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 Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY david wil­liams

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:­ern­ment/pub­li­ca­tions/ firearms-law-guid­ance-to-the-po­lice-2012 an­glian­muz­zleload­

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

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