Boxlocks & Barrel Quality.
A brief look at the preferred barrel types to be found on British boxlocks.
Boxlock production began in 1875 and at that time damascus barrels were the norm across the range of sporting guns. These had lumps fitted by the dovetail method and quality was dependent of the cost of the tubes. A range of damascus types will be found on boxlock guns made in the last quarter of the 19th century. Damascus tubes, when well made, provided very good quality, safe and attractive barrels for all types of sporting gun. However, it was time consuming to make and demanding of both materials and skilled labour. Quality control was a constant problem.
Once Sir Joseph Whitworth’s method of creating fluid-pressed steel was established in common industrial applications, its use in gun barrel manufacture became obviously advantageous. Gunmakers quickly started offering steel barrels as options from the 1880s and 1890s, with damascus use declining as the new steels took over. By 1900 very few barrels were being made from damascus steel. Those that were used were being sourced more often than not from Liege.
Best quality guns by major manufacturers began to feature the chopper lump construction method, in which lumps and barrels are made from a single piece of steel and joined in the middle. However, it took time for this to become universally applied to best guns and some firms, notably Boss and Holland & Holland, did not always employ it, even on their best sidelocks. Though, often kept quite, during the 1970s and 1980s dovetail replacement barrels were commonly fitted by these firms when re-barreling was commissioned, as a cost saving measure.
Boxlocks with chopper-lump barrels are unusual. Made primarily as sub-best gun standard, A&D guns were generally given steel barrels with lumps dove-tailed in, as in the days of damascus barrel making. However, many plainly finished double rifles built on the A&D frame were equipped with chopper lump barrels, the plain finish not being an indicator of a low quality gun, merely that embellishment was superfluous to rifles which would have to work hard far from home for many years. Invariably, the construction and materials employed in the building of these rifles and retailed by the likes of Rigby and Army & Navy were first class.
William Evans published an interesting explanation as to their choice of steel for barrels in their 1893 catalogue. Evans refers to ‘..want of uniformity in the steel produced’ by early makers. He goes on to comment that ‘…the quality in which…the first steel barrels were wanting was toughness. Such being the case steel barrels fell into disfavour and went almost out of use’. He explains his preference for Siemens barrels for use in his guns. He believed these to be ‘stronger than any figured iron’. He also thought steel barrels to be less prone to denting, less variable in quality and less likely to develop pits.
When inspecting a boxlock, the verification that it has original chopper-lump barrels should be an important indicator of high build quality and a correspondingly high original purchase price for the piece. However, dove-tail lumps work perfectly well and rarely come loose. Many very high quality guns were built with dove-tail lumps so it would be a mistake to consider the absence of chopper-lump barrels on your boxlock an indication that it is not a high quality piece. It may well be of very high quality and further inspection is required.
Barrels should be well struck-up and smooth, ribs should be without waver and deviation on their surface and bores should be concentric. On guns that have seen a lot of renovation and repair it can be hard to see through this to the original quality. Once concentric bores may have been lapped out of concentricity, once smoothly struck walls may have been pitted and dented. However, it is important to look and see what there is to be seen.
As with all old shotguns, wall measurements are very important in determining the amount of life remaining in the barrels and, therefore, in economic terms, the life of the gun. When discussing boxlock longevity with Paul Roberts, one-time owner of Rigby and a man who has been at the forefront of the gun trade for fifty years, he told me there were no weak points in a well-made boxlock. The reason they go out of service is invariably barrel wear. The implication being that, if you look after your boxock’s barrels, the gun will last forever.
Re-barreling a boxlock is generally uneconomic in the current climate; the cost of re-barreling will be a multiple of the value of the gun in most circumstances. Therefore, buy wisely and assess barrel condition carefully when determining the price to pay. At one end of the scale, my own collection includes a Needham boxlock with a thin spot of 15 thou, which I paid £40 for. It serves perfectly well as a rough gun and is safe to shoot. It won’t survive another dent-raise or lapping out. I bought it with full knowledge at a price that was right. If ignorant of the wall thickness, the gun could easily have justified a price tag of three or four hundred pounds.
Real barrel quality is often observable from the shape of the rib. Best quality ribs have straight, even and undeviating sides and top surfaces, no wobbly shadows should be visible on the surface, throwing distracting shapes on the barrel walls when viewed from a mounted position. To get it right takes time and skill – and skilled time in 1899 cost money, just as it does today.
It is noteworthy that boxlock barrels were produced according to the price and quality of the gun. For example, a William Evans gun retailing for 20 guineas had barrels costing £9, whereas the 15 guinea gun had barrels costing £7.10s and the 12 guinea gun was fitted with £6 barrels. As an option, Whitworth steel barrels could be chosen, at an additional £3 over the standard Siemens or Damascus barrels. The barrels are very much the heart of the gun and their quality and condition helps us to determine the grade of the gun and the life left in it.