British Over & Under Guns

A concise guide to the specifications of the British O/U models.

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Guns & Gunmakers|August 2018

The side-by-side was the generally accepted ‘default’ configuration for the quality sporting shotgun from the days of the double flintlock, as perfected by Manton in around 1810, to the beginning of the 20th Century. As we have seen, the advent of a new ‘must have’ design every ten years or so conveniently allowed the gunmaker to keep supplying his customers with another gun in each new style. Having perfected the side-by-side double by 1880, gunmakers were faced with the awkward situation of having made guns that worked perfectly in every respect and that were of such high quality and workmanship that they would last for at least 100 years of reasonable use. They had nothing left with which to tempt their customers to buy a new gun.

For a ‘new’ angle, some London gunmakers reverted to a very ancient design, the over and under. The perfection of this style of breech-loading gun was the last big hurdle and it took until just before the First World War to achieve. A lot of inventors tried, and many made very well designed high-quality products; but two stand out after almost 100 years. They are the Woodward and the Boss over & under sidelocks, though others would contribute to the spirit of invention and help achieve the perfection of the over & under just before The Great War, which was to herald the end of an era, an era in which the British shotgun would give way to the wares of Italy, Spain, The USA and Japan as the weapon of choice in all but the very best grades.


The Boss Over & Under

Introduced in 1909

Type: hammerless back-action sidelock

Cocking System: Barrel cocking

Bolting System: Bolted bifurcated lumps on the lower barrel. Scott spindle and top lever.


In 1909 John Robertson owned and managed the famous firm founded by Thomas Boss. Robertson (working with his factory manager Bob Henderson) was the first gunmaker to devise an over/under gun that would survive in its original form to the present day. What Beesley had earlier done for the side-by-side hammerless gun with his 1880 patent, Robertson and Henderson did for the over/under 29 years later.

The lumps on the Boss are lower than on the later Woodward but it shares the same principal of dispensing with the traditional side-by-side design of forging lumps on the underside of the barrels. On an over/under lower lumps produce a very deep action, which lacks the streamlined appearance of the Boss. Roberson took the lumps, placed one on either side of the lower barrel (which as Burrard points out effectively becomes the lump) and at a stroke solved the problem. This breakthrough was a huge factor in ensuring the success of his design. The ejectors are of the coil-spring type used on Boss side-by-side guns but developed to fit the over/under. The ejectors work on coil springs, which are housed in the forend, one either side of the barrels.

The success of the Boss lies with its combination of ease of use, reliability and light weight. One ‘issue’ many shooting men must have had with the new over/under type shotguns being produced before WW1 was their heavier weight and ungainly appearance, when compared with best sidelock side-by-side guns. The Boss weighed around 6 ½ lbs as 12 bore with 29” barrels and could be made under 6lbs if fitted with 25” barrels. It was graceful of line with lively handling characteristics. Being a Boss, it is unsurprising that Major Burrard described the workmanship as “beyond praise”.

With their production of the Robertson o/u, Boss established the stack-barrelled configuration as a real gun of the future rather than a passing fad, which it may have become if not developed beyond the comparatively heavy and ungainly offerings of many other gunmakers. The Robertson over/under is still offered by Boss today and is much copied.


The Edwinson Green Over & Under

Introduced in 1912

Type: Back-action hammerless sidelock

Cocking System: Barrel cocking

Bolting System: Purdey type under-bolts and bolted top extensions, operated via a Scott spindle and top-lever.

Edwinson Green 12-bore.
Edwinson Green was a Birmingham-trained provincial gunmaker, based in Cheltenham, who, like Pape and Horsley, was not simply a retailer and finisher of Birmingham supplied guns, but a true gunmaker in his own right. Green’s over & under is especially interesting because it was adopted by Purdey and formed the basis for their unsuccessful ‘sextuple grip’ over/under, which Purdey built from 1923 – 1939 in various forms, the later ones reduced from six to four locking bolts but still not really competing with the more streamlined and lighter Boss and Woodward guns, which were its competitors.

While retaining the conventional lumps under the lower barrel, which show that Green was still thinking of the standard Purdey-bolted side-by-side when devising his over/under, and therefore higher in the action than the Boss or the Woodward, the Green gun is streamlined and graceful and is very well made. As a 12-bore with 28” barrels, it weighed 6lbs 12oz.

As well as the under-lump locking, the Green had a rectangular-section bifurcated Greener-type bolt at the top of the action, operated by the top lever and engaging with twin extensions of the sides of the top barrel. The ejectors are individually housed either side of the solid central rib and are tripped by rods projecting through the bar of the action.

As with many over/unders of this period which passed into history and are usually recorded as failures, the Green over/under is a fast-handling, well balanced gun of high quality and it is very pleasant to shoot.


The Woodward Over & Under

Introduced in 1913

Type: Back-action hammerless sidelock

Cocking System: Barrel cocking

Bolting System: Bolted bifurcated lumps on the lower barrel.

Purdey continue to make the Woodward over & under.
Woodward patented this design four years after the (Robertson patent) Boss over & under, which had been met with immediate acclaim. Woodward’s take on the over & under mirrored the Boss in the utilisation of lumps on either side of the ‘under’ barrel rather than the traditional Purdey under-bolts employed on side-by-sides. This strategy enables the gun to be made with a reduced depth of action and gains it a more streamlined appearance.

Slots machined into these lumps received the locking bolts to secure closure, backed up by the close fitting, curved surfaces of both lumps mating with the metal surfaces in the action. Other areas were closely mated in a series of ‘tongue and groove’ joints, which locked up very solid when the action closed, imparting good lateral rigidity. The ejectors adopted by Woodward are of the ‘over-centre type’. Of course, a complex design with so many interlocking faces requires the very best workmanship to be successful. Major Burrard listed the attributes of the ideal over & under as “light weight, small depth of action body, ease of taking the gun to pieces and putting it together…. and ease of loading”. The Woodward scores in all these departments, which goes a long way to explaining its success over the past 90 years.

Woodward’s were well known for the quality of their guns and produced the o/u from 1913 until 1948, when Charles Woodward retired and sold the firm to Tom Purdey. From this point onwards, the Woodward gun replaced the old Edwinson Green based Purdey model over & under and, with modifications to the locks, firing pins, safety and top-lever this has been the Purdey over and under gun offered by the firm from 1950 to the present day.


The Westley Richards ‘Ovundo’ Over & Under

Westley Richards adapted the Deeley & Taylor hand-detachable locks, derived from the original Anson & Deeley boxlock and applied these to the over/under configuration, adding side-plates for ornamentation. In Leslie Taylor’s 1914 patent, the lumps are bifurcated (one on either side of the lower barrel), though located higher than on the Boss or the Woodward, almost at the joint between top and bottom barrel. These hook into the face of the action and are secured by downward-pressing bolts when the gun is closed. The barrels hinge on a lower lump, an unfortunate side effect of which is to make a deeper action than otherwise necessary. A novel pivoted striker system helps to deal with the inherent problems over/under guns have with the oblique angle of the pins in most designs, which can lead to inefficient blow delivery to the primer. The gun was fitted with a bolted top extension, and single trigger of the 1909 Taylor patent.

Westley Richards have recently resurrected the Ovundo.
Deeley ejectors, housed in the forend were used and the gun, though appearing less streamlined than either of the two pre-eminent models, is finely constructed and well balanced, though reliability problems are widely rumoured. As with many of these old designs, of which few models now exist, reliable, first-hand accounts of regular usage are difficult to obtain.


The Beesley ‘Shotover’ Over & Under

Frederick Beesley, ‘Inventor to the London Trade’ and famed for his Purdey sidelock action was in business on his own account at the time that London makers were turning their attention to over & under shotguns. Typically, Beesley approached the task with ingenuity and originality. His o/u of 1912-13 was called the ‘Shotover’ and is unlike any other in that in order to obtain the best possible angle of strike for the ‘under’ barrel, he turned the lock which fired it upside down (sometimes this was the right lock, sometimes it was the left). This allowed the angle of strike to be horizontal on both barrels rather than having the sharply angled lower barrel striker of other designs. The mainspring is compressed when the gun is closed and the locks incorporate intercepting sears to prevent inadvertent discharge. Unusually, the assisted opening mechanism of the gun works only when the gun has been fired, which is actually when it is most required.

The forend cannot easily be removed as it is fixed to the barrels by a screw at the joint pin. Like the Boss, the ‘Shotover’ uses the bifurcated lump arrangement, which generally produces a shallower action. However, there are additional grips on the underside and a simplified Rigby-Bissel style top extension and vertical bolt. The overall effect is of a solid, large framed gun. However, in 12-bore it typically weighed a modest 6lb 10oz. Beesley also made the gun in 16-bore and, if a lightweight gun was required, as a 5lb 10oz 20-bore. It was fitted with V-spring, adapted Southgate-type, ejectors in the forend. Numerous, slight, variations are found in the ejector systems used from gun to gun, suggesting Beesley continued to refine the gun for some time after it went into production.

Though certainly well engineered (possibly over-engineered) and made in fine quality, the Beesley did not achieve the sales volumes of the Boss or Woodward designs and a side-by-side comparison shows why; it does not quite have their grace of line and proportion and, like the Purdey sextuple-grip gun, built a redundant degree of locking strength into the action, which must have made it very expensive to make. Few examples of ‘The Shotover’ survive and it was certainly only made in small numbers. Beesley died in 1928 and the ‘Shotover’ did not continue in production after World War 2.


Holland & Holland Over & Unders

The story so far has included the names Purdey, Woodward, Boss and it is not surprising that the name Holland & Holland must join them in chronicling the development of the over & under in Britain in the early part of the 20th Century. What is perhaps surprising is the fact that Holland & Holland struggled with the over and under as a practical proposition for most of the century and for varying reasons did not make a success of their forays in this direction until its closing years.

Their first attempt was the 1914 patent by Holland & Mansfield, a back-action sidelock, which retained an under-lump and was handicapped by compromises in strength in order to reduce the depth of the action. Between 1915 and 1937 Holland & Holland made only fourteen guns on this action, including some rifles and at least one combination shotgun/rifle. It would be 1950 before they tried again.

Wally Jacobs and Bill Kenniston designed a gun, which abandoned under-lumps in favour of bifurcated lumps of the type used on the Boss and Woodward guns. In the Jacobs patent the locking bolts were angled downwards to add strength. This back-action ‘Royal’ sidelock gun was mechanically a success but commercially a failure. It was made in ‘Royal’ and ‘Modele de Luxe’grades and (with 28” barrels) weighed between 7lb 2oz and 7lb 8oz, depending on whether ordered as a field or trap gun. It cost more to make than it sold for and even so it was 25% more expensive than a comparative quality Holland & Holland side-by-side. Only twenty-two of this first-model ‘Royal’ over/under were sold, the last was completed in 1958.

In 1992, Holland & Holland adapted the Jacobs design, developing new ejectors and modifying it elsewhere to reduce production costs in the light of new techniques of modern manufacture. This model ‘Royal’ continues to be made today and is in every way as successful as the earlier Boss and Woodward designs. Due to the high price of the ‘Royal’, Holland & Holland also introduced a lower priced trigger-plate model over & under named the ‘Sporting’. This is locked by bifurcated lumps on either side of the lower barrel, which are engaged by a similarly bifurcated bolt emerging from the action face. This however, is not a back-action sidelock; it is a trigger-plate action with a detachable trigger/lock assembly. Although conceived as a clay gun, it is also available as a game model. It is these over/under models that Holland & Holland currently offer.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|August 2018

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