“So it must be”. These words flowed from the prolific pen of William Wellington Greener, whilst writing his epic tome “The Gun, and Its Development”. He continued, “Unless attention be given to every
piece, no matter how seemingly unimportant, the gun is not well made, and may fail just where least expected”. And so it goes with repairs.
I am often asked during the course of my work on Best Quality antique guns, to provide an estimate on the cost of certain repairs or the making of a replacement part. Unfortunately for owners of fine English guns, repairs are not inexpensive. And it was the same a hundred years or so ago, when the guns were made. Most of the time my replies are met with either a look of disbelief, or stunned silence. I have been told a job “shouldn’t” cost that much by people who’ve never done it, yet are quite happy to pay their mechanic a higher shop rate than mine to repair an automobile. I have no magic wand. I work in a world where there are no spare parts, no bins to grab a new bit and have it fitted up in a few minutes. Every replacement piece has to be made by hand from the correct raw material suitable for the job. It can only be machined so close, then it has to be painstakingly fitted to other pieces of a mechanism where surfaces are rarely perfectly flat or true and square to each other, but when fitted together perform in perfect unison. This fitting takes a lot of time. Metal parts must then be correctly heat treated for proper strength and longevity, and then be refitted, if necessary. Every job is fraught with the unknown, a century or more of use and wear are the least of the problem. But give even the finest gun a hundred years of abuse, neglect and inattention by owner after owner, coupled with the “repairs” of unskilled or indifferent workmen, and the situation can spiral downward in a hurry.
Modern shooters have become used to guns like Berettas and Perazzis, made from the most advanced modern materials, which digest ammunition by the boxcar load with scarcely any problems. Many models have easily replaceable wear points, making it possible to easily and economically stay on top of wear. Such was not the case in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Guns were filed and fitted up from rough machined forgings, even the so-called machine-made guns of the period required extensive hand fitting. Hence, no two are the same. Heavily used guns required constant maintenance to keep them functioning well. Made in an age where the shooting sports were almost exclusively the domain of the wealthy, it was customary for a shooter to return his guns to the maker after each season for a complete refurbishment in readiness for the next. The maker did any and all work required to keep the gun in tip-top shape and performing flawlessly, his reputation was at stake. New hinge pins and bolts (these are the replaceable wear points in a double), stripping and relaying of ribs, restocking and reblacking were such common jobs as to barely need mention. After all, a well heeled client was paying the bill.
But as time went on, a lot of these finely made bespoke guns filtered down to less affluent hands. As society changed, and the middle class grew, more and more people took up the shooting sports. Many bought the best used gun they could afford, but either through ignorance or lack of financial means to perform correct maintenance, used these guns until most ended up as battered wrecks. A lot were repaired by people lacking the knowhow, which in most cases made things worse. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Purdey, or a Holland & Holland, or a Dickson – if it’s absolutely worn out, it’s absolutely worn out. Yet a great portion of them are priced like there is still a lot of life left in them, and the cost to make them serviceable far outweighs that of buying a really crisp and little used example. I have been involved with restorations of special guns where it really would have been more economical to make the gun over, but the client did not want that.
One of the many pitfalls awaiting the prospective purchaser of an antique gun are the quick and dirty repairs made by unscrupulous people to make a sale, or get the gun through proof. Avoid like the black plague, the following: guns with any peening, drift chisel marks, squeezing, parts bent to make them fit, poor finishing of bearing areas, or visible welds (proper welding techniques can to be used to resurface worn areas, but should not show. Obvious welds are are good sign to look for other problems). Avoid also, like the afore mentioned malady, workmen who use these techniques, or weld without a TIG welder. “Repairs” made with these methods seldom last a flat of shells. While a few quid spent like this is enough to keep a farmer’s old gun going another 20 years, they do not do the rest of us any good. The following photographs are of a rather lovely antique double barrelled rifle which had pristine bores. The rifle was obviously off the face, and a gentleman asked me for a ballpark figure on making the necessary repairs so it would be shootable. At the time, due to poor lighting, and being unable to disassemble the rifle, I gave him the high end of the scale figure. Experience has taught me, that with a gun so obviously loose, that’s what it’s going to take. He was able to purchase the rifle at a price he was comfortable with, knowing what probably lay ahead. The horror story unfolds:
As a workman who has always striven to do the very best work he can, and consequently is his own harshest critic, it took a while to take stock of the situation once the rifle was in pieces on the bench. The first thing I pondered was who, or what, does “repairs” like this? I find it difficult to find words to adequately describe my thoughts. It’s actually a rather mind-numbing experience. Neanderthals masquerading as gunsmiths would be a gross insult to the former.
A good deal of this repair was undoing the damage by previous hands, mainly resurfacing areas that had been hacked away. The rear bite engagement surface had actually been filed to a level below the bolt slot! Surprisingly, the hinge pin was still in good shape and perfectly round, and did not need replacing. It seems no shooting had been done with the hook so horribly buggered. A new bolt was required, as the old one had been thinned somewhat to make room for the shim, and was loose in its way. The barrels were jointed back onto the face, and the bolt and third bite refitted.
Here are a couple of pictures taken after we made the proper repairs.
All in all, in spite of the frustration of seeing the damage wrought by previous hands, this was a straight forward job. But, as you can imagine, very time consuming, so it was quite an expensive undertaking. This is why I always recommend a gun has a thorough inspection with full disassembly by a fully competent workman before it’s bought, no matter how nice the condition it appears to be. The price should be adjusted to reflect the estimated cost of any necessary repairs to the required standard, and not what the seller thinks “ought to take care of it”.
It’s also why a gun must be attended to at the very first sign of looseness. Any further use compounds the wear and damages parts at an exponentially increasing rate. A gun that can be put back on the face with a new hinge pin or possibly a bolt, may soon require almost as much work as the above example. And stay away from cheap “fixes”, that is another good way to ruin a gun. Every part must be fitted fully and exactly to its mating one, and there is no cheap way to do this on a handmade gun. The people who tell you there is, do the kind of work seen in the top four photographs.
Returning to Greener: “The workmen in every division of the gun trade are divided into classes. The careful workman, mindful not only of his work upon the gun, but cognisant and careful in his treatment of the work of those who have gone before him – skilled, and able to do what is required and expected of him – is a rara avis who can command a high wage. A staff of such men must be procured if the best work possible is to be obtained; and they must not only be kept fully employed, but employed upon such work as they can take an interest and pride in. To produce a best gun, not only must every man be able, but inclined, to do his best; and above all, there must be a guiding mind, intent upon the fashioning of a weapon to it’s ideal…….A great difference in cost, therefore, is due solely to workmanship”.
Some serious collectors of fine English guns have told me one of the reasons they have their collections is they believe these guns have a soul. I, too, think this is so. Every man who touched a particular best gun during its creation, lavishing upon it his most careful attention and the utmost skill he could muster, imparted a piece of himself into that gun. For a workman repairing those guns today, to do anything less than absolutely first class work, with every detail most carefully attended to, is to do those generations of incredibly skilled men a dishonor, and his client a disservice.
Best Quality work takes time and it takes dedication and you have to want to do it. And it takes plain old hard work. Years and years of it, in fact. We are not born able to do it, we learn it. It’s more than a job, some would call it a passion. I don’t know if I’m sophisticated enough for that. Stephen, perhaps is. I am, after all, just an old farm boy.
For those of us who have been blessed with the skills to do this work, God has indeed smiled down upon us.
Stephen Coker & Co.