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Black Powder Beauties

Seeking the biggest bang for the buck, to coin an American phrase, and perusing the many types of firearm available to the collector and user of vintage British rifles, one cannot help but fall for the beguiling qualities of the 1870s double hammer rifle.

The beauty of the old, heavy bullet, medium game rifles, for that is what they were (dangerous game in those days was tackled with ‘bore rifles’ at close range) the sheer quality of construction and attention to detail is breathtaking.

For many Victorian hunters, utility required them to adopt military weapons or commercially available repeating carbines. Martini action rifles were common, as were Winchester lever-action repeaters. However, for the discerning and wealthy gentleman heading out in search of ‘soft skinned’ dangerous game (lions, tigers and bears) or for tackling red deer or exotic ungulates of a decent size, nothing would do but a double rifle.

It is remarkable how many of these rifles still exist and appear to be in very good condition, considering the relatively small numbers that were made and the work they were intended to undertake. The key decades are the 1870s and early 1880s. Smokeless powders developed in the 1870s, like Schultze, were more easily applied to smooth bore guns than to rifles, until refinements allowed for their wider adoption into rifle ammunition. Vielle’s 1884  ‘Poudre Blanch’ was promising, followed in 1888 by Nobel’s ‘Ballistite’ and in 1891 by ‘Cordite’. This heralded the advance of ‘nitro express’ rifles. 

One must not confuse these later ’N.E’ rifles with the ‘BPE’ guns of the 1870s and 1880s. While both types appear in various .400, .450 and.500 calibre guises, the BPE versions are medium game rifles and the NE versions designed for thick-skinned dangerous game, like elephant and rhino.

Performance characteristics of .500 NE and .500 BPE will tell the tale: Original performance with black powder propels a 440 grain bullet at 1,500 fps and a muzzle energy of 2,198 ft-lbs. The .500 (3”) BPE, loaded with nitro-for black powder, fired a 440 grain bullet at 1,900 fps, delivering 3,530 ft-lbs of energy. The .500 (3”) NE, loaded with Cordite and firing a 570 grain bullet, achieved speeds of 2,150 fps and 5,850 ft-lbs of energy. A .500 BPE is likely to weigh in the region of 8 1/2 to 9 lbs, whereas the nitro version will tip the scales at 10 1/2 to 11 1/2 lbs.

Clearly, the rifles are very different, despite the bores being equivalent sizes. The .450 and .500 NE express rifles carried by elephant hunters in Africa in the early 20th century are very different to the . 450 and  .500 BPE rifles used for tiger in India in the late 19th century.

The double hammer rifles of the ‘70s and ‘80s are the epitome of hand crafted precision implements. They were made at a time in which craftsmen in the gun-making factories and workshops of Birmingham and London were at the zenith of their skills and ingenuity. Handiwork predominated, every surface was made to its exact final shape and contour from a forging by a supremely talented and experienced gun-maker. Different parts of the process were specialised  and undertaken by specialists.

The skills required to make a double rifle hold ‘on point’ effortlessly, despite its weight, come to rest with a perfectly steady sight picture through the leaf and ramp sights and group acceptably at set ranges are exceptional. Considering the technology (or lack of it) available to the gunmakers of the day, what they produced in terms of functional perfection and artistic beauty is remarkable.

For most rifles of this type, knowledgeable gun-makers appear to have favoured the combination of back-action locks, often with bolted hammers, rounded bars and the 1859 Henry Jones screw-grip (also called a double-grip) action. Barrels are usually of damascus construction and the forend held by a wedge and escutcheon in earlier versions and a lever-grip in later ones. Both provide a very secure fastening. 

In rifles, security and stability were more important that speed in balancing the attributes of the various systems available, whereas with shotguns, speed of re-loading was increasingly important to sportsmen, especially as driven game shooting became more popular.

As an example of the type, we can examine a .500 Stephen Grant rifle, built in 1871. It conforms to all the build attributes listed above, with Jones grip and under-lever, wedge-attached forend and leaf sights.

The stock has a curved pistol grip, which felt immediately comfortable and secure in my hands, the guard-strap extending into the steel grip-cap, providing a subtle but effective bolster to strengthen the wood.

The rib is full-length, flat and filed to reduce glare, much in the manner of a live pigeon gun. It has a standing leaf sight for 50 yards and a further two, folding options for 100 and 150 yards.

The action has a short top-strap and is filed flat to the rear of the rib. Engraving is generous coverage of fine scrolls. Despite its 190 year age, the rifle is in fabulous condition. It retains a lot of original case colour hardening, including on the lever, which, restorers should note, was originally cased-hardened, not blacked.

The non -rebounding locks are bolted, in this case with bolts placed forward of the hammers, to hold them at half-cock. This prevented inadvertent cocking of the rifle, when carried loaded but not required for imminent discharge. It functions as a very secure, but early, form of individual safety catch for each lock. Most conventional safety catches merely lock the triggers, so the bolted hammers are actually safer, though slower to operate.

Ammunition is relatively easy to find. Kynoch provide nitro-for black ready-loaded in new brass cases. Re-loading is still popular with owners of BPE rifles, as they can experiment with loads and bullet weights. Many of these rifles come with loading data on the cases or, sometimes, engraved on the rifle itself. Cases often contain bullet moulds and powder measures, as well.

As for these cost of collecting one of these beautiful rifles: the Stephen Grant illustrated here was sold to the owner for $6,000 in the United States. Holt’s listed an 1872 Purdey .500 (3”) in March 2016 with an estimated of £3,000 – £5,000 and an Alexander Henry .500 (3”) made in 1873 with the same estimate. 

If one considers £5,000 a typical purchase price for a very good example, these rifles are exceptional value for money. They are probably the hardest thing possible to make. In fact, nobody could make you one today approaching the finesse and featuring the apparent alchemy required to make these engineered masterpieces look, feel and operate the way they do. If they could, they would want to charge you close to £150,000.  In my opinion, this is the best value purchase of anything, anywhere, for the money. If you have a spare five grand, go and buy one now.