Woodward Part 3

The First Over & Under

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Guns & Gunmakers|March 2024

The story of the origins of Woodward’s over & under includes a gun that is, in every sense of the work, unique. Its existence was alluded to when The Field reviewed Woodward’s “Under & Over” in May 1913.

The writer commented that ‘rumour has it that they made a gun in the new manner long before the specimen now submitted.’ In fact, the gun in question was completed in March 1909, six months before Robertson received the patents for his design and four years before Woodward patented the action we still know today.

Much of the story of this gun is a mystery, and what little that is known about it is drawn from two sources: Woodward’s catalogue, printed in the 1920s; and the Christies catalogue description written when the gun was auctioned in 2001. However, like the story of the Woodward/Beesley action, this is a story with as many questions as answers.

To start with what is known: On 22 March 1909, No. 6078 was entered into Woodward’s Dimension Book. This was a 12-bore that, in many ways, had a very similar specification to the guns around it, with relatively open-choked 29in. barrels, a Woodward single-trigger and their classic semi-pistolgrip stock.

However, the weight of 8lb. 15oz. immediately shows that this was not an ordinary game gun. This is confirmed by the notes, which describe the gun as having ‘Whitworth steel barrels placed vertically (one underneath the other instead of horizontally)’. Such detail was to be expected, given the novelty of such a design at that time.

In terms of the gun’s design, Woodward adopted the same approach that most gunmakers would take when faced with such a challenge, and produced something which was hugely over-engineered. The weight of the gun is the most obvious proof of this, as the first true Woodward ‘Under & Over’, No. 6320, weighed just 6lb. 9¼oz. despite being a broadly similar specification - a disparity of thirty-seven ounces.

Both records note the respective barrel weights, which show that there was a difference of 11 ounces between the two. The remaining 26 ounces must then be made up between differences in the weight of the stock and action – a sizeable amount, and an indication of just how much bigger this original action was.

When Woodward described the gun in their 1925 catalogue, the most obvious difference is in how the barrels were locked to the action. This original design had ‘…the lugs or steels…placed underneath the barrels, the usual type of bolts securing the barrels to the action.’ This suggests that the action incorporated Purdey bolts, in a similar manner to Edwinson Green’s design from 1912. As with that design, and the Purdey ‘Sextuple Bite’ guns that it inspired, this required a full-width cross-pin, making the completed gun much deeper and gave it ‘a rather clumsy appearance.’

The Christies description and photographs provide some further information. The action is much larger than the later design, and the angle where the action wall and standing breech meet is reinforced by an elliptical bolster on each side. The action wall is much taller than the Woodward we know today, and the back-action sidelock includes an extra pin. Intriguingly, an inset image in the catalogue suggests that there was a small projection on the bottom of the action, but whether this means that the lump pierced the base of the action, or simply how the gun was supported for photography, isn’t clear.

The action is much larger than the later design...

The description also mentions a concealed third-bite, which was described in the Woodward Dimension Book, although this suggests that the wall-thickness at the breech-end of the gun was much larger than it would be today. The stock and forend had both been replaced, with the latter rising high enough to cover not only the entirety of the bottom barrel, but much of the top barrel as well. In his footnote, the cataloguer went to great pains to note that, although built by Woodward, ‘…there is absolutely no similarity…’ between this action and the design that was patented in 1913.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, this gun appears to have been commissioned by a client. When Woodward built guns for stock, they would issue a serial number but leave the date blank until the gun was sold. As such, it is quite easy to spot stock guns that sat on the shelf for some time, as the date of sale will be out of sequence with the other entries on the same page.

This is not the case here, as the date fits with those around it. It then begs the question as to why that buyer would want a gun that had never been seen before, at least from a British gunmaker, and why he would commission Woodward to build it. In this case, the buyer was Herbert L. Pratt, who was then Vice-President of Standard Oil. Pratt was known as a very keen hunter, who just three years earlier had purchased the 9,000-acre ‘Good Hope’ hunting plantation in South Carolina.

In the 1920s he became President of the company, as well as Woodward’s biggest buyer of “Under & Over” guns in that decade. This included a trio of 24in.-barrelled 16-Bores, and two 12-Bores. Although the latter had different barrel lengths, he appears to have used them as a pair when shooting grouse on the Yester House estate, which he rented from the Marquess of Tweeddale in the mid-1930s. It was quite a grand affair, as was documented in a photographic article by Life magazine in 1938. Woodward supplied 7,000 cartridges that year, with everything from 12-Bore down to 28-Bore and .410 for the ladies in the party.

Sadly, although Pratt’s Woodward accounts survive from 1921 through to the late 1930s, there is no record of No. 6078. This means we do not know how much he paid for it and suggests that he had parted with the gun prior to that date. It was certainly much heavier, and had significantly longer barrels, than most of the guns he bought in the 1920s.

However, this is not the end of the story. The Dimension Book entry also has the name ‘Cundiff’ penciled after Pratt’s name, which leads to an account for Captain J.W. Cundiff. On 26 November 1942 he purchased ‘No. 6078…(our first model)’ from Woodward, at a cost of £50, and had it shipped to a US Army officer in Glasgow the following January. Whether the gun had remained in Woodward’s possession all those years is unknown, but it is interesting that, when the gun was auctioned at Christies, the oval was engraved ‘Lt. Col. ‘RED’ Cundiff’.

There is one further coincidence that is worth mentioning here. In the 1920s, E.J. Churchill commissioned Charles Hill, the designer behind the Woodward action, to produce their ‘Premiere’ over & under actions. These were very similar to the Woodward action, but without the usage of the tongue & groove locking which the patent protected.

The largest of these ever made was No. 3979, a 10-bore wild-fowling gun built for a Dutch shooter in 1927. While it is not possible to confirm whether Charles actioned this gun, when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1983 the buyer was Major F.W. Cundiff.

This may well have been Major Frederick William Cundiff, a British Army officer who served as MP for two Manchester constituencies between 1944 and 1951. Sadly, it has not been possible to confirm whether he was related to J.W. Cundiff, but it is intriguing that the first ever Woodward over & under, and the largest Hill-type action ever produced, might have both once formed part of the same collection.

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


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Guns & Gunmakers|March 2024

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