Part One: "Getting into Actions"
It is widely held that those in the market for a British shotgun should look for quality above name. While a good name is usually indicative of a good quality gun, there are many lesser-know or even obscure British gunmakers who produced guns of excellent quality, yet never achieved the renown of the more famous houses. These guns provide a bounty to the knowledgeable sportsman, since their prices are generally much lower than those from the best-known gunmakers. The question arises, however, what makes for a top quality gun? In this, the first installment in a series, I hope to present a few notions on quality.
The action is the heart of any firearm, and this is where we shall begin our study. Since actions come in two basic styles - sidelocks and boxlocks - there will be some points that are applicable to one style and not the other, but in most respects the indications of quality are the same across the board.
Actions generally use one of several basic styles of lockwork. Most later sidelock guns have bar-action locks. In this style, the mainspring is fitted to the forward portion of the lockplate and rests within a recess in the action bar. Some early sidelocks use back-action lockwork and are true backlocks. Their mainsprings are fitted to the rear of the lockplate and there is no protrusion into the action bar. Since no metal has to be removed from the action bar in this case, they make for a very strong action. Since the action bar is often rounded in these guns, some current retailers have taken to calling them "round action" guns, which is not technically correct (the true round action being a trigger-plate design). However, backlocks are generally perceived as being rather clumsy-looking and old-fashioned. To counter this problem, yet retain as much strength as possible, a hybrid was developed. Called a reversed-mainspring action, it uses back-action lockwork fitted to a conventional bar-action lockplate. Since only enough metal has to be removed to fit the thin extension of the lockplate (and not the full width of a mainspring), this makes for a strong, yet stylish, action. These locks are often seen on double rifles from makers such as Holland & Holland and are fairly unusual on shotguns. Since they require a bit more effort to fit than a backlock, they are generally associated with better quality firearms.
The vast majority of boxlock guns are built on the Anson and Deeley action. In this type of action the lockwork is not carried on separate, external plates at all but is fitted within the action body itself. The system is a marvel of simplicity and has been used to build guns from the lowest to the highest grades. Since the design itself is virtually unchanged from one grade to the next, it is the skill of execution that must be our guide to quality. While the Anson and Deeley action lends itself to lightweight guns, some lesser quality lightweights will develop cracking in the frame. A skilled actioner knows just how much metal can be removed without sacrificing strength, and better quality guns that have not been subject to abuse will always wear better than those of lesser quality.
Most British guns are built with V-springs in the action. While the coil spring possesses some particular merits (for example, it may continue to function even if broken), it is out of place on a better quality British gun. A properly made V-spring will almost never break in the course of normal service, and very few British gunmakers have seen fit to use anything else. A few plain-grade sidelocks using coil spring have been made for companies like Vickers and the Army & Navy, sometimes by Continental makers.
Detailed disassembly is best left to trained gunsmiths, but the inner workings of an action can tell us much about the quality of the gun. The surfaces should be polished bright, with no file or tool marks that might lead to weakness with wear. Many guns produced on the Continent today bear these signs of roughness which betray their lower standards. It is, however, common to find small stampings or markings on the lockwork of British guns of all grades. These usually identify the individual craftsmen who had a hand in the making of the gun. The mark of the lockmaker may be found, and to find the name of Chilton or Brazier (sometimes abbreviated as "I.B.") usually indicates a very fine gun indeed.
A mark of quality and a bonus for safety, intercepting sears are found on many better quality British guns. These prevent the tumblers from falling forward and firing the gun should a hard blow or fall knock the tumblers out of bent. Intercepting sears in sidelocks are generally found in two styles, either the Holland & Holland pattern (which uses two parallel sears) or the Purdey pattern (which uses a pivoting arm). Of these, the Holland & Holland pattern is the most common and is generally regarded as the easiest to service.
Later boxlock guns do not often have intercepting sears since they are usually a cheaper form of gun. When the boxlock action was introduced in the 1870s and 1880s the addition of intercepting sears helped ease fears about the new hammerless design. As people became more comfortable with the hammerless principle, this feature was gradually phased out as standard. However, many makers continued to offer them as an option and a few houses actually made regular use of them. Boxlocks that feature intercepting sears are most often from Cogswell & Harrison and William Evans, though many of the smaller makers who made boxlocks as their "best" grade added them as well. While is often necessary to remove the lockplate to determine if a sidelock has intercepting sears (unless the buyer has a thorough knowledge of the style of lockwork used, and can tell from the pin arrangement), intercepting sears on boxlock guns have a tell-tale feature - an extra pin (screw) behind the upper, rear edge of the fence. Some sidelock actions, particularly early examples, may use this type of intercepting sear as well.
Disc-set strikers allow the removal and replacement of strikers without disassembly of the action. In days long past, when priming caps were corrosive, they had an added advantage. Since most of the corrosion was directly around the striker holes, the replaceable disks allowed the owner to keep the breech face relatively pristine.
Many better quality guns will have gas checks. These are vents from the breech face which channel gasses away from the shooter's face should a priming cap rupture upon firing. On guns such as Purdeys, these vents are usually located in false screws near the lower edges of the fences. Careful inspection will show that the screw slot conceals a small vent hole. On guns from some other makers, the gas checks will vent through the top-lever screw, and a few early guns from Holland & Holland have simple grooves cut into the breech face to channel gasses from the strikers to the outer edge of the fences.
Fences themselves can be an indicator of quality. Many better quality guns have elaborately engraved, carved, or chiseled fences. This work may take many forms such as fine scroll engraving, gold inlays, or acanthus leaf carving. Some gunmakers are famous for the style in which they decorate their fences, and these have become something of a trademark. Woodward, for example, is known for their arcaded (also called castellated, "umbrella", or even "spider") fences in which graceful, forward-facing points are carved in relief. Stephen Grant is famous for their fluted fences, with a flowing groove running, along the juncture of the fences and the action body. This particular style has also been used by Rigby, often with the addition of acanthus leaf engraving within the groove. Holland & Holland have produced fine guns with clamshell carving on the fences. Among the Birmingham makers, Holloway (later Holloway & Naughton) developed a striking trefoil riband pattern of carving seen both on their own guns and those they made for many other well-known gunmakers. Because of their resemblance to strands of flat pasta, these are sometimes referred to as "noodle" fences. Greener, a fellow Birmingham house, adopted various motifs to their fine sidelocks and boxlocks, often using London styles in new and interesting ways.
Cocking indicators are a relic of the days of hammer guns. When hammerless actions were introduced beginning in the 1880s, many sportsmen felt uncomfortable not being able to see if their guns were cocked. To allay this concern, gunmakers began adding cocking indicators to show if and which locks had been fired. Unlike the cocking indicators still seen on many Continental guns, which use brass pins sticking out of the action body, most British makers preferred a more smooth design. In most cases, this took the form of a line engraved on the tumbler pivot (the large pin around which the tumbler turns). On many guns these lines are inlayed in gold or are engraved to resemble arrows. Most are quite smooth to the surface, but Woodward is noted for their use of protruding tumbler pivots. Because of this protrusion, usually inlayed with a gold line, they have come to be known as "frogs' eyes".
Frame reinforcements are often seen on nicely-finished double rifles, but they are rare on shotguns. The occasionally examples that may be seen are usually heavy-bore fowling guns or ball-and-shot guns. In each case, the intent is the same - to provide extra strength in the critical juncture of the standing breech and the action bar.
Third fasteners, while often seen on rifles, are rare on best-quality shotguns. Purdey is famous for the use of their "nose" (a type of hidden third fastener) on their best-quality guns, and Rigby has built a few shotguns using their rising third bite, but this is rare for a London house. Birmingham makers were more fond of this feature, with gunmakers such as Westley Richards, Greener, and Scott using them quite often.
Hand-detachable locks are now practically a staple of fine Continental guns, and were originally developed in Britain. The most common form of hand-detachable mechanism for sidelocks was developed by Henry Holland of Holland & Holland. It is immediately recognizable by the addition of a thumb-lever on the lockplate, which is turned to remove the pin which secures the locks. Rarely, some gunmakers have used a similar variation that uses two such levers, one for each lock. While the boxlock action, by its design, does not lend itself to this option, Westley Richards overcame this difficulty with their famous "droplocks". A plate on the bottom of the action body is removed and the two sets of mechanism can then be slipped free. Even more streamlined than the sidelock designs, this system offers the option of quick and easy replacement of the locks should one or both fail. To capitalize on this feature, Westley Richards often supplied their guns (and especially their double rifles) with extra sets of locks.
One more refinement often found on guns of top quality is the addition of a self-opening mechanism. This allows the gun to be opened quickly, easily, and in some cases with one hand. While many systems were introduced over the years, the two main types seen today are those by Purdey and Holland & Holland. Of these, the Holland & Holland type is by far the most common. It uses a separate compressor fitted underneath the barrels to open the action, and thus is much easier to produce. The Purdey type of self-opener is actually engineered as an integral part of the action. Two "kickers" in the bar of the action are powered by the mainspring itself. It is generally considered that the Purdey system opens the gun more smartly and with less effort, but takes rather more effort to close. This is a largely subjective assessment, and there are many who do not feel that the Purdey system is at all difficult to close. A third, less common system, has been used by Boss, but most of their guns rely instead on their standard action (which includes a slight, and unintended, assist in the way the ejectors push against the breech face upon opening.).
As we have seen, the action can give us many clues to a gun's quality. The "right gun" may still be as elusive a partridge on a frosty morning, but perhaps we now know better what quarry we seek.
Next time: "Barreling Forward"
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