Pretty little Henry
Gunmaking historian Donald Dallas is taken back to his youth by simply pulling a 20 bore from its slip.
Very occasionally, out of all the hundreds of guns and rifles I come across, I pick up a certain example and immediately think, gosh that is nice, that’s a bit special, what a beauty.
This is exactly what happened at The Game Fair this summer when a gentleman appeared with a gun in a slip and said, “I wonder what you think of this?” He pulled out what was obviously a hammer gun but the minute he placed the gun in my arms, I realised that this gun was in a league of its own.
It was a 20 bore top lever bar action hammer gun by Alexander Henry of Edinburgh no. 4887 completed in 1880. Several things immediately appealed to me about this hammer gun. Alexander Henry was primarily a rifle maker at 12 South St. Andrew Street, Edinburgh and during the second half of the 19th century, he was the world’s most pre-eminent rifle maker, receiving orders from British and European royalty, Indian Maharajas and Dukes and Baronets the length and breadth of Great Britain. He sold sporting guns too, albeit on a far smaller scale and this gun was one of these, hence immediately interesting as Henry shotguns are not commonplace.
Several things struck me about this little hammer gun that instantly gave it the “wow” factor. It was a 20 bore, and 20 bore guns from this period are quite uncommon. Most 20 bores were produced as second quality guns for boys but this was no such gun. It was a high quality gun with a good length of stock at 14in and my guess is that it was made for the original owner’s wife. Quality 20 bore hammer guns are in high demand and command high
“Several things struck me about this little hammer gun that instantly gave it the ‘wow’ factor.”
premiums as they are so shootable and this one with 28in barrels fitted the bill perfectly. It was a very handsome gun and weighed only 5lbs 8oz. Every person in the crowd who looked at it made the same remark, “What a pretty little gun.”
The main reason for its undoubted pulchritude was that the action bar was rounded. This is commonplace today but in the late 19th century this was quite unusual. The lockplates and the underside of the action were gently rounded and along with the fine scroll engraving, a very handsome result was achieved.
Then there was the basic design of the gun. It had a top lever and bar action locks, by far the best combination on a hammer gun to give the best aesthetics in comparison to the sturdy underlever and back action locks fitted to many. The stock itself was finely figured and had drop points that added to the quality of the gun.
I always want to know who the original owner of a gun was and when I returned from the fair, I looked up the Henry records. Little did I know that the information they contained would give this gun a very personal connection to me.
The records state that no. 4887 was completed on September 3,
1880, for Col. M. Makgill-crichton. I used several volumes of Who’s Who from the 19th century and Kelly’s Handbook Of The Titled, Landed
and Official Classes to work out provenance; I thought with a name like this it would be simple to trace the family. Wrong. For the life of me I couldn’t find Makgill-crichton. Skimming through the pages in frustration I came across MaitlandMakgill-crichton. The Henry clerk obviously couldn’t be bothered writing out the full triple-barrelled name and just wrote in M. MakgillCrichton, hence my confusion.
David Maitland-makgillCrichton was born on August 20, 1841, in the tiny hamlet of Collessie in North East Fife. My eyes popped out of my head – Collessie, Fife. As a boy I lived in Collessie as my mother was the headmistress of Collessie School. The schoolhouse was set in its own grounds surrounded by farmland and here I banged away all day long in my formative years with a large variety of guns and rifles. I hope they never cut the trees down as the chainsaw will blunt with the onslaught of bullets in the trunks. (In a further amazing coincidence, I am writing this on my mother’s birthday).
Maitland-makgill-crichton joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1854 and by 1882 was a Colonel. His family lived nearby on the Rankeillour Estate near Cupar in Fife and he died in London on July 2, 1907. At the time of purchasing this 20 bore he resided at Winchfield House in Hampshire and I am pretty certain that he bought it for his wife Lady Margaret Pleydell-bouverie.
I love history like this – from the simple beginnings of pulling a gun out of a slip, to being awed at its beauty and then discovering a personal connection to it.
Donald Dallas (left) and David Hirst at the schoolhouse, Collessie in 1966 with a Manton muzzle-loader.