Examining one of the oldest surviving Purdeys
By David Trevallion & Steve DalzellFor James Purdey & Sons, 2014 is a significant year, as it is the firm’s 200th anniversary. This is quite an achievement for a small manufacturing company, let alone one serving a luxury market. On such an occasion it seems appropriate to take a look at one of the firm’s oldest surviving guns, No. 208, which generously was given to David some time ago.
Before we do that, however, it makes sense to delve a bit into Purdey’s early history and the situation in England in 1814. The War of 1812 was still raging, if that is the right word, and the Napoleonic War was in full swing, with the final victory at Waterloo a year away. One might think that this would have made 1814 the worst possible time to open a business producing sporting and personal firearms of the highest quality. During this period, however, wars, even major ones, were having very little impact on the country gentlemen and landed gentry who were likely to buy Purdey’s products. In fact, the popularity of shooting sports was growing, encouraged by the writings of such authors as Col. Peter Hawker, the acceptance of wingshooting as a suitable sport for gentlemen, and the widespread availability of good-quality powder and shot. James Purdey would have been as certain as any new business owner can be that there was a market for his guns.
Another feature of the time was that the Industrial Revolution was in full spate, so the gunmaker’s raw materials of steel and iron were readily available and of higher quality than ever before, as was coal to run forges. In addition, new machinery such as power tripping hammers and lathes as well as improved tool steels were making it possible for skilled craftsmen to deliver better guns than had ever been possible.
Not only was the business environment favorable for the 30-year-old Purdey’s new venture, but also were his personal circumstances. By the time he had completed his apprenticeship under Thomas Hutchinson, his skills as a gunmaker were such that he was hired by the preeminent London maker of the era, Joseph Manton, for whom he worked from 1805 to 1808. In 1808 Purdey was hired away from Manton to become the foreman of the Rev. Alexander Forsyth’s new Patent Gun Company, leading the practical development and production of firearms using Forsyth’s “detonating” ignition system, patented in 1807. Forsyth’s company was funded largely by the government, which recognized the military advantages that would be gained if an ignition system that was less susceptible to damp weather than a flintlock could be developed. There had been a race to develop such a system since Edward Howard’s discovery of a reliable method of detonating fulminates in 1800, and Forsyth’s “scent bottle” system was the first that was clearly practical. Government funding of research and development was no less vulnerable to political interference in the early 1800s than it is now, and the financial stability of Forsyth’s enterprise was always in doubt, so it may be that after six years Purdey decided that he would be better off relying on his own efforts. The result was that he started his company at 4 Princes Street, Leicester Square—premises that he seems to have sub-leased from a tailor and textile dealer named Thomas Greaterex before taking over in 1816.
Despite Purdey’s central place in the early development of the detonating system, his first guns seem to have all been flintlocks. This is a clear reflection of his intended market. Shooting sportsmen tend to be a conservative lot as far as guns are concerned and are reluctant to embrace radical changes until they are thoroughly proven. The demand for guns built to the untried new system must have been negligible, not only because it was new but also for the practical reason that the essential consumables were in limited supply even in London and, to all intents and purposes, unobtainable in many parts of the country. This is not to say that there was not keen interest in the detonating system and a clear understanding of the advantages it would bring when fully developed and widely available. In any event the oldest surviving Purdey guns are all flintlocks of the highest quality incorporating the latest technological advances.
They are as follows:
Apart from No. 14, which is a single-barrel flintlock fowler, all of these guns are double-flintlock shotguns.
No. 86 is a 16-bore and is the gun that James Purdey the Younger is holding in the formal portrait painted by Archibald Stuart-Wortley in 1891.
The dates given in the table are somewhat speculative, because there are no surviving records from the early years. The earliest “Dimension Book,” giving details of the guns, gunmakers, serial numbers and clients, dates from 1821 and starts at gun No. 273.
Turning to No. 208, a nominal 14-bore, the first thing to notice is its dimensions:
• Actual bore diameter: 0.677" (15 bore)
• Length of pull to center of butt: 14"
• Length of pull to bump: 141/8"
• Length to toe: 14½"
• Bend at comb: 17/16"
• Bend at heel: 2"
• Butt-end depth: 5¼"
• Cast: None
• Barrel length: 30"
• Total weight: 7 pounds
• Trigger pulls: right, 5 pounds; left, 4¼ pounds
• Balance point: 6¾" forward of the front trigger
There are, however, two features of the gun that are different from modern guns. These are the large trigger-guard bow and the relatively limited area of checkering on the forend. These reflect shooting styles that were current when the gun was made. Many shooters of the time would have shot with their forward hand under the trigger guard rather than under the forend, mostly to reduce the risk of injury from exploding barrels. Guns proofed in London did not generally explode unless abused; but most guns did not come from London, so sensible precautions were taken. If one holds No. 208 as one would a modern gun, it feels absolutely normal. Since one does not hang on to a splinter forend, the limited checkering really doesn’t make any difference. Many guns of the time had no checkering at all on the forend, a feature that persisted until the end of the percussion era.
Despite the lack of company records, we can learn quite a lot about No. 208 from the gun itself as well as knowledge of the London trade at the time it was made. The photos show that the gun was exquisitely crafted and remains in superb condition. The quality is down to the skills of the men who made it, and the condition is down to the restoration carried out by David’s gaffer (apprentice’s master), Bill O’Brien, in the early 1960s. Bill took on the restoration to “as new” condition of a number of neglected early guns acquired by the then Managing Director of Purdey’s, Richard Beaumont, including No. 86 and No. 208. Once the restorations were complete, Purdey’s sold all of the guns, with the exception of these two. No. 86 is still with the company, and No. 208 was presented to Bill in lieu of payment for the work, which he had carried out in his own time. Bill then passed the gun to David as a very generous gift.
It also will be clear from the pictures that the gun is no longer a flintlock but has been converted to percussion using the “cap and peg” ignition system patented by Joshua Shaw in 1822. This is identical to the modern system and came into wide use soon after its development. This type of conversion was common in the years around 1830, which is probably when the gun was altered, apparently by Purdey’s. The conversion was quite easy for a competent gunsmith, though the execution was not often as good as it is here. The usual process involved removing the pan, frizzen and frizzen spring from the lock, adding a bolster carrying the peg (nipple), and changing the flint cock to a hammer. The bolster was attached to the barrel by drilling out and tapping the original touchhole before screwing in the bolster. Structural considerations made it essential that the overhanging bolster was well supported by the cut-down lock. One thing that makes this a much-better-than-average conversion is that it has been carried out in an altogether more elegant and expensive fashion. Here the original breech plugs have been removed and replaced with new ones shaped so that they get some support from the cut-down locks and put the peg close to the centerline of the bore, which speeds ignition. Another benefit of the shape of the breech plugs is that it reduces the likelihood of flash from the caps damaging the wood. Other nice features are the way the odd holes left in the lockplate have been filled and that the engraving has been re-cut and extended into the area affected by removing the pan. The engraving on the new hammers is in exactly the same style. Because it is impossible to detect where the new engraving begins, it is likely that the same engraver worked on the gun when it was new and when it was converted. The only engraver who was working for Purdey’s at both relevant times was Peter Gumbrell. We can take it that we are looking at his wonderful work.
The locks of Nos. 200, 208 and some other guns of the period are fitted with Wyatt’s 1818-patent safety sear. The outer part of this clever device can be seen behind the hammers and is arranged to automatically lock the hammer at half-cock if it is accidentally jarred out of full cock. It allows the hammer to fall completely only when the trigger has been pulled. The idea is to reduce the chance of accidental discharge when the gun is ready to fire. Wyatt’s idea was the first step on the road that led to the intercepting sear being fitted to better sideplate locks for the same purpose.
The beautiful 30" Damascus barrels are made of Stub Twist. Although they are nominal 14-bores, the barrels, which are not choked, actually measure 0.677" left and 0.675" right. Strictly, these are 15-bore diameters. These slightly odd-size tubes are commonly found in muzzleloaders. As well as the usual proof marks and serial numbers, the barrels bear the initials “CL.” This identifies the maker as Charles Lancaster, one of the best suppliers of barrels to the London trade at the time. Lancaster later became a well-known gunmaker in his own right. If you want to know a lot more about the arcane subject of Damascus barrels, we suggest you visit the “Damascus Knowledge” website (search for the term “damascus knowledge”), which is compiled by Dr. Drew Hause. There are some real gems among all of the rubbish on the web, and this is one of them!
Because we do not have Purdey’s “Dimension Book” from the period, we cannot be sure who the other craftsmen were who created this gun. We do, however, know the names of two of the senior men who were working as stockmakers, filers and finishers for Purdey at the time: Thomas Boss (yes, that Thomas Boss) and Robert Bagnall. Although Boss remains a well-known figure, Bagnall and the others involved have slipped into obscurity. No. 208 stands as the best sort of memorial to these largely forgotten craftsmen and their supreme skills working with wood and metal.
David Trevallion is a Contributing Editor for Shooting Sportsman. Steve Dalzell moved from England to Maine in 2001 to head up the Yacht Design program at the Landing School, in Arundel. He now is a retired teacher and semi-retired yacht designer who has become a not-quite-full-time stockmaker. He is a little self-taught but has learned most of what he knows from David. Steve’s particular interests are classic double guns and single-shot rifles, and he has a predilection for hammer guns.
Purdey No. 208 — the fifth-earliest gun known extant from the storied London maker — will be auctioned at James D. Julia’s October 2016 sale of fine guns. See the auction listing.