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Damascus Barrels for Steel?

The Proof Houses say "No" but what will the data show?

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Guns & Gunmakers|June 2021

The proof houses have made it clear they will not approve the use of steel shot in guns with Damascus barrels.

Is this reasonable, in view of the 'inferiority' of the material or simply what cynics would call 'arse covering' because the subject is too complicated and it is easier to err on the side of caution where public safety (and oft-suspected pubilc stupidity) is the case?

Firstly, let us consider the material. Damascus barrels are not 'weaker' than steel barrels. Not all damascus (or twist) barrels are the same and not all steel barels are the same. The proof houses say we can shoot Standard Steel in steel barrels proofed after 1954 with 2 3/4" (70mm) chambers. By doing so they are taking a  view (in my opinion) that steel barrels made after 1954 will be of decent quality modern steels and likely to be sound (though any proof test will have been carried out with lead shot). So, it is an educated guess.

Tests carried out in the late 19th century indicated that of the barrel tubes available at the time, of the top four performers, three were Damascus. However, time has been unkind to many gun barrels, many now no-longer being concentric. They may well have been lapped out to remove pitting or may still be pitted or bulged. Before even considering steel shot, get the barrels checked to see what state they are in.

A lot of Damascus barrels were made when it was common for a 12-bore (.729") to be made at .719" or .710" in the actual bore. This is very tight by modern steel shot barrel standards (they are usually now made at .732"). Another reason to be wary and check with the correct measuring tools.

Given that I have checked all the above, I'm considering this Midland Gun Co. 12-bore as a candidate for experimentation with 'standard steel' shot shells. It has original 2 3/4" chambers and no choke at all (bulges behind the choke cone are common with choked barrels when steel shot is used). Eagle eyed readers will note the 'CHOKE' stamp on the barrels pictured - buth the choke has since been lapped out.

Though made at .719" in the bore (see the 13/1 proof stamp), it now measures .729" so I'm considering re-proofing it for 70mm standard nitro proof and then following proof house guidance by using standard steel loads (just ignoring the bit about don't shoot them in Damascus). My contention is that if they pass the proof test, they are demonstrably as serviceable as any steel barrels that have passed it).

Remember, it is not just the barrels that have to stand up to the rigours of steel shot shells and re-proof. The action has to as well. Fortunately this Midland Gun Co. 12-bore has a robust Anson & Deeley action with a Greener type cross-bolt as a third bite.

Nobody really knows what the result of using steel in older guns will be until someone has fired several hundred, or perhaps thousands of steel shot cartridges through them. Barrel makers I know have told me they have seen scored bores on all kinds of guns that have been used with steel for several years. I don't like the idea of putting steel down the barrels of our beautiful old shotguns but legislation says we are going to have to consider it, use expensive alternatives, or hang the old things up. Time to experiment!


Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|June 2021

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