Ardesa Fowler shotgun review
Ardesa Fowler shotgun review
One of the wonderful things about shooting is the acceptance of new developments without necessarily casting aside the traditions or technology of the past.
During the 1880s, when hammerless sidelocks were already available, who would have believed that muzzle-loaders would still be in production 120 years later?
Yet this is just what has happened and there is a sufficient market for British companies to import new muzzle-loaders from Europe.
A long gun
The Ardesa Fowler is representative of a type of general-purpose fowling piece, rather than a reproduction of an original. It is literally a long gun, measuring 50in overall and, at 6¼lb, is very similar in weight to a 19th-century gun in my possession.
The balance, though, is quite different: where the original seems feather-light, the Ardesa is noticeably muzzle-heavy. For many potential users this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage with such a light gun, as it is an aid to a smoother swing and follow-through.
This gun has the kind of pleasing lines usually associated with muzzle-loaders, which, in this instance, I feel could be improved by removing the sling swivels. These devices, while practical and certainly popular on the continent, find less favour among UK shooters.
Roll out the barrel
One of the disadvantages of using an original is it is no longer in the first flush of youth and can sometimes be rather valuable. There is a natural tendency to keep the loads light and give it a gentle life – perhaps regard it as a special occasion gun.
With a modern muzzle-loader there need be no such constraints, however, and the Ardesa Fowler, with its heavy steel barrel proofed at 700Kp/cm2, can be used to full effect without any such worries.
The barrel goes from a short octagonal section to round and, while it appears parallel, is actually slightly tapered to the comparatively thick-walled muzzle. It is machine-polished, with a deep, glossy black finish and fitted with a suitably modest brass bead foresight.
Modern manufacturing methods are apparent where the barrel rib is secured by screws, and the pipes to hold the ramrod are turned steel, with undercuts at each end to simulate the appearance that was common with originals. The hooked breech that screws into the barrel follows tradition and the bolster that carries the nipple is made as part of the breech.
The barrel is proof size 18.5mm (0.728in), though it actually tapers a couple of thousandths of an inch towards the choke section. A muzzle-loader with choke may come as a surprise, but it is not unusual with reproductions.
Some originals can be encountered with choke, usually of the recessed type, though whether new or a retro-job is always open to debate. The gun on test was bored nominally tight improved cylinder ¾in before the muzzle, which has been relieved out to the main bore size.
The effect is like a double-ended choke or, in the simplest terms, a slight funnel shape, maybe as an aid to loading bore-sized wads. It was going to be interesting to see how it patterned.
The lock is key
The right-handed lock is held into the stock by two (screw) pins – referred to as ‘nails’ years ago, rather curiously – passing through the stock from the left side. The lock-plate is nicely colour-case hardened, with stamped decoration in the style of scroll-and-foliate engraving and fitted with a hammer of suitably substantial dimensions to ensure positive ignition.
To describe the lockwork as sturdy may seem to be an understatement, but the dimensions of the investment cast parts are, in fact, similar to some of the simpler originals. The inclusion of a swivel – what this manufacturer describes as a “pivoting tumbler arm” – between the tumbler and hooked end of the mainspring is a plus point on a simple lock. The gun’s trigger pull was rather hard because the sear engagement was deep and would benefit from a little tuning.
In the stock
The stock is made from fairly tight-grained walnut, with the grain flowing nicely up through the hand and along the forearm. There is no discernable cast and a comparatively small butt that, viewing the colour-case hardened steel buttplate, was sufficient to induce a tinge of apprehension as to what the felt recoil might be like with full-house loads.
Drop measured 1.3/8in at the tip of the comb and 2in at the heel, which meant I would tend to shoot high, though the length of pull, at 14.3/4in to the middle of the butt, was about right.
The end shaping of the forearm may not win top prize in the elegance stakes, but it is both comfortable and practical, and fine for most shooters, except those who prefer a fairly straight leading-arm style of shooting. I did like the use of a bolt (or wedge) to secure the barrel, coupled with the traditionally styled oval plates let into the forearm.
With the barrel and lock removed, the machined inletting of the stock was seen to be well executed and if there are a few small gaps visible on reassembly it is worth remembering that this is not a hand-finished original, but a practical and economically priced alternative.
With that in mind, if I have a particular minor criticism it is that I feel the well-blacked trigger-guard could be improved, were the bow made a little larger for use with gloves. Also the ramrod, while usable, was somewhat lightweight, but then no serious muzzle-loader would be without a heavier and safer ball-ended ramrod.
The load code
There is a great fund of ideas on how to load a muzzle-loading gun, with much debate centering around the wad column and whether its length should be greater than the bore diameter, similar or shorter. I do not think you can have a set method, as older guns especially differ in the way the barrels are bored.
One thing common to muzzle-loaders, though, is that wadding should make a good seal and contain some lubrication.
A lot of the variables are removed with modern barrels bored to consistent dimensions and, after some experimentation, reasonable patterns were obtained with a 1/2in lubricated felt wad sandwiched between two 1/8in card wads over the powder charge and a 1/16in card on top of the shot. The shot load was 11/4oz of No.6 propelled by 23/4 drams of medium grade black powder.
Smoking for pleasure
With a muzzleloader, it is always important to ‘cap off’ a cleaned gun prior to use, by firing a percussion cap on an empty barrel to clear the nipple and through to the main bore. Then it was load and into action – and what a pleasure that was.
The concerns about the small butt did not materialise – it was a pussycat: a gout of smoke and flame, the push of recoil against the shoulder, rather than the snap of nitro, and a mellow boom that announced to the listening world that black powder is still in use.
The Fowler was easy to swing cleanly and, for me, shot high as expected. The stiff trigger pull did mean a certain anticipation of the shot was necessary – not such a problem at clays, but how one might fare in the field, faced with surprise snap shots, could be a different matter.
With practice it would admittedly be less noticeable and, to be fair, this kind of hard pull is now fairly common, as manufacturers set triggers very much on the ‘safe’ side to avoid legal action through customers’ own carelessness. Apart from that it fired consistently well and quickly, never once misfiring or suffering from any hang-fire.
After the shooting session, with the fog of powder smoke hanging on a still winter’s afternoon, the evocative smell lingered and blended with that of rain-wet grass and damp earth. It is at times like this that some enthusiasts will claim that smokeless-powder breech-loading ejector guns are only a passing fancy. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this was great fun indeed.
The Ardesa Fowler is an economically priced introduction to the world of muzzle-loading, whether at clays or pot shooting down the hedgerow.