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A Rifle Collection

Rifle collecting is a compulsive business. The possibilities are endless. But, let us imagine we are starting on our journey. With what would one reasonably expect to populate an embryonic collection? I was asked this question recently by a would-be enthusiast. 

He wanted a hit-list of fifteen rifles, that represent the broad range of key types, to act as the skeleton of what, he hoped, would one day become an impressive collection. In reply, I outlined a purchase list that I think would produce a collection that spans the most interesting developments in sporting rifles from 1800 to 1939. Readers may agree with my ideas or not.

I’ll bet most will have a favourite rifle they think I should have included, but that is the fun about collections, you can expand them in whatever direction you choose, as the inclinations change and unforeseen opportunities arise. 

Since one cannot expect a budding collector to plan to own every variant and every development of every stage of rifle-making, I have condensed my battery into some iconic pieces that represent their eras nicely.

A flintlock.

Since this piece requires no license and should be displayed proudly in some prominent position, why not have something impressive? I found a 9-bore flintlock musket, apparently constructed for an army officer to shoot tigers with at relatively long range. It dates from around 1840 and is a composite, based on a Brown Bess musket, but with a 51 inch barrel and weighing 22lbs. It may not be a Manton but it will make a great talking point and is a real piece of Empire history.

A percussion muzzle loader.

From the absurd tiger rifle to a sublime park rifle, as we enter percussion ignition.This one is by James Purdey and dates from 1828. It is a .500 calibre single-barrel with a skeletal pistol grip and elegant side-locks. This represents the epitome of of a gentleman’s stalking rifle of the day. One can imagine it waiting in ambush for wild cattle on Hampstead Heath, back when London’s population was only a million.

A lever-action.

In the quest for a fast-operating mechanism for sporting rifles, one which was used for combat as well, despite never finding favour as a standard infantry rifle, lever actions deserve their place in any collection. The obvious choice is a Winchester and my selection is a .45-75, model 1876, because it is just such a rifle that saved Henry Morton Stanley on his perilous Congo expedition to find Emin Pasha.

A pump action.

Pump actions vied with lever actions for favour in the multi-shot category during the 19th century. The objection primarily aimed at these weapons was that they were insufficiently strong to withstand heavy charges. One of my favourites is the elegant and nicely made Colt ‘Lightning’. Colt made what they called a ‘Large Frame Lightning’ and one of these in .50-95 Express would be fun, (and off-ticket) though the small versions are also lovely things and perhaps a little more practical. I’d lean  towards a .22 long-rifle version if the owner planned to use it.

A Mauser action.

The Mauser is probably the best known and most widely used sporting bolt rifle to date. To a collector of sporting arms, its place has to be filled by a Rigby Mauser 7×57, circa 1925. Not only practical, but historic, elegant and desirable. Jim Corbett shot the man-eating leopard of Ruraprayag with his. You can shoot stags with yours.

A Manlicher-Schoenauer stutzen.

Stutzen rifles are a breed in their own right and Mannlicher’s butter-knife bolt action with Schoenaur’s rotary magazine is, in my view, the classic ‘gentleman’s rifle’ of the inter-war years. The engineering is genius and the little rifles handle beautifully, with their 19” barrels and silky smooth bolt travel. These were sold by British gunmakers, so you may even find one with a London name on the barrel or in the case. Calibre has to be the iconic 6.5×54.

A falling block.

Falling blocks, tipping blocks, all kinds of variation on the theme, produced some beautiful fixed-barrel, single-shot rifles for the wealthy stalker in the pre nitro-powder era of the 1860s and ‘70s. Perhaps the icon of the genre is an Alex Henry falling-block .450 BPE, built on the Gibbs-Farquharson design. Also off ticket in this calibre, it is still a capable game getter for the re-loader. A client of mine uses his in New Zealand to bag red stags on a regular basis.

A black powder express double.

Possibly the most beautiful sporting arms ever built, the BPE double hammer rifle is a triumph of engineering and practical gun-making at the bench. Form an era in which the finest gunmakers of all time were in their pomp, the quality of action filing and finishing is rarely bettered in any other type of firearm. Many makers sold them, for example I found an Alex Henry, made in 1875 in .500 BPE, with non-rebounding, bolted hammers and 28” damascus barrels. These rifles were intended primarily for medium sized deer and antelope. Now off ticket, they are still very capable and re-loading is relatively straightforward.

A boxlock double.

The boxlock was the staple of the African hunter during the fifty years between 1875 and 1925. Webley made them for numerous better known makers and the long-table Webley boxlock in .450 or .470 Nitro Express is the workhorse of its generation. Many are still going strong in the hands of professional hunters, having started work in the early 20th century – without the benefit of any proper gun-smithing. For makers, take your choice, I’d like to think we could find one by Watson Bros, with Harry Kell engraving, just to make it a bit special.

A side-lock double.

We need a Purdey/Beesley in the collection and I’d aim for a .450 Nitro Express. They were made with a variety of lever types and I once had one with a Greener type side safe mounted on the lock. Variant is not important, these Purdey self-openers are the engineering masterpieces of the double rifle world, the Rolls Royce of the genre, if you like. It will be expensive but the pinnacle of your collection and capable to dropping an elephant if you ever decide to take it on holiday in the bush.

A rook rifle.

Rook rifles ruled the estates of England long before the word ‘estate’ was linked with ‘council’ and associated with airgun misuse. These beautiful little rifles were miniature versions of the bigger rifles in wide use at the time. Largely in calibres that were obsolete before WW2, they were ousted by the .22 rimfire bolt-action rifles that were more efficient and cheaper to feed, though never produced in such beautiful detail. Many have been re-chambered or lined to .22 rimfire or .22 Hornet. A single barrel ‘boxlock’ version like a Holland & Holland ‘Ross’ is a classic, though double hammer versions are tiny double rifles of real beauty; and a lot more expensive.

A kipplauf.

A kipplauf is a break-action single barrel, single shot rifle for deer stalking. Made as a best quality rifle, in the manner of a best shotgun, they are rare – I have seen only one by Purdey, stunning it was too, in .303 calibre and built for a noble-woman. I’d aim to have it in my collection. Kipplaufs draw on an honourable continental tradition of ‘one shot’. If one shot is not sufficient, the animal deserves to win the contest.

A drilling.

Probably the only firearm that will not, or could not bear the name of an English maker. Drillings are a Germanic tradition of a pair of shotgun barrels with an under-slung rifle barrel. 16-bore with an 8×57 is a classic combination, capable of handling birds, deer or boar, according to need. They are typically German in their brilliant engineering and refinement and surprisingly effective in the field as rifles (though not so good as shotguns on moving targets in my experience).

A Cape gun.

The cape gun is a rifle on one side and a shotgun on the other, built as a side-by-side double shotgun would be. Heavy but versatile, they were limited in their appeal but represented a flexible option for the African sportsman or resident farmer/trekker. A good combination would be in a heavy .577/12-bore guise, such as one I once saw by Westley Richards. Many of these weapons are plainly finished and by makers like Thomas Bland, who specialised in well-made inexpensive guns for the export and wildfowl markets.

A Paradox.

The final slot is for a combination shot/ball rifle. something that can handle a shot shell in both barrels, but with a section of rifled choke that can impart sufficient spin on a conical bullet to make it effective at 100 yards. Top of my list would be a Holland & Holland double 8-bore Paradox with Fosberry patent rifled choke, but variations on the theme by other makers would fill this slot – like  the Westley Richards ‘Faunetta’ (20-bore) or ‘Explora (12-bore) models.

That ends my top fifteen rifles for the start of a collection. Once this is achieved, it can be filled out with all manner of weird and wonderful variations. However, if this was your numerical limit, I think this collection would be an admirable representation of the marvels of the most interesting period in gun-making and sporting opportunities afforded them and their owners. I’d be happy with it. 

Of course, auctions are a great place to start building a collection. Many of the rifles that inspired the list above, and which are used as examples, feature in Holt’s sale in London this June.