complex and less efficient ergonomically than Scott’s spindle but something of a trademark. Less resilient operating systems, like the Thomas patent top-lever bolting system and the Jones under-lever, work surprisingly well. The former is theoretically weaker than conventional bolting and the latter is slower, being inert. Does one need to worry about it? Not in my opinion.
The 1870s production model for most makers, most of the time, was the hammer gun. Bar action, back action and wood-bar models vied for favour. Top-levers, side-levers and under-levers were options and weight, proportion and balance were established. Damascus tubes from English suppliers and from Belgium were available and quality was high. Gunmakers were established as tradesmen and apprenticeships were the major form of entry. Once trained and productive, the norm was for a gun maker to continue working at the bench for the rest of his life.
Labour was cheap, time was available and standards were high. No monumental political or international events interfered with production, supply of materials or workforce and demand for guns was good throughout the trade. Business was booming. Birmingham had become rich on the supply of weapons to both sides in the American War of Northern Aggression and empire continued to supply orders for sporting guns of all types.
So, what is the archetype of the British sporting gun in the 1870s? Form will vary from maker to maker but hammers will generally be higher and more elaborate than later guns. Hammer shapes in the 1880s became more generic and less ornate, as components were supplied from Birmingham to set types, individual variations becoming minor. Hammer noses will be more elaborate. Many retain the recessed nose shape from percussion cap days, designed to prevent copper splinters reaching the eyes of the sportsman. Some will have fluted or squared off noses, others are dolphin shaped or serpentine.
Fences also often retain the beautifully carved and recessed striker borders, sometimes known as shell fences, again a hangover from percussion detonation (hence the term ‘detonating’ used by some firms to describe fences to this day). When one examines the quality, symmetry and flawless nature of this filing and finishing and the crude tools used to perform the work, it is hard not to admire and wonder at the time and skill involved in producing such shapes. Modern sidelocks by comparison look somewhat bland and straightforward, at least to me.
These were pre-choke days; remember choke was patented in England in 1866 by W.R Pape and did not gain wide acceptance until after W.W Greener proved its effectiveness in the 1875 trials hosted by J.H Walsh and his influential magazine, The Field. Barrels were bored by experience rather than science. Barrel makers and borers applied their art to good effect at the pattern plate to produce guns throwing extraordinarily even patters of a chosen load at a given distance, despite the handicap of rolled-turnover cartridges. It was a time consuming and skilled business. I like to check the undersides of the tubes on any guns I take in, to find the small stamped impression of the barrel maker which indicates the man responsible with two discrete initials.
Many of these men today are forgotten but those initials stand testament to their work and their contribution as strongly as they did on the day they were struck. Ribs of damascus steel were soldered with flux and tin to the tubes and struck-up flawlessly. I use the rib as a clear indication of original quality when assessing a gun. The best are without deviation, with straight sides and sharp and unblemished smoothness on the surfaces. Gutters are invisibly seamed and the rib blends into the tube faultlessly all along the join.
Engraving on guns of this period is most unlike that favoured today. Small rose and scroll had not yet become firmly established as the norm and high quality guns with minimal border and large scroll engraving vied with others of full coverage scrolls for favour. Clearly some still appreciated the seamless fit of metal-to-metal and wood-to-metal and did not need elaborate engraving to add further embellishment. The quality was already clearly apparent to the discerning eye. It still is. Interestingly, game and dog scenes were already emerging on gun locks and they range from the crude, to the comic, to the characterful.
To illustrate some of the attributes of 1870s guns, we shall now examine some examples that recently passed through my hands. They represent what I believe to be fantastic value in today’s market. They are still perfectly adapted for shooting game birds and remain in amazing condition for their age. Each one represents something slightly different and each, in its own way, is typical of the period. They represent fantastic quality for the money they cost and a fascinating history accompanies many of these guns. Such histories add enormously to the pleasure of ownership, at least I think so.