Forget skeletons in the closet, Diggory discovers something far more interesting in one client’s wardrobe this month and sets out on a mission to discover its long-forgotten history
A pair of Joseph Langs from the back of a closet
“You’d be surprised how many people have old guns they never use in their cabinets,” said Robin, my firearms enquiry officer, last time he visited me to inspect the newly constructed gun room at Caynham Court. We were talking about the difficulty in finding real ‘sleepers’: guns that have been in one family for decades without molestation, awaiting discovery by the trade. I have a nagging fear that after 20 years of Holt’s scouring the country to empty every gun cabinet of its treasures, there is little left for the likes of me to uncover.
Not so, it seems. I recently had a call from a chap I had met on a few occasions and he told me he had a pair of guns to sell. They were 16-bores by Joseph Lang and had been made for his grandfather when he was 16. He thought the guns had been relatively lightly used, as his grandfather had moved onto 12-bores quite soon afterwards and, though they had accompanied his father to Africa where they spent a few years, they were not used hard, nor abused.
I met him, as tradition dictates, in a Worcestershire pub car park, interrupting his journey north to shoot grouse. We had a brief chat, and I took the double oak and leather case away with me. Upon opening it and checking the guns over properly, I found it contained a pair of lever-cocking guns by Joseph Lang & Sons. These guns have lock-plates like a sidelock but are, in fact, trigger-plate actions. Another feature unusual to most users of modern guns is the cocking mechanism.
Snap underlevers are familiar to many sportsmen, sometimes called a ‘Daw lever’, after George Daw, who used one on his first centrefire gun in 1861. However, on the Langs, this lever performed two operations…
The first phase of travel, when the lever is pushed forward, acts to cock the locks. This is not like your average gun, where this operation is performed by the barrels acting as a lever and operating cocking dogs extending into notches in the fore-end iron. The second phase, right at the end of the lever’s journey, slides back the locking underbolt, allowing the barrels to fall open and the spent cartridge to be extracted. I do mean ‘extracted’ because these guns were made as non-ejectors.
The actions are neat, much nicer in this 16-bore format than in 12-bore. The lines were lovely, the wood exceptional and well matched. The metal was still below the height of the wood around the lock-plates and action. While showing a few dents and the patina of a life well travelled, the guns were, outwardly, remarkably original.
A little investigation revealed some longforgotten history. Some gunmaker’s records are terribly sketchy. One Grant I looked up simply stated “16-bore snap”, the date and the name of the customer. Fortunately, Mr Lang and his employees had been a bit more careful in logging the manufacture of the guns and their subsequent visits to the shop.
The guns were made as a pair and delivered on 30 July 1885, with 29" Damascus barrels, proofed
for black powder. Stock length was 143/8" to centre and weight was 6lb 2oz. Nineteen years later, in 1904, they came back to be converted to ejector, using the Southgate system, which is excellent. Then, in 1905, they were again returned to Lang’s to be serviced and submitted for nitro-proof, which they failed, the barrels bursting “19 and a half inches from the breech”, according to the ledger. Unusually, new barrels were then made and fitted by the maker exactly as original: 29" Damascus, but this time nitro-proof tested for 2½" chambers. The new barrels were clearly made a little stronger.
This is how the guns remain to this day. I sold them to a regular customer, who appreciates this kind of thing. Were he an American, he would probably want them totally restored until they looked immaculate, as the condition and degree of original finish remaining would certainly allow for this. However, in honour of the originality of the guns and the battle scars and patina they show, he has opted simply to have them stripped and cleaned, serviced and tightened.
We will get everything tight, properly lubricated and protected, and perhaps rub a little oil into the wood to seal it against the weather and brush the hand grease out of the chequer.
Properly cared for and used, these guns will easily last another two lifetimes of shooting, and should finish them looking pretty much as they do now. They are pleasingly different from your average London pattern side-lock, and not only are they mechanically interesting, they are of beautiful quality. Guns of this type – neither hammer guns nor conventional side-locks – fall between two stools, as the saying goes.
Were I to have a pair of 1885 16-bore hammer guns by Lang, in this case and of this quality, with 29" Damascus barrels, they would attract a great deal of interest and command a substantially higher price than the guns in question.
Lang had a long and interesting history as a gunmaker. He was in business long enough to span the entire development of the breech loader. A collector of Lang guns benefits from a variety of mechanical types of gun to look for and prices for Langs run lower, as a rule, than those of Grant or Purdey. They are, perhaps, on a par with William Powell or Greener.
Were I a younger man about to embark on a collection and looking for a maker who offered variety, quality, interesting history, important patents and a long period of gun-making, while not having the budget to seek out the wares of the most revered makers, I may well opt to collect the guns of Joseph Lang.
The guns came out of the case looking remarkably sound for their age
The case labels indicate some of the travel history of the guns
Removing the lock-plate reveals the lack of lockwork and alteration
Completely original, this gun has only ever been in the hands of one family