We like to pride ourselves on our gun knowledge, but we know there are things that we don’t know at all well. Some of these things we know we don’t know, like fine double sporting shotguns. (The scary bit is, as Don Rumsfeld knew, not the stuff you know that you don’t know, but the stuff that you don’t even know that you don’t know).
But when we look at a beauty like the Hugh Snowie/Thomas Horsley on the right (which you really must embiggen), we want to know more. Fortunately there’s an article by Douglas Tate in Shooting Sportsman: The Magazine of Wingshooting and Fine Guns that assumes you know nothing, teaches you the basics, and leaves you wanting to know more.
Before we dive into the article, take a good look at that beautiful Snowie piece. What looks like the side lockplates of a percussion fowling-piece are actually protrusions of a receiver that is so cunningly inletted into the fine French walnut stock that it looks like several pieces, when it is really only one perfectly-shaped one. The quality of the materials and work are staggering, which is par for the course in the examples that Tate shows in his article. (The pictures come in the case of current guns from the makers, who take a justifiable pride in these works of art; and in the case of vintage guns, from the auctioneers who handle these fine-art firearms).
Bar-in-wood shotguns owe their graceful good looks to their parents: They are the direct descendents of muzzleloaders and can be defined as breechloaders in which the lockplate or action body and sometimes even the knuckle and hinge pin are enclosed in a forward extension of the walnut buttstock. They come in hammer, hammerless, round-action and even bogus boxlock configurations known as “body locks” and have become desirable collectors’ items.
According to Gavin Gardiner, who has worked with Sotheby’s gun auctions since 1987, “Bar-in-wood guns were a way of maintaining the gracefulness of a muzzleloader in the early breechloading era, but the easier-to-make and stronger designs soon cast them into the shadows.”
“Pretty much all makers made them—certainly the better-quality ones, anyway. It is just that not many of them continued to make them for long. Westley Richards, Purdey and Horsley are the three that jump to mind as makers that produced good numbers, and of course we have MacNaughton, with their bar-in-wood Edinburgh-actioned hammerless gun. MacNaughton is probably the only one who has made a modern version, though I am sure if you ask, others might.”
MacNaughton is one of the last firms to make them, but it was also one of the first. In July 1867, James MacNaughton registered improvements to a slide-forward-and-drop-down hammergun that was “applicable to the conversion of muzzle-loaders into breech-loaders.” The patent illustration and surviving examples feature wood-covered actions. Common enough in the 1870s, timber-shrouded actions were felled by stronger competition. The few hammerless sidelock ejector examples surviving from beyond this era are some of the most coveted wood-covered actions.
Tate goes on to describe the different types and makers of double “bar-in-wood” or “skeletal” guns, with a few illustrations to whet the appetite (and links to the makers). Of course, these guns, painstakingly handcrafted by Old World craftsmen, are not priced for the middle-class upland hunter. But anyone can look and admire them. It’s a good respite from looking at utilitarian M4s and sewer-pipe STENs, you know?
We showed an example of Philipp Ollendorff’s work, which we learnt of from this article, in a previous Friday Tour d’Horizon post here, but we think you will enjoy the article, even if, like us, you’re not much of a hunter and your taste in shotguns runs more to a Winchester M12 riot gun or a beater no-name boat gun or breaching tool.
We’ll leave you with the brace of James McNaughton doubles on the left. We are not sure if royalty still hunts birds any more, but if you do hunt birds and want to feel like royalty, well, the kids can earn scholarships (or go to the Military or Navy Academies) if you blow their college fund on their heirlooms instead, yes?
A man after our own heart (but, alas, probably with better taste), Mr Tate closes his article with links to the two surviving bar-in-wood/skeletal gun makers, Dickson (who makes McNaughtons these days, also) for the classic Scots gun, and our previously linked Ollendorff for the Mitteleuropaïsch variety — both of which make guns of admirable beauty.
Hey, your kid’s gonna learn more in Hard Knocks U anyway, you know it.