Small Bores: Utility and scarcity

We pay more for a small bore gun than a standard 12-bore. But just how rare and usable are the smaller game guns that everyone seems to be looking for?

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Guns & Gunmakers|July 2019

The market being all about supply and demand, as it is, we can expect to pay more for a small bore gun than a standard 12-bore. But just how rare are the smaller game guns that everyone seems to be looking for today?

The twelve-bore was the standard British Gam gun of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. W.W. Greener estimated that for every five hundred 12-bores built he made one sixteen-bore and for every twenty sixteen bores he built one twenty-bore. It is no wonder they are so scarce in the vintage market place.

Modern small bores are heavy by comparison with their vintage forebears. So, before you go shopping for a vintage small bore, make sure it is built to handle the kind of shooting you are used to, or want to do with it. The reason Victorian gun makers built smaller bore guns for their customers was to reduce weight and make the gun better suited to a shooter who lacked the strength to carry and swing a 12-bore. That usually meant a child, a woman, or an infirm or elderly man.Watson Brois specialised in small bores. This is a 20-bore boxlock ejector.

Given that a larger bore produces a shorter shot-string with any given load; a 12-bore produces better patterns with that load and is preferable with what we should consider a normal ’12-bore load’. That means anything over an ounce of shot.

A 12-bore can be built in a variety of weights, of course. Most gunmakers recommended a 12-bore of 6 3/4 lbs to 7lbs for the average man to do his general shooting.

Specifications for a light 12-bore
By reducing the powder charge, light weight 12-bore guns could be made down to 5 3/4 lbs with 27” barrels, loaded with a charge of 3 drams of powder and 1 1/8 oz shot.

Seekers of vintage small bores may want to consider a light 12-bore instead, given that a lightly-loaded 12-bore will give comfortable recoil and deliver nice, even patterns - and that, very desirable, short shot-string.

Specifications of a standard 16-bore
Barrels of 30” and standard weight 6 1/2 lbs. Regulation was 2 3/4 drams of powder and 1 oz of shot. By 1910, most 16-bores were being built with 28” barrels and a weight of 6 1/2 lbs.

Specifications for a standard 20-bore
Barrels of no more than 28”, weight not more than 5 1/4 lbs. The standard load is 2 1/4 drams of powder and 1 oz of shot.

In each case, lighter guns could be built, normally the barrels getting shorter as the gun was made lighter. 20-bore and 16-bore guns could be built as light as 4 lbs 11oz, with 25” barrels; and a few were.

One must pay close attention to the loads intended for use in these lighter guns. It was common practice for wealthy shooters to order cartridges from their gunmakers each season. These would be loaded according to the build and regulation of the gun, which the maker would have recorded. The powder and shot load could be customised to suit the gun exactly.

Today, we have to choose from ever-changing commercially loaded options, intended for general use. While some Victorian guns were regulated for the novel ‘smokeless’ powders, like Schultze and E.C, most were originally built for black powder loaded cartridges. To find a load that suits your gun (this is especially important with light guns) time at the pattern plate is essential.

It is important to find a load that suits your gun and patterns well, it is also important to find one which is pleasant to shoot. A light gun will kick hard if loaded with ‘punchy’ cartridges. Even light loads nowadays can be unpleasant to shoot if loaded with very fast-burning powders and intended to produce very fast muzzle velocity.

It is interesting to note that the WW2 era Eley Grand Prix had a muzzle velocity of around 1100 fps, while many modern loads exceed 1400 fps. You pay a penalty in recoil. It is also worth checking patterns - the load recommendations of the old gunmakers warn against pushing loads too fast, as it blows patterns. The thing about muzzle velocity is that it does not carry on down range. At 30 yards the difference in shot speed is negligible between that which left the muzzle at 1100 fps and that which did so at 1400 fps.

In short, the point I am making is that choosing the same heavy, fast cartridges you use in your Beretta 20-bore O/U, weighing 6 3/4 lbs, to shoot through a Victorian 20-bore hammer gun weighing 5 1/4 lbs is not going to be the pleasant experience you were hoping for.

By all means, seek-out a dainty little game gun in a smaller bore than your norm but use it as intended and load it with sympathetic ammunition. If you do so, you will discover the joys of these beautiful, light,, surprisingly effective sporting arms. They can be very addictive. Don’t try and make them do the work of a 12-bore, or even a modern 3” chambered 20-bore.Cashmore 20-bore hammer gun with grouse taken using 23g of No.6. A proper 20-bore load.

I often hear the boast from users of modern 20-bores that better shots use smaller bores. Well, if you are throwing 32g of lead in the air from your 20-bore, while your neighbour is using 28g loads in his 12-bore, what exactly do you think you are proving? You are just throwing a 12-bore load down a smaller tube.

Start killing consistently with a traditional 23g load in a 5 1/4 lbs gun and I might be more impressed.
I will make the observation that small bores are not for everyone. The major challenge of light guns is their lack of momentum. It is very useful to get some instruction with your new small-bore, make sure it fits and develop a shooting technique that mitigates the lack of natural swing.

I have never fully mastered this and shoot inconsistently with very light guns. I shot my Cashmore 20-bore well at driven grouse but badly at driven pheasants. My current favourite sub 12-bore hammer gun is a Stephen Grant 16-bore of relatively heavy weight; at 6lbs 10 oz, with 30 1/4” barrels. I like the dimensions of the smaller 16-bore action, with its narrower tubes, and appreciate the excellent patterns it throws with 28g fibre-wad cartridges. The 16-bore gives the perfect ‘square load’ (as wide as it is high) when loaded with an ounce of No.6.

As for prices, market forces of supply and demand dictate that you will pay more for a small bore version of whatever gun you are looking at. More still for one with original stock dimensions that suit a modern adult. Most will have stock extensions to make them shootable.


Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on

Guns & Gunmakers|July 2019

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