Ollie Harvey traces the intriguing story of a pair of muzzle-loading guns built for Prince Albert that are set to go under the hammer
Before Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha arrived in Britain it would have been rare to see an Englishman shooting driven game. Prince Albert is widely credited with popularising driven pheasant, partridge and grouse in the UK, shooting his pair of 14-bore percussion muzzle-loaders while enjoying what was, at the time, a more continental approach to sport.
The Prince first learned to shoot in the 1830s and sport shooting soon became his favourite pastime. Following his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840, Albert became a regular client of Charles Lancaster.
The company received the Royal Warrant in 1843, producing a pair of custom-built 40-bore rifles in the late 1840s, a 14-bore single gun in 1855 and a pair of 40-bore muzzle-loading rifles in 1856. Another pair of rifles were ordered in 1861 as a birthday present from Victoria to him.
Charles Lancaster was regarded as the leading gunmaker at the time and certainly enjoyed the patronage of the royal family, as did Purdey. The history of his guns in the Royal Collection is largely comprehensive, although a gifted pair of 14-bore percussion guns (numbers 1558 and 1559) have a more mysterious tale.
Under the hammer
Manufacturer: Charles Lancaster
Nos: 1558 and 1559
Style: Percussion muzzle-loaded shotgun
Weight: 7lb 2oz
Value: Estimate £20,000 to £30,000
Manufactured by Charles Lancaster in 1850, from his premises at 151 New Bond Street, London, the pair of muzzle-loaders feature 31in damascus barrels with ebony ramrods on each rib and are finished with nickel silver fittings and platinum-lined breeches and plugs.
The hammers and locks carry fine scroll engraving, as do the trigger-guards, which portray dogs and game, and the gold escutcheons engraved with a crowned ‘A’. However, little is known of their sporting provenance.
“They are from a period in time when there aren’t any photographs and documentation is fairly sparse,” says auctioneer Gavin Gardiner. “We can assume the guns would have followed Albert wherever he was, be that based in Balmoral or Windsor.
“We can also assume that, as a member of the royal family, there would have been a certain amount of continental shooting, too. However, there aren’t many records. Most shooting at that point in time would have been walked-up, most likely pheasant and partridge and possibly a little bit of grouse.”
It wasn’t until 70 years after Albert’s death that records of the guns became slightly more clear. Since then, the guns have been through only three private collectors. The first collector acquired the handsome pair in the 1930s and displayed them for more than four decades. The current collector has had them for about 40 years.
Gavin suggests that the guns left the Royal Collection following the increased popularity and functionality of the breech-loader. “If you look at the guns that remain, there are very few muzzle-loaders. Once the transition had been made into the breech-loading era, a lot of the surplus muzzle-loaders were released, presumably to friends and family, and escaped the collection.”
Gavin adds: “Albert had a number of guns and rifles built by Charles Lancaster over the years. His first pair of guns was built in 1843, which are 15-bore guns and, while we don’t know how much the pair at auction originally cost, that pair in 1843 cost £126. They were hideously expensive, but shooting was a gentleman’s sport and pastime, certainly not for the mere mortal.”
Albert’s impact on modern shoot days cannot be overstated. He regularly shot at Richmond Park then systematically improved the shooting at Windsor. On one occasion, he’s supposed to have shot 100 pheasant between breakfast and luncheon. He’s also credited with creating a new British custom when he insisted on stopping at noon for a hot lunch, instead of the traditional cold meal.
While the muzzle-loader was undisputed king during the 1850s, rival designs were coming to the fore. The Prince would have likely first encountered the breech-loading gun at the Great Exhibition in 1851, where French gunmaker Casimir Lefaucheux showed his pinfire breech-loader. Joseph Lang picked up on the idea and started building them in the later 1850s, although they didn’t truly take off in Britain until the early 1860s.
“Albert was among the first users of a breech-loading gun in this country,” says Gavin. “He had a trio of breech-loading hammerguns built for him, which probably would have come to greater prominence if he hadn’t died suddenly in 1861.”
The first centrefire breech-loader had been launched earlier that same year.
“The muzzle-loaders probably didn’t do a huge amount of shooting considering the number of other guns that Albert owned and the fact that, by 1859, they were obsolete,” Gavin adds.
By the time the Prince Consort died, the humble muzzle-loader was entering an irreversible decline. The advent of breech-loading guns in the mid-19th century ensured that most muzzle-loaders were relegated to the back of the gun cabinet.
Some 170 years later, Prince Albert’s muzzle-loaders are ready to re-emerge as they spearhead the next vintage sporting gun auction at Gavin Gardiner Ltd.
Estimated at £20,000 to £30,000, the pair featured in a recent sale and are receiving plenty of aftersales interest, at home and abroad. Gavin explains: “Americans are always fascinated by our royalty because they don’t have anything quite like it and, generally speaking, royal items will always feature quite highly.”