Monday, May 14, 2012

A Gentleman's Gun

Chin chin, old boy.  Edwardian Gentleman by Emil Fuchs
You’ve decided to set your work sometime in the first forty years of the 20th century, either in the Edwardian era or at some point between the wars.  Your hero is a British gentleman, your heroine a woman of pluck and spirit.  Plot and story possibilities abound:  The British Empire spans the globe, offering tempting settings and venues from Dorsetshire to Delhi to Durban.  Victorian notions still govern interactions between women and men and between gentry and working classes.  However, dark clouds that threaten both your characters and social order loom in the guise of bomb throwing anarchists, conspiratorial Bolshevik agents provocateurs setting labor on a collision course with capital, colonial liberation movements, an emerging women’s rights movement and, depending on when your novel or screenplay is set one of two incipient world wars.  Amidst the turbulent tides of time stands your hero (or, I suppose, your heroine), battered but defiant, staring death in the face and brandishing…Wait a moment, what exactly is our plucky hero, Richard, the twenty third Earl of Warfelnutterstone Manor brandishing?

Frederick Selous, one of the last "Great White Hunters"
The difficulty attendant to properly outfitting an upper class British hero with a firearm has much to do with contemporary British attitudes toward firearms, which are, to put it mildly, negative and restrictive.  The pervasive nature of these attitudes in modern English society might lead one to think that firearms were never a significant part of English culture.  This is not only historically incorrect, it is a complete volte face from the attitudes of the Edwardian and interwar eras, when gentlemen (and that group included men who made their fortunes in industry in addition to those with inherited titles and wealth) were expected not only to own a number of guns, but to also use them regularly to hunt everything from doves in the English countryside to stags in Scotland, tigers in India and elephant and Cape buffalo in Africa.  That being the case, let’s take a few moments to explore what Sir Richard might retrieve from the gun room upon hearing mischief upon the moor at night.

It is unlikely that Sir Richard’s gun room would contain much in the way of military style firearms.  The standard British infantry rifle of the period, the Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, or SMLE, was a well designed battle implement that served His (and Her) Majesty’s forces from its 
Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield

introduction in 1904 through two world wars, and in a somewhat modified form, as a sniper rifle until the mid-1990s.  It was less than ideal as a hunting rifle (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t used for hunting), being both heavy and long for its caliber.  Instead, he would probably have an assortment of English “doubles,” and “magazine rifles” for use on terrestrial game as well as one or more shotguns used as fowling pieces. 

A double is a double barreled rifle, with the barrels next to each other in a side by side configuration.  Most were made by one of the masters of the English gun trade in either London or Birmingham.  It should be noted that at the turn of the twentieth century, there were literally thousands of gunmakers in Britain.  Many of these have been lost to time, forced out of the industry by death, bankruptcy, consolidation and an increasingly hostile legislative climate.  A few names remain well known.  These include the London firms of (the legendary!) Holland & Holland, W.J. Jeffery and John Rigby & Co., famous Birmingham companies such as Westley Richards and W.W. Greener and George Gibbs of Bristol. 

Holland and Holland Royal Grade Sidelock Double Rifle
Doubles are found in two main varieties, sidelocks and boxlocks.  Both operate in a similar manner (and, indeed, take advantage of the same invention, the Anson & Deeley boxlock, covered by British patent number 1756):  When the action is opened, internal hammers are automatically cocked, cartridges are inserted, and the action closed and locked.  Two triggers are supplied, one for each barrel, with the front trigger firing the left barrel, and the rear trigger the right barrel.  Sidelocks (the “lock” is the gun’s firing mechanism) are the older of the two and are a carryover from the days of flint and percussion muzzleloaders with exposed hammers.  With the advent of breech loading metallic cartridge ammunition, the hammers were brought inside the frame.  The boxlock appeared in 1875.  The difference between a sidelock and boxlock is that the sidelock carries the hammers, springs and sears on two sideplates. The boxlock hinges all the working parts - the tumblers (hammers), sears and their springs - within the action, and the back of the exterior of the action is square to the stock.  Of the two, the boxlock lends itself much more readily to mass production, and as a result, there have been more boxlock doubles produced than sidelock, and their cost is significantly less.

William Evans Boxlock Double Rifle. Note difference in receiver shape.
Lower cost is a good thing, because, as John “Pondoro” Taylor, the famous British elephant hunter pointed out in his seminal work African Rifles & Cartridges, doubles are “infernally” expensive.   Their great cost – and, thus, their position as status symbols in the hands of peers and the wealthy – was entirely due to the extraordinary amount of labor that went into their production.  Sir Richard didn’t simply promenade into Holland & Holland’s premises in Mayfair, pick up a nice looking double and say “See, here, my good man, please have this wrapped and sent to Warfelnutterstone Manor, along with the bill.  Thanks ever so.”  Not on a bet.  Buying a double was much more like being fitted for a custom suit.  

Holland & Holland "Try Guns" for the Fitting Process
Having made up his mind that a new double was called for, Sir Richard would make an appointment with Holland & Holland or Rigby, and call at the specified time.  He would be interviewed by a gunmaker, who would inquire as to what sort of game Sir Richard expected to be taking with this rifle, where he anticipated using the rifle, and at what distances.  Based on this, the gunmaker would recommend a small number of cartridges, loads and bullet types.  Between the gunmaker and Sir Richard, a single load would be selected.  This process was critical when buying a double as the rifle would be made for – and permanently regulated to – a single cartridge/projectile combination.  Sir Richard would then be measured.  The size of his hands, the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his arms – all of these dimensions were of critical importance.  For a hunting piece in general, and a large bore, heavily recoiling rifle in particular, a proper fit meant the difference between a rifle that could quickly, comfortably and accurately be brought to bear, and one that was clunky, uncomfortable and unpleasant to shoot.  The dimensions would then be given to a master stockmaker, who would, one shaving at a time, convert a block of English walnut into an exquisite and perfectly proportioned gunstock that fit Sir Richard perfectly.

The most expensive part of making Sir Richard’s double would be regulating the barrels.  On first blush this seems like a simple affair – they’re just two parallel tubes, and all that’s needed is to braze them together, right?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The barrels aren’t parallel.  They are assembled so that shots from either will converge at a fixed distance from the muzzle.  To achieve this, the barrels are taken to the range, and assembled with wire and clamps.  Each is fired in turn, by an experienced shooter, and subtle, almost imperceptible adjustments are made to the clamping mechanisms.  When the regulation process is complete – and it can take many hours or days – both barrels are shooting to the desired point of impact with the desired load.  At this point, they are soldered to the central rib.

Finally, the rifle is exquisitely finished, inside and out.  Interior finishing is intended to make sure that the piece is utterly reliable in almost any condition.  External finishes may range from simple rust bluing to highly engraved and inlaid metalwork.  When it is complete, Sir Richard will have a one of a kind piece made just for him.  And he will have paid for it.  To give an idea of cost, a new (2012) sidelock double rifle from Holland and Holland will run between $100,000.00 and $150,000.00 (yes, the commas and decimal marks are in the right place).  A comparatively inexpensive boxlock double can run anywhere from $45,000.00 to $100,000.00.

“Magazine-rifle” referred to a bolt action repeating rifle with an internal magazine holding anywhere from two to four cartridges.  Almost universally these rifles are based on the Mauser 98 action.  The Mauser 98 dates from 1898, and has yet to be improved upon when it comes to bolt action rifles.  It was to form the basis of the rifles used by both Germany and the United States in both world wars as well as a very large percentage of contemporary hunting rifles found in the United States.  Mauser rifles and actions were initially brought to England by Mauser-Werke’s agent in London, the John Rigby & Co.  Rigby took advantage of the Mauser’s great strength and multiple shot capability by 
John Rigby & Co. African Express Rifle, .416 Rigby

introducing a proprietary big game cartridge, the .416 Rigby, designed expressly for use in a custom Mauser bolt action rifle.  Other companies followed suit.  Gibbs came out with the .505 Gibbs, Jeffery with the .404 and .505 Jeffery, Westley Richards with the .425 and Holland and Holland with the legendary .375 H&H Magnum.  The Mauser action was more than amply strong to handle all of these huge cartridges as well as their more conventional (and smaller) brethren.  Importantly, a Mauser actioned magazine rifle could be had at a significantly lower cost than a custom (or even a used) double.  For cost comparison, the suggested 2012 retail price for a factory Mauser in a magnum cartridge such as .505 Jeffery or .375 H&H is between $3,000.00 and $4,000.00.  A custom rifle may cost between two and three times that much – expensive, to be sure, but far less than a double.

Mauser-Werke, Oberndorf am Neckar, 1910
A large part of the cost savings comes from economies of scale.  During the first part of the 20th century, factories in Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Czechoslovakia (to name a few) were churning out Mauser actions as fast as they could.  While these were primarily intended for military markets, the large production volume helped keep costs low.  The other factor contributing to the Mauser’s low cost was the fact that it had a single barrel, thus obviating the need for the huge skilled labor costs associated with barrel regulation.  This didn’t mean that a magazine rifle was cheaply or poorly made.  The fitting of a custom stock was largely the same.  Additionally, the rifle’s magazine box, which was absolutely critical for reliable feeding, was generally hand fitted for the specific cartridge.  At Sir Richard’s request, his magazine rifle could be as plain or ornate as he desired. Naturally, the more ornate the embellishments, the more expensive the rifle.

All of this brings us back to the original question:  With what are we going to arm our plucky British hero?  Double or magazine rifle?  Sidelock or boxlock?  The short answer is “with whatever you like.”  Sir Richard wouldn’t be poorly, or historically incorrectly armed on his coffee plantation in Kenya with a Rigby magazine rifle in .416 Rigby, on a tiger hunt in India with a boxlock double in .450 Nitro Express or standing on the moor, in the middle of the night, alert and prepared with his .577 Nitro Express Holland and Holland sidelock double at the ready.  It all depends on how wealthy and how much of a “sportsman” you want your character to be.

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