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Bringing our big guns home

From an early age I was an avid reader of wildfowling books. As a budding fowler on the Welsh estuaries, I read about James Wentworth Day’s adventures on the remote East Anglian coast. The wild and wildfowl-filled skies he described fired my imagination and his exploits with his great old double 8-bore Roaring Emma filled me with the desire to have an 8-bore of my own. After the writer’s death, I was saddened to learn that his historic gun had crossed the pond to an American collector. More recently I was overjoyed to hear that it had been repatriated by John Humphreys, ST’s own Country Gun.

Roaring Emma, a treasure of Britain’s wildfowling heritage, is back home and is once more speaking to wild geese in her true environment. This happy achievement set me thinking. If John could achieve it, perhaps other 8-bores could be rescued.

The US Government banned the use of 8-bores for wildfowling in the first decade of the 20th century. Despite this, there has been a steady loss of English-made 8-bores from this country to collectors in the United States. Thus in the UK there is a decreasing stock of English-made 8-bores with rapidly increasing prices. Surely there was some way this trend could be reversed and some of our big guns be returned from life as a wall-hanging in the US to active service on Britain’s foreshores? It was a rocky road and there were many pitfalls, but I have discovered that it can be done. There have been two factors in my favour. The strong pound and the Internet. With an exchange rate of about $2 to £1, now is a good time to buy from the US and the Internet gives me access to hundreds of gunshops and auction houses.

It does mean that you have to spend many hours searching through the myriad US gundealers’ websites, and though some dealers refuse to export their goods, eventually you will find what you are looking for. In the late 1800s many Birmingham-made 8-bores were exported to the United States “in the white”. These guns have English proof marks despite having an American gundealer’s name stamped on the rib and lockplates.

The phrase caveat emptor applies and you should not get carried away. Don’t forget that you are buying “unseen” and that it is difficult to return unsatisfactory goods to a US seller. It is important to ask the vendor for a set of detailed photographs so that you know as far as possible that the gun is in working order. Many old wildfowling guns have been ruined beyond repair. I came across a Tolley double 8-bore hammergun with fine Damascus barrels shortened to 24in for use as a coach gun. Another Birmingham double 8-bore had sprung ribs stuck on with fibreglass resin. A close-up photo of the muzzles will give an idea of the thickness of the barrels and details of the proof marks will date the gun, but you will have to trust the salesman on the state of the bores, the action and the woodwork. Remember also that the majority of US dealers have little or no knowledge of British proof marks and few are able to measure bore diameter and barrel thickness of a calibre larger than 12-bore.

The next obstacles are shipping and UK customs. The United States Postal Service will ship antique firearms to Britain. UK customs, after demanding a plethora of forms to be filled in as well as proof of the antiquity of the item, levy a five per cent VAT charge and the process can take up to three weeks. Fortunately, all 8-bore shotguns more than 100 years old are classified as antique in US and UK law, which simplifies things. At last you will be able to handle and inspect your purchase. Old 8-bores are classified as Antique and Obsolete shotguns and therefore if they are not intended for use do not need to be entered on a shotgun certificate. However, my whole reason for embarking on this quest is to bring these wonderful old guns back into action and if you intend to use the gun, it must be entered on your certificate and be thoroughly checked by a gunsmith before it is fired.

Most guns will bear signs of neglect and will need to be brought up to scratch, and very few will be nitro-proofed. You will need a supply of blackpowder cartridges, dirty and smelly to use maybe, but they do give an 8-bore a distinctive roar and are very effective. Word soon got out among my wildfowling friends that I had successfully bought an English double 8-bore in the US. A number of them asked me to look out for a similar gun for them and so far three 8-bores have come home as a result. One request was different. An old wildfowling friend, farming in the wilds of Yorkshire, asked me to look out for a double 4-bore. If double 8s in shootable condition are as rare as hen’s teeth, double 4s are even harder to locate, so I didn’t hold out any hope of ever finding one.

Six months later I was looking for guns on American websites when I found a picture of a huge gun in a gunshop in a small Texas town. It was a double 4 made by Thomas Horsley of York. The gun still had the original leather case and the top tray contained 24 brass cases head-stamped T. Horsley. The gun itself had Horsley’s patent pull-back top-lever opening as well as a bar-in-the-wood action, which was elegant, functional and extremely rare in a gun of this size. I phoned my friend in Yorkshire, “Horsley was my local gunmaker,” was his excited response, “I’ll buy it! Will you handle the paperwork?” I also phoned Jack Smith, my close friend and the barrel maker of my Phoenix single 8. He would provide a gunsmith’s cautious perspective to offset the Yorkshireman’s enthusiasm.

There was a lot the sales photos did not show. Requests for close-ups of the proof marks and muzzles and serial numbers were quickly answered. T. Horsley’s records showed that the gun was made for a Captain Ingham in 1870, and it was probably one of only three bar-in-the-wood double 4-bores made by Horsley. However, had the barrels been lapped out so that the walls were too thin for use? I became very concerned that there was no information on bore diameter or wall thickness and the sale was on the point of falling through when I had a rare flash of inspiration. According to the proof marks, the gun was originally proofed at 5-bore, which gave us the actual bore diameter at proof. Remembering that an old ha’penny coin measured exactly 1in across, I searched the Internet for diameters of US coinage. As luck would have it, a $1 coin had exactly the right diameter. I emailed the seller with the strange request to roll a dollar coin through each barrel. If the coin went straight through the bores had been enlarged, if it stuck then the bores were still true to the proof marks and the sale was on. Both coins stuck.

A joyous homecoming

Three weeks later Jack collected the gun from Manchester Airport. As with any item bought unseen, tension mounted in his workshop as the packaging was removed and the gun could be handled and inspected for the first time. Jack phoned me, “Robin, this double 4 bore,” his sombre voice paused long enough for me to fear the worst, “is absolutely magnificent.” So, on a windswept and cold dawn during next wildfowling season, Captain Ingham, looking down from that great saltmarsh in the sky, will hear the clamour of geese and the mighty boom of a 4-bore. He’ll smile to himself and exclaim, “I know that voice!” 

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