Tony Jackson experiences firing blackpowder — which first appeared in the 11th century — at a charity day, and sees some remarkable and ancient guns
On a warm humid day, the Bridgwater Bay Wildfowlers’ association brought the boom and sulphurous smell of blackpowder to the open day held by Rifleman Firearms Ltd at its headquarters on the Somerset Levels. More of the open day in a moment, but first a nostalgic dip into the world of muzzle-loading percussion and flintlock guns, of clouds of blue smoke and colourful characters.
The display of ancient guns and the opportunity to fire blackpowder had been organised by Richard Hussey, the black eye-patched event organiser for the Bridgwater Bay WA, and a fine fist he made of it, too.
There was an impressive collection of antique weapons, displayed by their owner Gerald Harris, including a mighty 8ft long single-barrelled percussion 8-bore bank gun by Couzens, weighing in at 20lb, a 4-bore, a 6-bore percussion gun used for live pigeon shooting, a short-barrelled flintlock coaching gun by mortimer, and a fine double-barrelled 18-bore flintlock by alport. Gerald also showed me a lady’s percussion gun with Damascus barrels made by Beatie of London.
He challenged me to lift and try to swing the gigantic bank gun, a feat that I just — but only just — managed to achieve. These huge guns were, as their name implies, intended to be fired from a bank overlooking water, but even so they had to be carried, perhaps by two fowlers, to the firing point. the recoil must have been impressive!
Richard demonstrated his single barrelled breechloading blackpowder 8-bore by T. Pagewood of Bristol, at going-away clays, followed by Steve Chick, a member of the Highbridge Wildfowling Association, who fired his double 8-bore by Tolley, circa 1890, obliterating clay targets. This gun had been owned by a fowler called John Packer, who in the past had used it in Scotland for goose shooting. However, the gun had lain dormant for some years until Steve acquired it. Last season he took the old gun back to Scotland but failed to kill a goose. He did, however, make up for it with several West Country Canada geese.
Also shooting his own gun was Ray Coggins from Bridgwater, who had shot muzzle-loaders all his life and gladly demonstrated his 11-bore percussion double-barrelled flintlock, from about 1845, closely followed by 11-year-old David Baldeggar shooting a single-barrelled Spanish 12-bore, loaded with blackpowder.
Firing a punt gun
The climax of the blackpowder display was the firing of a punt-gun made in 2004 by a notable character, Clive Cooper from Yeovil. The project, the result of an engineering background and a love of wildfowling, took Clive 800 hours to build and, he assured me, has been put to practical use.
The gun is a 1¼in bore and, though Clive had originally intended to fire a 16oz load, the gun turned out to be too light to handle it. It weighs just under 80lb and now handles a 12oz load of tungsten BB shot. The lock design is based on that of a whaling harpoon gun and is a Schneider hinged block action. The actual lock work is from an old 12-bore hammergun lock mounted into an aluminium block bolted to the back of the breechblock with a 2in long firing-pin. Clive likes nothing more than a challenge and is now building a double 2-bore. “It’s meant to be a shoulder gun and weighs 24lb at the moment without a stock or lock work,” he said. “It’s more of an engineering exercise than a practical gun. I’ve made enquiries but cannot find any record of a double 2-bore, though there are plenty of double 4-bores and single 2-bores. It should fire a 6oz load from each barrel.”
If this massive shoulder-gun reaches completion, it will be a matter of considerable interest to see if there is someone sufficiently Herculean and brave enough to pull a trigger. It will not be, he agreed, Clive himself.
Firing the punt-gun
But to the firing of the punt-gun. Clive has employed the punt-gun on three occasions in Poole Harbour but, as yet, has not had a killing shot from his punt. Each time he has managed to pole his punt to within 60 or 70 yards of a paddling of wigeon and, on taking a final check with binoculars, has discovered there were shelduck among the flotilla.
The massive grey-painted barrel and lockwork, resting on a bale of straw, was retained by a cord round the bale. Clive first tapped a new cap into the long steel cartridge case and then poured in a teaspoonful of fine blackpowder, sufficient to ensure it would ignite the 7oz demonstration load of coarse powder that followed. The charge was tamped down with a wooden rod. Two ½in wads were then inserted, the shot charge poured in and an over-shot card pushed down to retain the charge in position and to give it something to push against.
Onlookers stood back, hands in ears, as Clive pulled a cord attached to the lock work. There was a massive roar, a huge cloud of rolling grey smoke and the barrel flipped up, but was held by the retaining cord. Very impressive!
Over £800 raised for the RP Blindness Charity
The Rifleman Firearms Open Day was supported by trade stands including GMK, Hawke Vision, Edgar Brothers and BASC, a knife-maker and an artist. There was also flyfishing and clayshooting instruction, a gundog scurry and air-rifle shooting on the recently constructed range, with all the have-a-go charges going to the charity.
The day raised more than £800 for the RP Blindness Charity and is surely now established as an annual event in the West Country calendar.