THE FOUR COVER CHOICES
It cannot be improved upon and should display excellence in every department, says our writer, offering his personal selection of these classic shotguns
Our Collectors’ Special issue comes with a choice of four covers, each depicting a best British over-and-under.
‘The Boss over-and-under was a ground-breaking piece of design’
We all know, or think we know, what makes a best British over-andunder shotgun. As the High Court judge said of pornography, “I know it when I see it but…” My own definition of a “best” would include superlative quality, beautiful construction and with no effort in time or money being spared in seeking perfection; that, however, would not be achieved by the window-dressing of extra-finish engraving or fancy-figure walnut. In other words, a best gun is not one intended to compete at a price point. The maker’s singular consideration should be for excellence in every department with the emphasis on design.
Guns that cannot be improved upon by the expenditure of time or money are uncommon in any era but some significant additional over-and-under examples appeared just before the First World War. The Edwardian period was a special moment for the British gun trade, offering a perfect conjuncture: demand from abroad, skilled artisans at home and a technological revolution. This is when the very best early stack-barrelled guns were rolled out.
Not that there hadn’t been British overand-unders before. Guns with two vertical barrels are as old as double-barrelled firearms themselves. During the Victorian era, both WW Greener (1873) and John Dickson (1888) flipped conventional breechloaders sideways to create shotguns with one barrel above the other and the hinge to one side. They are as unlovely as a Dolly Varden taxidermied to look like a flounder. Despite quality workmanship, neither was a best gun.
It’s difficult now to know where this surge in popularity for over-and-unders came from beyond a desire by the gun trade to create something new and marketably novel for an essentially sated clientele.
Here, it’s worth pausing to reflect upon the gun trade’s previous successes. The switch from hammer to hammerless, the introduction of ejectors and even the development of the single trigger were all innovations that induced sportsmen to buy new guns even as their old ones continued to perform satisfactorily. By the Edwardian era, the side-by-side was perfected and has remained largely unchanged to this day. The over-and-under was seen as the way forward for a trade the products of which didn’t wear out.
Here, then, is a small, personal selection of superb examples presented in alphabetical order so as to avoid any bias.
Boss & Co
First came the Boss of 1909. Writing that year in this magazine, a reviewer wrote: “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.”
A later writer for The Field, Major Sir Gerald Burrard, understood that weight and gape were significant in the design of a best over-and-under but, most importantly, “for the sake of appearance and convenience in handling it is desirable that depth of the gun be reduced as much as possible”. He would add: “In this gun the bifurcated lumps are placed on each side of the lower barrel, the bites being level with centre of the bore. The effect is the lower barrel is really the lump… the depth of the action is but little greater than that of an ordinary gun. The whole action has been exceptionally thought out and workmanship is beyond praise.”
I spoke with Boss’s new American owner recently, who claimed proudly: “Boss is the only one out of the three [Holy trinity of London gunmakers] that’s not also making a second-grade gun.” The knowledge that, over a hundred years later, Boss guns are still being built is testimony to the excellence of the design.
An inquiry to Holts auctioneers resulted in this comment from specialist Christopher Beaumont: “The Boss over-and-under was undoubtedly a ground-breaking piece of design and the first to embody the slender elegance and unsurpassed balance associated with best English guns. Prior to the Robertson/henderson collaboration in 1909, over-and-under guns were quite ungainly affairs compared to their side-byside counterparts, the major issue being an unnatural-looking depth to the action, the consequence of a traditional placing of the barrel lumps at the base of the barrels. The Robertson use of barrel studs and