With the possible exception of single malt whisky, the Edinburgh round- action shotgun is the only luxury item made in a country universally acknowledged for fiscal prudence. The guns have a sleek beauty that is captured in the creations of David McKay Brown, Dickson and MacNaughton but if these are beyond your pocket, it’s worth giving serious consideration to a vintage Scottish boxlock.
What we like about a Scottish round action is its discretion and restraint, the lack of unnecessary projections, the sober styling and, ultimately, the look and feel of the organic, near-cylindrical gun. The Anson & Deeley, on the other, hand is robust, square and blocky. The appeal of each is not the same. If the round action is fine worsted then the boxlock is tweed; a not unattractive fabric but of coarser weave.
Scotland’s gunmakers knew this and, perhaps in an effort to distinguish themselves from their competition to the south, offered what are essentially Anson & Deeley guns which boast the principal virtue of extraordinary individual aesthetic. Alex Martin, Joseph Harkom, William Horton, James Dalziel Dougall and no one more so than Dan’l Fraser, lavished time and effort on what elsewhere would be considered utilitarian shotguns. The results are individual and enduring and may represent the last rarities among picked-over collectibles.
I asked Gavin Gardiner, who has been involved with the Sotheby’s August Gleneagles sale in Perthshire since 1987, why Scottish boxlocks are so special. “The Scottish makers always made an extra effort with their guns. Whether it was their highest grade or their cheapest, they are almost always meticulously finished,” he said. “The detail and refinement will be subtle, whether it is an engraving detail or a shape in the way the action is filed up, but the quality of these guns raises them above the rest. With their boxlocks – that would almost always be sourced in the Birmingham trade – they made a real effort to make them different from all of the near-identical guns being sold around the rest of the country. The Scottish boxlocks have trademark features: an engraving style, an action detail, a shape here, a subtle style there. You will never mistake a Harkom for a Henry, a Horton for a Dougall; they all have a quality and style that raises them from the boxlocks south of the border. The great Arts and Crafts heritage of Scotland, especially strong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was equally strong in the gunmaking of the period and resulted in some unbelievably fine guns, with a rare harmony of art and style that has seldom been seen since.”
A MATTER OF STYLE
Westley Richards unveiled the Anson & Deeley boxlock in 1875 and, with the exception of the more expensive round action, it essentially ended a deluge of gun patents from Scotland and the provinces. This didn’t happen immediately nor did it happen absolutely, but during the next few decades the torrent of new ideas slowed to a trickle. The provincial trade simply couldn’t compete with what the Birmingham trade called “our best-selling gun”. The boxlock performed almost as well as competing designs such as the London sidelock or the Edinburgh round action but could be had for half the cost. In the English regions, gunmakers became gun retailers offering virtually identical guns differing in name only. Scotland’s makers, on the other hand, thought long and hard about how to make the standard boxlock distinctive.
This is not to say that innovation ceased. Glasgow’s Alex Martin is closely linked with the ribless shotgun in which spacers at the breech, muzzle and midrib are the only link between the tubes. Martin claimed the guns were “lighter, stronger and better balanced than guns of ordinary construction”. The concept was actually patented by another Scottish gunmaker, James MacNaughton, in 1899 and, iron-ically, many Martin ribless guns appear to have been built by AA Brown in Birmingham. Beyond – or more accurately – behind the barrels, Martin guns were Birmingham boxlocks inseparable from their English counterparts.
Where Scottish boxlocks differ is largely a matter of style. Take Joseph Harkom, for example. He started his business in 1837 in Edinburgh. Although he made no significant contributions to shotgun development, his boxlocks were recognised for their quality. The use of fine Damascus tubes long after the introduction of fluid steel, tight scroll engraving and carved serpentine detonators (suggesting a vestigial form of the percussion fence), all combined to create a conservative, almost retro, aesthetic. Harkom guns enjoyed a look that was both typical of the maker and unique to him.
William Horton was born in the village of Alvechurch in the gentle West Midlands but eventually settled in an al-together flintier Glasgow, a move he no doubt saw as advantageous to his gunmaking career. Horton boxlocks have their own distinctive appeal. The action body ends in a fancy or scalloped back, cut in an asymmetrical shape unique to the firm. Filing shapes in the back of boxlock guns was common enough and both upgraded a prosaic action and softened the gun’s severest line. But Horton’s scalloping is startlingly off centre and is complemented by fluted fences.
His house engraving style, unlike anything found in London or Birmingham, is of sprouting enigmatic tendrils of barely connected individual leaves arranged into stylised shrubbery frequently featuring a half-hidden fanciful face. Peering from a mask of foliage, it is perhaps intended to represent the Green Man, the legendary pagan deity of ancient Britain. The name of the engraver, who flourished circa 1900, is unrecorded but his style is singular and my guess is he was a refugee from the precious metal and jewellery trades.
James Dalziel Dougall was a Glasgow gunmaker who famously improved upon suspect breech-loaders introduced from France in the 1850s. His immensely well-built Lockfast hammergun made its way into the hands of the Prince of Wales and was so successful it funded a Birmingham factory and a showroom in St James’s. Like his counterparts north of the Border, he offered a unique boxlock. It featured heavy bulbous fences engraved with tight scroll and was operated by a side pedal rather than the ubiquitous top lever.
MANY AND VARIED
No Scottish gunmaker did more than Dan’l Fraser to make the Birmingham boxlock his own. Writing in the Shooting Times in the spring of 1988, the Glasgow-based firearms authority Geoffrey Boothroyd had this to say: “Many and varied were the ways in which the A & D action gun could be made in a manner just that little bit different and one of the most useful dodges was to alter the shape of the back of the action from the simple straight line which we have so far seen to what the Birmingham trade called a ‘fancy back’. One simple way was to make the back into a slight curve as shown on the Daniel Fraser boxlock. This gun has shoulders, panels, drop points and a fancy back and, to my eyes, the whole treatment is very effective.”
Daniel Fraser was a coachbuilder’s son from Inverness who moved to Edinburgh and worked briefly for a Venetian-blind maker before indenturing himself to famed rifle builder Alexander Henry. Henry clearly had great faith in his protégé, for when he was just 21 years of age, the journeyman was sent out to Turkey to supervise the introduction of the Henry rifles used by the Sultan’s bodyguard. All this changed in 1878 when Fraser, aged 34, quit Henry’s employ on the 11th of August, married on the 16th and on the 18th opened his own Edinburgh premises.
Frequently made with chopper-lump barrels and gold-washed internal lockwork, the Fraser is perhaps the most individual of the vintage Scottish boxlocks. Attention to functional detail is reflected in the aesthetic, with the curve of the shouldered action harmoniously mirrored on a slightly larger scale by the curve at the back of the action. Carved lobate or fleur-de-lis fences coupled with bold open scroll inside a plaited Celtic border create a boxlock that transcends the prosaic and embodies a particularly fine adherence to the principles of Best Scottish gunmaking.
I asked Nick Holt, the auctioneer, what he thought of them. “I’d echo the sentiments already raised. Daniel Fraser guns, especially, are always just that little bit more special, with their gold-washed internals and unique, scalloped-backed actions, usually chopper-lump barrels and beautiful balance. And they’re always cased attractively with velvet lining. You can tell by the look and the feel of these guns that not only was no expense spared, but a serious amount of love and pride went into the making of them. It’s all too rare that we get to see them.”
Perhaps it’s because no expense was spared that Scotland’s vintage boxlocks would eventually all but disappear. In the post-War era they became standard Birmingham guns engraved with a Scots maker’s name. However, today the unique North-of-the-Border boxlock tradition is being re-invented by Thomas Mortimer.
The original Thomas Elsworth Mortimer descended from a family of gifted gunmakers whose London premises produced guns for King George III and the Prince Regent. He moved from London to Edinburgh in 1835. In 1938 the name was incorporated into the John Dickson firm which has since become an umbrella company for a number of Scottish gunmakers and is now called Dickson & MacNaughton, famous for round-action guns. Now Dickson & MacNaughton offers a boxlock with the same sinuous shaping at about half the price of its round-action guns. By miniaturising and reconfiguring the cocking limbs and tumblers Dickson’s has squeezed Anson & Deeley mechanics into a round-action body. The result is virtually indistinguishable from a Scottish trigger plate-action gun. The new “rounded action” starts at £21,500 and is sold under the Thomas Mortimer brand.
Fabric of coarser weave can, as we know, be stylish, more resilient and ultimately less expensive. In the hands of Scottish craftsman, it can also be beautiful. I’ll let one of our American cousins have the final say, gun writer Vic Venters: “If the Scots could make boxlocks so beautiful, it makes you wonder why they even bothered with round actions.”