The history of guns - Technical developments improved guns of all kinds in the Victorian era; those that are attractively finished appeal especially to collectors. The invention of the percussion cap, a reliable way of firing the gun's powder, led to a boom in sporting guns from the 1820s onwards. They ranged in quality from the finest Joe Manton, at 60 guineas, down to poor $1 gun for shooting vermin. Manton went bankrupt but two of the greatest names in British gun-making had worked for him, Jack Purdey and Charles Lancaster.


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Market Notes > Militaria > Expert Tip: Old Guns

Colt Revolvers and Rifles

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Old Guns

The history of guns

 Technical developments improved guns of all kinds in the Victorian era; those that are attractively finished appeal especially to collectors.

The invention of the percussion cap, a reliable way of firing the gun's powder, led to a boom in sporting guns from the 1820s onwards. They ranged in quality from the finest Joe Manton, at 60 guineas, down to poor $1 gun for shooting vermin. Manton went bankrupt but two of the greatest names in British gun-making had worked for him, Jack Purdey and Charles Lancaster.

 The best guns had Damascus barrels forged from twisted rods of alternate iron and steel, locks of forged iron and steel filings, and stocks of Circassian walnut. Increasingly, they came in fine mahogany cases, lined with baize, with compartments for essential equipment.

 Cheap guns had locks made from die-stamped components, stocks of beech stained to imitate walnut, and barrels manufactured from 'sham damn skelp' - the poorest scrap. They were all of course, muzzle-loaders.


 Guns that fire shot have smooth barrels, those that fire bullets are rifled - that is, they have a spiral groove inside the barrel that imparts a spin to the projectile, giving extra accuracy. The first percussion rifle issued to the British army was the Brunswick in 1838. It was accurate but after a few shots the rifling became fouled with burnt powder.

 The Minie Rifled Musket of 1851 was a great improvement. It fired an elongated lead bullet which was easily loaded, and which expanded when fired to give a gas-tight fit. The invention of the brass-cased, breech-loading bullet in 1865 made Minie's system obsolete. The new metal-cased bullet was fired by the famous Martini-Henry rifle adopted by the army in 1871. Later improvements included the bollt action of the Enfield Mark 1.
The other great change in gun design in the 19th century was the breech-loader. The Frenchman Le Faucheux patented a breechloader shotgun in 1835, but it didn't catch on in Britain until it was shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851. The new gun required a new kind of ammunition and thus the cartridge made its appearance.

 From the 1820s to the 1840s many multi-barrelled pistols, known as pepperboxes, were made. The first really efficient revolver, with a single barrel and revolving multiple chamber, was patented in 1836 in America by Samuel Colt. The Colt Peacemaker became one of the most popular handguns of the American West, used by lawmen and outlaws alike.


 In 1853 Colt built a factory in Pimlico, London, and in the four years of its existence it produced 50,000 guns. British gun makers were not slow to take up the challenge, and soon began producing revolvers of their own. Tranter, Westley Richards, Adams and Webley were the main manufacturers.

 Initially the revolver was a single-action weapon, and had to be cocked each time it was fired. But with the double-action revolver, one squeeze of the trigger both cocked and fired the gun, making possible many of the bloodier episodes of the Wild West.


 The target pistol of the 19th century was a percussion pistol that was rifled for greater accuracy and came in cased pairs that were often lavishly equipped. French and Belgian pistols were carved all over with Gothic fantasies and so were their accessories which were in compartments of velvet or gold-tooled leather.

 British target pistols were decorated with fine scroll engraving. They were made by leading British gun makers, including James Purdy. Their best work was often out of sight, in the rifling of the barrel, the inside of the lock, and in the set trigger mechanism. Pepperboxes were for personal defence and were functional rather than beautiful. Some, however, were finely finished and engraved in silver. They came in velvet-lined cases.

 The Colt is probably still the most prized revolver for the collector. The other major manufacturers in the USA were Remington and Smith & Wesson, who went into partnership in 1854 and produced the first revolver to use the metallic-rim cartridge which was later adopted by Colt.

 British revolvers were usually sold in oak cases with compartments for accessories, including a bullet mould, nipple key, powder flask, cleaning rod, spare nipples and a tin of percussion caps. Inside the lid there are often instructions for the gun's use.


 The carbine had a shorter barrel than the musket or rifle, and was issued to the cavalry as well as to light infantry, light dragoons and the artillery. The Winchester repeater carbine is famous as the saddle weapon of the US Cavalry. In Britain the move towards breech loading military weapons resulted in the Westley Richards carbine. It was nick-named the 'monkey tail' because of the lever arm which lifted from the top the breech. It was approved as the official cavalry firearm in 1861.

 The blunderbuss has always been attractive to collectors. When it was used as a weapon to protect the home it had to be kept charged and primed. Its traditional position over the fireplace has a practical origin - to keep the powder dry. Percussion blunderbusses were still made in the 19th century. Barrels and non-mechanical parts were usually brass. The shot didn't actually leave that bell-like mouth with any greater speed.

 The British gun trade was centred on Birmingham, and few people bought guns from overseas. The best hunting or Jager rifles were made in Germany, notably by Christoph Funk of Suhl.

 Gun makers prided themselves on the high level of craftsmanship that went into making the finest weapons. The quality of the mechanism was important but so too were the decorative touches.


 If you are a new collector of guns the best place to buy them is from a reliable dealer or a reputable auction room. Bargains turn up on market stalls, but so do fakes.

 There are plenty of areas in which to specialize. The quaintly made pepperbox multi-barrelled pistols are always popular. Another area to consider is 19th-century sporting, percussion guns and rifles, as these are often overlooked in favour of more expensive 18th century flintlock fowling pieces.

 Single-barrelled shotguns were used mainly by farmers to shoot vermin and meat for the pot rather than by sportsmen, so good examples tend to be rarer than double-barrelled shotguns. The lighter British sporting rifles 'rook-and-rabbit' guns - are also quite rare, as shotguns were usually used for small game.


 The quality of a gun can be judged by its balance, its graceful lines and the fit and finish of its parts. T e quantity of engraving is no guide at all, hut i strained, high-quality engraving is usually the mark of a good gun. Guns bearing the name of one of the best makers are especially collectible.

 The proof marks stamped on on guns are not an indication of quality. They simply show that the gun was proof-fired before finishing and was passed safe to use.
When examining an antique gun, check the stock for splitting or woodworm. Check the barrel for rust and lifting inlay. Cocking an antique gun can break a weak main spring, and, above all, remember it could be loaded.


 Rust can be removed from old guns using 0000 steel wool soaked in light oil. For stubborn patches, scrape with a copper coin which will not scratch the surface. Stocks can be cleaned with the same fine-gauge steel wool soaked in meths. Afterwards rub in a coat of boiled linseed oil.

 You can remove barrels and locks from the gun for cleaning purposes, but don't dismantle the lock. This is a job for an expert. The best place to display guns is in a dustproof, glass-fronted case.

 Long guns should point down to prevent oil staining the stocks. Heat and damp are damaging, so don't store guns over a fire or on an exterior wall.

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British Enfield Rifles, Vol. 1, The SMLE (No.1) Mk I and Mk III by Charles Stratton

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