New boss for Boss

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Dou­glas Tate on the Bri­tish gun­maker

The next chap­ter in the his­tory of one of Bri­tain’s

finest gun­mak­ers is charted by Dou­glas Tate

HIS­TO­RIES of fine English gun­mak­ers fol­low a pat­tern. First, there’s a Re­gency-era start-up – of­ten af­ter a pe­riod bound to one of the Man­tons – then the epic jour­ney from the muz­zleloader to the ham­mer­less, breech-load­ing ejec­tor, fol­lowed by the em­brac­ing of a pro­pri­ety gun ac­tion, which se­cures both wealth and fame. Fi­nally, comes the sale to a rich over­seas buyer. This is the story of James Purdey & Sons, per­haps Bri­tain’s great­est gun­maker, but now it is also the story of Boss & Co.

Early in Novem­ber last year, Boss & Co’s man­ag­ing direc­tor, Keith Halsey, called his staff to­gether, an­nounced the sale and in­tro­duced the new owner, Arthur Stephen De­moulas. The fol­low­ing week, Halsey toured other mak­ers of “best” Bri­tish guns ac­com­pa­nied by De­moulas, who was in­tro­duced to their man­ag­ing di­rec­tors. De­moulas is an Amer­i­can of Greek ex­trac­tion whose fam­ily own the New Eng­land su­per­mar­ket chain Mar­ket Bas­ket. He is a for­mer Boss client, ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing the shot in the arm ru­moured to be needed by Boss.

Boss & Co dates from 1812, when Thomas Boss com­pleted an ap­pren­tice­ship with his fa­ther, Wil­liam Boss, one of the best of the cel­e­brated Joe Man­ton work­force. Wil­liam Will­mott Dixon said once said of Man­ton, “He charged what he pleased and sports­men paid the price with­out mur­mur.”

Around 1816, Thomas Boss struck out on his own, es­tab­lish­ing him­self as an out­worker to the trade. Most of his work was for an­other Man­ton man, James Purdey. Boss con­se­quently ac­quired some­thing of the aura and ex­clu­siv­ity of both Man­ton and Purdey. Never cheap, Boss & Co has prided it­self for more than 200 years on its qual­ity. Asked if he had ever con­sid­ered shoot­ing Boss guns, King Ge­orge VI replied, “A Boss gun, a Boss gun, bloody beau­ti­ful but too bloody ex­pen­sive.” The cur­rent firm’s rep­u­ta­tion rests firmly on its pro­pri­etary over-and-un­der of 1909, patented by Scots­man John Robert­son, who be­came a part­ner at Boss & Co dur­ing 1891.

The year af­ter Thomas died in 1857, Boss built its first breech-loader. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion be­tween sleek per­cus­sion muz­zle-load­ers and the modern ham­mer­less side­lock ejec­tor, Boss guns were pru­dently re­served and stylis­ti­cally un­ex­cep­tional. As Grif­fin & Howe, Boss’s cur­rent Amer­i­can im­porter, has pointed out: “The firm may have ended up re­mem­bered as just one of a num­ber of su­perb 19th-cen­tury Lon­don gun­mak­ers had it not been for the ar­rival in 1891 of a new owner, one Scot­tish-born crafts­man by the name of John Robert­son, who was to prove to be a gun­mak­ing ge­nius. Robert­son’s in­ven­tive tal­ents ce­mented the rep­u­ta­tion Boss en­joys to­day.”

Robert­son un­der­stood that not only should his firearms func­tion flaw­lessly, they needed to be as grace­ful as a Gib­son girl. Dur­ing the 1890s, Robert­son un­veiled a round-bod­ied side­lock side-by-side in which the breech width was re­duced, the ac­tion sen­su­ously rounded, the wrist made cylin­dri­cal and the drop points re­moved. Hugely in­flu­en­tial and widely copied, it is still avail­able to this day.

The Boss round body was more visu­ally ar­rest­ing than prac­ti­cal yet the shapes mag­i­cally cap­ture the wand-like wield­abil­ity of these fast, light­weight guns. The Boss round­bod­ied gun may have been what a cor­re­spon­dent for Arms and Ex­plo­sives had in mind when, in 1902, he wrote: “The dis­tinc­tive qual­ity of the Boss gun, grant­ing the finest work­man­ship and best ma­te­rial, is style. This is a some­what elu­sive prop­erty, the equiv­a­lent of qual­ity in a good race­horse or the beauty of a fine yacht – in a word the ab­sence of lum­ber. The metal is in the right place and none of it in the wrong; the sweep­ing lines of the stock sat­isfy the artis­tic eye, lead­ing to strength as well as hand­i­ness and ac­cu­rate bal­ance.”

The round ac­tion was capped with a con­ser­va­tive bou­quet-and-scroll en­grav­ing style. Not for Robert­son guns rid­dled with gilt. The re­sult is en­grav­ing that doesn’t over­shoot the mark. One in­con­gru­ous en­grav­ing el­e­ment en­coun­tered on Boss guns is Robert­son pro­claim­ing some per­sonal point of pride: “Boss’s Patent Ejec­tor” on the bar of the ac­tion of a side-by-side or “Boss’s Patent No. 3308 . 1909” on the fore-end iron of the over-and-un­der. Both de­scribe Robert­son’s ejec­tors, which use their spi­ral springs’ po­ten­tial en­ergy in a straight line from the fore-end along the line of the bar­rels and on to the ex­trac­tor. It is a sys­tem so cer­tain, it’s em­ployed to this day on WW Greener side­locks as well as all Boss guns.

The Robert­son ejec­tor went a long way to cre­ate a pro­pri­ety gun for Boss but the devel­op­ment of a suc­cess­ful sin­gle trig­ger was even more sig­nif­i­cant. It was Robert­son’s fate to own Boss in an era when the nar­ra­tive arc from the flint­lock muz­zle-loader to the ham­mer­less, breech-load­ing ejec­tor was near­ing de­noue­ment. Robert­son’s chal­lenge was to find some new re­fine­ment that would ap­peal in an es­sen­tially sated mar­ket. As is of­ten the case, he looked to the past.

Sin­gle trig­gers had been around since at least the Re­gency era. They ap­pear to have been pop­u­lar with Dublin mak­ers Pat­ti­son and John Rigby & Son. The prob­lem was no

one trusted them; the dan­ger was “dou­bling” where both bar­rels dis­charge with one pull. Robert­son dis­cov­ered this per­plex­ing phe­nom­e­non could be ex­plained by an in­vol­un­tary pull of the trig­ger caused by the re­coil of the first bar­rel. To­gether with his fore­man, Wil­liam Adams, and per­haps oth­ers in his work­force, Robert­son set out to find a so­lu­tion.

Here it may be worth paus­ing to re­flect upon the the defin­ing spirit of Bri­tish gun­mak­ers in the 1890s and the mi­lieu in which they moved. To a large ex­tent, the health of the gun trade was de­pen­dent on im­prove­ments suf­fi­ciently in­no­va­tive to in­duce sports­men to buy new guns each year, even as their old ones still func­tioned. But now in­ven­tive­ness was slow­ing. “The re­vival of in­ter­est in mech­a­nisms by which both bar­rels of a dou­ble-bar­reled gun could be fired by a sin­gle trig­ger seemed to of­fer a way for­wards,” is how Crudg­ing­ton and Baker put it. In their third vol­ume of The Bri­tish Shot­gun, they tell us more than 90 ap­pli­ca­tions for sin­gle trig­gers were sub­mit­ted to the patent of­fice be­tween 1894 and 1910. Gun-mak­ers un­der­stood that if theirs was the sin­gle trig­ger adopted by the trade, re­mu­ner­a­tion would nat­u­rally fol­low.

En­ter John Robert­son. Through a series of em­pir­i­cal it­er­a­tions, Robert­son and his team de­vel­oped a mech­a­nism based on a re­volv­ing tur­ret; when the trig­ger was pulled the right bar­rel fired. Then the in­vol­un­tary sec­ond pull turned the tur­ret that bolted the left lock. As the grip on the trig­ger loos­ened, the tur­ret re­volved again al­low­ing the sec­ond bar­rel to dis­charge with the third pull.

“There is ev­ery in­di­ca­tion that John Robert­son re­alised that with the in­ven­tion of this re­li­able sin­gle trig­ger, he had achieved the goal so earnestly sought by each and ev­ery mem­ber of the Lon­don gun trade – a com­mer­cial ad­van­tage over his com­peti­tors,” said Crudg­ing­ton and Baker. “We are aware of this be­cause, by the stan­dards of the trade and the times, he em­barked upon a most vig­or­ous and multi-faceted pro­mo­tional cam­paign.”

Again and again Boss ad­ver­tise­ments stressed “Ab­so­lutely the safest guns made” and quotes from lead­ing news­pa­pers were pressed into ser­vice, such as this one from The Times: “The mech­a­nism, sim­ple in ap­pear­ance and sub­stan­tial in struc­ture, ren­ders dis­charge by jar­ring sim­ply im­pos­si­ble.”

Robert­son or­gan­ised a series of public tri­als to con­vince sports­man of the in­fal­li­bil­ity of his trig­ger. Af­ter one, this mag­a­zine re­ported: “The tri­als were as se­vere as we think the cir­cum­stances war­ranted, and the mech­a­nism proved thor­oughly re­li­able… No vari­a­tion in the pulls nor in the charges used made any dif­fer­ence to the mech­a­nism.” He even built a wooden ver­sion of his trig­ger, which ap­par­ently worked per­fectly, and then a three-bar­reled 16-bore as a test plat­form, in which all three bar­rels were fired by a sin­gle trig­ger.

Early in the 20th cen­tury, the Lon­don gun trade was once again faced with the dilemma of where to find some new del­i­cacy with which to tempt the sport­ing public. Again, it would be Robert­son, work­ing with his fac­tory man­ager Bob Hen­der­son, who would find the so­lu­tion, again by dra­mat­i­cally im­prov­ing an an­cient de­sign: the over-and-un­der shot­gun.

To­day, Robert­son’s shot­gun would be fa­mil­iar to a child but it was not al­ways so. Com­ment­ing on the “ver­ti­cal dou­ble-bar­rel gun”, The Field wrote: “The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion put for­ward for sug­gest­ing so rad­i­cal a change where evo­lu­tion has worked in the op­po­site di­rec­tion is that the con­di­tions are more favourable to ac­cu­rate align­ment.” No-one to­day would con­sider an over-and-un­der “rad­i­cal” yet who hasn’t ben­e­fit­ted from the ad­van­tages of a nar­row sighting plane? Most of us shoot a stack-bar­rel bet­ter than a side-by­side. We have Boss & Co to thank for that.

Not that there weren’t guns with su­per­im­posed bar­rels be­fore 1909 – they are as old as firearms them­selves. Robert­son’s achieve­ment was to cre­ate a modern over-and-un­der com­pact enough to com­pete with high-qual­ity

side-by-sides. By re­mov­ing the un­der-lumps that ac­com­mo­date the hinge and lock­ing bolts and graft­ing them along­side the lower bar­rels, he cre­ated a trim, shal­low gun. “This is a light gun for an over-and-un­der, only weigh­ing 6½lb [in 12-bore], while the depth of the ac­tion is but lit­tle greater than an or­di­nary gun,” com­mented Ma­jor Sir Ger­ald Bur­rard. “The whole ac­tion has been ex­cep­tion­ally well thought out and the work­man­ship is beyond praise,” he added.

A con­tem­po­rary re­view­ing for this mag­a­zine agreed: “The fas­ten­ing for the bar­rels nec­es­sar­ily de­parts con­sid­er­ably from the con­ven­tional form. In­stead of the hinged joints and grips be­ing sit­u­ated be­neath the lower bar­rel, they are placed sym­met­ri­cally on ei­ther side. From the me­chan­i­cal point of view the new sys­tem has very de­cided point is its favour. In the or­di­nary gun, apart from the top con­nec­tion, the fas­ten­ing ex­ists at some dis­tance be­low the point where the load is ap­plied. With the Boss sys­tem of ver­ti­cal bar­rels the load is ap­plied be­tween the ac­tual sup­ports.” From the out­set, it was a de­sign that found res­o­nance with Amer­i­cans.

Boss & Co ap­pointed Von Lengerke & Det­mold in New York as an agent. Its sales cat­a­logue read: “The Boss gun is a work of art. Its lines are grace­ful, its bal­ance per­fect and ev­ery part of it bears the hall­mark of all that is best in Bri­tish work and ma­te­rial. Fully 90% of the work of a Boss is per­formed by hand; their men, trained for the best work only, could not if they would, pro­duce an in­fe­rior weapon.” Clearly then best work was re­quired for so fine a devel­op­ment, or, as

Robert­son claimed in his patent spec­i­fi­ca­tions, a gun in which, “The ob­jects of present in­ven­tion are to re­duce the size and weight of the breech ac­tions, and to ren­der them more com­pact, and ca­pa­ble of be­ing read­ily han­dled.” Since it’s still be­ing built more than a hun­dred years later, it’s hard to dis­pute the fact that he got it right.

Robert­son’s sin­gle trig­ger and over-an­dun­der ejec­tor would even­tu­ally come to­gether to cre­ate the iconic pro­pri­ety gun for which Boss is rightly fa­mous. Or, as the Boss web­site puts it, “These patents were of such im­por­tance in the gun world, that they guar­an­teed John Robert­son the po­si­tion of con­sid­er­able es­teem in which he is still held to­day.”

The mar­ket for tra­di­tional Bri­tish side-by­side game guns is slow at the mo­ment be­cause of a fash­ion for heav­ier, high-pheas­ant ar­tillery but the Boss over-and-un­der is a be­spoke gun and can be built to any spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Guy Bignell, the Bri­tish pres­i­dent and CEO of Boss’s cur­rent Amer­i­can im­porter, Grif­fin & Howe, re­cently is­sued his sum­mer 2016 newslet­ter, which read in part: “G&H cur­rently has 20 new Boss shot­guns on the or­der books of Boss & Co, we are told, a record num­ber in the com­pany’s his­tory. Which, over the next few years, will be de­liv­ered by G&H into the hands of their new cus­to­di­ans.”

Greater tes­ti­mony to the value of Boss guns is hard to imag­ine. Boss’s new Amer­i­can stew­ard ap­pears to un­der­stand her­itage and ex­cel­lence. Apart from an in­creased pres­ence at coun­try fairs and char­ity shoots around the UK, he has so far de­clined to make any sig­nif­i­cant changes. To rather mis­quote King Ge­orge VI, the craft gun­mak­ers of to­day are not ours to dis­pose of as we please. We have them in trust. We must ac­count for them to those who come af­ter.

For more in­for­ma­tion on Boss & Co, head to the web­site at www.boss­guns.com

Writer’s note: I am in­debted to Don­ald Dal­las, whose book, Boss & Co: Builders of Best Guns Only, pro­vided much of the source ma­te­rial for this ar­ti­cle. Copies are avail­able from Quiller Pub­lish­ing (www.quiller­pub­lish­ing.com)

Since the gun is still be­ing built, it’s hard to dis­pute the fact that Robert­son got it right

A pair of Boss side-lever ham­mer ejec­tors re­cently re­stored by English crafts­men

Above: a work­ing wooden model of John Robert­son’s Boss ejec­tor. Left: a rare, Boss & Co sin­gle-trig­ger, side­lock ejec­tor dou­ble ri­fle

Clock­wise from above: The Thomas Boss shop in Lon­don’s West End; John Robert­son, 1905; an 1890 ad­vert has a com­ment from The Field

Boss & Co over-and-un­ders from 1922, show­ing Robert­son’s sin­gle trig­ger – per­haps the last devel­op­ment of im­por­tance in sport­ing guns

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