(Photo courtesy of Philipp Ollendorff, www.jagdwaffen-ollendorff.com.)
The bar-in-wood’s beauty is in the eye of the collector
By Douglas Tate
To my knowledge, no art museum has ever presented an exhibition of fine shotguns, but if one ever did and needed to pique the interest of its more aesthetically minded patrons, a collection of bar-in-wood guns might just provide a theme. Timber-shrouded actions offer further evidence of a truth universally acknowledged: that appearance is important, and beauty goes far beyond the eye of the beholder. Since the hammergun era, “skeletal-bodied” doubles have regularly topped lists compiled by enthusiasts of the most beautiful shotguns ever made. I couldn’t agree more with those who feel that bar-in-wood guns are some of the sexiest ever produced.
Bar-in-wood shotguns owe their graceful good looks to their parents: They are the direct descendents of muzzleloaders and can be defined as breechloaders in which the lockplate or action body and sometimes even the knuckle and hinge pin are enclosed in a forward extension of the walnut buttstock. They come in hammer, hammerless, round-action and even bogus boxlock configurations known as “body locks” and have become desirable collectors’ items.
According to Gavin Gardiner, who has worked with Sotheby’s gun auctions since 1987, “Bar-in-wood guns were a way of maintaining the gracefulness of a muzzleloader in the early breechloading era, but the easier-to-make and stronger designs soon cast them into the shadows.”
“Pretty much all makers made them—certainly the better-quality ones, anyway. It is just that not many of them continued to make them for long. Westley Richards, Purdey and Horsley are the three that jump to mind as makers that produced good numbers, and of course we have MacNaughton, with their bar-in-wood Edinburgh-actioned hammerless gun. MacNaughton is probably the only one who has made a modern version, though I am sure if you ask, others might.”
MacNaughton is one of the last firms to make them, but it was also one of the first. In July 1867, James MacNaughton registered improvements to a slide-forward-and-drop-down hammergun that was “applicable to the conversion of muzzle-loaders into breech-loaders.” The patent illustration and surviving examples feature wood-covered actions. Common enough in the 1870s, timber-shrouded actions were felled by stronger competition. The few hammerless sidelock ejector examples surviving from beyond this era are some of the most coveted wood-covered actions.
Though they all have walnut-covered action bodies in common, bar-in-wood guns fall into four broad categories—each worth looking at in roughly chronological order.
Most frequently encountered are bar-in-wood hammerguns. How many makers produced such guns? Certainly examples turn up bearing the names of provincial makers such as Hugh Snowie of Inverness and Thomas Johnson of Swaffham, in Norfolk, but these guns typically were made elsewhere. In the case of Snowie, the guns were made by Thomas Horsley, while Johnson examples are clearly of Purdey origin.
To the makers mentioned by Gavin Gardiner as better-known producers, I would add William Powell of Birmingham. Sometimes encountered as pinfires and almost always featuring the firm’s propriety snap-action “Lift Uplever” together with vestigial percussion fences, these are distinctive guns. Perhaps even more distinctive and certainly more often found are the Westley Richards types that feature an early example of Westley’s broad toplever and doll’s-head together with a crab-joint knuckle-pin cover. Thomas Horsley appears to have produced more than any provincial maker. His elegant iterations often have the Horsley-patent retracting firing pins, his slide-back toplever snap action or other early Horsley improvements.
Perhaps the most elegant of all bar-in-wood hammerguns are those by Purdey. “Purdey bar-in-wood guns are a favorite,” said Patrick Hawes, head of the Sporting Gun department at Bonhams, the London auctioneer. The example illustrated on the facing page was completed in 1885 and featured in Bonham’s sale of April 3, 2013. Purdey’s records state that it was engraved with “dogs and birds.” The combination of Purdey quality, superbly executed game-scene engraving and a bar-in-wood action make for a unique collectible.
Hammerless bar-in-wood sidelocks are anachronisms. By the time hammers disappeared inside guns and were renamed tumblers, the action bar of almost every shotgun was being constructed entirely of steel in an effort to create guns strong enough to contain new, powerful nitro propellants. Consequently, few bar-in-wood hammerless sidelocks were built, making them all the more desirable to collectors.
A beautiful example is the 16-bore Charles Boswell bar-in-wood hammerless sidelock that passed through Christie’s auction house in 1991 and again in 1997. Chris Batha, who owns the marque, was able to confirm that the gun was made in 1915, but he also said, “There is no mention in the records of bar-in-wood!” Clearly the gun has the elegance of a racehorse and the conformation of a thoroughbred. The evolution of external hammers into internal tumblers while retaining the bar-in-wood aesthetic has made for one of the loveliest guns ever. The toplever, button safety and walnut extending to the fences give the gun the appearance of the sidelock in its final, finished form, with the wood-covered action as the only anachronism.
Recently bar-in-wood guns have branched out into new pastures with Austrian gunmaker Philipp Ollendorff steadily building a reputation for his skeletal-bodied hammerguns as well as hammerless versions.
Perhaps even scarcer than the hammerless sidelock is the “body lock” type of bar-in-wood gun. Recently an example showed up at Holt’s Auctioneers with the Watson Brothers with the Watson Brothers name on it, and Watson’s Mike Louca supplied the following information: “completed in 1907 for a company called ‘Hill & S . . . .’ The records describe it as ‘skeleton body, wood covered,’ and they confirm that the woodwork was completed by the magnificently monikered Ebenezer Hands.”
Richard Hill and John Vaughan Smith were Birmingham action makers who in 1906 patented “a skeletal body” action with parts cut away to accommodate the wood but with the angle “below the break off left of greater thickness to withstand the strain of that part.” Drawings show a reinforcing bolster at the angle of the action flats and face that disappears behind wood once the gun is stocked. The patent abridgments suggest no reason why this is an improvement over previous designs, but an article in The Sporting Goods Review the following year is more comprehensive. Illustrated with a woodcut of an action identical to the image in Holt’s catalog, the article begins by waxing elegiac on the disappearance of “the graceful light type of gun body associated with hammered weapons . . . .” then introduces a hammerless gun by Messrs. Hill & Smith. “This weapon is of the body lock type, but in appearance it is reminiscent of the snakey graceful kind of hammer gun so popular years ago. It has a light, well shaped body and an almost entire absence of external metal about the breech consequent upon the absence of lock plates . . . but the body to all appearances so light, is heavily reinforced at the points of greatest strain, the reduction in material and consequent saving in bulk and weight being affected by the removal of metal at the points least affected by the stress of firing. English gunmakers have been twitted with their belief that weight necessarily means strength.
“The new gun is introduced as a revival of the skeleton bodied actions, or wood bar actions, as they were called forty years ago. The woodcut shows it to possess the general shape of a bar action hammerless, but there are no plates, and the rounded body, encased in wood, presents a distinctly pleasing appearance.”
Few would disagree with this last observation, but many might ask where the gun acquires its brawn? Beyond the hidden bolster, the action owes its strength to lockwork built onto the triggerplate; the firing mechanism is in the head of the stock rather than in the body of the action. This allows the bar of the action to remain solid but for the barrel hooks and underbolts giving it great intrinsic strength.
The Watson double was likely a prototype delivered to the maker in the form of a filed-up action. Stocked and barreled, it was intended to illustrate both beauty and strength. Another showed up not long ago retailed by Scotcher of Burt St. Edmunds, in Suffolk. Unfortunately the design never caught on, as it certainly is a beauty despite its somewhat blocky appearance.
Skeletal-Bodied Scottish Round-Actions
John Dickson and James MacNaughton produced skeletal-bodied Scottish round-action guns and may have provided the inspiration for Hill & Smith. The round-action originates from 1879, when MacNaughton patented a hammerless design featuring tumblers and mainsprings attached to a triggerplate that could be removed with the guard. His accomplishment was both the invention of the removable trigger group and the creation of the Scottish round-action game gun. MacNaughton’s renown rests on his “Edinburgh Gun” of 1879, which was cocked by the toplever.
Within three years and working literally around the corner from MacNaughton, rival John Dickson patented a suspiciously similar mechanism with the advantage that it was cocked as the gun opened. The inherent strength of the triggerplate mechanism is derived from an action body that does not need to be pierced to accommodate lockwork. Because the action is solid steel but for small holes drilled for the cocking rods, it can be neatly rounded or even cut away and covered with a forward extension of the buttstock.
My personal favorite is the side-pedal Dickson, but auctioneer Nick Holt disagrees. “You know that my dream guns are the skeleton round-action MacNaughtons, especially if they are engraved and carved with that bold grapevine work. The lines are just so elegant.”
As for guns being made today, “Certainly we are the only maker making skeletal bodied guns in the UK,” said Gary McPherson of John Dickson & Son (which owns the MacNaughton name). “There are difficulties and lots of skills required by the stocker to stock these particular guns; only very high-quality, well-seasoned walnut can be used, as there is no margin for error regarding shrinkage.”
Further to this point, Dickson’s gunmaker Mark Frearson said, “The main problem with stocking the B.I.W. is that you have to let the wood down and forward at the same time, with no room for error. The front part of the stock is very thin, so the shaping up has to be done with great skill. We have two stockers that we trust to stock the B.I.W. guns.”
Stocking bar-in-wood guns has always been a thorny issue, so I asked Scottish gunmaker Mike Lingard, who likely has stocked more skeletal guns than anyone else, if they are difficult to stock. “They are,” he said, but then added, “When you know how to do it, though, it’s not that difficult. It’s a bit like riding a bike.”
Certainly the difficulties involved in stocking these guns are one reason so few bar-in-wood guns are made. Another is a perceived lack of strength. “On a number of occasions, I have seen bar-in-wood guns with a longitudinal crack in the belly of the stock near the knuckle,” wrote UK gunfitter and reviewer Mike Yardley. “Sometimes these can be repaired, but it tends to be the weak point on guns of this type.”
“I expect stockers hate doing them,” Gavin Gardiner said, “and to be honest, nearly every bar-in-wood that I see that is split is split under the action between the trigger plate and the action knuckle.” On at least one occasion Scottish gunmaker David McKay Brown has been asked to build a skeletal-bodied version of his own round-action, but he has so far resisted on the grounds that cutting away steel to accommodate wood threatens the structural integrity of the gun.
So there you have it: a quick look at all four branches of the bar-in-wood family tree. Yes, it’s an old design that has lost favor to arguably stronger actions, yet new guns of the type are available on a bespoke basis from Philipp Ollendorff, Dickson’s and perhaps others. (There is word that the new iteration of Joseph Manton [London] will be making them, but that is a story for another time . . . .) Vintage examples, too, occasionally appear at auction or with dealers. But whether you lust after a new gun or long for a vintage classic, few would dispute the bar-in-wood’s loveliness or its desirability among collectors of fine guns.
Author’s Note: For more information on bar-in-wood guns, contact Philipp Ollendorff, www.jagdwaffen-ollendorff.com; or John Dickson & Son, www .dicksonandmacnaughton.com.
Douglas Tate is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.