Proof of arms

Since 1637, the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Gun­mak­ers has been en­sur­ing our gun bar­rels are fit to fire

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY gra­ham down­ing pho­tog­ra­phy BY chris catch­pole

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

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