BY Terry Wieland
No matter how much you read about something, there is no substitute for personal experience. All my life, I have been haunted by the Manton brothers–John and Joseph–who are acknowledged as the fathers of the London fine gun trade. Before the Mantons, so tradition goes, guns were crude, unwieldy tools. After the Mantons, they were finely balanced, beautifully made, works of art.
In all likelihood, other gunmakers from the Manton era (1800 to 1835, roughly) who are less revered might argue that they, too, contributed to the transformation, and they may have a point. Where Joseph Manton particularly shone, however, was in the fact that so many of his craftsmen left his service to establish businesses of their own, preaching and practicing the Manton gospel of perfection in balance and workmanship.
These men included James Purdey, Charles Lancaster, and Thomas Boss–names that have resided at the “top of the tree” in London to this day. Although I have seen Manton guns in various collections, until recently I never had the opportunity to study one really closely, to put it together, and to see just how an original Manton feels in the hands.
The gun in question is an original flintlock Manton made around 1818, in the midst of the Regency era. Many Manton flintlocks were converted to caplocks, so finding one in its original state, in fine condition, is rare, and that rarity is reflected in their prices. A Manton flintlock might sell for $30,000, where a caplock conversion goes for $5,000. Having handled many different flintlock guns and rifles over the years, I have never been too impressed with their balance and feel, never mind the workmanship. The Manton, however, is a different proposition altogether. Although the barrels are 32 inches (made by Charles Lancaster, we should add) and the gun weighs more than seven pounds, it has better balance than most new and expensive shotguns you find today from reputable makers. How it must have felt to an officer just back from the Napoleonic Wars, accustomed to handling a Brown Bess musket, I can only imagine.
Colonel Peter Hawker, a veteran of the Peninsular War who was badly wounded at the Battle of Talavera and suffered the effects for the rest of his life, was a great Manton admirer, and extolled both his products and his disciples (Purdey and Lancaster especially) in his published works. Col. Hawker was one of the most interesting characters in the whole panoply of English shooting in the 1800s, who drove his ravaged body to shoot in all conceivable weather. His guns endured what his body did, so when Hawker praised a firearm, it was not merely for its charm or good looks.
This marrying of supreme function under the worst of conditions, with craftsmanship and beauty unlike any seen to that time, is the greatest legacy of the Manton brothers. It is even more astonishing when you consider the effects of black powder, with its corrosion and fouling.
The gun I examined, now almost 200 years old, was out of date when Lord Cardigan led the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and considered an antique when Lord Ripon was dropping birds at Sandringham. But my friend who owns the gun has loaded it, shot it, hunted with it, and even has a photograph of three grouse that he shot with this gun some years ago. He says it swings and shoots better than most modern shotguns. Sad to say, the craftsmanship that Joseph Manton inspired is now disappearing, even in England, where the few remaining fine gunmakers are incorporating CNC technology and slowly phasing out actual, trained craftsmen. A century from now, the Manton may exist as a living reproach for the skills that we have allowed to die.