By Terry Wieland
One should never underestimate the capacity of the Victorians to take the commonplace and elevate it to the level of fine–or at least functional–art.
By an extraordinary coincidence, the emergence of modern guns and rifles in England occurred just as the phenomenon of Art Nouveau was sweeping Europe and the world. Gunmakers such as Boss and Woodward fashioned their products in accordance with Art Nouveau principles, and Holland & Holland’s famous engraving pattern for the Royal, adopted in the late 1890s, is one of the finest examples of the type to be found anywhere. Art Nouveau, for those who missed it, was a movement that advocated “art as a way of life,” and incorporated it in all manner of objects, from architecture to furniture to jewelry cases.
As a formal movement, it dates from 1895, but the trends in that direction existed for some decades before. Once it was formally recognized, however, gunmakers clutched the idea to their collective bosoms. Soon, every gunmaker sported a distinctive engraving pattern, and began sculpting locks and frames to Art Nouveau principles.
This approach trickled down to include not only “best” matched pairs intended for dukes and marquesses, but even the lowly rook rifle. This was a small game number that existed in England in one form or another since muzzleloading days, but it really took off with the development of the self-contained cartridge. Small-caliber muzzleloaders, known as “pea rifles” from the size of their bores and lead slugs, were used to shoot small game of all descriptions, from edible rabbits to predatory hawks. With the coming of breech loaders in the 1860s, cartridges were developed for this purpose, ranging in caliber from .220 to .360, and firing a 40- to 145-grain bullet at the usual blackpowder velocities of 1,200 to 1,500 feet per second.
Generally, such game was shot at 50 to 75 yards, and rarely more than 100. They wanted bullets that would neither destroy edible meat nor carry too far and endanger bystanders. Such rifles came to be formally known as “rook and rabbit” rifles. Holland & Holland made a particular specialty of such rifles, reportedly selling some 5,000 of them in the late 1800s. In Birmingham, Westley Richards–always a rifle specialist–and W.W. Greener were noted for their rook rifles.
Various actions were used, but the miniature Martini, a scaled-down version of the military Martini-Henry, was a favorite for its strength and its accuracy. In 1900, Greener introduced a cartridge called the .300 Rook, and a year later, Westley Richards came out with a lengthened version which they named the .300 Sherwood. Kynoch, who loaded ammunition for it, called it the .300 Extra Long. Westley Richards also developed a special rifle called the Sherwood built on the Martini action. It was modified into a takedown with an easily removable barrel and a detachable lock mechanism held in place by a thumb screw.
The .300 Sherwood launched a 140-grain bullet at 1,400 fps, a considerable gain over the .300 Rook (80 grains, 1,200 fps).
In 1906, Henry Sharp, in his book Modern Sporting Gunnery, extolled the virtues of the .300 Sherwood as a big game killer, quoting hunters in British Columbia who used it to kill bears, bighorn sheep, and one verified caribou at 220 yards. Not something I would do, but there you have it.
Alas, the coming of the .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge killed off the old rook calibers, and many of these vintage rifles were rebarreled and reworked into .22s. The advent of restrictive firearm legislation in Britain caused many to be destroyed, while others were exported to Australia, Canada, and South Africa. Historian Donald Dallas estimates the total number of rook rifles made to be in the hundreds of thousands, and while many have gone to their reward, enough are still around to make it interesting at auctions. The old cartridges are a lot of fun to work with, and a “best” quality rook rifle is something to see. It is also affordable for those who admire English workmanship but can’t aspire to a big name double rifle.