Improving the Original?

Converting Shotgun to Rifle.

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Guns & Gunmakers|September 2022

James MacNaughton, the Edinburgh gunmaker, now part of the John Dickson group, took out a famous patent in 1879. It covered what was to become his most renowned and admired work; indeed what many consider to be the most graceful and elegant shotgun ever made. It is universally known as ‘The Edinburgh Gun’.

Mechanically, it is a trigger plate gun; a precursor to Dickson’s ‘round action’ of 1880. The ‘skeleton bar’ style, with wood covering most of the metal of the action is unquestionably beautiful and vintage versions are very desirable.

What few people seem to remember is that hidden away inside the patent (No. 2848 of 1879) filed for ‘The Edinburgh Gun’ was a plan for a falling block rifle.

MacNaughton wasn’t really known as a rifle maker and rifles bearing his name are few and far between. However, the falling block design he patented could also be used as a shotgun action.

made in 1880 and of fearsome proportions

Back in 2017 Christie’s still had a Sporting Guns Department and in April that year sold an example of exactly that - a MacNaughton falling block shotgun. A 4-bore no less. It carried serial number 759 and sold for £8,125.

The gun was made in 1880 and is of fearsome proportions, with a 48 1/2” damascus barrel and weighing 16lbs 6oz.The hand and forend are unchequered and the action is case-hardened. It was chambered for a four-inch cartridge and nitro-proof tested.

The action itself loosely resembles other falling blocks like the Farquharson, with a lever under the guard. When the lever is pushed forwards, a link to the block, pulls it down and clear of the chamber. This limb, as well as lowering the breech block, cocked the hammer. With a cartridge inserted, the breech is then sealed by pulling the lever back into its locking position, snug against the guard.

The next time I saw the gun it had changed significantly. It was 2022 and I was walking Gunmakers’ Row at the Game Fair. Stepping onto John Dickson’s stand, I noticed the gun on display but now it no longer sported a 48” Damascus barrel, it had a short, unfinished rifle barrel screwed into the action.

Jean-Pierre Daeschler (proprietor of Dickson) explained to me what had been going on. The current owner had decided he wanted to alter the huge wild-fowling gun by removing the shotgun barrel and replacing it with a new, purpose-designed fully rifled barrel. He wanted the biggest MacNaughton rifle in the world. Well, that is what he is going to get.

His purpose? “He told me he plans to fire one or two shots and then retire it into his collection” said J-P. Of course, they then had to design, and have specially loaded, some cartridges, with their one thousand, two-hundred grain lead projectiles. Regulation will be a lot easier with one barrel, rather than two but even so, these huge rifles are difficult to set up. The leaf sights are set at 25 yards, 50 yards and seventy-five yards.

That massive bullet, turning in the coarse-cut rifling imparts a twist on the rifle, which can be felt by the shooter, as the rifle twisting in his hands. Add to that the fearsome recoil and I hope whoever regulates it doesn’t have to fire too many shots. The customer asked for fifty rounds.

the barrel has been made to exactly fit the existing woodwork

J-P found some old brass four-bore cases and had his engineering firm turn new ones to match from solid brass. The cost of each cartridge is around £150.

Proof testing, has been discussed as a one-off with the Proof Master, David Miles. There are no commercial loads to compare, so a proof load has to be worked-up based on the service pressures of the ammunition made to order.

Now the sights need to be finely filed-up. They, incidentally, are made as a unit from the same twenty-seven kilo billet of steel from which the barrel was shaped. So, barrels and sights will be genuinely one-piece.

The barrel had to go to Austria for rifling; a process which took 72 hours in a very expensive machine. The clever thing about this conversion is that the barrel has been made to exactly fit the existing woodwork, which remains unaltered. Should it be necessary in the future, the old shotgun barrel could simply be screwed back into place.

The barrel profiling was initially turned on a lathe, then the sight sections were milled into basic shapes, ready to be hand-finished.

19th century designs are still very much in demand

This rather wonderfully mad project shows that people exist who still enjoy the creative process with firearms and altering an old gun or rifle is an alternative to the expense of a totally new build. It is also a credit to the maker that he is prepared to indulge such unusual requests from customers.

Of all the displayed firearms at the Game Fair, this, surely, was the stand-out for dramatic impact, though Rigby’s new falling block rifles, displayed just fifty yards further up Gunmakers’ Row further cemented the notion that 19th century designs are still very much in demand.

The rifle, when finished will have a 22” barrel and it will weigh a massive twenty-eight pounds; it needs to, in order to tame that huge cartridge.

Trying the trigger pull on the monster.

Dickson’s are completing the work in their own Dunkeld workshops and plan to have the rifle finished and in the hands of the owner by the end of 2022.

Of the hand-full of MacNaughton rifles ever built on this patent action, all were smaller calibres. This unique behemoth will truly be the biggest MacNaughton rifle ever built.

Now, I have fired some big rifles in my time and I’m usually up for a challenge but I have to admit, I’m almost hoping J-P doesn’t offer me the chance to sent £150 down-range during the next six months. I’m not sure my dentist would approve.


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Guns & Gunmakers|September 2022

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