It can­not be im­proved upon and should dis­play ex­cel­lence in ev­ery depart­ment, says our writer, of­fer­ing his per­sonal se­lec­tion of these clas­sic shot­guns

The Field - - CONTENTS - WRIT­TEN BY dou­glas TATE

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

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