The classic image of a professional hunter probably includes a long-table Webley boxlock double .470 with screw-grip, or even a .416 Rigby bolt action, his wealthy client may be armed with a beautifully engraved Holland & Holland .500 side-lock. What the mind’s eye probably won’t conjure up is a round-action rifle of any kind in either of these images. The round-action is, surely, an elegant shotgun, most at home on the grouse moor or the pheasant drive.
Readers of Rifle Shooter who are not also shotgun enthusiasts may, at this point, even be struggling to picture a round-action. So, for clarity, I’ll start by describing the design and its origins.
Until the late 1870s, most double rifles wore their hammers on the outside. Anson & Deeley’s patent ‘boxlock’ of 1875 was crucial in showing sportsmen that ‘hammerless’ doubles could be reliable, robust and attractive. The boxlock was especially suited to applications such as big double rifles destined for a hard life abroad. The better side-lock actions also saw service as expensive double rifles. Holland & Holland’s ‘Royal’ and Purdey’s spring-cocking self-opener were both being offered by those firms well before 1890, as was Rigby & Bissell’s ‘rising-bite’ action. Even Greener’s ‘Facile Princeps’ patent action, of 1880, was the platform for double rifles of that firm’s manufacture. These actions represented mainstream thinking in the gun trade at the time.
So much for London and Birmingham. Meanwhile, Scottish makers were busy turning out their own peculiar, ingenious and beautiful design of the moment: the ‘round action’. The action varies between makers both internally and externally but it is, essentially, a trigger-plate action, with all the lock-work mounted on the trigger-plate and inserted from below. If the ‘round-action’ could be successful as a shotgun, why not as a double rifle? The collector of today will occasionally be confronted with one of these masterpieces. The maker will be either John Dickson or James MacNaughton. The modern big game hunter has been catered for, with essentially the same design, by David McKay Brown. So, an action which has been in use from 1879 to the present day must have some merits.
Although Dickson is the better-known gunmaker and, perhaps, most associated with round-action guns, the design originates with MacNaughton’s patent of July 1879. It hit the patent office just as the British were mopping-up after victory over the Zulus in South Africa; a war that lasted from January until July of that year and included the massacre at Isandlewana, the heroic defence of Rourke’s Drift and culminated in the decimation of Zulu forces at Ulundi. British power was exemplified by the industrial sophistication of its weaponry, while the Zulus were still going into battle with pointy sticks.
MacNaughton cannot take all the credit, the trigger plate design that inspired him came via his friendship with Julius Coster, an exiled German gun maker, who worked for Alex Henry for time. Coster’s father was making drillings and shotguns in his home country, using trigger plate actions. MacNaugthon, a successful gunmaker, with thirteen employees at the time, saw the potential. The key wording in his patent reads; ‘…a new general arrangement of limbs or work of the lock on the trigger plate, with the hammers ranged near the centre of the gun, and all removable with the trigger plate by the unscrewing of three screws…’
The gun built on this patent was pleasingly rounded in the bar and attractive, with good weight distribution and inherent strength. Early MacNaughtons were cocked by the long top-lever, but barrel cocking replaced this system in the 1890s. These MacNaughton guns and rifles of the period are engraved with the name James coined for his action; ‘Edinburgh’, as well as his own name. James MacNaughton died in 1905, which may be why we still think of Dickson first when round-actions are mentioned.
For an example of the ‘Edinburgh’ as a double rifle, we can look at a rare example sold by Holt’s last year. This is a lever-cocking bar-in-wood version made as a .450 (3 1/4”) BPE. It is the seventy-fifth use of the 1879 patent and has MacNaughton’s patent crystal windows, showing the hammers to be cocked or at rest. Weighing 7lbs 14oz with 28” barrels and a 14 1/2” pistol-grip stock, it is leaf-sighted for 100 and 200 yards. Quality, balance, detail and proportion are exquisite. Someone paid £16,000, plus around 30% commission for it, which puts it on parr with a good 1920s Purdey side-lock 12-bore. The difference is; there are lots of Purdeys around. You will struggle to find another MacNaughton like this.
Dickson, another gunmaker based in Edinburgh, not far from the premises of MacNaughton, clearly liked the distinctive trigger-plate action, which is so very different from anything the London and Birmingham makers were offering. He saw the advantage of a ‘Scottish’ identity that could be applied to a distinctive design and set about getting one for himself. Dickson lodged his patent 294 of January 1880. This would become the Dickson Round Action for which the firm is best known today. Following a convention of the Victorian era, when fathers named their sons after themselves, ‘John Dickson’ managed the family business through more than one generation. It was the third John Dickson who designed the round-action. The key part of Dickson’s patent was the cocking slide and the instructions as to how this could be fitted to a trigger plate action. Further patents were taken out to provide ejectors and three-barrelled versions of the round action.
The first Dickson round-action was sold in April 1880 to Capt. George Chalmer. In 1935 Dickson were still offering the round-action as a shotgun and calling it ‘The Finest Gun in the World’ at a cost of £120 while it was offered as a rifle ‘price on application’.
An American dealer sold a good example some time ago. It was built in 1912 as a .360 (No.2) with 26” chopper-lump barrels with quarter-rib, weighing 9lbs 10oz, with classic Dickson large scroll engraving. the stock, with pistol grip and a lever-release forend, give it the classic lines of best doubles of the era, yet the round-action makes it distinctly Dickson.
David McKay Brown
McKay Brown apprenticed at Alex Martin and John Dickson. After a decade, in 1967, he set-up his own premises and by 1974 he was building round-action guns of his own. He has built round-action rifles in calibres from 9.3 to .600 N.E. Currently, he offers .375 and .470 N.E versions. McKay Browns look very like Dicksons. The distinctive top-lever shape, the rounded bar and fences, all look classic Scottish.
The advantages claimed for the round action include the strength advantage of having a solid bar, save for two narrow ejector holes, barrels are bolted with three bites: a conventional Purdey double-bolt engaging the bites in the lumps (which are wider than a normal side-lock). The third bite is on a top-rib extension.
The positioning of the sears enables trigger pulls to be set precisely and crisply. For double rifle use, McKay Brown offers a pistol grip and cheek piece.
Critics of the round action point to the slim fillets of wood either side of the triggers, necessarily hollowed out to make way for the trigger plate and all the internal lock-work.It could be argued that what the round action gains by having a very strong-for-weight action, it loses in having a relatively vulnerable stock around the head. For double rifle use, a long top-strap can be employed to strengthen the connection.
I recently had a McKay Brown .470, one of only three that I’m aware of in that calibre. The rifle is a chunkier version of the round action shotgun, yet, even scaled-up, it feels lively, point-able and instinctive. All essential parts of a successful double rifle. Having faced-down dangerous game in several parts of Africa, I’d be pleased to have this as my companion. Not only does it feel capable and beautifully made for the purpose, one cannot help feeling that campfires would be enhanced by its presence in the gun rack, the lights and shadows of the flames flickering on its beautifully figured woodwork and across the graceful, yet purposeful contours of the round action. It looks made for work, but its beauty enhances the experience of use.
How many more round-action rifles will come out of the McKay Brown factory, one can but speculate. The founder is approaching retirement and it may be that this classic design will finally disappear from the range on offer to the sportsman as the twenty-first century enters into the latter stages of its first quarter. So far, the round action has been in production for 139 years; it would be a shame if it faded into history.