Blasts from the past
Never experienced a black-powder day and the pleasure of shooting an antique gun by an old master? Now is the time to try
The pleasure of black powder and antique guns, by David Williams
You do what?” This is the usual incredulous response from shooting friends who have yet to experience the joy of firing ancient guns. The possibility of such a thing has mostly never entered their heads and much discussion ensues regarding types of gun used, the equipment needed and whether or not it is something they will consider taking up.
In common with many readers of The Field, my brothers and I started our shooting lives with air rifles and pistols before rough shooting with .22 rifles and .410 shotguns under the guidance of our father, Leo. Twelve-bores soon followed (or suppository guns, as an American friend and dedicated muzzle-loading shot calls them) and game shooting soon after. Luckily, virtually my entire working life has involved antique and modern guns with the former being a bit of an obsession due to the quality of workmanship and the beauty of decoration frequently found on flintlock and percussion guns of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is certainly the case with the great names such as John Twigg, Joseph and John Manton, William Smith (succeeded by sons Samuel and Charles), James Purdey, Alexander Forsyth, Durs and Joseph Egg, Henry and Samuel Nock, the Mortimer family, Joseph Lang, William and John Rigby, and Westley Richards, among very many others. An appreciation for the products of these gifted, pioneering makers and the barrel forgers, lock makers, stockers and related craftsmen who worked for them, combined with my love of shooting, ultimately led to the realisation that the encouragement of black-powder friends actually to shoot a muzzle-loader had to be heeded.
In my case, I was able to take a single percussion gun of mine (made by James Stevens in London around 1815 as a flintlock and subsequently converted to percussion in about 1830) and shoot it at clays in the company of an experienced muzzle-loading friend who is also a highly qualified gunsmith. This had two advantages, as I was able to benefit from his years of experience and be as assured as possible that the gun was in shootable condition. The next requirement was for the acquisition of the accessories needed for loading and cleaning. These are tactile and collectable items in their own right and are best described in their order of use. Powder-flask: modern reproductions are available, however, the most desirable are antique. These are brass mounted with bagshaped bodies commonly made of copper or planished tin, often covered in leather. The vast majority are by the makers James Dixon & Sons or G & JW Hawksley of Sheffield and can be found amongst the lots offered in specialist auctions, with antique arms dealers and even still in antique shops. Depending on condition they are relatively inexpensive, however, it is wise to check that the sprung lever functions and that the seam around the body is sound.
Shot-flask: these have leather bodies and are also readily available. Check the leveraction is operating properly and that the seams and overall condition are sound. Ramrod: this is in addition to the ramrod mounted beneath the barrels of the vast majority of flintlock and percussion guns. The original ramrods are surprisingly delicate and it is tragic if they are broken. Vintage three-piece cleaning rods make excellent ramrods, as will an appropriate length of hardwood dowelling with a knob for comfort. If one is lucky and prepared to search them out, antique ramrods can be found that were originally used for live pigeon or battue shooting.
Flints, percussion caps, wads and cards: some brave souls shoot flintlocks that were in common use from the 17th century until the introduction of the copper percussion cap shortly before 1820. Those who shoot flintlocks are held in high regard as the guns require a much greater degree of care to shoot successfully. This is due to the correct setting of the flint, the vital need to keep the steel (frizzen) and pan dry, and the necessity of using powder for the main charge as well as a fine priming powder for the pan. This is not to mention the slower-burning and inconsistent ignition system and the fouling encountered that can lead to misfires. Percussion caps come in various sizes to match the size of the nipples (pegs or pivots in old language) threaded into the barrel breeches. When in use, caps can be carried loose in the pocket or fitted directly from an antique
brass or modern plastic cap-dispenser. Cards and felt wads for loading are available in different bore sizes and their use in the loading process is described below.
Loading a percussion gun requires the barrels to be held upright with the triggerguard facing away from the shooter. The hammers need to be on half-cock to allow the air in each breech to escape through the nipples when the charge is rammed home (this also forces a small amount of black powder into the nipple, which increases the speed of ignition). The powder charge is then poured into each barrel from the powder-flask. This involves holding the flask upside down with a finger over the nozzle. The sprung cut-off lever is operated and a charge of powder fills the nozzle. The release of the lever prevents the powder from returning to the body of the flask once it is returned to the upright position. The measured charge can then be poured into the barrel, and the process repeated in the case of a double-barrelled gun. An oiled felt wad is then inserted into each muzzle with a separate card on top. These are then rammed down into each breech. The ramrod is put to one side and the shot-flask brought into use. Shot-flasks are fitted with an ingenious sprung lever that allows a measured amount of lead shot (for game shooting, normally No 6 or No 7) to be poured down the barrels. A final card is rammed on top to secure the whole charge in place. The gun is then ready to be lifted up to enable the percussion caps to be fitted onto each nipple. All is now ready and when the opportunity to shoot comes along the hammers are only required to be pulled back to full cock and the bird or birds shot.
What could be the motivation for all this somewhat complicated and labour-intensive activity, I hear you cry? One reason is the tangible connection to the past that shooting with these beautifully crafted and superb quality guns gives us to the founding fathers of the British gun trade, and to those who used them. Perhaps I feel this keenly, having been privileged enough to have handled so many of their products and to have shot with them. A privilege, I believe, many could experience and enjoy. Another reason is that driven game shooting can become a bit ‘stale’, especially after a few seasons. This can result in the search for more extreme birds or a craving for larger numbers of birds to shoot. For others, including myself, the chance to shoot with an ancient muzzle-loader (modern reproductions are available), where the gun has to be prepared before the day involving the degreasing of the bore and fire-chamber, followed by loading safely and competently whilst under the pressure of birds flying towards you, adds a unique rush of excitement to the usual shooting experience.
In these days of debate over bag size, as well as the rising costs of game shooting, the use of muzzle-loaders has a sobering influence and gives much food for thought. Some of the groups with whom I shoot divide the cost of the day between 16 guns, standing two to a peg with only one person shooting whilst the other reloads. A novel system of peg numbering ensures that no one person stands with the same person twice. This means that days during which 50 to 80 birds are usually shot are great social occasions enjoyed by like-minded enthusiasts and everyone gets plenty of shooting. Larger days of up to 120 birds are not unknown, however, we have found that larger numbers do not always make for a more enjoyable day. Believe it or not, muzzle-loaders are efficient, averaging around three or four shots to a bird, with the majority firing between 12 and 30 shots during the day. The volume of smoke generated, the ‘boom’ of black powder rather than the ‘crack’ of nitro that reverberates around the line adds an atmospheric aspect to the day, making it highly enjoyable for all, including the beaters who are easily persuaded to have a shot or two at the end of the day.
Even the cleaning process, which involves four or five procedures thoroughly brushing the barrels through with black powder solvents as well as both hot and cold water, is a surprisingly therapeutic chore. It gives time to reflect on the day and also to appreciate, once again, the truly marvellous qualities of workmanship employed in the manufacture of antique firearms.
Walked-up game and rough shooting are closer to the original intended use of most muzzle-loaders and what was good enough for the famous Nimrods, Squire Osbaldeston, Sir Richard Sutton, Horatio Ross, Colonel Peter Hawker and their like holds good to this day. Time and trouble seeking out an appropriate gun, taking instruction, acquiring suitable powder, caps and loading accessories is a good start. Shooting at a pattern plate to ensure that one has the most efficient load for both pattern and penetration together with practice at clay pigeons (most clay grounds are intrigued and delighted to allow muzzle-loading shooters, although it is advisable to check as some find the noise incompatible with their grounds) will ensure that anyone interested can come as close as possible to realising the effectiveness that our forefathers so brilliantly displayed shooting muzzle-loading guns. As for myself and my fellow ‘black powderers’, we reckon shooting one driven bird with a flint or percussion gun is worth 10 with a modern breech-loader.
David Williams is a director of Bonhams UK Ltd, responsible for auction sales of antique arms, armour and modern sporting guns For information on the rules and regulations governing muzzle-loading weapons, visit: www.mlagb.com www.hbsa-uk.org www.gov.uk/government/publications/ firearms-law-guidance-to-the-police-2012 anglianmuzzleloaders.com
These beautifully crafted guns offer us a tangible connection to the past
A selection of accoutrements – all 19th-century originals – required for a black-powder day, including powder- and shot-flasks, ramrod and percussion caps
Top: a muzzle-loader by Robert Ansel of Perth, 1850, ready for use at half cock. Above: the powder is poured into each barrel from the powder-flask (left); placing the card on top of the wad (right)
Top: the writer loading shot from an ‘Irish’ charger Above: a woodcock for the bag on a successful black-powder day