This remarkable antique shotgun, for sale by a British dealer, recently was on GunBroker (without a bid). But it’s still for sale in England (as an antique, it’s not difficult to import). At a glance it looks like any early percussion English fowling-piece. Nice, and beautifully worked, but is it special?
Yeah. It is, actually. It’s such a special thing, it may be unique, at least as a survivor. It was a creature of its time, place and circumstances, soon obsolete, but still fascinating.
This is an extraordinary and rare shotgun that was made with a dual ignition system so can be regarded as the epitome of transitional shotguns. The lock features both percussion nipples and a flintlock these can be selected to fire flintlock, percussion or both by moving an interrupter switch which can isolate the platinum lined touch hole in the flash pan.
Why would a designer do this? It adds complexity and weight, violating one of the golden mantras of engineering: “Simplicate, and add lightness.” But these kinds of transitional weapons often appear at times of technological change, and usually they’re hedges against failure of the new tech.
There are good reasons a British gunmaker might hedge on the then-new percussion technology. In the early 19th Century, as percussion’s faster lock time and greater reliability caused it to quickly supplant flintlock ignition, Britain had a far-flung Empire, and caps were a new thing, and one that might be hard to come by in East Africa, Calcutta or Ceylon. Any gunsmith of the period could have converted a percussion gun back to flint as readily as most of them were converting flintlocks, but having the ability for zero-gunsmithing, near-instant flintlock reversion was a comfort for a traveling man.
It didn’t take long for percussion caps to become as common worldwide as black powder itself. They don’t require a lot of engineering expertise or complex machinery to manufacture, and the chemistry is simple. So transitional guns like this Jones shotgun became period curiosities, unable to compete with lighter all-percussion guns.
Overall length is 45″ with a barrel length of 29″ with a bore measuring .6″ so approximately 20 bore. Locks are marked “Jones” and the overall quality is excellent and the gun has not been messed around with. There is one small contemporary repair to the butt which was clearly made during its short working life but not a significant detraction to the overall appearance of the gun. The locks are fine and the bore is bright so it has been well looked after. I am tempted to shoot it myself but this is being sold as a non-firing antique. I assume that the gun was made for somebody who intended travelling overseas at the time it was made and who was concerned that he would not be able to purchase percussion caps overseas.
Before you read the following, note that the British are always making fun of the German propensity for record keeping. Then read this, and grin: even the casual and slapdash British archives give up a lot about Charles Jones and his life a couple centuries back.
Charles Frederick Jones was the son of John Jones of Manor Row, Tower Hill (an armourer in the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1785-1793). Charles was born in about 1800, and in 1814 was apprenticed to John Mason. He became a Freeman of the Gunmakers Company (by patrimony?) in 1822. He was recorded in business at “Near the Helmet”, St Katherine’s, as a gun and pistol maker in 1822, and it seems his brother, Frederick William, joined him soon after the business was established. He was not recorded again until 1829 when, probably in addition to the St Katherine’s premises, he had an address in Pennington Street, Ratcliff Highway. At this time his brother left to set up his own business. In 1831 he opened a factory in Birmingham at 16 Whittall Street. In 1832 he was recorded at 26 St James’s Street. On 7 March 1833 he patented a percussion lock with a cock, tumbler and trigger made in a single curved piece (concentric sears and triggers), and a waterproof sliding cover (No. 6394 in the UK but also patented France), and on 12 June 1833 an improvement with separate triggers and sears (No. 6436). The caps of these Jones patent guns fitted on to the hammer noses and had the fulminate on the outside. This system was called centre-fire, and they struck the nipple and ignited the powder in the chamber. In 1838 Charles Jones described himself as a “Patent and General Gunmaker”, and later as a gun manufacturer. At about this time the firm had a shop at 32 Cockspur Street. There is no record of the firm in London after 1845, and the Birmingham factory may have closed in 1843, but Charles Jones was a member of the Acadamie de L’Industrie de France and the firm may have traded after 1845. Jones had premises in London and Birmingham and was appointed as Gunmaker to HRH the Prince Albert husband of Queen Victoria.
That sounds like a rare honor, but Prince Albert was an avid sportsmen and commissioned many, many pieces from many designers.
The flint/percussion duality of the piece is the first thing that strikes you, but it’s not the only unusual thing about the piece. Jones was an innovative and imaginative gunmaker and others of his patents, and some nonpatented cleverness, appear in this firearm:
Amongst a number of patents, one of Jones’ patents was for an isolation switch to waterproof a flashpan and I dare see this stunning gun is a derivative of that work. Renowned British Gunsmith Peter Dyson believes the brass bolsters were fitted because the maker was worried about sideways expansion if both methods of ignition were used simultaneously. This has not been seen on the market for decades and as a rare and possibly unique item I doubt if it will appear again for many years. If you want something exquisite and unique, this is it! A rare and significant piece.
As we mentioned, transitional weapons are not unusual. US examples include the M14 rifle, which had a selector switch that could be optionally fitted or not fitted (and usually wasn’t, as the weapon was horribly inaccurate in full-auto), and the Krag Rifle (selected because of its magazine cutoff, which turned it into the firepower equivalent of the Springfield-Allin Trapdoor it replaced). Several early semi-auto rifles were designed to function optionally as bolt-actions, and some early cartridge revolvers had optional muzzle-loading cap-fired cylinders.
These transitions and hybrids provided, among other things, a fallback if the new technology failed. They were a practical solution to a real problem — in a brief window of time.