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The Long and the Short of It

by David O. Higley

I will spare you the long story about how I got bitten with the bug, but it was sort of like a Gene Hill story. You know…. A friend wanted me to arrange a grouse hunt while he visited the farm I lived on; a pump gun to help with the farm's pigeon problem; a trip to the local gun club to learn how to make the thing go bang safely; friend has a great hunt and invites himself back next year; scored two on first round of skeet, but had fun; friend invites me to tag along on his return; he owns a brace of fantastic English Setters; I AM HOOKED. Another friend says pump won't do, promises miraculous improvement with O/U - has an O/U that he might sell; invested in gun that would last forever; took skeet lessons; joined gun club; found VH28 in in-laws store room; well maybe not forever; subscribed to magazines; saw ads for guns; called for my own VH28, got sold an English "no-name" box lock - 20 gauge, 28" barrels, straight grip, double triggers, 5# 6oz., between the wars. You know the rest.

That seems a lifetime ago. The Thomas Newton box lock referred to above had a 14-7/8" pull and I never did well on the skeet field with it. I got my share of birds, but that was the result of misplaced priorities and too many hours afield rather than my shooting. It's long since gone, Dunn's sold it in less than a month, prompting a shooting friend to admonish, "you aren't supposed to sell 'em". Since those beginnings English double guns, English Setters, grouse and woodcock hunting, and clay target games have all become parts of a wonderful passion. I admit to being a serious student and mediocre practitioner of them all. Along the way I've had some excellent instruction, and after brief affairs with target and field O/U's I decided to shoot guns with barrels configured like the Lord intended, whether it be on clays of for those special hours afield with one of my several setters. I also learned my lack of success with the Newton had nothing with the gun.

Several years ago I had a series of lessons with Jack Mitchell, the English instructor Michael McIntosh calls the best. I was shooting a classic 12 bore English side lock game gun with 28" barrels and a 14-7/8" pull. Jack really improved my shooting in the Spring so when I returned the following Fall I brought along a lovely 20 bore "London Best" weighing 5 pounds 7 ounces with 26" barrels. I had acquired this gun before reading about those awful "whippy" light guns with short barrels in nearly every magazine I pick up. Regardless, this gun is a dream to carry on a long day in the field and I was looking forward to the opportunity to get tuned up for the coming grouse season. After half day of shooting, I must admit to having been discouraged with my lack of progress. I consoled myself by thinking that pointed grouse and woodcock in the heavy cover I am so fond of offers mostly close in "snap type" shots. For some reason it always seemed more important to have a gun that carried easily and was quickly brought to action than a smooth swinging piece suited so well for clay targets with their mostly longer shots following predictable paths. Right before our lunch break, Jack asked to shoot my 12 gauge. He missed one 40-yard crosser and then centered 3 in a row. Sitting around after lunch he handed me a card and said "here are the stock measurements you need." It read: "1-7/16" x 2" x 14-7/8" x 3/16"-1/2"-1/2" off. For the light 20 bore add " to the length".

As a reference point, I am 5'10", 175 pounds, wear a size 42 suit and 16" x 33" shirt right off the rack. Throughout the bird season and into the winter I thought about that last lesson. I read everything I could find on gun fit. The 12 gauge was close and I always felt I shot it fairly well. However, as much as I loved it, the 20 bore did feel "whippy", and I didn't shoot it as well as I felt I should. It was built with drop and cast measurements that were very close to what Jack had suggested, however the original length was 14" over a 1" leather covered pad. When I got it, I had a new pad installed that brought it out as far as I could, 14 3/8". How important was that added length? Would it really help my shooting? The stock is beautiful, so I didn't consider restocking an option nor could I afford it. About that time I noticed an article by Michael McIntosh titled "Wizardry in Walnut". The subject of he article, David Trevallion, was a stocker at Purdeys when my gun was built. That was original enough for me so I decided to give him a call and ask his advice. Not only did David remember my gun, but also his "gaffer" William O'Brien stocked it. After much discussion, I decided to send my precious Purdey to Cape Neddick, Maine. In May of that year I paid a visit to David and found him more than willing to share his knowledge of London guns with me. Previous correspondence with Purdey's identified many of the craftsmen who built my lovely gun, and David filled in the rest. He spent a full day with me explaining much of what goes into making a "London Best", and particularly a Purdey, so special. I almost had heart failure as he clamped my treasure on some sort of jig, that looked all the world like an instrument of torture, and flexed the stock an amount that seemed like 1/2" in each direction. "Can only do this with good French wood", he remarked as he demonstrated the strength of a properly stocked sidelock.

David talked to me about what kind of shooting I did and watched me mount my gun time and time again. He also had me mount tens of other guns that lined the walls of his cozy workrooms. I was like a kid in a candy store handling more "best" guns than I had ever seen in one place before. He looked at the dimensions Mitchell had suggested and we agreed he would add a permanent extension to a checkered butt - with his assurance he would find the "right" piece of wood and that the balance would be as it was when it left Purdey's over 30 years ago. I felt as though I had just taken a trip back to the Purdey workrooms of the early 60's as he proceeded to take my gun to pieces, pointing out initials of workmen long since gone while he worked. There was also the constant commentary on details of construction, some so minute I would never have noticed them, and sharing other antidotes as he went. Would you believe the stock, almost completely hollowed out, weighed a mere 10 ounces stripped of the pad! I nervously thought back to the "torture testing" on the bending jig. Sure enough under the top strap we found "WOB 63". David explained he was still in regular contact with Bill O'Brien, the first person to retire from Purdey's with a pension, and that this gun was stocked on the bench next to Trevallion's in 1963.

I left comfortable that my Purdey was in the right hands. After studying everything I could get my hands on about English double guns for 10 years, I had just been treated to a full day of private tuition. It was great! As I turned towards Boston on I95, it hit me that David hadn't told me what the final dimensions would be! Details, details.

How did it turn out? Well, David found a take-off stock from an Atkin 12 bore made in the 30's and I will tell you many people who have handled the gun since are not aware of the 2-1/4" lengthening piece until I point it out. As a final touch he added the legend DT 94 on the stock under the trigger guard next to his mentor's. An avid photographer, David sent O'Brien photos of the project and they enjoyed a laugh during a phone call when he mentioned he had just finished "making one of his jobs right!"

However, what about the really important thing. How does the gun balance, what happened to the dynamics, what ever happened to that short "whippy" grouse gun. Well, the gun came back with finished dimensions of 1-3/8" x 2" x 15-3/16" x 1/16"-1/8"-1/4", pretty much as delivered except for the length, and it feels like a magic wand in my hands. The day it arrived, I raced to the nearest skeet range and you guessed it. Gun down, doubles at 3, 4, and 5, 47 out of 50. Over my head to be sure, but with a 5#7oz. 20 gauge side by side, wow. Of course it doesn't feel like a target gun or a 12 gauge game gun, but solid is a far better description of the feel. It seems that getting your hands further out and opening the angle of the right elbow up, I am right handed, contributes greatly to the feeling of stability as well as recoil absorption. Further, once the gun is mounted, pivoting from the centerline of your body if you will, the added length of this lightweight lets it swing smoothly without any of that feeling of it "getting away" from you. In addition, my technique does have to be a bit crisper than with a heavier 12 gauge, particularly on long crossers. This season, there was never a hint of the butt catching on my clothing or game vest, and it surely is the right gun after about 7 miles on a warm fall day. In a word, the gun feels like it is supposed to, an extension of my body. That's the long and short of it.

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