By Steve Helsley
Photographs courtey of the Author
Just like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, intricately patterned Damascus barrels often elicit the same reaction: How did they do that? Using a process employed by gunmakers for more than four centuries, Damascus (aka pattern-welded) barrels were made by forge-welding a twisted combination of iron and steel around a core tube and mandrel. An incredible variety of patterns were produced, with names like Bernard, Stub and 6 Stripe Turkish. Heavy on manual labor and the craftsman’s expertise, the process wasn’t one that lent itself to automation. The last commercial production of Damascus barrels in the US was circa 1880, in England in the early 1900s and on the Continent in the 1930s. In recent years a few committed souls have made Damascus barrels, most of which have been pistol length.
Damascus barrels are perhaps the most controversial item in the shotgun world. So-called experts
and factory-ammunition boxes warn us of the dangers of such barrels. No matter that vintage Damascus tubes are routinely surviving proof loads at both the London and Birmingham proof houses and that some exhibition-grade guns are being made with unused old-stock Damascus tubes.
In the late 19th Century barrel-tube salesmen were issued a “demonstration sample” that displayed each stage of the barrel-making process. It was an object that easily might be confused with scrap metal or a deformed rosebush stake (which may account for their low survival rate). Generally, they were unfinished, about 30″ long, unmarked as to origin and in fitted wooden boxes.
For the Damascus-barrel aficionado, a demonstration sample is an incredibly rare find. Once I scored mine (pictured), I went to the fountain of Damascus-barrel knowledge, Drew Hause, who identified the pattern as “4 Iron British Best.” For more information on Damascus barrels, visit Hause’s website, damascusknowledge.com, or—if your wallet is willing—purchase a copy of Manfred Sachse’s wonderful book Damascus Steel.