New boss for Boss
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
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
A pair of Boss side-lever hammer ejectors recently restored by English craftsmen
Boss & Co over-and-unders from 1922, showing Robertson’s single trigger – perhaps the last development of importance in sporting guns