The 1860s were tens years of change for James Purdey & Sons. The impetus was the breechloader, and at end of the decade, Purdey would step into the modern era of shotguns with the two patents which would changed sporting guns forever.
Breechloaders were introduced to the UK at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and after several years of refinements by makers like Joseph Lang, these revolutionary doubles started to catch on with shooters throughout the UK.
Slowly, London’s famous gunmakers followed this trend. According to Donald Dallas’s book Purdey: The Definitive History, the James Purdey sold their first breechloader in 1858. The following year, 68 of the 205 firearms the firm made were breechloaders (the rest were muzzloaders). By 1862, this ration had flipped. Of the 193 guns Purdey made, just 51 were muzzleloaders.
The three shotguns you see here were made in 1866, just months after Purdey made their first centerfire, breechloading shotgun (#699s, delivered in late 1865). In these guns, you can see just how quickly Purdey’s shotguns evolved, and how some shooters were reluctant to embrace all the changes going on in the shooting world.
Back in the 1860s, centerfires were revolutionary new ideas. A London gumaker named G.H. Daw introduced the first successful model to the British market in 1861. Easy to load and operate, it caught the interest of shooters right away. By the mid 1860s, other gunmakers were turning out their own versions of this design.
James Purdey & Sons made their first center fire shotgun in 1865. The gun you see here was made in 1866 – back when the company was still just James Purdey. Guns like this were the basis for every other shotgun Purdey made. Even though this one is 186 years old, it’s nitro proofed, on the face, and 100% shootable today. Check out the original oak case, too. It’s serial numbered to the gun, and information about the correct loads for the gun are handwritten on the maker’s label. Very cool.
Lot 1051: JAMES PURDEY UNDERLEVER SxS CENTERFIRE SHOTGUN: Cal. 12 Ga., 2 3/4”. S# 7244. Bbls. 30” of fine damascus steel. Recent London reproof for Nitro with 70mm chamber length markings. Cyl. & cyl. bores. Top rib marked “J. Purdey 314 1/2 Oxford Street. London.” Rnd. Body action with Jones underlever & back-action locks marked “Purdey”. Top tang between hammers marked “PATENT”. Converted rebounding, pinfire-style hammers with retractable firing pins (Purdey-patent #424 of 1865). 75% Coverage of very fine foliate scroll engraving (consignor states probably by J. Lucas). Key fastened splinter forearm of fully checkered walnut with engraved steel tip & escutcheons. Straight hand stock of checkered fancy English walnut with nameplate on toe line. LOP: 14 1/8” over original steel shotgun butt. DAC: 1 1/2”. DAH: 2 1/2”. Neutral cast. Weight: 7lbs. Minimum wall thickness L .032 & R. .026.
CONDITION: 90% fine, London-quality restored browned on bbls. finish showing nice damascus pattern. Locks & action have traces of remaining case colors in protected areas with balance fading to silvery gray. Trigger guard has area of original blue under lever with balance fading to gray having spots of light pitting on tang. Stock & forearm show wear with nearly smooth checkering having numerous heavy handling marks & scratches. Forearm has chip at right side of bbl. channel. Stock has semi circular added wood repair right side of trigger guard tang. Bright bores.
UNATTACHED ACCESSORIES: Original oak maker’s case with correct Purdey label featuring handwritten notes regarding proper loads. Serial-numbered to gun. Red felt fitted interior. Case in fair to overall good condition. ESTIMATE: $3500-5500.
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!?
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.
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…