Proof of arms
Since 1637, the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers has been ensuring our gun barrels are fit to fire
Since 1637, the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers has been ensuring our safety, as Graham Downing reports
We shooters are a trusting lot. It really ought to take a considerable leap of faith to initiate a powerful explosion a matter of inches in front of one’s face, and yet we do so constantly, sometimes dozens, even hundreds, of times a day without giving the matter too much thought. We do not expect our guns to blow up, and by and large they do not. What makes us confident that we will not lose our fingers, eyes or, indeed, lives when we pull the trigger? Firstly, the knowledge that gunmakers operate to very high standards of quality and, secondly, that their products have been tested and pronounced fit, the evidence of which is demonstrated by those reassuring little marks that are stamped or engraved on the barrels and actions of our guns.
Proof of arms, the process by which guns are independently tested and marked as fit for service, has been central to the gunmaker’s craft in Britain at least since the early 1600s. At that time in the City of London there were various competing bodies testing or proving firearms, with the Armourers’ and the Blacksmiths’ Companies, both of which had gunmakers amongst their number, vying for the exclusive authority to oversee proof testing. The resulting state of confusion led ultimately to the granting in 1637 of a Charter by Charles I for the creation of a Gunmakers Company with the sole right of “searching for and proving and marking all Manner of Hand Guns, great and small Daggs and Pistols, and every Part thereof, whether made in
London or the Suburbs or within Ten Miles thereof, or imported from Foreign Parts…”
A proof house was established outwith the City walls and the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers set about its business of proving and marking firearms, a task it still performs today, making it one of only two historic Livery Companies still carrying out the operation for which it was originally set up.
“We need a Proof House for exactly the same reason now as we did in 1637 – for public safety,” says Richard Mabbitt. As Proof Master, he is the senior staff member with responsibility for running the London Proof House, which has been testing and marking arms on its present site in Commercial Road, E1, since it moved there in 1675.
Operating nowadays to the rigorous standards imposed by the Gun Barrel Proof Act, the statutory Rules of Proof and the regulations of the Commission Internationale Permanente pour l’epreuve des Armes à Feu Portatives (CIP), the international regulating body for the proof of arms of which the UK is a member, Mabbitt nonetheless has the same authority over the proving and testing of firearms as was granted to his forbears more than 370 years ago. “In addition to ensuring safety, we are going a step further,” he adds. “We’re asking the question, ‘Is it a good-quality product?’ It’s my role as Proof Master to interpret safety and quality in the case of any particular firearm, and we will always verge on the side of caution if there’s anything we’re unsure about.”
It is a sad fact that there are few sporting guns made today in London or, indeed, in the UK, and proving of “best” shotguns makes up only a tiny proportion of the work of the Proof House. Rifled arms account for around 75% of business, with a number of custom riflesmiths either manufacturing in Britain or assembling rifles from imported components. Then there is the proving and marking of imported arms, with many dealers and importers bringing to the Proof House shotguns and rifles from overseas.
With all the proof houses across its 14 member states, which comprise many European countries, Russia, Chile and the United Arab Emirates, operating to equivalent high standards, the CIP observes the rule of reciprocal recognition, so that guns that are proved and marked in any member state are recognised and accepted for sale in all. Thus, guns bearing the proof marks of, say, Spain or Italy do not need to be submitted for proof when they enter the UK. Those manufactured in Turkey or the USA do, however, as these countries are not CIP members. There is therefore a constant workflow at Britain’s
We are going a step further and asking, ‘Is it a good-quality product?’
proof houses in London and Birmingham, in the testing and marking of imported guns.
Notwithstanding the fact it was proved and marked upon manufacture, a gun must be submitted for reproof if it is repaired or modified in such a way that there is material change to the barrels, such as the screwcutting of the barrels of a shotgun in order to take multichokes, the threading of a rifle barrel for a sound moderator or the lapping and internal polishing of barrels following the raising of dents or to remove pitting.
A further task of the Proof House is the certification of firearms that have been deactivated to standards laid down by the Home Office, while the Proof Masters of London and Birmingham operate jointly on behalf of the CIP in overseeing the approval of UK ammunition manufacturers, such as Eley, Gamebore and Hull, as well as approving non-cip manufacturers exporting ammunition to Britain and other CIP countries, including US giants Remington and Federal.
Finally, the Gunmakers’ Company and the Guardians of the Birmingham Proof House have responsibility for enforcing UK legislation surrounding the proving of firearms. No gun may be exposed for sale that is not in proof, and the “right of search” enshrined in the Gunmakers’ Company Charter still remains, enabling the Proof Master to enter premises where it is suspected that unproved or out-of-proof arms are being sold.
“If we have any evidence of wrongdoing against the Proof Act, then we can apply for a warrant and exercise those powers, though very rarely do we need to, as the industry polices itself exceptionally well. Only on the odd occasion do we step in, and generally that’s been at auctions and country fairs. I have found out-of-proof arms at country fairs and seized them. The dealer has subsequently had the firearms back after proof, with some strong words of advice.”
The Gunmakers’ Company therefore occupies a unique position, sitting independently between the state authorities and the gun trade. It maintains its ceremonial role as a City Livery Company, currently under the Mastership of Jonathan Young, Editor of The Field, but alongside that is the work of the Company’s Proof Committee, which oversees the running of the Proof House. And just as
has been the case since its foundation, the core business remains the proving of arms. This process starts when a gun is received at the Proof House for visual checking.
“Once we’re satisfied that the gun is unloaded and clear, we look for any obvious weakness or fracture,” explains Mabbitt. “We’ll inspect the action, checking any mechanical safety devices and we’ll then view the barrel with nothing more technical than the Mark 1 eyeball. We’re looking for straightness of the bore and any signs of rust, dents, pitting or bulges.”
The gun does not have to be in its fully finished state. Indeed, it is usual for “best” London guns to be seen “in the white” and with no stock fitted. “That’s good from our point of view because we can see the whole gun since it’s not covered by the furniture, and there’s no risk of damage to the stock.”
When it has been inspected, the gun is gauged or dimensionally tested with simple “go/no-go” gauges so that it can be ascertained that the internal dimensions are as they should be. The gun is then taken to a firing bay and remotely test fired with proof cartridges loaded to exacting specifications at the British Proof Laboratory.
“We’ll fire two shots per barrel at 25% overpressure. Realistically, ammunition manufacturers are loading way below the mean maximum service pressure, so in most cases it’s effectively a 40% uplift on the ammunition that would normally be fired. We inspect the fired cases for any deformity, which might signal an issue with the chamber, and then we’ll carry out exactly the same gauging and inspection as we did pre-firing. Then, if we’re happy that the dimensions have not been altered by test firing, we’ll mark the arm.”
The proof mark, applied to the barrels and action, are the guarantee to the shooter that the gun has passed muster. London still uses the Crowned letters GP – for Gunmakers’ Proof – that were awarded to it by the 1637 Charter, but today the mark may be stamped, pantograph engraved with a diamond or carbide cutter, or laser engraved.
“Target rifle shooters don’t like their arms stamped, so we always engrave target rifles, but “best” shotguns are hand stamped in the traditional manner. We try to make the proof mark in keeping with any other marks on the firearm, just to keep the thing matching. There’s no legal requirement as to where we put the proof marks, except that they must be visible without the use of tools, so on a shotgun you can have them on the flats and on a rifle they must be above the line of the furniture.”
Do guns fail proof? Occasionally, but gunmakers and importers know how high the bar of the Proof House is set and try to avoid submitting guns that are below the required standard. “The bulk of failures occur at the viewing stage,” says Mabbitt. “Barrels loose on the action would constitute a failure but so far as catastrophic failure is concerned, we might see one or two in a year. Bear in mind that we’re testing in excess of 25,000 arms a year, and the majority of failures are picked up before test firing.”
Modern manufacturing techniques and materials tend to be reliable and with large batches of imported guns, if one is going to pass proof then the chances are that all will do so. Even so, tiny imperfections that are invisible to the eye will be revealed by the proving process. Only recently, a new set of barrels from one of Britain’s best barrel makers failed proof: the cause was an inclusion in the steel that could not have been picked up in any other way, with the possible exception of X-ray examination that would be hugely costly and time-consuming.
“I think we’ve got the best method,” says Mabbitt. “We’ve been here a long while. You can’t always rely on history but if it’s worked for all those years, then there must be something in it.”
As far as catastrophic failure is concerned, we see one or two a year
▲ ROLL OUT THE BARRELS,
Rifle barrels awaiting testing at the London Proof House; they test in excess of 25,000 weapons a year
Above: the London Proof House on Commercial Road, London E1. Right: The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers’ coat of arms (centre)
Anticlockwise from top: viewing a pair of barrels; gauging the gun; best shotguns are hand stamped; Purdey barrels and action with proof marks
Left: Proof Master Richard MabbittTop: the punches used to apply proof marks Above: proof cartridges loaded at the British Proof Laboratory. Right: a gun being remotely test fired