Since it first appeared in 1879, the round action has been produced by just three Scottish gunmakers. It has lost none of its appeal over the years, says Donald Dallas
Donald Dallas takes a look at the enduring appeal of the Scottish round action gun, which has been built exclusively by three Scottish makers since it first made its appearance in 1879.
Take a look at The Field’s guide to shotgun barrels.
Meet Sporting Diana Joy Wheatcroft, whose competitive streak and desire to try new things has taken her from gymkhanas to the CPSA World Championships.
THE SCOTTISH ROUND ACTION GUN
It is interesting, on the relatively small island of Great Britain, how many different styles have evolved over the centuries in art, architecture, furniture, fashion and so on. Gun design is no exception, with various patterns developed over the length and breadth of the land: the London sidelock, the Birmingham boxlock, the Scottish round action…
The Scottish round action gun made its appearance in 1879 and, since that date, has been built exclusively by three Scottish makers: James MacNaughton of Edinburgh; John Dickson & Son of Edinburgh; and David McKay Brown of Bothwell near Glasgow. It is an action unique to Scotland, not copied by others, and it is heartening to find that all three of these makers still make round action guns today, such is the esteem in which the design is held.
A round action is a gun whereby the action is completely rounded to create a handsome, lightweight gun with a beautiful curve to the metal. The action can be rounded like this as, unlike with most other gun designs, the mechanism is not contained within the action of the gun but situated above the triggers and known as a trigger-plate action. With the mechanism built upon the trigger-plate, the solid action body, devoid of mechanism, can be rounded to create a svelte round body.
In a conventional sidelock, the mechanism has to be built within the action – even more so with a boxlock action, whereby the entire mechanism is contained within the action body. Consequently, it is impossible to round off the action although several makers have attempted to do this to create a partial rounded action, influenced by the Scottish round action. However, there is a world of difference between a rounded action and a round action, and never the twain shall meet.
To understand the development and appeal of the unique Scottish round action, it is necessary to look at the economic climate in Scotland in the late 19th century. The design was created in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, James MacNaughton even calling his round action ‘The Edinburgh Gun’. Edinburgh was a wealthy city in this era in all respects – culture, commerce, finance and education. The university was a famous seat of learning, it was the centre of the legal establishment, home to all the major banks and financial institutions. Many wealthy businessmen resided here and swathes of the city sported substantial houses for the affluent. In addition, surrounding the city of Edinburgh on the east of Scotland and the Borders were countless landed gentry with considerable acreage.
To the wealthy of Edinburgh and the landed gentry in its environs, shooting was a major part of their social and leisure time and this explains why Edinburgh was home to so many top-rate gunmakers in the 19th century. With the development of railways it was simple to board a train and be in the Highlands, or farther south on the moors of the Borders. Just look at the profusion of old railway labels on gun cases with the destinations conjuring up romantic visions of said cases being stowed in guards’ vans for a week’s sport at some faraway estate. The influence of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria at Balmoral played a great part in this desire to participate in sport in remote glens and on distant moors.
Top of the sport was grouse shooting, and what was needed for this was a fast-handling, light and well-balanced gun. When the grouse came low and fast over the butt, you had to be on to them very quickly. And as they hurtled by, up went the gun vertically over the butt so as not to pepper your neighbour, then down it went again to take the shot from behind. The conventional sidelock or boxlock gun weighing not far off 7lb with 30in barrels could not do this job satisfactorily.
At roughly the same time in 1879/80, two of Edinburgh’s leading gunmakers, James MacNaughton of 26 Hanover Street and John Dickson & Son of 63 Princes Street, simultaneously developed the round action gun specifically as a fast-handling gun for grouse shooting. There were scores of gunmakers working in Edinburgh during this period and one of them, Julius Coster, a native of Germany, born in 1850 near Kassel, was working for Alexander Henry, the famous rifle maker at 12 South St Andrew Street. (In what is an amazing coincidence, my daughter works in these premises today, completely unimpressed by this fact.) Coster had discussed how his father back home in Germany was building guns and rifles with trigger-plate actions. The seed was sown and both MacNaughton and Dickson realised that the trigger-plate action would be eminently suitable for a fast-handling, lightweight gun with superb balance.
With the action contained within the centre of the gun above the triggers, a perfect balance was achieved. The weight of the gun was right in the centre, which meant it could be mounted quickly. In addition, since the action body could be completely rounded, an attractive shape was created and a great deal of metal removed, hence its lighter weight. Not only was the round action well balanced and beautiful, it was immensely strong to boot as hardly any metal had to be cut away from within the action. The action upon the trigger-plate was simple and well engineered, and with the bow springs employed breakages were unheard of compared to conventional V springs. At this time the normal barrel length was 30in but John Dickson shortened his barrels to 29in, an unusual length but perfect for fast handling.
The round action when it was introduced was an instant success. Bearing in mind it was a Best gun and not cheap, it was snapped up by the affluent in Edinburgh and the gentry around. The Dickson ledgers of the period encompass virtually every single landed family in Scotland and also all the leading figures in commercial and industrial Scotland. The round action was the Scottish Best gun – so why would anybody go to London when such a superb gun was on your doorstep?
THE FIRST PATENT FOR A ROUND ACTION
The first patent for a round action was taken out in 1879 by MacNaughton. He had been apprenticed to John Dickson and had set up his own business in 1864. This was a wide patent covering a great many designs, but included in it was a trigger-plate design. With the mechanism upon the trigger-plate he was able to round the action body and the round action gun was born. These early MacNaughton guns were lever cocked, meaning that an elongated top lever, as well as opening the gun, cocked the mechanism. A nice little touch was that he cut a slot in this top lever and fitted a glass inspection port so that a sportsman could look into the action to see if it was cocked or not. At this time, hammerless guns were in their infancy and gunmakers were concerned about safety as it was impossible to tell if a gun was cocked or not. Today, of course, we assume the entire time a gun is cocked.
Six months after the MacNaughton patent, John Dickson & Son took out a patent, the first of four between 1880 and 1887 that created the Dickson round action ejector gun. John Dickson was born in Edinburgh in 1794 and set up his own business in 1838. The firm quickly achieved an enviable reputation for the quality of its guns and rifles, as well as for innovation, such as the two-groove muzzle-loading rifles of the 1840s. In addition, John Dickson was the first gunmaker in Britain to fit telescopic sights to its rifles. It was, in fact, John Dickson the third who invented the Dickson round action.
There is a tedious story, repeated ad infinitum in books and articles on the round action, that MacNaughton took Dickson to court for patent infringement and won nominal damages of one penny. Absolute balderdash and I have no idea where this story emanated from. If you think about it logically, a patent is only granted for something specific and it would be impossible to patent something as vague as a round action or a trigger-plate.
‘THE ROUND ACTION IS SUCH AN INHERENTLY SCOTTISH DESIGN’
Throughout the 20th century, the Dickson and MacNaughton round action guns continued to be built in Edinburgh but in the 1960s a new boy appeared on the scene, David McKay Brown. Born in 1941, McKay Brown was apprenticed to John Dickson & Son and in 1967 set up his own business. Understanding the merits of the round action and its Scottish home, he decided to concentrate on building round action guns only and in 1974 he built his first example. Between this date and the present, McKay Brown and his team of four gunmakers has built more than 600 round actions, an incredible achievement. Based at 32 Hamilton Road, Bothwell, Glasgow, the McKay Brown round action was built to the highest standards. Sensing a shift in the market from the side-by-side to the over-and-under, McKay Brown designed a round action over-and-under gun that has been extremely successful since its introduction in 1992. This gun has been much admired for its design and elegance.
He has said of it, “The round action is such an inherently Scottish design with a wonderful track record, very handsome, fast handling and mechanically superior in many ways to the London guns.” David McKay Brown has retired recently but it is good to know that his business is being carried on by Grant Buchan along with some of McKay Brown’s gunmakers, who will continue to build the McKay Brown round action.
Unlike their contemporaries, every single MacNaughton, Dickson or McKay Brown round action is a Best-quality gun – there are no second-quality examples. On account of this, it has been built in relatively small numbers and this combination of Best gun and limited numbers explains the exclusivity that surrounds the round action today. MacNaughton built just over 300 round actions, John Dickson & Son 1,900 and McKay Brown 600.
What is heartening is that all three round action guns are still available today. In 1947, John Dickson & Son took over James MacNaughton and such was the demand for the MacNaughton round action, the firm has continued to build it. In 2019, John Dickson & Son was bought by the experienced gunmaker, apprenticed in Scotland, Jean-Pierre Daeschler, a passionate exponent of the round action, along with his wife, Zoe Bucknell. His enthusiasm is such that he has plans to build a 28-bore round action and reintroduce the side-lever system of opening. Daeschler says of the action: “The Dickson round action is a timeless design that showcased the best of Scottish
technical excellence and ingenuity in the 19th century. We have done very little to improve it since the last enhancement in 1900 and it is the same iconic design we build in Scotland today.”
Simon Reinhold, one of Holts Auction-eers’ experts and a leading game and clay shot, shoots a Dickson round action. He says of the Scottish round action: “You have to understand a round action to shoot one well. If you are used to off-the-shelf over-and-unders, it’s like getting out of a transit van and into a sports car. It is a fast-handling gun for the fastest of gamebirds – the grouse – but it is equally effective for other traditional driven game. I tell my clients to visualise Roger Federer’s backhand – that is the elegance, style and effortless time that the weight distribution of a round action can offer you.”
The last word must go to Jean-Pierre Daeschler, who summed up the Scottish round action nicely: “The round action offers a distinct alternative to the traditional sidelocks and boxlocks and that is why the gun is so highly sought after by best gun enthusiasts.”