Friday - 19 September 2014

Big game rifles – a short history

18 August 2012Written by Mark Bridge

An interesting sporting gun found its way into Wallis & Wallis’s (17.5% buyer's premium) predominantly militaria sale in Lewes on June 12.

The Holland & Holland double-barrelled 10-bore big game rifle, above, was a well-made weapon which showed every sign of having seen plenty of service in the field, with a well-dented stock, chequering worn smooth with use and a fracture at the wrist. However the bores were in good condition and other defects could easily be refreshed by a skilled gunsmith. It sold for £4400.

With relatively short barrels at 25in (63cm) and a recommended charge of 8 drams of powder in a 3¼in cartridge, this is a rifle that could as easily knock over its firer as it could an elephant - hence the addition of a rubber recoil pad, now perished and eroded.

The approach to creating rifles with sufficient power to down big game has evolved as more efficient gunpowders have become available. When black powder was the only option, the natural thing was to go for a really heavy projectile which would have considerable knock-down power even at low velocity.

An extreme example of this was seen at Holt's (22.5% buyer's premium) sale in London on June 21 where a 4-bore flintlock sporting rifle by W. Turvey, London sold for £7000. This surprisingly elegant monster weighed in at 19lbs and it is likely that every ounce of that was required to absorb the recoil produced by such a heavy ball.

The Ultimate

Modern high-speed powders mean that today's big game guns are of much more modest calibre and the ultimate safari weapon was to be found at Bonhams' (25/20/12% buyer's premium) sporting gun sale on July 25 when the highest price of the afternoon went to a cased Purdey double-barrelled rifle.

This was designed to handle the complete range of game with two sets of barrels - .375 Holland & Holland magnum for the big game and .300 H & H magnum for the rest. Made in 1993 to Purdey's high standards, this weighed in at a more manageable 11½lb with the .375 barrels fitted. It sold for £40,000.

Percussion Rifle

The pick of the lots offered at Southams' (15% buyer's premium) 1000-lot gun sale at Bedford Auction Centre on June 14 was this 62-bore double percussion rifle by Alexander Henry of Edinburgh. This was a fine quality gun with platinum plugs, a brass-mounted wooden ramrod, slide safety and fine engraving.

It was built c.1877 for the Earl of Warwick and was complete in the maker's brass-mounted mahogany case with ebony handled tools, cleaning rods, cap box and nickel plated cap dispenser with a quantity of paper and wad attached bullets. The case also bore the maker's trade label and details of powder, cap and bullet loads. It went above top estimate at £7250.

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