CLAS­SIC GUNS: A gun with a story

Dig­gory finds him­self in poses­sion of an old Wil­liam Pow­ell side­lock with an in­ter­est­ing story

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH DIG­GORY HADOKE

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:­tage­­pany/ dig­gory-hadoke

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