By David Trevallion & Steve Dalzell
Not long ago a good friend and occasional client came into the shop with a recent acquisition that he thought we might find interesting. He was right. The gun is a high-grade E. Remington & Sons “lifter” shotgun dating from between 1875 and 1878, very well made, and in wonderful near-original condition. A closer look at the gun, however, raised a number of questions about where, exactly, it was made and, though this may seem odd, why.
Interestingly, the locks are marked E. Remington & Sons, but the rib is marked “E. Remington & Sons, New York & London,” which is most unusual. By the late 1870s Remington was making a vast range of products that were being sold worldwide. Remington’s European headquarters, established in the 1860s, were in Queen Victoria Street, in London. In 1876 Remington joined the sewing-machine and typewriter businesses there. These were retail outlets, but one presumes the main business activity was managing the sale of handguns and rolling-block military rifles. Military sales declined sharply after the 1860s, and the company’s diversification into consumer products was driven by the need to keep a large plant in the US and its workforce busy.
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The scarcity of Remington shotguns sold with “New York & London” engraved on the rib is evidence that the British market favored the better-known Birmingham equivalent, like the toplever Isaac Hollis & Sons shown with the lifter gun for comparison.
Fine sporting arms were presumably seen as a part of this diversification effort, especially as the English and European market for such guns was a lot bigger than the American. The exchange rate was also favorable at about $5 to £1. Remington sold a high-grade gun like this for between $100 and $150 in the US, giving it a significant price advantage over a typical London “best” retailing at the equivalent of about $300.
The problem is that this gun is not a London best but is much closer to a very good Birmingham gun selling at about the same price. A perfectly satisfactory Birmingham sidelock hammergun retailed for a mere $40. The competition would have been tough for an imported gun with no local reputation in the well-supplied target market, which would have viewed revolvers and military rifles as something completely different. The fact that only a half-dozen or so Remington shotguns are known to have “New York & London” engraved on the rib—only two of which have British proof marks—is probably a measure of how few actually were sold. These “New York & London” guns seem to have their own serial-number sequence, and this gun is number 13, the highest known.
In addition to tough competition there also would have been regulatory issues. All guns sold in England had to be proofed in either London or Birmingham. This brings us back to the gun in hand, which is one of only two American shotguns of the period, both Remingtons, that either of us has seen with full Birmingham proof marks of the period from 1875 to 1887. Clearly these guns were to be sold in England. The gun has provisional proof marks—applied after the barrels were tested with the bores finished and the exterior struck up but before being joined together or fitted to the action. Definitive proof was done when the gun was mechanically complete and functional. All of this indicates the gun probably arrived in Birmingham as an action and locks “in the white.” To complete the gun, the action would have had to be mated with the barrels, the stock fitted and then everything finished up. Since the heart of any gun is its action, it seems clear that this gun’s origin was mostly at the company plant, in Ilion, New York.
Being foreign may have been the gun’s biggest commercial problem.
Why “mostly”? The answer is that there are a number of parts and features that are clearly of English origin—Birmingham specifically. Apart from the barrels, these include the trigger guard, the forend latch, the forend tip, the style of the action filing, the inletting, the bluing and, most obvious, the engraving. One could add the French walnut stock and forend, the checkering and all of the other aspects of the gun’s finish to the list. The archetypal English engraving is very well done and, together with the straight-hand stock, results in a gun that at first glance seems to be English.
Adding to the impression is the typical high-grade Birmingham trigger guard as well as the forend latch and tip. The latch is to Deeley & Edge’s 1873 patent, and the D&E monogram indicates that it was actually made by them. The trigger guard and latch are both charcoal blued, a process rarely used by American makers during this period. The heads of the lock pins, which the owner probably would never see, are also charcoal blued—a nice touch but not one used by pragmatic American makers. Another English touch is that the front and back guard screws are distinguished by the front one having its tip filed flat, so one knows which goes where. The checkering is in the English style but is sharply pointed up. It is possible that the checkering has been re-cut, because there are indications around the edge of the trigger guard that it was originally flat-topped, another English feature. All of these details make us think that the gun was finished by one of the good Birmingham makers.
Exterior features that are distinctly Remington include the hammers and the style of the lever that lifts to open the gun. The mechanics of the gun are also pure Remington and are worth considering, because they would have affected both the cost of making the gun and its market appeal. Given that we are both English, we had better explain . . . .
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The gun is an odd hybrid of little-used and somewhat archaic American mechanical functions and distinctly British finishing touches. So few were made that the rationale for such a mash-up has been lost to time.
The locks are made to Hepburn’s design, commissioned by Remington and patented April 27, 1875. (The patent markings are under the mainsprings.) They are rebounding locks, meaning that the hammer returns automatically to a half-cock position, so it is easy and safe to open the gun after firing and close it when it is loaded. The way this is achieved is unique to this design and involves a sprung link between the hammer and the tumbler that allows the hammer and tumbler to overshoot the rest position and then return. Compared to the much more widely used Stanton patent of 1869, it requires the making of an extra spring and the link, a rather complex part. The Stanton design uses an extended mainspring to bounce the hammer and tumbler back to the half-cock position. There is no doubt that the Hepburn lock works, but it would have been more costly than a Stanton and more vulnerable to the effects of dirt and gummy old oil.
The action was designed by Andrew E. Whitmore and incorporates patents for 1872 and 1873. This particular gun has no patent markings on the action. There have been suggestions that this lift-up-lever action was based on William Powell’s 1864 patent. The idea of a lifting lever may have been inspired by Powell, but the actual mechanism is much closer to the John Thomas design patented in 1870 and the Auguste Francotte design patented in England in 1872, and the locking bolt is actually a variation of the Purdey system. We think it is entirely original to Whitmore.
The most interesting and perhaps problematic feature of the action is the generally cylindrical locking bolt. It slides fore and aft and locks into bites in both the front and rear barrel lumps, just like the Purdey bolt. However, unlike the flat Purdey bolt, which has cutouts to allow the lumps to pass through, this one has a middle section that is machined to a fairly thin vertical rectangle that fits into a slot cut into a rather wide rear lump, thus allowing the bolt to slide back and forth. Forward of the rectangular section the bolt returns to round, except for a small area machined into its upper left side. This is the actuator for a rather cunning little mechanism that holds the bolt open when the gun is opened to reload.
The main problem with this action design is clear when it is seen from above: The wide barrel lumps take out an awful lot of metal. As a consequence, the bar of the action is not very robust. The result is a light and elegant gun that might not stand up to heavy use. Additionally, the lifting toplever would have seemed old fashioned and awkward, because it was, even though it worked well mechanically. This would have told against the gun in a market where fast reloading was vital.
The one part of the gun left to look at is the barrels. The most notable feature of these attractive and beautifully finished tubes is that they have not a trace of choke. This is distinctly odd. The gun mixes features of the 1875 and 1878 models and probably was made in either 1876 or ’77. This was well after the famous “Field” trials of 1875, and the English gun buyer of the time demanded choked bores. It would have been difficult to sell such a gun in England with cylinder bores. However, the gun would have been a good quail and upland bird gun for American conditions.
Being foreign may have been the gun’s biggest commercial problem, given the certainty of the English shooting class of the time that “British is best!” Surely Samuel Remington, who ran the European operation and who had lived in London and Paris since 1866, wasn’t simply hoping that the company had a viable product…. It is all a bit mysterious, unless the gun was not made for sale. Could it be that Samuel Remington commissioned the gun for himself as a retirement present before his return to the US in 1877? Pure speculation, of course, but….
David Trevallion is a Contributing Editor for Shooting Sportsman. Steve Dalzell moved from England to Maine in 2001 and now is a retired schoolteacher and semi-retired yacht designer. Steve’s particular interests are classic double guns and single-shot rifles, and he has a predilection for hammer guns.