CLASSIC GUNS: A gun with a story
Diggory finds himself in posession of an old William Powell sidelock with an interesting story
Guns that come with a little family history are always entertaining. So, when an elderly local gentleman turned up with a gun made for his grandmother and asked me to dispose of it for him, I was interested in some of the backstory.
As so often is the case, nobody in the family shoots a side-by-side any longer and the gun in question had stood unused in a cabinet for some years. The reason for its original retirement is comical and surprisingly common. Some years ago, so the story went, the owner was out rough shooting. Out ran a rabbit, which he shot but it needed dispatching and he decided the best plan was to club it with the butt of the shotgun. ‘Crack’ – and then it was in two pieces. Instant regret but a difficult problem to fix.
Quite why anyone would try to bash a bunny with a nice English sidelock is beyond me, but it happens. In this case, when the owner decided he’d offload the gun on me, I found I had a pretty gun and something of a conundrum. Having agreed a small sum for the remains, I took the gun apart for a closer inspection.
The gun is a William Powell 16-bore, made in 1902 as one of a pair. It has 28" Damascus barrels, which have been blacked at some point. Blacking Damascus was quite common when the old brown tubes looked decidedly dated in the company of modern steel barrels.
The mechanism is a first-class bar-action sidelock with a snap under-lever operation, fine rose and scroll engraving and a doll’s head extension without a third grip. The fore-end had become detached from its finial sometime in the past and a replacement made and fitted.
The work is good but remains un-engraved. The fore-end houses Deeley patent ejectors and is cracked at the base, where the wood meets the fore-end iron. The boxes for the ejector springs and tumblers require a great deal of hollowing out of the fore-end wood and it is the thickness of a cereal packet in the offending area.
William Powell, one of Birmingham’s longestlived and finest gunmakers, produced some beautiful-quality shotguns, and the turn of the 20th century was a period of excellence. Gunmakers were generally long-serving and specialist, and society was yet to be rocked by the ravages of WW1, the expansion of the automobile or the Wall Street Crash. Gunmaking was in its heyday.
Upon measuring the barrels, I found they still measured .669" in the bores, exactly as they were made, with a uniform minimum of 22 thou in each tube. It is very unusual to find barrels of this age in such good condition. So, the working parts looked good, but what of the stock? It had been broken right through the hand and glued and screwed inexpertly as a ‘working repair’. It was never satisfactory and the crack still gapes. I tried hard to see how we may be able to repair it but re-stocking looks like the only sensible option. The crack goes right through the inletting and a satisfactory repair looks impossible.
Unfortunately, even with a good stock and a restoration undertaken, the value of the gun would only be about £3,500. Re-stocking a sidelock today costs a ball-park figure of £5,000 by the time you have bought a good blank, made the new pins necessary, chequered and oil finished it. I made a few phone calls to see if any of my trade colleagues could offer a budget job that would restore the gun to functionality while achieving decent aesthetics. The lowest I could shave it down to was just under £3,000. Still too much to make any money off the project.
My final avenue was to seek the services of a workshop with a pantograph machine, to mechanically replicate the stock, get all the inletting done to match and then get a craftsman to perform the final shaping and finishing. Pantograph stock copying is the norm for military rifles and many foreign over-and-under guns. However, getting it to work on the more complex and delicate shapes of a good English sidelock is less than straightforward.
The machine works fast and it can happen that as the wood is stripped of layers, it twists and the grain moves, altering the shape that was intended. This can mean that carefully inlet sections won’t accept the metalwork for locks, trigger plate or action, or that comb and hand move out of the dimensions desired.
My intention now is to have a pantograph tackle the rough shaping and half-inletting but then have a traditional stocker take over and finish the job. Will I be able to bring the Powell back to a semblance of her former glory? I’ll let you know in three or four months’ time.
The rabbit bashing has done fatal damage to the stock
This old William Powell 16-bore was a first-rate gun in 1902 and the barrels measure as new
Diggory has written a number of books on classic guns. To find out more, go to: www.vintageguns.co.uk/company/ diggory-hadoke