GOING OFF WITH A BANG!

03 Apr 2020

GOING OFF WITH A BANG!

By Dr. Nicholas Harlow Purdey double rifles have an air of mystique; always built in far smaller numbers than shotguns, they are the most complex, and expensive, firearm that we produce. Purdey’s association with rifles goes back to its earliest days, with the first James Purdey reputedly a fine marksman. He was responsible for fitting the first telescope-sights to both a rifle and a pistol for their inventor, Lieutenant Davidson, in 1842. By the 1880s, with the introduction of the hammerless Beesley action, ‘scopes of that type could be found fitted to Express rifles for deer-stalking in the Scottish Highlands. However, for larger game, correspondingly larger rifles were required. Purdey’s 1885 catalogue lists “Large Bore Double and Single Rifles, of great power, for Big Game,” which could be supplied in 4, 8, 10, and 12-bore, compensating for the relatively low velocity of black powder with bullets of enormous size. Eighteen of these large-bore rifles have been found in the regulation ledgers between 1873 and 1887, although the largest encountered is actually a 6-bore, built in 1878 for the Marquess of Ripon. With the exception of this outlier, 8-bore appears to be the largest calibre rifle built with any frequency by the company during this period, with a total of seven built in fourteen years. Of these, two were “C Quality”, with the remaining five all listed as “Best” rifles. Folio detail The Invoice Ledger entry for Mr. H. van Son’s double rifle An example of the latter, No. 11139, was sold to a Mr. H. van Son on 5th April 1882. A later history describes him as a pioneering tea planter from Java who, with a relative, set up four plantations during this period. One of these was “Tjiboengoer”, which is where the rifle was delivered. The cost, including cases and fittings, was £89 5s, £24 more than a “Best” hammerless gun of the period. The invoice also included supplies for reloading 500 cartridges (£8 9s 3d), and freight and insurance to Java (£3 9s 4d). Mr. van Son appears to have been a dedicated hunter, and over the next four years went on to purchase a .45 Colt “Frontier” revolver, two .577 Express rifles, and another 8-bore double rifle. All of these were appropriate for an era where wealthy planters would have looked to participate in big game hunting in the region. Purdery - Going off with a bangMr. van Son’s complete account for the period 1881-86 Mechanically, No. 11139 was a classic hammer double rifle. It was completed on 22nd March 1882 with rebounding backlocks and “lever-over-guard”; Purdey’s term for a Jones-patent rotary-underlever. The action had both side-clips and a third bite, although the latter is not evident on the smoke black of the breech-face that was printed in the Dimension Book. The 26in. Damascus barrels were rifled with “10 grooves [making] 1 turn in 10 or 12 feet?”(sic), a very slow rate of twist by modern standards. The rib had a 50-yard standard sight, and three further folding leaves sighted out to 200 yards. The stock almost certainly had a pistolgrip, although it is not recorded, and was fitted with a “soft” Silver’s recoil-pad. When completed, the rifle weighed a mighty 16lbs. 12oz., of which the barrels alone weighed 8lbs. 9½oz. The Dimension Book entry for 11139, including smoke black impressions of the breech and muzzle Where the rifle stands out is in the detailed records of its ammunition. The nominal bore diameter of 8-bore is .835in., and the rifle was regulated to shoot both round and conical ball, made from lead hardened with 1/20 part of tin. For regulation, the 3¼in.-long “Eley’s Green Gastight Case” was loaded with 10 drams of Curtis & Harvey’s No. 6 black powder – more than three times the average 12-bore load of the period. It is also the largest load recorded for any of Purdey’s 8-bores, with the majority regulated with either 7 or 8 drams. In terms of sighting, the round ball shot to point of aim at all distances out to 200 yards. Out to 50 yards the conical ball had the same point of impact, but thereafter its trajectory decayed rapidly, striking 8 inches below point of aim at 200 yards. If the cartridge was loaded with 8 drams, the bullets struck above the point of aim at 50 and 100 yards, but then rapidly dropped off again beyond that. Regulation ledger entry for 11139, including sketches of the two exploding bullets Whilst the round ball produced the best shooting, and least recoil, the conical ball created a much heavier bullet. They could be cast with a cavity to reduce the weight, as depicted in W.W. Greener’s The Gun and its Development, but in this case it was not intended to lighten it, but to create an explosive bullet. The Purdey records are remarkably detailed as to the production of not one, but two, patterns of explosive bullet for this rifle. The first used a tin shell with a brass tube, supplied by Greenfields, which was filled with black powder, before “the same [primer] cap that is used with ordinary green CF cases” was seated into the tube. The second used a copper shell, made by Eley, which held a charge of “detonating powder” (apparently mercury fulminate), and which according to Greener was then sealed with wax in place of the cap. When the bullets were cast, the shell was seated on a core-peg to centre it in the mould, which when removed would allow the cavity to be filled with the appropriate powder. Perhaps what is most curious is that such ammunition is relatively unknown today, even though Greener notes “…their utility in instantly stopping an animal is well known.” This appears to be the only occasion when Purdey built a rifle with such bullets. Yet the work recorded on both rifle and ammunition exemplifies the time and skill Purdey put into its double rifles, in the Victorian quest for the most effective arms for the field, and as modern ammunition producers have continued to this day.