The first rule of journalism, wrote Robert Ruark, is to “spell the names right.” Ruark, one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished journalists, was correct then and it’s still true today. Alas, fewer and fewer writers, editors and so-called journalists seem to have any idea of either how to do this, or why it’s even important. Continue reading Getting The Names Right
Half a dozen years ago, at the annual convention of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, some enthusiasts assembled a collection of custom rifles built during the 1920s and ’30s.
The man largely responsible was Michael Petrov, an Alaska oil worker whose hobby was documenting the work of early stock- and barrel makers who laid the foundation for the custom-rifle business as it exists today. Petrov wrote a series of articles for a now-defunct magazine, and these were later published in two anthologies. Continue reading A WAITING TREASURE
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.
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.