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Collecting Guns

For many men, the hunting instinct extends beyond the seeking of game and the training and working of dogs, to that end, to the desire to search for, uncover, and eventually acquire, the finest guns they can. To assemble a collection can be both exciting, educational and satisfying. For many, there is also the anticipation of eventual financial reward; a carefully built collection can be liquidated when the time comes and in many cases has provided a useful, tax-free pension pot for the canny horder. 

Collectors, however, are not all alike. There is a niche for every proclivity and every budget. Over my many years in the company of these, often eccentric, always dedicated collectors I have learned to recognise some of the types involved and the items they covet and spend a good deal of their lives searching for.

The Single Maker Devotee.

Among my friends and clients are many whose interest rests mainly with a particular maker. To focus on a collection like this, it helps if the firm on which you lavish your attention has been in business for a long time. Otherwise, your collection is likely to be both small and uninteresting. One German friend made a very logical, dare I say typically teutonic, analysis of the possible makers he could collect. 

When he factored in his likely budget per purchase and the scope of collection potential, he concluded that the firm William Powell, of Birmingham would be the ideal subject. Firstly, they have been making guns since around 1830 and that means that William Powell guns span all the important developments of the sporting firearm. This makes for a varied and interesting collection, which now includes percussion, pin-fire, centre-fire hammer guns, sidelocks and boxlocks. Powells were also inventors and there are a number of interesting patents the firm held, which feature on their own gun as well as on guns they made for others, under licence. The firm were also ‘real gunmakers’ with in-house manufacture, unlike so many firms which relied on the services of the bigger gun factories to actually make the guns which carried their names.

My friend also realised that to collect Purdeys was out of his financial reach and he would have much better buying power if he concentrated on a quality Birmingham maker, rather than a more famous London one. The result of a lifetime of seeking out the best William Powell guns he can, sourcing from all over the world, has led to him having amassed probably the finest collection by this maker currently extant anywhere.

The Mechanism Buff

Some collectors seek the widest possible range of examples of historical developments. This will probably begin with a broad-brush approach. A flintlock, a percussion gun, a pin-fire, a centre-fire hammer gun, a boxlock and a sidelock. Once the basics have been filled, more detail can be sought, bar and back-action variants, perhaps a trigger plate gun, a hammer ejector or a single barrel trap gun. There are so many variations that a very interesting and varied collection can be built-up and displayed in chronological order. In fact, the scope of a collection like this can be too big for some people.  

One way of narrowing the hunt is to seek the best representative example of the classic models of each major maker.You can even combine the two categories and collect just certain types of gun by a particular maker. One American friend collects only Stephen Grant guns with damascus barrels. His collection is surprisingly large and varied with no two guns alike.

For many collectors, the focus is on what they consider ‘usable’ guns of the modern era. This is especially so with younger entrants to the arena. Hammer guns have their own special magic and, for some, nothing else compares. However, the hammerless breech-loading period from 1875, when Westley Richards patented the famous Anson & Deeley action, a model they have made ever since, right up until WW2, offers the enthusiast some fabulous sporting arms that are as effective to use and beautiful to own as anything you could order today. The additional beauty of the older gun or rifle is the end of devaluation. a new gun will generally lose money to the person who ordered it when he sells it. He has the VAT to shed and the ‘not new’ tag sees the price fall immediately. However, a gun made in the 1930s has done all that and inflation has taken care of the rest. It is now worth multiples of its original price tag. Buy it right and you should always get your money back.

So, what would I advise the neophyte collector to focus on when building his collection of modern sporting guns?

Well, the first piece of advice is to buy the best you can afford. Concentrate on as much original finish as you can get. Then on quality. Get the best quality gun you can find. If it is high quality and very original, it will always be a delight to own and a someone will always want to buy it. Then look at some of the iconic models that the top makers have produced over the years and start buying really good examples of each. Here is my guide to what you should start filling your racks with:

Purdey – A Beesley patent self-opening sidelock ejector.

Beesley’s 1880 patent, bought by Purdey and used ever since has been the flagship action of the company. Made as every bore of shotgun and many a calibre of rifle, it is in production today, largely unchanged, bar a few modifications to the ejector system used with it. The mechanism is pure genius and when made in the finest quality materials by the best gunmakers, it works beautifully and keeps on working. The Purdey is the only spring cocker that survived into the modern era and it is a true self-opener, springing open with vigour, whether the gun is fired or unfired.

Holland & Holland – A ‘Royal’ sidelock ejector.

If your budget is a little tight, go for an early 20th century ‘Royal’, it will have the modern shape and mechanism but will lack the self-opening system, patented in 1922. The earlier guns are beautifully made, handle superbly and have the grace of line and the beautiful Henry Morris inspired engraving of bold foliage and scrolls for which the model is known.

Charles Lancaster – a ‘Twelve Twenty’ sidelock ejector. The ‘Twelve Twenty’ designation was just a bit of marketing by Lancaster’s boss H.A.A. Thorn. The gun itself is a sidelock ejector built on the 1906 patent of William Baker. It is a clever assisted opening design with back action locks. With Lancaster’s house style engraving and of the finest quality, these 12-bores were often built as lightweight game guns and they excel as such.

Stephen Grant – A sidelever sidelock ejector.

Grant guns and the side lever are a much loved match. While most gunmakers moved towards top-levers and Purdey bolts, linked by Scott spindles, in the 20th century, Grant seems to have favoured the side lever and carried on using it well into the 1920s. Try to find a late one with damascus barrels and avoid the ones with coil spring ejectors if they are malfunctioning at all. In quality, Stephen Grant’s work cedes nothing to the better known London gunmakers.

Westley Richards – a Deeley & Taylor patent ‘droplock’ ejector.

The fixed lock Anson & Deeley was certainly Westley Richards’ most enduring gift to the wider gun trade but the 1897 furtherance of the concept into hand-detachable locks by Deeley & Taylor refines it to a work of art. In my view the best use of the concept was when applied to big double rifles for foreign travel. It offered security, instant interchangeability in case of malfunction, and ease of cleaning. Commission a new one if you can afford it – or find an old one. they are very robust and still work after a century. 

John Rigby – a Rigby & Bissel patent ‘rising bite’ double rifle.

Rigby have re-introduced the firm’s iconic action, a complicated and expensive to make bolting system, which is really a vertical bolt but commonly known as the ‘rising bite’. More commonly encountered on black powder era rifles, it can also be found on shotguns, often with snap under-lever operation and the firm’s distinctive dipped-edge lock plates.

William Evans – A Webley & Brain patent boxlock double rifle.

For the early 20th century sportsman, game ranger or professional hunter, this was the workhorse of Africa.The ‘long table Webley’ was used by many of the the big firms of the day; Rigby, Army & Navy, Henry Atkin. They all stem from the same stock. A .470 is perhaps the classic calibre for big game of the era but .450 and .500 versions are common.

John Dickson – A ‘round action trigger-plate ejector.

Dickson’e Scottish alternative to a London pattern sidelock. Some claim these to be the best handling guns of all, and having used one find it hard to argue. Many engraved by Sumner and with distinctive ‘swan-necked’ stocks, they are very reactive and beautifully made, usually with gold-washed internals.

James MacNaughton – An ‘Edinburgh Gun’ trigger plate ejector.

A slightly earlier Edinburgh trigger plate action by another renowned gunmaker, the skeleton bar version is about as beautiful as a gun can be. later versions have a better, barrel cocking mechanism, rather than the original lever-cocking system. A lightweight 12-bore game gun is teh classiest companion on the grouse moor you could hope to find.

Alex Henry – A falling block single shot rifle.

An alternative to a bolt-action or a double rifle, the quality single shot rifle of falling block or tipping block action gained some popularity as a stalking rifle for Scottish red stags and also found favour with the likes of F.C Selous in Africa. Beautifully made, very accurate and undoubtedly classy. A .450 black powder version by this classic Scottish rifle maker is a must.

Watson Bros – A .410 boxlock ejector.

Small bores are hard to find and very popular. Watson Bros made them something of a speciality, so why not seek one of theirs to fill this slot in your collection? The challenge is to find a gun of this gauge in proportions that will suit a modern adult. It might be a long search.

Holland & Holland – A ‘Paradox’ shot & ball gun/rifle.

Available in every shotgun gauge, Col. Fosberry’s patent caused a rash of copy-cat designs on the same theme. His rifled chokes enabled shotgun shells to be substituted instantly for a conical bullet, to tackle the tiger in the duck pond. Popular with colonial exiles and available in a range of models – why not try to find a 12-bore ‘modele de luxe’ made for a maharajah – just to keep the search and interesting one!

Boss over & under.

If you are going to add an over & under to your collection, the one to have is a Boss. The Robertson & Henderson patent design is efficient and graceful, the gun elegant, pleasing on the eye and in the shoulder and the build quality second to none. Calling best guns works of art is something of a cliche but in the case of the Boss, it is also accurate. Only the very best gunmakers at every stage of production can make these guns as beautiful as they are and the output of the firm today equals that of the past. The challenge of searching for a vintage model is finding one with acceptably robust barrels and an unaltered stock. Well used guns are so finely made that re-finishing is difficult to make look ‘right’. Boss made far fewer guns than Purdey or Woodward so good ones are in short supply; and expensive.

A collection is a personal thing but the guns and rifles listed above should provide it with a solid spine, which anyone would be proud to own. Collecting the finest sporting guns of the 20th century is not an inexpensive hobby but is is cheaper than collecting classic cars and guns are easier to store, service and handle. 

Whatever you do collect, keep a note for your executors. As all my collector friends tell me, they would hate to think that, should they get hit by a passing bus, their wives  sold their guns for what they told them they cost to buy!