Issue 17 November 2020

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The Earliest Reilly Breech Loader?

A provincial auction finds an important Pinfire Rifle.

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Guns & Gunmakers|September 2020

This month I made an old (ish) man very happy. Gene Williams, an American with a passion for Reilly guns and rifles has written a fair amount on the subject and is always interested to learn more, especially information which helps him with his project of dating and archiving production records of Reilly weapons.

As part of my remit keeping an eye on auction activity, I found and sent him some details of a Reilly rifle I though may not be on his radar. The auction description read:

‘Cased Reilly double barrel pin-fire 15 bore rifle, serial number 10054, 30 inch Damascus barrels with 502 New Oxford Street London address, fixed sight and folding 100, 200 and 300 yard sights, figured chequered stock with plain silver escutcheon, case hardened back action locks and receiver decorated with scrollwork, fitted into mahogany case with maker's label, containing oil bottle, screwdriver, pouch with cleaning jags, and an empty cartridge pouch, as well as several incorrect size Joyce No.16 empty cartridges.’

They added a condition report, stating: ‘The rifle has very good bores with strong deep rifling. There is no visible pitting and only one light patch of grey in the right-hand barrel bore, this might clean out.’

Not only was I correct about Gene not having a record of this particular rifle, he told me (very enthusiastically, that it was, to the best of his knowledge the earliest Reilly breech-loader known to exist. He dated it to 1856 and speculated that it could be one of the earliest known pin-fire, breech-loading double rifles to have survived. Gene has built up a large database of Reilly information, including a log of all the serial numbers he has been able to find over several years and from these he has been able to build a chronology of dates of manufacture.

The rifle appears to be in remarkably good condition. The action is of Le-faucheaux type with a forward facing under-lever running under the forend and swinging a simple, single bolt into a bite in the rear of the lump. It bears London Proof and View marks for 15-bore.

Some events and dates need to be considered if we are to establish the position of this rifle in the history of gun-making. 1856 is certainly early in the life of breech-loaders. It is commonly accepted that the Great Exhibition of 1851 (at Crystal Palace in London) was the catalyst for the revolution in sporting gun design that followed it. Casimir Lefaucheaux exhibited his pin-fire breech-loader there and it was copied by British gunmakers. Joseph Lang is credited with leading the charge but others followed close behind. Reilly was obviously one such early convert.

Rifle and case appear original and correct. The sanscrit witing on the exterior suggests it spent time in Asia.

Checking the records of Joseph Lang, the first breech-loader in the book is serial number 2086, which is noted ‘B/L’ and dated 1858. Unfortunately, the earlier records are missing.

Reilly was at 502 New Oxford Street (the address on the rib of this rifle) from 1847, so that doesn’t help enormously with dating it. The style ‘Reilly, Gun Maker’ on the rib was used until October 1859, when it changed to ‘E.M. Reilly & Co.’ The rifle is cased in a wooden box with a label and an engraved insert, both also stating ‘Reilly, Gun Maker’, which is a good indication that the box is correct and original and also helps place the rifle as pre-1859 but does not get us any closer.

it is very rare to encounter a British pin-fire breech-loader built between 1851 and 1857.

Donald Dallas, who has done a great deal of research into the early development of breech-loaders said; ’it is very rare to encounter a British pin-fire breech-loader built between 1851 and 1857, it was really only in the second half of the 1850s that they began to be built in greater numbers’.

I spoke to Robert Hodges to see if he had come across any vey early pin-fires. Robert is a descendent of Edwin Charles Hodges, who is relevant to the investigation because it is widely believed that Hodges made the first British breech-loading pin-fire guns for Joseph Lang, following the Great Exhibition. Robert told me he had not seen anything earlier than 1857 to the best of his recollection.

My final point of call was Mark Crudgington, whose collection of early sporting guns began with his father, Ian, co-author (with David Baker) of probably the most important and detailed trio of books published on the subject to date: The British Shotgun. Mark knows of two Lang Lefaucheaux type pin-fires that he dates to 1854 and said; “my understanding is that Lang did not really get going with selling English made pin-fires prior to 1853/4.”

Mark's thoughts on this are; 'The Reilly double rifle 10054 is certainly of an early type of action and design . It has post 1855 London proof marks . However you see pin fire guns built in the mid to even late 1860s built on the same plan, indeed I have 3 or 4 in my collection which fit that bill  ! Accurately dating it without either concise records from the maker or documentation cannot , in my opinion , be tied down to less that a 5 year period , to use as a built " Circa " date .'


Mark advised caution about dating guns with limited information, commenting; 'Modern , especially American ideas , of how the gun trade of the 18th and 19th C worked always appear to me to be based on a modern model that is irrelevant within an historical perspective  . For instance , in the main , no gunmaker took a deposit for a gun order in the mid 19th C , indeed many of the " new "breech loading  guns appear to have been built " ad hoc " at the start of the breech loading era and sold to prospective customers . Once an order had been placed , the gun would have been built , then shown to and probably tested by the new owner , who would have then taken it away and used it for a considerable time before paying for it , sometimes a year or more after the gun was completed . You have to remember most " gentlemen " would only settle their accounts once a year !'

The 15-bore Reilly rifle sold at Peter Wilson auctioneers on September 10th this year for £2,750, which is a significant amount for a pin-fire. However, for a very good example of such an early breech-loader, by a best maker like Reilly, who was in the leading pack when British gun makers were getting used to the idea that pin-fire breech-loaders may represent the brightest future for sporting guns, though the consensus was still a long way from being reached, it seems a very modest sum, considering the prices some historic guns achieve.

Gene Williams also noted “The left-over remnants of labels on the front of the case were in and of themselves interesting.  The label with the Sanskrit had enough characters to understand a bit.  "Tigor Singh"......"Reilly" are the parts I could make out.”

Reilly made guns for several Maharajahs and overseas royal families so it is entirely possible that this rifle spent its early years in the East.

Th earliest Reilly pin-fire, breech-loader yet verified.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|September 2020

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