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It was 1863. The year kicked off with the world’s first underground railway opening in London. Six months later, General Robert E. Lee led Confederate troops into the Battle of Gettysburg. And in November, Mr Thomas Leigh took delivery of this J. Purdey hammergun, #6597. It was one of a pair of 10 gauges with 32″ Damascus barrels. The cost for both: £126 (£93,600 today*). Griffin and Howe has it on their site for…$35,000!?

Action on J. Purdey shotgun #6597

J. Purdey 12 gauge hammer shotgun #6597

Mr Leigh’s new guns were breechloading pinfires. Breechloaders had come a long way since appearing in Britain at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Scorned back then, serious shooters were giving up their percussion guns for breechloading pinfires by 1860.

The same year Mr Leigh received his guns, H. R. H. Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, received a 12 gauge Westley Richards pinfire like this for his 22nd birthday. Royal approval had arrived.

Unfortunately, the hammer was about to fall on pinfires.  In 1865, J. Purdey built their first centerfire breechloading shotgun. By 1870, orders for pinfires had almost dried up. As pinfires fell from favor, owners converted them to centerfires. It looks like this is what Mr Leigh did to #6597.

A lot of work went into the conversion–adding metal, softening, reworking and recoloring the action, modifying the barrels and hammers, etc. Whoever did the conversion on J. Purdey #6597 was a real pro. Look at how crisp the metal-to-metal & wood-to-metal fit is and how everything looks right. Very nice.

The work was probably in England, maybe by Purdeys, and definitely a while ago. Purdey used pinfire-style actions and hammers like this on centerfires until at least 1867. So if I had to guess when #6597 was converted, I would say in the 1870s.

A few things give the pinfire-to-centerfire conversion away. We’ll talk about two here and leave the rest for the next post.

1. The most obvious are these little curls of engraving on the barrels. They hide seams from the metal fitted into the holes from the original pinfire system. You can see how these holes looked on this Purdey pinfire.

Pinfire catridge loaded into the gun like this and they needed those little divets in the barrels to seat the “pin” that struck the primer inside the shell.

2. Next is the action on #6597. It’s missing a radius. On muzzleloaders, firing drives the barrels back and into the fences and stock. Break-open breechloaders presented different pressures, forces and problems for makers. On a break-open breechloaders, the cartridges drive back into the face of the action. This drives the hinge pin into the hook on the barrels and flexes the action at the juncture of the flats and face. When this juncture is square, this force concentrates and can crack the action.

With pinfires, this wasn’t a problem. Pinfires didn’t produce enough force to damage the action. Centerfires did. Gunmakers recognized this and developed what’s called the radius. The radius modifies the perpendicular, flat-to-face juncture with a slight curve or forty-five degree angle. You can see one here and another here. This little modification spreads out the forces generated by firing. No more cracked actions (or at least far fewer). So when you see a centerfire hammergun without a radius, you’re usually looking at a converted pinfire.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story in my next post about this gun…

*Calculations based on per-capita GDP. Learn more here.

You can read more about the evolution of the breechoader in this excerpt from Micheal McIntosh’s book Best Guns.

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