The Paris Exhibition of 1878. Part 4.

Purdey's First Hammerless Gun

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Guns & Gunmakers|April 2022

When looking at the list of guns taken to Paris in 1878, the exhibition grade guns are the most visually striking and well-recorded today. However, this means that they overshadow other guns which, although not as fancy, are equally notable for other reasons.

Amongst these is a notable ‘first’ for the company, although it appears to have escaped comment at the time; No.10,106, the earliest recorded ‘hammerless’ gun to bear the Purdey name.

No. 10,106 has always been something of a mystery, as the records that survive are frustratingly vague. As noted in Donald Dallas’ history, it was tested in September 1877, but its entry in the Dimension Books is dated 27 July 1880. The gun is simply described as a ‘Hammerless gun’, with 30in. Damascus barrels and toplever, sold to G.W. Amory.

Due to the completion date, Dallas believed that it was an experimental action, sold as a lower grade gun after Beesley’s action had been introduced. However, it now appears that this was not the case.

The gun is simply described as a ‘Hammerless gun’, with 30in. Damascus barrels and toplever,

The packing list for Paris shows No. 10,106 as one of the initial twenty-nine guns sent out on 18 April, ready for the show’s opening at the beginning of May. Rather than being in the main list of guns, it is included further down, under ‘Other things sent Apl. 18’. Purdey’s accounts appear to have been written up retrospectively from day books which have not survived, and so it is not clear whether this means that it was a last-minute inclusion.

It is again simply described as ‘Hammerless’, and had a nett sale price of £68, the same price as a best hammer gun. Despite its novelty, it went unmentioned in Sala’s description of the Purdey stand, and it also failed to find a buyer at the exhibition.

At the end of the exhibition, the gun returned to England, but its story has another part. On 22 November 1878, just twelve days after the exhibition ended, the gun was sold to William Crawshay. Crawshay, of ‘Riverdale’, in Newnham, Gloucestershire, was named after his grandfather, the ‘Iron King’ of Merthyr Tydfil. He was involved in the Forest of Dean operations of the family business, and was a frequent Purdey client in this period.

It would also appear that he was slightly eccentric, as in 1875 he began a twice-weekly four-horse stage coach service from Newnham to Cheltenham and Gloucester, doing most of the driving himself and in the process reviving a service which was described by one contemporary as having ‘almost become obsolete.’

Crawshay purchased the gun, uncased, for £71 4s – about £5 more than a bar-in-wood hammer gun of the period, and £3 4s more than its minimum sale price at Paris. This strongly suggests that it was viewed as a Best Gun, rather than a lesser grade. Crawshay’s invoice also includes a slightly more detailed description of the gun:

C.F. BL. D Gun, Self-Cocking 12-bore, 10106, Gold oval, extra handsome, snap forepart

This is mostly as expected; a ‘Centre Fire Breech Loading Double Gun’. The note that the gun was ‘extra handsome’ suggests that it had a higher grade of stock fitted, and the extra £3 4s would be in line with the figure published in the 1885 Purdey catalogue for ‘Extra Quality’ finish. However, there is very little additional information to confirm what action was used.

The description of the action as ‘Self-Cocking’ may offer some clue as to what action this gun was built on. The term was applied to those guns, both hammer and hammerless, cocked by the operation of the lever rather than by the fall of the barrels, otherwise referred to as ‘lever-cocking’. Of the next ten hammerless guns built after No. 10,106, the following action types were recorded:

1x Anson & Deeley action;
4x Woodward actions;
3x Southgate actions;
2x unrecorded.

It is most likely that the Woodward and Southgate actions were all built on the T. Southgate & J. Woodward patent of February 1876. This was a lever-cocking design, and was sold by James Woodward & Sons as their ‘Automaton’ or ‘Automatic’ action. However, all were completed with Daw-type underlevers, rather than toplevers.

Woodward’s own ledgers suggest that ‘Automatic’ actions were only fitted with underlevers until 1882

This appears to be in keeping with the patent specification, which did not include a modification to operate with a toplever. Woodward’s own ledgers suggest that ‘Automatic’ actions were only fitted with underlevers until 1882, when sidelevers first appear. No. 4020, completed in 1886, is the first recorded ‘Woodward’s patent top lever Hammerless gun’, and their first ‘ejecting’ gun, No. 4118, was sold the same year. These appear to have been distinct from the ‘Automatic’ model, which continued to use snap-underlevers or sidelevers.

Given the above, the use of a toplever on No. 10,106 makes it unlikely that it was built using the Southgate & Woodward action. It is also unlikely that it was built on the Anson & Deeley action, which was not ‘self-cocking’ in the language of the day, and which would also have required a royalty payment. The only other self-cocking action associated with Purdey at this time is that developed by one of the company’s gunmakers, John Apted.

He received provisional protection for such a design in July 1873, he never received full patent protection. A design by G. Gibbs & T. Pitt, patented in January the same year, was virtually identical in operation and meant Apted was seven months too late with his design. Examination of the patent specifications suggests that the only difference between the two was where and how the projection from the bolt actuated the tumblers. However, by exhibiting the gun at Paris five years later, Purdey risked a claim of patent infringement by Gibbs.

The first gun recorded as being built on ‘Apted’s Hammerless’ action is a toplever gun, No. 10,452. The entry records it as being operated by ‘Rollers in tumblers & on end of bolt working on lump & is cocked part by opening lever & part by barrels dropping.’ This is very similar to the description included in the patent submission, and may have been an experimental action.

Again, although the gun was completed in May 1880, it was eventually sold, uncased, in July 1883 for £47 5s, whereas a cased Beesley action sold for £71 8s the day before. In total, twenty ‘Apted’ guns appear in the Purdey ledgers, the last of which was completed in October 1881. It is unclear whether the later examples were on the same action as the original design, or how long they had been in hand.

Once Beesley's action was purchased it became the only best quality hammerless gun Purdey made. Here an 1889 example and a 1920 single trigger pigeon gun.

Crawshay does not appear to have got on with the gun as he returned it only a month later, on 31 December 1878, for a credit of £61 4s. It remained in stock until 25 August 1880, when it was sold to G.W. Amory, of Quincey, Massachusetts. The gun was sold with ‘hand(sic) case & measures’ for £47 5s, with an additional charge of 2s 6d for stamping his name on the case. Interestingly his invoice does not make a reference to the gun being second-hand, suggesting it was effectively sold as a ‘new’ gun. When the £10 deducted when Crawshay returned the gun, Purdey made a gross total of £57 5s from No. 10,106, against the £68 they had initially wanted two years before.

The speed at which hammerless actions developed becomes apparent when looking through Purdey’s records for this period. When Purdey attended the Sydney exhibition in 1879, the two hammerless guns they took were both built on Southgate & Woodward actions. However, these had been completed in 1878, and no more guns were completed by Purdey using that action after that year. Over the course of 1879 and the first half of 1880, Purdey appears to have used a mix of ‘Apted’ and ‘Clutch’.

The latter appears to be a reference to William Adams’ design, developed while he was working for Purdey and patented in March 1879, with James the Younger purchasing the rights in September. A total of 14 ‘Clutch’ actions were completed, but although the last examples were recorded as completed in March 1881, the serial numbers suggest that they had been in stock for about a year by that time. There was also a barrel-cocking design developed by another Purdey craftsman, H. Schmidt, but only two pairs are known and both were completed in August 1880.

thereafter Beesley’s design became the only ‘Best’ side-by-side action to be made by Purdey

Frederick Beesley had assigned the rights to his patent to Purdey in July 1880, and received the final payment made in commutation of royalties on 16 November. The first Beesley action was completed in December 1880, although deliveries only appear to have started in earnest from April 1881.

In October 1881 the last ‘Apted’ guns were delivered, and thereafter Beesley’s design became the only ‘Best’ side-by-side action to be made by Purdey, a status it has held for one hundred and forty years. By 1884, hammerless guns accounted for 65% of Purdey’s sales, all of which would have been on the self-opening action.

The sale to Amory is the last record found regarding either him or No. 10,106. That it was exhibited in Paris shows that Purdey’s entry into hammerless guns was much more public than has previously been understood, even if it is not possible to be absolutely certain as to what design of action was exhibited in Paris. Its development marks the start of the ‘modern era’ at Purdey, and demonstrates how quickly such designs evolved, and how rapidly most of Purdey’s clients changed over to hammerless guns.

Dr. Nicholas Harlow is Gunroom Manager at James Purdey & Sons in London.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on

Guns & Gunmakers|April 2022

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