Even today, there is still much debate about the various advantages of the different types of shotgun action. This guide will take you through them all. By Simon Reinhold
What is the shotgun action exactly? How can I tell a shotgun action apart from another? How was the shotgun action created? In this guide, you’ll find answers to all of these questions as well as many others.
Guide to Shooting Actions
The shotgun’s heart beats through its action. It is the canvas for the engraver’s artistry and has been the subject of snobbery, rivalry, genius invention and hard-nosed litigation throughout its development. This energy and effort are aimed at one goal: reliably and repeatedly translating a trigger pull into an explosion.
Much of the gun design progress of the last half of 19th century can be attributed to the explosion of the charge. With the development of centrefire cartridges and Stanton’s patent rebounding lock of 1877, the breech-loading centrefire hammergun was perfected. The hammers were external with the various floating or island locks as well as the back-action sidelocks. A side current of innovation began to grow in the 1860s & 1870s along with this flurry of activity. This would eventually split the Kingdom into three parts. The three types of action used in the hammerless, side-by side shotguns were the sidelock action, the boxlock action and the round trigger-plate action.
There are three ways you can cock a gun without applying one’s thumb to an external hammer: using a lever, using a spring or by using the weight of the barrels. George Daw improved another’s idea and patented a hammerless snap action in 1862 that was cocked by pushing forward an underlever. The hammerless design was not popular with shooters because it looked ungainly compared to the beautiful lines of hammerguns at the time. Daw’s model was followed by Murcott’s Mousetrap, Gibbs & Pitt’s hammerless action and Woodward’s Automatic. All were important variations of the same theme but all less beautiful. In many cases, the majority of people are traditionalists. However, a small minority likes to embrace the newest developments. Of those named so far only Gibbs & Pitt, based in Bristol, were outside London. Away from London, in the north there were other developments that rivaled and exceeded what was happening south.
TRUE INFLUENCERS of SHOTGUN Actions
The term ‘influencers’ is much bandied about today, but true influencers in the gun trade were those individuals with equal amounts of vision, imagination and determination to bring their ideas to fruition. Two such men existed at Westley Richards & Co in Birmingham. William Anson worked as the foreman at the machine shop and John Deeley served as the managing director. Between them they patented in 1875 the Anson & Deeley boxlock. It was a relatively simple invention, like many great ones. It got its name because the internal parts were housed in the metal box. Two cocking dogs that protruded from the knuckle were impacted by the weight of the barrels when the mechanism was opened to reload. They then engaged the trigger by advancing the mainspring. The gun was more robust and easier to manufacture than the competition. Its license was granted to many gunmakers in different parts of the world. It was also relatively easy to make, not something that many of the top echelons in shooting society viewed as a positive.
In 1880, WW Greener, who had pioneered many gunmaking innovations, brought out the Facile princeps. Westley Richards sued for patent infringement and eventually, in the highest court in the land – the House of Lords – it lost. More complex than an Anson & Deeley boxlock, though similar on the outside, the Facile Princeps was in fact substantially different.
Gunmakers in Scotland were closely following developments. John Dickson’s early hammerless guns were built under licence on the Anson & Deeley patent. James MacNaughton was an apprentice of John Dickson. After leaving Edinburgh he spoke with a German friend who made guns and came up with this elegant skeleton-action lever-cocking shotgun. The working parts were located on the trigger. It was light, balanced and fun to use. Using an elongated top-lever, its graceful lines didn’t startle the conservative landed gentry of Scotland.
A little way across Edinburgh the gunmakers at John Dickson, MacNaughton’s former master, were watching. Six months after MacNaughton’s patent John Dickson came out with a trigger-plate patent of his own. He too borrowed from another, Daniel Fraser, and went for a protruding tongue on the fore-end and iron that in its turn operated a slide inside the base of the action (Fraser’s was on the outside of the base of the action) that worked on the weight of the barrels dropping. The trigger plate houses all of the parts that make up the action. This allowed for a large amount of metal to round off the bar without compromising the strength of the gun. The combination of these developments, and later the addition of ejectors resulted in a design that is now considered one of the most iconic in the history of gunmaking. Dickson’s round-action trigger plates are heavier between the hands, and the lower part of the action. The chassis is built to be fast and responsive. It’s primarily designed for the fastest gamebirds – Scottish redgrouse. These excellent handling characteristics have led to the widespread adoption of trigger-plate actions by modern over-and-under gun manufacturers.
The cost of a sidelock is easier to understand by your gun buddies than that of a round-action or boxlock, not to mention the fact that the engraving can be done on a bigger canvas. This does not mean, however, that best boxlocks cost less than other guns. Many of the trade catalogues of the late Victorian gunmakers have best boxlocks equal to and in some cases exceeding the price of best sidelocks, but from a buyers’ perspective they wanted others to know they had spent good money on the gun in their hand. Why would an image-conscious gentleman buy a gun that costs the same as a sidelock? Some makers tried to address the shortage of engraved metal by fitting sideplates to their boxlocks – a feature often seen today on many of the most popular over-and-unders. The fact remains that a best boxlock is a superb gun and in many cases these days far less prone to malfunction than a London best sidelock after years of ‘servicing’ from garage gunsmiths. These guns are among the most affordable on the market. The round action has always been a popular choice, as they are relatively rare and have a large following.
London gunmakers might have dismissed the trigger-plate action round and considered the boxlock an inferior northern pretender. However, this was not entirely true. Before the perfection of the sidelock, Holland & Holland had taken full advantage of the Birmingham makers Scott & Baker’s patent hammerless gun. It was reminiscent for them of the best sidelocks hammerguns, with its dipped edge lockplate that gave the engraver plenty of scope to display his skills. The company marketed and sold so many of what it termed its ‘Climax Safety Hammerless’ guns that many thought the patent was its own. It was a variation of a barrel cocker, as two cocking sts were pulled forward on flats by hooks in the action as the barrels dropped.
All the London makers sold Anson & Deeley boxlocks on to their clients, who were often looking for a cheaper gun for a nephew or other relative at the same time as buying their pair. These guns were almost all bought from Birmingham and finished in London. At Boss & Co, ‘builders of best guns only’, John Robertson, who acquired the company in 1891, outsourced Birmingham trade boxlocks of the highest quality and finish under his name, keen to fulfil clients’ needs while not compromising the company’s reputation.
They spent the same amount of time and energy perfecting the sidelock action as they did on the boxlock. Early running was done by two men, both named John Rogers. Their 1881 sidelock patent used a similar barrel cocking design and cocking dogs, which was widely adopted by trade makers who did not have their own patent. Then in 1883 John Robertson, later of Boss & Co but at this time outworker to the trade under his own name, teamed up with Henry Holland to patent and then refine a barrel-cocking gun that cocked one lock on opening and the other on closing. This brilliant design would later evolve into the Holland & Holland Royal hammerless sidelock ejector, which has become one of the most classic and desirable guns of all time.
Frederick Beesley, a prolific patentee and former stocker for James Purdey & Sons, went down a different path, and in 1880 used both limbs of the mainspring to at once spring open the action to speed up loading and to re-cock the tumblers. It was this patent he sold to Purdey, receiving £85. Purdey’s self-opening sidelocks are best known for the two cams that protrude through the action. He refined and streamlined his ideas in later patents.
Over the years, many letters pages in various publications have been host to debates about whether a sidelock was better than a round action or whether it was better than both. Many have claimed that because they use more refined parts, sidelocks and round actions offer better trigger-pulls. It is possible that these differences will be lost as shot sizes and weights increase. The construction of sidelocks is more complex and expensive than a simple boxlock action, and the skill to build them properly is sadly diminishing. Some believe boxlocks to be stronger than sidelocks through the headstock, while others argue that the sidelock action bar is more robust. The round action has an inherent strength that is unmatched by any other gun. Few people are unsure whether it is for them or not.
The merits of this trio of shotgun actions, which is at the core of the side by side shotgun, are still as hotly debated as they were when it was first invented. Let the debate go on.