In 1875, two innovative fellows at Westley Richards in Birmingham, England patented what is still a mainstay of double barrel shotgun making to this day. The Anson-Deeley action.
Simple and revolutionary in design, rock-solid and easy to repair, this along with the side-lock being developed almost simultaneously in other London houses, would mean the eventual end for the British hammer gun.
But before that and for a time after, the hammer gun held sway.
Its champions were disinclined at first to the idea of moving the hammers (now called tumblers) and the cocking mechanism inside the gun. There was some good reason for this hesitance, the hammer gun was considered an ideal, of beauty and function.
For the gun maker, hammer guns were simpler in design, with fewer moving parts and less costly to build. Since the gun could not be fired unless the hammers were cocked, there was no need for a safety to be incorporated into its construction. And since the entire assembly resided outside the frame, less wood was cut away from the stock and wrist. Not only did this make the gun stronger, and thereby safer, it also contributed significantly to what many consider were among the finest handling shotguns ever made.
But, it wasn’t just superb balance and feel that drew its adherents. The hammer gun was a thing of beauty. Precisely forged hammers, capable of striking the firing pins over and over, in combination with lovely swirled Damascus steel barrels and finely-detailed scrollwork lent these guns a possession, an aesthetic, much mimicked, and rarely equaled since.
A Thomas Bissell under-lever 12-bore (c. 1873). Bissell would later go on to invent the famous “rising-bite” locking system for break-open rifle actions. It was considered one of the greatest innovations in gun-making, and among the most expensive.
Fortunately for today’s collectors and hunters, these sexy shooters can be found with relative ease. And because of their vintage, and misplaced fears about the integrity of Damascus steel, they can be had reasonably, often for far less than their sidelock and boxlock cousins.
Best of all, they can still be shot, over and over.
With the recent easy availability of low-pressure loads, RST and B&P are a couple of manufacturers who come to mind, shooting a vintage gun has never been easier, or safer. Both offer shells designed to fit into the 2 ½- inch (often less in some older guns) chambers. This goes a long way to helping prevent your antique from being rattled to destruction, to say nothing of the relief on your shoulder and cheek after a session with these lighter guns.
There’s no longer any reason upon acquiring a vintage hammer gun to sending it off and having the chambers lengthened to accommodate modern 2 ¾ – inch shells and furthermore submitting it to the indignity, and possible ruination, of re-proofing. This ammo is readily available. An added benefit: lighter loads almost always pattern better, shot deformation is reduced considerably, and we all want every advantage when a grouse rips through the wood.
No matter what you end up with though, even if you can read the proof marks, get the gun looked at by a gunsmith familiar with vintage guns. Save the worry of ruining a pretty gun, or worse injuring yourself because the barrels or action was compromised over the years. Only then should you consider firing modern loads through it.
If you do your homework and find yourself in possession of a hammer gun built anywhere between 1865 and 1910, consider that it’s likely a gem—don’t hang it on the wall. Shoot it.
Note the distinctive swirls on the barrels characteristic of Damascus steel. Soon the fluid steel we see on modern gun barrels would become the norm. Damascus barrels forged by a competent smith are considered by many quite safe to shoot with low-pressure loads. Always check with a gunsmith before doing so.
Finely-detailed scrollwork like this on the receiver, hammers and under-lever was clearly more than an afterthought on British guns of the day. This particular gun has screws on the inside of the fore-end adorned similarly. The only time those screws are seen is when the gun is disassembled.
Few things in hunting are more exhilarating than the thunderous rush of feathers as a grouse flushes. I’m never sure who is more off balance, dog or gunner, but everything is quickened. A smooth-handling gun is essential to getting a good shot off. These are not lumbering pheasant that, despite being the fastest of upland birds, takes some time getting there. No, the grouse is off and ruddering through tangled alder and thicket likes it has afterburners. Gun mount and swing are the keys to connecting with any bird, but the guns that allow you to do it faster and with economy are the ones that drop grouse.
And thumbing back both hammers as you slap the stock to your cheek, swinging on winged grouse might be one of the most gratifying things afield.
The British hammer gun does it with aplomb—and style.
(For further discussion, I direct readers to Terry Wieland’s elegant commentary on hammer guns in his excellent Vintage British Shotguns [Down East Books; 2008], without which I could not have written this article.)
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