Vin­tage gun fit

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

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

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