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Restoring Guns

To restore or not to restore?

There are two schools of thought. Some people find a classic and want condition made as close to new as possible. Ideally, this involves applying new finishes, using traditional methods and skilled gunmakers, to replicate the original appearance the gun may have had over a century ago.

Old gunlocks get filthy and rusty.

This typically includes re-browning barrels, re-cutting chequer, raising dents, removing scratches, blacking furniture. It may go as far as picking out worn engraving, welding small external pits, re-striking barrels. It may even mean re-stocking, re-barreling and re-case-colour hardening. Whatever work is carried out, the desire is to make the gun look new.

2 ½” chambered and black powder guns will be re-proved to modern nitro, often for the, now common, 70mm case.

The other school of thought it to accept the patina, the knocks, the scratches and the wear of age and do the minimum work necessary in order to keep the gun in sound mechanical condition. The result desired here is an old gun, resplendent with its battle scars, yet capable of regular use. In this case, original chambers will be retained.

Of course these are two extremes. Most running repairs on vintage guns fall somewhere in between. A full, no holds barred ‘do-up’ might cost £2,000 or more but most owners do what they feel necessary as the need arises. The more common scenario for a full restoration is when purchasing a gun for a client as a basis for one; either at auction or privately. In such cases, we normally begin with a rather tired piece to start the project.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and to some, any residue of wear is ugly. They want their gun spotless when they take ownership. To others, originality and character are found more pleasing. They want no sign of any restoration work visible. From my motorcycling days, I remember the riders of ‘rat bikes’ proudly blatting around on dirty, ugly bits of battered kit, however, they were mechanically sound and often invisibly improved. They contrasted with the owners of super-shiny, all original concours type riders. Gun owners are a bit like this.

I don't like my guns to look 'tarted up'.

I’m often accused of pulling out ‘Trusty Rusty’ when in the company of gleaming new guns, but the old girl always seems to soak up the shells and kill the birds, despite appearances.

Well, I need a back-up for ‘Trusty Rusty’, for occasionally she has to go for a bit of TLC at the hands of Dave Mitchell, who keeps her in fine fettle despite my merciless abuse. Despite having scores of ‘big name’, beautiful guns on the rack, I have not yet settled on one that I really want to put aside for personal abuse. That gun might just have arrived this week. I now have to decide what to do to bring her into service.

All the grime needs to go.

She is by my favourite kind of maker – one nobody has ever heard of! I love finding unsung quality. It also stems from my favourite period – the 1870s. To my mind, better bench-work was never done. It also features the wedge shaped stock and Jones under-lever that so define my Thompson. Obviously, the barrels are 30” damascus and the action a bar-lock hammer gun. When put side-by-side on the bench, the shapes and dimensions are achingly reflective of my regular field companion.

The gun in question, by W. Thorn of Pall Mall (recorded only 1874-1875) has black powder proof marks, pitted barrels and no sign if much post-manufacture gun smithing. Do I restore or not? Well, my preference is to keep my guns from looking too  ‘done up’. However, I’m practical and use them hard. I will lap out the barrels and raise the dents but I won’t re-brown them until they are worn bare. I will fix the crack in the butt stock and clean off the crud but the finish will be muted and satin, not super shiny. I will boil off the action and re-joint it but I won’t re-colour harden it.

Now the contentious bit – proof. Well, if it were for a client, I would re-proof the gun. It is sensible and in many cases a legal requirement. Professionally, I would be irresponsible to do otherwise. However, I’m not going to sell this gun. The barrels are thick, the action beautiful quality and the mechanism sound. The proof houses are destroyers of old guns as much as saviours of them. I will not submit my guns to proof unless legally required to do so. The charges they expose them to are abusive to guns of this age and, in my opinion, unnecessarily so.

Time to get to work.