One of the benefits of shooting as a hobby is the opportunity it represents to buy specialist equipment and clothing.
I have a particular weakness for traditional leather gun cases and cartridge magazines.
Over the years I’ve managed to accumulate a small, modest collection of English shotguns, some of which came with an original leather case.
However, for others I have had to find a case to fit the gun.
This is perhaps inevitable, since the principle purpose of the case is to protect its contents; more often than not the case in question will have suffered some damage and will be in need of some sympathetic gun case restoration work.
In addition to the leather being dirty and requiring some nourishment – typically handles are missing and sometimes literally hanging on by a thread – some stitching needs replacing, the straps are either missing or badly worn and the condition of the inside can vary from just dirty to outright tatty.
Getting all this fixed isn’t the impossible task that at first it might appear.
With a combination of a little knowledge, the correct materials and access to appropriately skilled craftsmen, most gun case restoration projects are possible.
The end result will be a stunning case in which your pride and joy can safely be transported for another lifetime’s worth of shooting.
The evolution of the gun case
The design and methods of construction of gun cases, like the guns they were intended to protect, evolved overtime.
Perhaps the oldest types you may encounter are the solid mahogany types used for muzzle loading percussion guns built pre-1850.
These typically have two tiers necessary to hold not only the stock/fore-end and the barrels, but all the reloading accessories such as powder and shot flasks, bullet moulds, wad cutters, cleaning equipment and an assortment of tools.
Often these cases have separate leather outer covers, although they have often been separated from the wooden case and as such are rare and much sought-after.
The next evolutionary step was for the leather covering to be permanently attached to the wooden case in an attempt to offer greater protection from damage while travelling.
During the later percussion period, oak started to replace mahogany for the frame, thus establishing oak and leather construction as the standard best-quality case.
Lighter weight cases followed with Scandinavian pine being used for the carcass, which, since it was completely covered in leather, wasn’t visible like the carcass of an oak and leather case.
Various styles became popular and some were often associated with individual makers or gunmaking centres.
This battered case has been restored and is now a beautiful example of fine gun case restoration. Note the loose handle and scoring it had suffered, typical of gun cases of a certain age.
Covered lids for all the small internal compartments were popular during the hammer gun period, and Scottish makers favoured lining the insides of their cases with contrasting pig or goatskin.
Tools were often fitted into precise cut outs lined with leather or wool baize (so called French-fitting) and green wool baize lining became the almost de facto standard until the 1860s, after which red baize became the commonest.
As the use of doubles and then trios of guns became popular with late Victorian and Edwardian era sportsmen, cases were made accordingly.
The advent of the motorcar as a means of transport saw the introduction of the motor case format, in which the shape of the case changed, becoming more compact to fit the luggage space available.
Old cases reflect the state of the technology in the leather industry at the time.
Modern mass production methods for tanning leather involve treating the skins in solutions of chromium salts.
However, during the 19th century, and still in the case of the best quality leathers produced today, the processes were more sustainable and involved treating the skins in vegetable-based tanning liquors made from soaking bark and wood chippings in water, often for very lengthy periods.
These vegetable-tanned leathers (of which oak-bark tanned is widely recognised as one of the best) are far superior to chrome tanned varieties in appearance, durability and how they can be manipulated and crafted by skilled leatherworkers.
If you are contemplating the gun case restoration of an old gun case I would recommend you find someone who uses vegetable-tanned leathers, since both the fit and finish are far superior to anything that can be achieved using chrome tanned leather.
An added bonus being that vegetable-tanned leather ages well and in a relatively short time the repairs acquire a genuine patina that allows them to blend in with the original parts of the case.
Modern masters of gun case restoration
I’ve been fortunate enough to find someone who can fix almost anything made from leather.
A chance meeting at a country fair introduced me to Allan Gillespie, who has not only helped me to understand what to look out for and what to avoid when buying old gun cases, but has restored several cases for me and made me a variety of kit, including knife sheaths and rifle slings.
Allan, a Registered Firearms Dealer, has had a life-long passion for vintage guns and their cases.
And he can remember when he first realised he was acquiring guns not for their own merit, but more often because of the leather cases which protected them.
At the same time he was introduced to his neighbours, Valerie Michael and Neil MacGregor, who run a workshop in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, with a reputation for traditional craft leather working.
It was under Val and Neil’s tutelage that Allan became a restorer and maker of leather goods.
With a shooting background, gun cases and cartridge magazines make up the bulk of his work, either building from scratch or as gun case restoration projects.
He works only in full grain leather and doesn’t use a sewing machine, preferring the quality and strength of hand stitching.
The restoration of the gun case for these Berettas took a long time to complete but the results are outstanding.
Allan undertakes work for a number of London gunmakers in addition to having a portfolio of private collectors and clients who commission work.
Allan recently completely refurbished an old oak and leather double case for my brother-in-law’s Berettas.
Based on the gun numbers on the trade label, the case was sold circa 1895 and although the leather had been badly damaged and was a complete write-off, the oak frame was in good condition with no significant distortion and the lock hadn’t been forced.
After removing the old leather the frame was taken apart, the metal parts retained for cleaning and re-use, and the old baize removed to expose the wood.
Animal-based glues were typical in the 19th century and all traces of these had to be removed and all the joints re-glued and clamped.
The leather chosen to cover the case was a Belgian full grain vegetable tanned hide.
Recovering took longer than anticipated due to the amount of work required to ensure a perfect fit and the use of Allan’s trademark perimeter stitching on all the major seams.
The refitting of the interior partitions was quite an exercise since the original layout was for a pair of side-by-side guns with straight hand stocks, not a pair of over-unders with pistol grips.
It was necessary to have the fore-ends separate from the barrels but everything eventually came together.
The final stage was the fitting and adjustment of the lid to ensure an effortless closure, followed by the setting of the wraparound straps.
The straps will stretch over time so it’s important they are fitted and the number and location of the holes take account of this.
Post-gun case restoration care
Leather is very durable material and all that should be necessary is to wipe clean with a lightly dampened cloth (there shouldn’t be a need to soak or scrub the leather) and allowed to dry naturally without the use of any source of heat.
A regular but sparing application of a proprietary preservative is recommended to keep the leather nourished.
Something incorporating lanolin and natural oils or waxes is all that is required, but don’t be tempted to use shoe polish.
Finally, buff with a soft clean cloth, and when not in use store in a well ventilated place away from sources of heat such as radiators.
Follow these simple guidelines and your case will almost certainly last longer than you do.