A hammer gun revival
Vintage guns are enjoying a resurgence in popularity – Marcus Janssen visited hammer gun enthusiast Wayne Hurt to find out more.
Each year since the 1980s – when the last vestiges of prejudice against the over-under seemed to be disappearing – there has been a decline in the number of side-by-sides seen in the hands of game Shots, not to mention their almost complete disappearance from clay shooting grounds. Some argue that the side-by-side's days are numbered, that the rise and rise of the over-under has all but put an end to the 150-year reign of the traditional game gun. While that may be the view of many, others argue that vintage guns, particularly those sporting hammers, are making a comeback.
In his book Vintage Guns for the Modern Shot, Diggory Hadoke takes the traditionalist's view: “I believe that vintage guns offer the modern sportsman better quality, better value for money, better performance and more pleasure than can be had from a new gun.” And he is not alone. Wayne Hurt of Cotswood Gun Room in Gloucestershire agrees: “It's hard to describe, but a hammer gun comes alive in your hands,” he says. “It's the craftsmanship and balance of it, the attention to detail, the history. It is definitely a bit different, a bit special.” And so, keen to share his love of hammer guns, Wayne invited me to come and decide for myself whether the old guns live up to their billing.
Wayne's collection of hammer guns is extensive – Manton, Purdey, Boss, Charles Lancaster, Westley Richards, Holland & Holland, you name it, he has it – and his knowledge of his favourite subject is just as impressive.
The golden era of gunmaking?
Wayne begins by explaining how an event in 1851 changed the world of British gunmaking and consequently game shooting forever.
The brainchild of Prince Albert, The Great Exhibition was an opportunity for the world to showcase the technological developments that had been made over the previous 50 years. As Britain was the leading power of the time, it was an opportunity for self-congratulation. Yet it was a Frenchman, Casimir Lefaucheux, whose invention stole the show. His breech-loading pinfire, one of the earliest practical designs of a metallic cartridge, which is closely associated with the development of the breech-loader, that grabbed the attention of Britain's gunmakers.
In contrast to the laboriously slow muzzle-loaders that prededed them, the new pinfires were supremely convenient and several times faster to fire and reload. “This was the start of game shooting as we know it today,” says Wayne. “Instead of walking up game you could now have it driven towards you.” And with the advent of the centre-fire cartridge and the spread of the railway network barely a decade later, thus began in earnest the golden era of the great shooting party.
Indeed, the second half of the 19th century has often been referred to as the zenith of the bourgeoisie as the Industrial Revolution saw the wealth of Britain's upper middle classes soar. Suddenly they could afford to emulate the aristocracy.
During this period, arguably Britain's greatest boom era, hundreds of gunmakers sprang up across the country both in London and the provinces. In turn, competition for a place in the growing gun market meant that technological developments and improvements to guns came thick and fast. “So rapid was the change in centre-fire hammer gun development of that era,” writes Donald Dallas in The British Sporting Gun and Rifle, “that sometimes sportsmen could not cope with yet another change, and opted for an interim design instead. This is exactly what happened when hammerless guns were introduced in the 1870s.”
Compared to the fairly rapid changeover to breech-loaders in the early 1860s, the transition to the hammerless gun took a lot longer. The advantages weren't obvious, and sportsmen were reluctant to part with the hammer that had been such an integral part of their guns for decades. So, instead, many of the greatest Shots of the day, arguably of all time, opted for what was also a new innovation of the 1870s, the rebounding hammer. The hammers automatically returned to the ‘half cock' or safe position when a shot was fired, making them more efficient and a lot safer. “And it is the guns from this period,” says Wayne, “that in my mind are still the finest that have ever been made.”
Without electricity or the luxury of CAD machines, every part was built and finished by hand, requiring both a great deal of time and skill. “So they weren't cheap,” he adds. “At a time when most men worked for around £3 a year, a London gun would set you back by 50 or 60 guineas, or even more – a very, very significant purchase in anyone's book. So as you would expect, they were of the highest quality.”
Back for good?
The first people to ‘re-appreciate' the value and appeal of hammer guns were the Americans. An American by the name of Cyril Adams, author of the book Lock, Stock and Barrel, was the man who started the hammer gun revival, says Wayne. “They recognised that a limited number of these guns were ever made and that the joy of shooting with one is remarkably different to anything else. And since then they have literally been cleaning us out of them.
“They like to use them for walked-up shooting, for quail in particular. They really like the small-bores, which are very, very rare – about one in 100,000 were 20 bores, there were even fewer 28 bores and you'd be extremely lucky to find a .410 that wasn't made for a child.”
In the UK however, the return of the hammer gun to the game-shooting field is more of a recent phenomenon, one that Wayne has noticed progress over the past six or seven years.
But is their resurgence in popularity a fad, a trend that will disappear along with the latest fashion craze? Wayne is emphatic in his response: “Absolutely not – they are back for good. Very few people can afford a brand new London gun, and yet for the price of a mass-produced, factory-machined modern gun, you can have something that was bespoke, handmade and with no expense spared. And more and more people are beginning to realise this. Plus there's no reason why you shouldn't shoot just as well with a hammer gun as you do with a modern over-under.”
Wildlife artist Owen Williams agrees. He took a right and left on quail in Alabama with an 1832, 20 bore Purdey last year and was justifiably ecstatic: “How wonderful that a gun made so long ago should perform every bit as well as the modern Beretta that I had been shooting with earlier that day.”
Would I agree?
Wayne had selected three particular guns from his collection that he hoped would turn me into an avid hammer gun enthusiast: two Purdeys and one by Bristol gunmaker Thomas Page-Wood. With the guns loaded into the back of Wayne's Range Rover, we headed to Barbury Shooting School to give them a try.
Motoring enthusiasts will tell you that although classic racing cars like the Ford GT40 or Jaguar E Type will give you the ultimate driving experience, they are nonetheless much more difficult to master than their modern counterparts. For some reason this is what I expected from the old hammer guns – I assumed that hitting anything was going to be a real challenge.
So you can imagine how surprised I was when the first two clays that came over did the unimaginable and broke when I shot at them! Two shots is all it took for me fall in love with hammer guns. Clearly, I am no gun expert, but then you don't have to be Michael Yardley to know when something just feels right.
The first gun I tried was my favourite. It was an 1878 Purdey, bar in wood action that had been refurbished and re-proofed for nitro powder in 1952. Wayne tells me that it was presented by a lady to her new husband on their wedding day, but unfortunately he couldn't hit a barn door with it. Naturally he didn't have the heart to tell his very thoughtful wife, so it was only when she passed away a few years ago that he decided to exchange it for something that he could shoot with. Luckily, I didn't have the same trouble with it.
Crisp triggers, beautifully balanced, light in the hand yet without the discernibly heavy recoil that I was expecting, and truly beautiful to look at. And then there's the simple tactile joy of pulling back the hammers. What is there not to like?
And then something happened that really got me excited. I'm guessing that my newfound exuberance and enthusiasm for hammer guns was fairly apparent, because, after my last shot, as Wayne was sliding the beautiful old Purdey into its slip, he leant over to me and said: “If you'd like, you can try one on a shoot this season.” A seed had been planted.
For a long time now I've had this dream involving wild Avon brownies and a Hardy split cane rod. And now, thanks to Wayne, I have a new dream and it involves wild birds and a Purdey hammer gun. Now doesn't that sound good?