Diggory Hadoke challenges the widespread myth that most vintage models are unable to stand up to the rigours of modern shooting
If I had a box of bismuth cartridges for every time someone has told me that vintage guns are nice, but for the amount of shooting they do “you need something modern because vintage guns won’t cope with the work”, I’d face the lead-free future with enough shells to see me out. (Read here for advice on seeing whether you can use your gun with steel shot cartridges.)
Time and again, I hear the same thing. Vintage guns are fine for Boxing Day or the odd special event, but not good enough for day in, day out ‘proper shooting’. Experience tells me this is not the case.
I decided that the best place to demonstrate some vintage guns in action might be a simulated day, being a strong believer that regular trigger time keeps the reflexes and muscle memory in fine tune. Being given the opportunity by Criddle Fieldsports to try out its simulated driven grouse near Macclesfield, I packed some old iron and drove north. My friend, Tom, came along for the ride with his old Purdey.
I hear a number of criticisms of old guns. People think they can’t cope with the repeated shooting on a hot peg or are unreliable, slow to load or fiddly. I contend that older guns are as reliable as modern guns, perhaps more so. They handle better and are not as slow to load as some think. Any mechanism merely requires practice to become second nature.
The grouse butt is a good test of a gun. Driven grouse demands fast reactions and a gun that is instinctive to get on to a target that may be visible only fleetingly. Packs of grouse put the pressure on to fire and reload fast. Any issues with a gun are quickly exposed under these conditions.
I decided to take four guns — an 1885 Stephen Grant 16-bore sidelever hammergun; an 1873 Thompson 12-bore Jones underlever hammergun; an 1874 W Thorn 12-bore Jones underlever hammergun; and an 1885 Purdey 12-bore toplever hammergun. How would they perform in the company of a group of shooters using modern guns?
The shooting varied, as does a real grouse day, with butt changes ensuring that some ‘grouse’ were direct incomers at speed, others were crossing the horizon and, on the end butts, long, lone birds slipped down to the left or right. The beauty of clays is that they are plentiful, regardless of the breeding season, which has been poor on most moors this year due to snow in May.
Shooting single guns with a ‘stuffer’, rather than double-gunning with a loader, we kept up a rate of fire that surprised most observers.
The slowest of the guns was the Thorn, which has non-rebounding locks. Prior to about 1867, it was necessary to move the hammer to two positions during operation. Half-cock sits the hammer clear of the striker, but in a position from which it cannot be fired. This enables the gun to be opened and reloaded. Without half-cock, the hammer would continue to press the striker into the cartridge cap, effectively bolting the gun shut.
The first move is to pull the hammers back to half-cock, then operate the lever to open the gun and remove the empty cartridge case. The Thorn has a Jones-patent rotary underlever, which is inert, meaning there is no spring to return it to closed automatically when the gun is shut. The shooter has to rotate the lever back to its closed position manually. Once closed, the hammer has to be pulled further back, to full-cock, before it can be fired.
Even this, the slowest of the guns used, was surprisingly effective. In fact, of all the guns used, it may be the best grouse gun in the battery. For grouse shooting, you benefit from a stock shorter than your usual length. This helps a mount-late, shoot-fast style. You don’t have time to mount the gun and swing or track the target. It has to be sharp focus on the bird, move with it, mount on it and fire as the butt hits the shoulder, moving the gun as you do so. Long stocks get in the way.
The gun should also be fitted so that it shoots flat — the eye looking straight down the rib, not like many game guns that are set to show a lot of rib and throw 60% of the pattern high. The Thorn is exactly that. A gun with good weight distribution, easy to move and with weight between the hands is a faster, more instinctive gun to shoot than a barrel-heavy over-and-under.
Though the Thorn did well, the next gun was faster still. This was the J Thompson. It has the same Jones lever, but this time with rebounding hammers, which dispense with the half-cock position. To open the gun, the shooter only needs to move the lever — no need to touch the hammers. Once reloaded, the hammer is pulled to cock and the gun is ready to fire.
Working with a stuffer, the cycle is remarkably fast. Gripping the gun in the left hand, the right comes completely off and moves under, flicking the lever right, then tilting the muzzles slightly upwards. The right hand pulls out the two spent shells. Tilting the barrels downwards, the stuffer inserts new cartridges, the breech and barrels are lifted together, the lever locked with a quick movement and the hammers cocked as the gun comes up and the eye scans the field for a target.
Like the Thorn, the Thompson dates from the mid-1870s, which is my favourite period for hammerguns. Though the mechanisms are a bit slower and more idiosyncratic, that is part of their charm and the build quality of the best ones is as good as, if not better than, anything made since. Finding super-quality guns by relatively unknown and under-appreciated makers is a joy.
The other two guns, the Purdey and the Grant, are snap-actions. They share the same bolting system, which is the Purdey bolt of 1863 patent. When the gun is snapped shut after reloading, it locks closed automatically. Opinions differ about which is faster or easier to operate, the toplever and the sidelever.
I prefer the latter. The thumb naturally locates it and pressing down is a more natural movement than turning and pressing sideways. It also negates the drilling of a hole through the back of the action to locate a Scott spindle, leaving it stronger. The lever operates directly on the bolt from below. Without the necessity to manually return the lever to ‘lock’, these were the fastest guns we used.
There is no appreciable difference between a snap-action hammergun, used with a stuffer, and a hammerless ejector. In a real shooting context, where we often scan the skyline leaving some lower birds and waiting for a ‘good one’, rather than killing everything, in practical terms, there is no disadvantage using a hammergun.
I can fire 12 shots per minute with the Grant. If I’m on a driven day firing 12 shots per minute on every drive, it is going to be a pretty expensive one.
Gun case restoration: Although gun case restoration is a long process it is well worth the effort.
Shotgun restoration: Shotgun restoration requires time and money.
Vintage guns are up to the job
Ammunition used in the 12-bores was 21g fibre wad, which lessens shooter fatigue when firing upwards of 350 cartridges in four drives. The guns used all weigh between 6lb 10oz and 7lb. This helps keep the gun smooth to swing and absorbent of recoil when using punchier game loads. The 16-bore was used with 28g fibre wad Eley VIPs, as low weight loads for clays are not available in this bore. At 6lb 10oz, it is quite heavy for a 16-bore, which is my preference.
Don’t be afraid to use your old vintage guns hard. I do and they have never failed me, even in Africa shooting 300 shots a day, every day for three weeks. Not once have I had a failure in the field.