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

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH DIG­GORY HADOKE

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

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