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Well, that Smith gun prompted me to pull out my copy of The British Shotgun Volume One. The action was patented in December 1863 so it fits in nicely with the other snap-action inventions being covered here. It looks near-identical to Needham's action, but the locking mechanism is different. It even has the captive hinge-pin barrel removal mechanism. The gun is in centre-fire and apparently not a conversion, so it must be an early centre-fire. Remarkable gun.

Please forgive my long-windedness today, but sometimes a single gun can demonstrate several advances and carry a lot of history. Today's bar-in-wood gun exemplifies the start of the Westley Richards "doll's head" and the "crab joint," and it is an uncommon variation.

Many double guns have a top rib/barrel extension such as a "doll's head" or a tab through which a Greener-type crossbolt extends. The idea of fastening the barrels to the action at that point, at the highest part of the breech face, was started by Westley Richards, and it was done to address a weakness inherent in all hinge-action guns. Ultimately the top extension provided many makers with a second or third point of attachment, but Westley Richards considered the single rib/barrel extension sufficient, and made many guns on that principle alone.

Some names become synonymous with their inventions. In the case of Westley Richards, one of the great names in Birmingham gunmaking, both terms "doll's head" and "crab joint" come to mind. The peculiar rounded tab extending from the barrels into the top of the breech has been copied by many makers, including several American ones. The elaborate wood-covered jointing indeed bring to mind a crustacean appendage -- well, I can't think of anyone else who went to such trouble. The amount of skill required to shape metal and wood to these respective designs is beyond my understanding -- it is uncommonly fine work. The best-known and most commonly encountered bar-in-wood guns carry the name Westley Richards, as the firm started the making of bar-in-wood guns and made these a mainstay of their offerings for a long time. The pivoting top lever, the one our thumbs know how to use seemingly without thinking, appeared on Westley Richards snap-action guns in 1864, one year before the more famous W. M. Scott top-lever. Like many gun inventions, the side-swinging top-lever was an improvement on an earlier system that is rarely seen today, the pull-lever.

One of the reasons that I've studied the pinfire is that so many of the inventions, designs and ideas found on the fantastic hammerless Edwardian guns of the Golden Age of shotgunning started there. Breech-loading was new, exciting, and radical. Clever inventions abounded, and makers fought for custom through innovation and meticulous attention to detail. What makes collecting the earliest breech-loaders a challenge is that there were relatively so few of them. A gun mechanism might have been patented in, say, 1862, but only a handful would have been made in that year. Popularity would be gradual and in the meantime the maker might have come up with a better idea, and then even fewer guns might be made with the earlier design. This makes the early designs hard to come by, especially when a maker supplants his own ideas with better ones.

The first Westley Richards doll's head and crab-joint gun did have a top lever, but it did not pivot -- it was pulled straight back with the thumb. While this was great news for left-handers, there is only so much leverage that can be applied in this way against a strong spring, and it is no surprise that Westley Richards decided that a laterally pivoting lever did the same job with less effort. The pull-lever was given the patent number 2506 in September 1862, and the lateral lever was given patent number 2623 in October 1864. There could not have been many pull-lever guns made in this short time, and famously one was built in 1863 for HRH Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, for his 22nd birthday.

The Prince of Wales enjoyed his shooting. The year before in 1862 Sandringham and close to 8,000 acres of land were purchased for him and his fiançee, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, by his mother and father, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. With his new Westley Richards pull-lever pinfire, he could shoot to his heart's content and he developed the Sandringham Estate as one of the finest shooting grounds in Britain. Later, and as Edward VII, he no doubt had many fine guns to choose from, but I'm sure he remained fond of his birthday gun. If you do have a copy of The British Shotgun Volume One, there is a photo of the Prince with his WR (page 135 in my copy).

The doll's head fastener was actually a clever solution to a problem. One of the weaknesses of the hinge action is made worse by the distance between the hinge and the attachment point. When a gun is fired the barrels try to flex downward, acting as a first-class lever against the action bar. The closer the attachment point to the hinge, the stronger the forces working against the action bar. With enough shooting, the junction between the action bar and breech face is apt to crack or fail. Two solutions eventually reduced this problem. The first was to increase the distance as much as possible between the attachment point and the hinge -- and the doll's head did just that. The second, appearing in most guns some time later, required leaving a slight curve or radius where the action bar meets the breech face, as a curved surface, even a very small one, is stronger than a right-angle joint at withstanding opposing forces (this is a good time to take out a magnifying glass and look at your guns). While the doll's head provides the only point of attachment in the early Westley Richards guns, other makers often combined the doll's head with an under-bolt or other attachment for extra strength. Considering we're talking about guns made with hand tools, the craftsmanship required to shape and fit a Westley Richards doll's head is astounding.

The crab joint must push the limits of the stock-maker. Both the action portion and the fore-end have to be shaped to fit together in the least ungainly way. I admit the Westley Richards style is not my favourite bar-in-wood jointing, aesthetically speaking, but I still marvel at the design and the skill required.

As to the story of the business, William Westley Richards was born in 1788, son of Theophilus Richards, another gun maker. He started his business in Birmingham in 1812, and from 1826 or so he operated from a second address, 170 Bond St. in London (more on that in a future post). William Westley's son, Westley Richards, took over the business in 1840 at the age of 26. He was a great inventor, obtaining a number of varied patents (such as the hinged breech block "monkey tail" carbine). In 1859 the business was re-named Westley Richards & Co.. Westley Richards retired from the business in 1872 due to ill health, and died in 1897 at the age of 83. Westley Richards & Co. is still in business today.

Gun number 10652 is a 12-bore, made in 1865. Unlike so many Westley Richards pinfires, it is still in its original form and was never converted to centre-fire. It has 30" Birmingham-proofed damascus barrels signed by Westley Richards, and carry the London address on the rib. It has the pull-top-lever snap-action with doll's head fastening system (patent No. 2506 of 1862). The breech face is stamped "WESTLEY RICHARDS PATENT 564," indicating it is the 564th gun built on this patent, perhaps amongst the last of this type. As Westley Richards had already started building lateral top-lever guns by this point, the client must have preferred the pull-lever instead. The bar-action locks are signed "Westley Richards," fitted to a bar-in-wood stock with the "crab joint." The hammers are flat-sided, with dolphin-shaped noses. The silver stock escutcheon has a distinctive family crest (unicorn's head erased, horned and crined) and initials "CGS", but I have yet to trace it back to the owner. The gun weighs a tidy 6 lb 12 oz, and the bores are still mirror clean. It is still in its original leather-covered case with label, cleaning rod, and original key.

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Last edited by Steve Nash; 02/03/21 04:21 PM.
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Thanks Stephen - the above is still more outstanding history and excellent commentary. Returning to the previous gun, Needham Patent snap lever made by John Blissett, I am curious about this Needham ad - I wonder what sort of patent breechloader Needham was offering at the time January 1857.

19 Jan 1857, "The Homward Mail from India, China, and The East"


Also from about 1855-1857 John Blissett published the same ad in "The Field" - He didn't start finishing Breech loaders till later it seems.


Last edited by Argo44; 07/15/20 02:25 PM.

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I think the breech-loader referred to in the Needham advert is his needle-fire, shown on the 4th page of this thread. Needle-fires were apparently around from the 1840s onwards.

I've just been reading that military interest in the needle-fire by the Prussians, Austrians and Danes did not go unnoticed in British military circles (and to those interested in foreign affairs), something which might have facilitated the later acceptance of breech-loading sporting arms to some extent.

I've examined a needle-fire rook rifle, but I've never held a needle-fire game gun.

I'm also still pondering the horizontal pinfire that AaronN mentioned. I've never seen one of those either.

I'm starting to realize that one lifetime is not long enough to study sporting arms.

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Thank you, Mr. Nash, for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. Threads like this make this board worth reading.

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Steve, You are right about Needham:

https://www.doublegunshop.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=319028
"On 2 October 1852 Joseph Needham of Ashtead Row, Birmingham registered patent No. 184 for a gun lock and the first successful hammerless needle-fire gun. He is known to have made needle-fire guns on the Rissack design. In 1850 Jean Jacques Rissack of Liege, Belgium patented a needle-fire gun in which the primer was in the base behind the powder as opposed to backing onto the over-powder wad, and the pin was either in the breech plug or on the hammer. Rissack's pistols and gallery rifles were very popular, the cartridges were made by Eley."

Prussia actually adopted the Dreyse Needle Gun in 1848. This fact was raised regularly in "The Field" and in Parliament, especially by proponents of the Prince Patent (1855) to try to get Arsenal to get their heads out of the Enfield sand.

That's the problem with trying to interpret advertisements for center break guns from this period. There was a lot of different breech-loading rifles coming out in the 1850's. So unless an advertisement actually refers to "Lefaucheaux" or "Fusils a Bascule" or "break-action" or some such, it's very difficult to know whether the ad is actually talking about center-break pin-fires.

For instance the Fall 1856 H.Holland ad for breech-loader shotguns...."perfect for Battue Shooting" - was this a center break gun or a version of the needle fire breech loader rifle he advertised just below it?


Battue Shooting (Battue is beaten in French...driven, beaten game)


So far it looks like Reilly is the very earliest to specifically be advertising center-break breech-loading guns in the UK Press.

Last edited by Argo44; 07/15/20 07:45 PM.

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As best as I can determine from our ledger books - Rigby sold 102 guns and rifles using Needham's 1852 needle-fire patent between 1858 and 1865. I have no idea when Needham began producing such guns under his name. What makes identifying just how many guns were made using that patent is that Rigby and Needham had different patent use numbering schemes.

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Next in line in the chronology of snap-actions is the JWP Field Patent of December 1862.

Two of the most highly valued points of reference in British gunmaking are name and address. While it is very true that an obscure maker operating in a distant town could, and did, produce guns of the highest order when commissioned to, most of the top-tier makers in mid-Victorian Britain, with names known by all the keen sportsmen of the day, had London addresses. While the name Purdey is synonymous with the finest guns today, in the 1860s James Purdey was just one of several London makers with equally well-earned reputations, along with James Woodward, Thomas Boss, Harris Holland, John Blanch, Edward Reilly, Joseph Lang and others, names that are still recognized today.

At the very beginning of the pinfire era in the 1850s, simply offering high-quality breech-loading guns placed gunmakers in the fore-front of their field. After some time this distinction would have lost its novelty, and other means were needed to remain competitive. Inventing and building proprietary patents attracted the attention of sportsmen and raised the estimation of the maker's wares above others, at least until something better came along. A long and storied history would also be helpful in terms of reputation, and a prestigious London address would provide access to well-heeled patrons. Being able to claim the custom of important persons was one of the most powerful tools in advertising, better still if there was a royal connection.

One would think that a firm encompassing all of these traits would be amongst the best known today, yet it is surprising how little is known, or has been written, about Parker, Field & Sons, and even less on their sporting guns. Surviving pieces show off the high quality of their flint and percussion pistols and sporting guns, but of their pinfire game guns very little is known.

The origins of the business started with John Field, who had been a goldsmith, sword cutler and gun maker at 233 High Holborn from 1783 to 1791. He traded under his own name and also as Field & Co and Field & Clarke. When John Field died in 1791, William Parker went into partnership with his widow, and they traded as Field & Parker. John Field Junior worked for the firm, but not as a partner. In 1793, William Parker bought John Field's widow's share of the partnership. William Parker became gun maker to Prince Edward, then to King William IV, and the Duke of Kent. In 1841 William Parker died, and John Field Junior and his sons started trading as Parker, Field & Sons. In 1850 John Field Junior died and the sons, John William Parker Field and William Shakespeare Field took over the business. JWP Field was was an accomplished rifle shooter, and he was Instructor to the Honourable Artillery Company from 1866 to 1879 and Captain of the English Twenty shooting team (Britain's top shooting club, still in operation). At some point Parker, Field & Sons received the greatest accolade, becoming gunmaker to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, a recognition the firm made good use of in their labels and advertisements. William Shakespeare Field died on 17 August 1875, and John William Parker Field continued running the firm until his death in 1879. The firm ceased business in 1886, after just over 100 years in the trade. As to the address, High Holborn street was central and very well located; Charles Dickens lived on High Holborn for a while, as did William Morris, the influential designer and promoter of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Parker, Field & Sons is probably best known for its contracts to supply arms to the Honourable East India Company, for "North West" trade guns supplied to the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies and used by native hunters in the North American fur trade, and for military Enfield muskets supplied to both sides in the American Civil War. The firm also provided police forces with pistols, truncheons, tipstaffs, cutlasses, handcuffs, wrist shackles and leg irons, and "all articles used by police." Parker, Field & Sons exhibited their guns and assorted wares at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, where Casimir Lefaucheux first demonstrated his pinfire invention to the British public -- perhaps they admired each others' work.

At least three types of pinfire game guns are known to have been made by Parker, Field & Sons: the Lang-type forward-underlever with a single bite and a rising stud for assisted opening; a similar single-bite action but with a rear-facing underlever (like the Moore covered earlier); and an elegant bar-in-wood design incorporating JWP Field's patent No. 3485 of December 1862 for a partial snap-action fastener.

It is the latter I'd like to focus on, because it is an unusually beautiful gun, amongst the first to exhibit the bar-in-wood construction in an attempt to hide the hinge, or at least minimize the visual differences between muzzle-loaders and the early breech-loaders. It is a 12-bore, and gun number 10567 was probably made some time around 1865. The top rib is signed "Parker Field & Sons Makers to her Majesty 233 Holborn London" in script and "Field's Patent" within a decorative scroll. The same "Field's Patent" marking is present on the sculpted underlever. The 30" damascus barrels have London proofs and bear the Field stamp and the barrel maker's mark R.W., possibly Robert Wall of 9 Little Compton St., Soho (1864-65). The single-bite partial snap-action rotary underlever action is John William Parker Field's patent No. 3485 of December 1862. It is only a partial snap-action, as the underlever is only partially under spring tension, it has to be completely closed by hand.

The slender bar action locks are signed "Parker Field & Sons." The rounded hammers have dolphin-headed noses, and the thin percussion fences are decorated with with acanthus spray engraving. The figured stock has drop points, a feature not commonly found at the time. The foliate scroll engraving is typical, and the vacant monogram escutcheon on the top wrist is gold, and not the usual silver. The guns weighs a tidy 6 lb 15 oz., and the bores are still mirror-bright. While the gun still has its original leather-covered case, it is in rather poor condition and the label is darkly stained.

No Parker, Field & Sons records survive, so it is impossible to accurately date the gun or know who the gun was made for. Still, from known serial numbers, the patent date, and the barrel maker's mark, a pretty good guess can be made. From surviving guns, it seems that Parker, Field & Sons were still making percussion guns and even flint locks around this time, confirming that a maker will make anything the client is willing to pay for!

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Last edited by Steve Nash; 02/03/21 04:23 PM.
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Just came across this article which is very relevant to the conversions here:


Full Size


Clock Guns, Pauly Guns, Pinfire Guns and Pinfire Cartridges
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Steve, your photos are amazing. The history and writing just as good. Look forward to next installment. It is a privilege to be able to read in advance what will be an excellent book.


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Great article, AaronN. And a good excuse for a temporary diversion from snap-actions. Ask most aficionados of British SxS guns which are the Big Three, and you would almost always get the response "Purdey, Boss, and Holland & Holland," with apologies to Woodward, who somehow gets squeezed out of such lists for no good reason. But for me, the Big Three names are Lang, Blanch, and Reilly, for the reasons pointed out in that article. Joseph Lang, John and William Blanch, and Joseph and Edward Michael Reilly were the first real proponents of the pinfire system. Lang began in 1853, Blanch in 1856, and the Reillys probably around the same time. All of the early guns were of the single-bite, forward-underlever type, with the gradual appearance of Mr. Beringer's lever-over-guard design towards the end of the decade (possibly started by Blanch). While many others eventually joined the party, these three businesses put their reputations on the line for the pinfire system, and should be recognized for their forethought.

The weekly sportsman's newspaper The Field of 2 May 1857 carried the following advertisement: "BREECH-LOADERS. -JOHN BLANCH and SON, Gunmakers, 29 Gracechurch-street, London, beg respectfully to call the attention of their friends and the sporting world generally to the above guns, which are much admired for their rapidity of loading, and the numerous safe-guards against accident which they possess. They would earnestly request those gentlemen who intend favouring them with orders for these guns for the ensuing season to do so as early as possible, that no delay or disappointment may be experienced. A large stock Single and Double guns and rifles and revolving pistols always on hand."

The 1861 census lists William Blanch as a gun maker employing 4 men and 1 boy, and living at 29 Gracechurch Street with his wife and three children. It is easy to forget that in most instances, a gunmaker's address appearing on the top rib of a gun was usually their home, as well as their workshop! At the time his father was living at 25 Hanover St. in the fashionable Mayfair district, but though 77 he had not retired from the business. John Blanch died on 5 December 1868 aged 84, and William continued the business - though he had probably been running it himself for some time. William died on 8 October 1899 and the business continued at the same address until 1914, when the lack of materials, demand and workers meant the firm had to move to a less expensive location. Over the years the firm moved and was sold several times, most recently in 2010, and now operated out of 16 High Street, Cheddington, Bedfordshire.

A good example of a Blanch gun is this 12-bore rotary-underlever sporting gun by John Blanch & Son of London, number 4696, made around 1864, after the Henry Jones patent for the double-bite screw grip action had expired. Gunmakers knew a good thing when it happened, and they were not going to pass up a royalty-free, simple, and strong action design. The 30" damascus barrels carry London proofs and are signed "J. Blanch & Son, 29 Gracechurch Street, London" on the top rib. The barrels also have the barrel maker's initials "TP," which I believe to be for Thomas Portlock, who was in business from 1860 to 1864 at Riley St., Bermondsey. Thomas was the father or brother of John Portlock (there is little information on their origins), and both of these London barrel makers provided barrels to the top London makers. The gun has back-action locks signed "J. Blanch & Son," the dolphin-style hammers have stylized cap-guards, a hold-over from the percussion days, now purely ornamental. Features which seem to be part of a Blanch house style are the fences carved with acanthus-leaf sprays, and the under-lever with a concave finial. The stock has heel and toe caps, a nice touch, and the barrels still have mirror bores. The gun weighs 6 lb 13 oz.

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Last edited by Steve Nash; 02/03/21 04:24 PM.
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