It must be time for a new pinfire post...
In studying the origins of the breech-loading game gun in Britain, the same questions keep popping up. Were French and other continental guns competing with British ones at the same time? Were some British makers importing continental guns or actions? Was there diversity in the types available, and if so, what were they?
There is very little information concerning the earliest years of the pin-fire game gun in Britain, the space in time between Joseph Lang’s gun of 1853, and the Field
trials of 1858 and 1859. One might presume that the guns of Lang, along with those of the earliest London-based proponents of the pinfire system, John Blanch and Edward M. Reilly, would have dominated the market at that time. The Field
trials of 1858 and 1859 indicate what was available to sportsmen of the day, showing various patterns on the market.
In the 1858 trial, there were pinfire guns by Christopher Penryn Aston (Birmingham), Moore & Harris (Birmingham), Ladmore (Hereford), E. M. Reilly (London), Fletcher (Gloucester), and Adolphe Jansen (Brussels). However, the guns are not described, though reportedly all were of the forward-underlever type. In John Henry Walsh’s 1859 book, The Shot-gun and Sporting Rifle
, written under the pen-name ‘Stonehenge
,’ he illustrates two guns from the 1859 trial, a forward-underlever gun by Reilly and a ‘lever-over-guard’ mechanism from Prince and Green (the latter being novel enough to rate a mention). At least two other action types were present in the 1859 trial, a Joseph Needham side-lever and an Auguste Francotte gun with a Bastin action with sliding barrels. What is not helpful is that anything other than patent systems was referred to as “Lefaucheux Breechloaders.”
John Blanch obtained a Béatus Beringer (Paris and St Etienne) gun in 1855, not long before he started offering pinfire guns from his London shop, presumably for study and analysis. I’ve not found evidence that Blanch copied the action, but the classic ‘lever-over-guard’ design was probably inspired by Beringer, if not directly copied.
My earlier post on the Robert Ringer gun got me thinking about Norwich, Norfolk shooting grounds, wealthy patrons, and the fact that in the 1850s, it might have been faster to trade with the continent than overland to London. If continental guns weren’t appearing in London, could they appear elsewhere?
So I was curious when a query about a pinfire game gun turned up on another forum, concerning a 16-bore signed Robert Marrison of Norwich, which looked to have a typical Beringer action. Correspondence ensued, and I’m happy to report the gun is now part of my collection.
The IGC Database gives part of the history. The Marrison gunmaking family started with Samuel Marrison, born in 1796 in Norwich. In 1821 he established his business in St Benedict’s Street, and by 1843 the business had moved to 50 Great Orford Street. In the 1851 census records, Samuel described himself as a gunmaker employing one man and one boy. This may refer to Samuel Ray Marrison, 24, and Robert Marrison, 20, recorded in the census as an engraver. Benjamin Marrison, 17, was listed as a gunmaker’s son. Around 1855 Samuel died, and Robert continued the family business in his name. The 1861 census records Robert as a gunmaker and ornamental engraver. On 17 December 1863, Robert Marrison registered patent No. 3185 for a forward sliding and side opening breech action, so he was a capable inventor, too. The 1871 census records Robert employing three men and three boys. In the 1881 census, Robert was a gunmaker and manufacturing chemist employing two men and two youths. The 1891 census recorded Robert as a gunmaker, but the 1901 census records him as a 70-year-old cement manufacturer and Benjamin as a retired gunsmith. The Orford Street business had closed in the 1890s.
The press of the day records a much more entertaining history. In 1855, Samuel’s widow published an advertisement informing the public that all stock was being sold off "at a very small per centage above cost price."
She further recommended her sons Samuel and Robert “as being fully qualified to carry on the business"
and that the firm would continue under the name Robert Marrison. I wonder what the elder son Samuel thought of being passed over. Also, in 1855, Robert Marrison took out several newspaper advertisements announcing his father’s death and that he would be continuing the business. He assured customers that “orders would be attended to with the utmost punctuality, and the work executed in the first style of the trade.”
However, in July 1858, Marrison was bankrupt. His entire stock was sold off at less than cost price, including ‘very superior Breech Loading Double Guns, made upon the newest and most approved principles.’
The business continued, but in late 1860 Marrison suffered another setback when his shop blew up, possibly from a gas leak, an error concerning a large quantity of black powder, or both. Tragically a young man was killed, and walls and part of the street were demolished.
Marrison went bankrupt again in 1867. He declared ‘losses arising from the bursting and in the manufacturing of guns, and in the invention of a breech-loader, and other losses in my business, and badness of trade.’
Marrison was again before the courts in 1870 for selling fireworks without a license. In 1873 Robert Marrison published a notice in the Eastern Daily Press claiming his skill, knowledge and inventiveness, and that ‘all the Patterns and Principles of the various BREECH-LOADING INVENTIONS in GUNNERY were made by himself’
and whereby ‘it is left to the Public to form their own conclusions as to the value of the unjust references by which his brother attempts to injure the reputation of Robert Marrison.’
I could not find out if this referred to slander emanating from Benjamin or Samuel Ray.
But the final chapter is the most bizarre, when in 1891, Robert Marrison was convicted for fraud, involving several lurid bait-and-switch schemes about hunting dogs, and guns, using advertisements in The Field
. Quite the history, all in all.
But let’s go back to this most interesting gun. In outward appearance, it looks like a typical Beringer gun, with a short wooden fore-end and a rearward under-lever that doubles as the trigger guard. By the 1850s, the Beringer patent appears to have run out. This particular action was made by ‘M. Godin,’ presumably Jean Louis Mathieu Godin, of Herstal, Belgium. The action bar is marked “M. Godin 1865” and “brevete 603”, which I presume to be patent no. 1865, and patent use no. 603. I have tracked down photos of a few examples of Godin-marked guns, all of which have the “M. Godin 1865” patent stamp. I do not know what the patent refers to, as guns with this mark are found with both Beringer-type underlevers and ‘lever-over-guard’ actions. The gun has grip-safety variation, where a small stud behind the triggers has to be depressed by the returned underlever before the triggers can be pulled – clever! I thought the patent might have been for this variation, but other guns with the mark don’t appear to have grip safeties.
The top rib is signed “R. Marrison, Great Orford Street, Norwich, No. 2281,”
though no records have survived against which the serial number could be compared. The 29 11/15” damascus barrels have a Liège provisional proof and bore size in mm (17.2), but no Perron mark. There is an unknown barrel maker’s mark, a crown over ‘HV.’ The barrels have London proof marks and bore size (15), and a London view mark on the action bar.
The fore-end is permanently attached, similar to a Belgian-made Gustave Masu gun illustrated early in this thread, and the wood is left unchequered. Sadly, like all early doubles with fixed fore-ends, the delicate edging to the sides has been damaged by attempts to pry off the fore-end by persons unfamiliar with the design. The Lefaucheux-style double-bite barrel locking mechanism is of typical form. The combined rearward under-lever and trigger guard bow is identical to Beringer guns, locking in place with a stud on the distal end of the grip finial. The back-action locks are of Belgian form, inset to the scalloped action back, and are signed “R. Marrison.”
The rounded hammers have stylized cap guards, the action and fittings are decorated with simple border and open scroll engraving (similar in pattern to the Masu). The stock has a sling swivel attachment, though the matching barrel attachment is missing. The bores are moderately pitted, and the gun weighs 6lb 10oz.
Dating this gun is a challenge. It would have to be 1855 or after, but I can’t imagine the demand for such a gun would have been high once more typically British guns were available. The fact that so few of these guns appear to have survived supports the theory of their limited appeal. I can’t find any mention in the shooting press of British sportsmen using Beringer-action guns (though obviously, some did!).
Was it sold in the early experimental years before the Field
trials? Was it sold off in Marrison’s first bankruptcy sale? Did it survive the blast? Did it linger, unsold, until the second bankruptcy? While these questions remain unresolved, at least the gun provides evidence that provincial British makers were importing continental guns for re-sale, and there were more action types available to the British market than previously supposed.