I notice that Ed didn't give the poster a clue as to what the prime topic of debate was at the turn of the twentieth century, so I will. He's right, it wasn't sidelocks and boxlocks. As someone who has read at least one percent of what Ed has in nineteenth century shooting periodicals, I am going to say it is "barrels, patterns, and penetration". I too have never seen much discussion, if any, about lockwork. OK, so the penetration business was a red herring, but it was discussed and advertised to death, whether a legitimate item for discussion or not. Of all the thousands of words of wit and knowledge contributed by readers in each weekly issue of the most popular publications, I don't remember ten words in all my reading about a gun that wouldn't go bang when the trigger was pulled. Oh well.
Bill: You have read a great deal more than you are giving yourself credit for, plus you have a wealth of diversified hands-on experience. And you are correct: The ca. 1900 shooter was deep into, of necessity, loading his own shells for pattern and penetration.
At the turn of the last century the team leaders (foremen/contractors) at Parker Brothers made 25- to 35-cents an hour, and factory loads cost 55 cents per box of 25. To think that someone like the barrel-maker Jim Geary had to work about two hours to earn enough to shoot one round of trap at the Parker Gun Club, and Hayes signed a contract to run the entire operation for $1.00 per hour. The gun was a given, a capital item; bank presidents shot the higher grades; tellers and loan officers the lowest grades; lawyers and doctors the middle grades; captains of industry the imported Purdeys and the domestic "vanity grades." And all these people knew exactly what they were getting for their hard-earned or ill-earned $$$. Prestige! The "poor white folk" bought a T. Parker or N. R. Davis for $11.00 at Sears.
The great equalizer was ammo and the relentless testing of loads for pattern and penetration. Only the well-heeled could pop for factory loads, and the average wage earners made it up by maximizing the performance of the gun they had, the gun they could afford. If they could afford a Parker, many specified pattern count with a given size shot and drams of powder.
As to barrels, the advent of fluid steel pretty much put the end to fashion dictated by barrel pattern. Knights of the trigger in the know preferred the cloud-like irregular patterns of English Laminated for objective durability and subjectively anecdotal evidence of "shooting harder." Fashion, however, won out and the more regular patterns of Damascus came to be preferred over the harder-to-make Laminated (which wore out boring bits because of a greater percentage of steel). After "black" fluid steel barrels became the norm, gun makers carried forward the tradition of grading guns by "barrel quality"--Titanic, Acme, Vulcan, Parker Special Steel, Trojan, etc.--even though there was no discernible difference, except possibly in the depth and smoothness of finish. The Whitworth barrels on my AAH Pigeon Gun look different cosmetically than the barrels on my unfired Trojan (sold recently); whether the ca. 1896 Whitworth Steel bbls are "better" than the Trojan Steel bbls--by any objective standard-- or better than Titanic Steel or Vulcan Steel ca.1898, or Trojan Steel after 1912 is problematical. Gunmakers carried on the Trademarking of barrel steel for quite awhile, Parker only putting the practice to rest when Remington moved the operation to Ilion in 1937-38 by omitting a barrel steel ledgend on the rib.
All this is well documented and hashed over in the literature of our sport. As to box-lock versus side-lock, I'm still waiting for anyone to come up with that which I somehow missed. My take on this is that the box-lock was thought to be an advancement in gun making when the Industrial Revolution favored the relentless search for better and more cost effective ways of doing everything. Parker experimented with side-lock but went with the new technology; Ansley Fox came later with a box-lock; Ithaca and Lefever adopted the box-lock for their concealed hammer guns, as did Olin's Mod. 21.
I have never been able to find a rationale for L. C. Smith's sticking with the side-lock except as implied in the LCS 1889 catalog (at p. 13), yet the distinctions made between their new hammerless and "...many of the hammerless guns which have preceded it...[and]...all foreign guns..." are nothing more than sales puffery. And all the well-known foreign guns save the Greener had (and still have) side-locks. Anyway, I think the ongoing and somewhat contrived side-lock versus box-lock debate is all smoke and no fire. The LCS 1889 catalog hype cited various objections to the hammerless guns of other un-named makers:
Ungainly proportions of the frame...
Weakness of the frame...
Numerous springs and small parts liable to break...
Foreign guns without a joint check...
Methinks that a lot of the latter-day lock-type-hype comes from certain people reading the 1889 LCS catalog reprint and taking it as the gospel truth.
Meanwhile, Capt. Bogardus endorsed the LCS in a testimonial letter in the 1889 catalog, as he had endorsed every other gun he had given him, including a Parker. But as to the value of his opinion, let me quote Bogardus himself:
"I could never see any use to a shooter in a long theoretical or practical description of the principals and details of guns as they are made...sportsmen may safely leave such matters to the gunmakers, who are nearly everywhere a very ingenious, painstaking, and trustworthy class of men." A. H. Bogardus in his best selling book, Field, Cover & Trap Shooting
(at least 8 printings copyrighted 1874, 1879, 1884, 1891).
I rest my case. EDM