Vintage gun fit
Victorians were generally smaller than modern Englishmen. They certainly were a lot smaller than the average modern American. Generalising can be dangerous, of course; some Victorians were huge men and the aristocracy could be tall and athletic, coming from long lines of well-fed and well-bred families.
The average man in Britain today is 5' 10". In 1875 he was 5' 5". Since we are considering fitting today’s sportsman with guns made for their Victorian equivalents, there is often something of an issue regarding stock length for gun dealers customising each purchase to suit a new buyer. I’d say most guns I handle have a length of pull (front trigger to centre of butt) of between 13¾" and 14½" of original wood. Most clients want 14¾" or 15".
I’m often asked for guidance when clients want a longer stock. My first point of reference is the shooting style the client favours. If he shoots the Churchill method, or a version of it, he will probably manage nicely with a slightly shorter stock than if he shoots the Stanbury style.
The second issue is drop. The drop is, I believe, of more importance than length. I am not a professional gun fitter but my experience and learning indicates that, while we all cope with length differences automatically, to a degree, A leather-covered Silver’s pad has been fitted to extend this Smith hammer gun too much drop causes us to shoot low or lift our heads from the stock. Both are fatal to good shooting.
Regarding length, I think people can get too picky. An eighth of an inch here or there is not going to turn a poor shot into a decent one, nor a decent one into an Olympic champion. The effective length changes according to what we wear and how we stand. Stand squarer and the gun feels longer, move your front hand back towards the knuckle and the gun seems shorter. Try it. Grab your usual gun four inches in front of the fore-end finial and try to mount it – you won’t be able to get it into your shoulder! Put on a woolly sweater and a tweed overcoat and your stock just got a good half an inch longer. So, don’t get too fixated on tiny increments.
However, all that said, you still want a gun that feels comfortable to shoot and suits your physique. If your nose is touching the back of your thumb when you mount, your gun is certainly too short. If the heel keeps getting caught in your armpit when you mount, it is too long. Getting it so the gun is easy, comfortable and predictable to move, mount and shoot is the key.
There are a number of options open to the client looking to have a stock extended. However, none of them are cheap. Clients are often surprised when they bring along a boxlock they paid £500 for and find the extension is going to cost them £250. Suddenly, it looks less of a bargain.
‘A stock that is an eighth of an inch longer or shorter is not going to turn a poor shot into a decent one, nor a decent one into an Olympic champion’ When using the Churchill method the shooter will shoot off the back foot, while the Stanbury style is to shoot off the front foot while leaning forwards with nose over toes.
Before fitting the new material, the old has to be squared off and cut straight to provide a clean line for affixation. Then weight and balance have to be considered; will the stock need to be weighted or bored out to balance at the new dimensions?
Wood is the obvious choice for adding length. Try to find a piece of walnut that is a good graft to match the colour and figure of the existing butt and off you go. Sounds easy, but very few wooden butt extensions work that way. They are functional but not aesthetically very pleasing.
There are a few craftsmen who can paint a new piece of wood to match the old. Teamed with a very fine cut and glued joint, this can be all but invisible from a yard away. When the extension has to be two-and-a-half inches or more, wood really is the only option.
More commonly, the length needs to be extended by only an inch or less. In this case, I prefer to use a Silver’s type pad, made of hard rubber, ground to shape and covered with leather. It complements the old wood nicely, is functional and does not look out of place. However, to look right it has to be an inch or less. If you want to eke out a little more, you can use a black spacer of plastic, ebonite (if you can find any) or compressed buffalo horn. This is sandwiched between the wood and the leather.
For short extensions, buffalo horn has replaced ebonite (another cancer-inducing compound once very popular, now banned). The effect of a half-inch horn extension is not unlike the old horn butt-plates many guns were supplied with as new. Unfortunately, supplies can be erratic and quality variable. Some can de-laminate soon after being fitted. This is both irritating and expensive, as you have to start from scratch with a new piece.
A budget option is to go for a rubber pad and just varnish it as a finish, rather than leather covering it. Some people like the effect, others can’t abide it. If you don’t varnish the sole, it provides good grip in the shoulder, as well as the benefits rubber has of softening felt recoil. For this reason, it is a popular standard fit on double rifles of large calibre.
As with many facets of traditional gunmaking, materials are ever harder to source. Getting hard rubber pads of the right size and shape, with the plug holes cut and plugs supplied is tricky. Horn supplies suffer from poor quality control, walnut offcuts are increasingly hard to match to old wood and are expensive.
Sourcing the right leather is hard, then when you find it, the supply dries up. So, next time you think about having the length of your gun altered, spare a thought to the hard work and difficulties your gunmaker is dealing with and don’t begrudge him the fee he charges, even though it might seem a lot of money for ‘sticking something on the end’.
A short buffalo horn extension like the one on this Holland & Holland 16-bore can work nicely
Sometimes a gun comes in with something old and nasty from less fussy alterations in the past
Fitting a spacer before adding a leather-covered rubber pad
A spacer and an orange rubber pad – you either like them or hate them