Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
Purdey’s meticulously-kept order, sales and delivery books of the late 19th century provide a seemingly endless source of fascinating snapshots relating to both the company’s history, and to the often unusual requests of its many important clients.
One such individual was Colonel (and later General) Jean Arthur Lenfumé de Lignières, a prolific purchaser who, on 10 December 1886, acquired the one and only four-barrelled hammerless shotgun Purdey has ever made.
A Fascinating Anachronism
According to gun room manager Dr Nicholas Harlow, the gun was probably not built to the special order of Colonel de Lignières, but may have been created to serve as a demonstration piece at one of the many major exhibitions that took place in the 1880s and 90s.
“Before ejector shotguns came in, people were experimenting with different ways of making it possible to fire multiple shots more quickly without having to spend so much time re-loading,” he explains. “And one solution was the four-barrelled gun.”
Dr Harlow says the idea of a multi-barrelled gun was nothing new, but the configuration’s popularity had waned prior to a temporary resurgence in the second half of the 19th century as driven game shoots became more common.
Purdey did not regard the four-barrel route as being the best option, so it is likely to have bought-in the action and barrels for the Colonel de Lignières gun from a rival maker before fitting it up to its usual exceptional standards.
Those who are curious about what the four-barrelled shotgun actually looked like can find out for themselves by visiting Purdey HQ at Audley House.
Along the corridor off the main shop floor can be found a display case containing the gun alongside 11 other key pieces from the company’s archive – including the 205-year-old Flintlock No. 86, the oldest piece in the collection.
“Colonel de Lignières was a major collector of firearms, swords and other weapons, and a large number of those he owned are today held in a 13th-century castle called Château de Chacenay in north-eastern France,” says Dr Harlow. “But after his death in 1897, some of his guns were sold, which is how Purdey was able to buy back the four-barrelled gun. It’s an important part of the archive.”
The gun is a 20-bore carrying a serial number suggesting that it was originally built, or at least numbered, as far back as 1883, despite the fact that it was not tested until the day after being bought by Colonel de Lignières three years later.
The Damascus barrels measure 25-and-a-half inches long, with the lock work featuring a rotating head activated by a lever behind the trigger guard.
When this is squeezed, the head turns to its next position as the mechanism is simultaneously cocked – thus enabling four shots to be fired in quick succession without the conventional need to manually remove and insert two fresh cartridges.
“Our ejector system was introduced shortly after the Purdey four-barrelled gun was completed, effectively rendering the system redundant,” says Dr Harlow. “On top of that, the four-barrelled gun was relatively heavy and cumbersome, and the lever system that controlled the rotating head was quite tricky to operate.”
Despite its technical shortcomings, the gun nevertheless serves as a showcase both for the Purdey quest for innovation and for the meticulous craftsmanship of its gunsmiths and stockers.
And although it may be an oddity with a main feature that was more or less defunct by the time it was created, there’s still something about the four-barrelled gun that cries out, “Try me” – just as it must have done all those years ago when Colonel de Lignières found himself unable to resist buying it.