Text and photos by Dewey Vicknair
The subject of this article is a hammerless, bar-in-wood (or skeletal-action), sidelock side-by-side in 28 gauge with rising-bite bolting and a sidelever. The barrels are 28 inches long, and the length of pull is 15 5⁄8". It is an original design, not a copy of any maker’s action, and was made entirely from raw materials by hand and with manual machinery. No computer was involved in its design or creation aside from a calculator. Raw materials means exactly that: No rough parts, whether in the form of forgings, castings or blanks, were employed. Every single part, from the frame and barrels to the smallest screw and pin, was made at my bench. It is the culmination of almost 2,000 hours of labor spread out over almost three years.
The goal of this project was no different than that of any other custom gun project: to create something unique. What I had in mind, however, could not be created from the bones of any existing gun. Where shotguns are concerned, I have some very definite ideas regarding what looks good. I like the overall appearance of English doubles from the percussion era and the sleek, racy lines of more modern Italian guns. So I thought, Why not combine the two? After all, what could be sleeker than a straight-hand, hammerless sidelock with uninterrupted wood from the forend tip to the toe of the stock?
Clockwise from left: The roughed-out major components, including the bolting mechanism (circled) with horizontal and vertical bolts and the translation link; the jointed action, not yet externally shaped; and the kangaroo-leather-covered butt with hand-filed ornamental surround.
Having a general idea of what I wanted and in which gauge, the first real design step was to determine the center distance between the barrels. This combined with the desired chamber-wall thickness would determine the width at the fences, the height at the breech end of the barrels and the thickness of the barrel flat. The bore center also establishes the firing-pin centers, a rough idea of the needed frame width and so on. Because I loathe the idea of having to notch the frame for forend-iron clearance when the barrels are open, the hinge pin was located so that I didn’t have to do that. The calculations were made to determine the needed material dimensions of the action bar and its transition to the standing breech, so as to give a safety factor of 2.5 (meaning that the frame is capable of absorbing 2.5 times the stress that it normally would see in service)—which, because of the use of the vertical bolt, is more than it needs to be.
I have been asked why I employed a rising bite in this gun (and the double rifle that preceded it), and there are two answers to that question. The less-important answer is that the rising bite is reputed to be “the most difficult action to make,” so employing it was an obvious choice. The more important reason is that it is the only “extra” fastener that is worth the space it occupies. Many “third” fasteners serve little actual purpose. Some, such as any unbolted “doll’s head” type, are literally useless. A break-action design that uses only the standard underbolt(s) actually is bolted in the wrong plane. The bolt in these designs isn’t holding the breech face fast to the barrel axially but simply holding down the barrel vertically and is depending upon the material strength at the juncture of the standing breech and frame flats to absorb the stress of firing. The vertical bolt of the rising-bite does restrain the breech axially, while the horizontal bolt restrains the vertical movement.
Left: the handmade back-action locks with watchmaking-type finishes. Right: a close-up of the left lockplate showing the flower motif of the tumbler pivot, the crystal cocking-indicator window (with tumbler cocked), the ruby pivot bearings, and the watchmaker-style lockplate screws.
With numbers in hand, I could start “making chips,” starting with building the barrels. The barrels are of dovetail-lump construction, which is in no way inferior to any other type and is the most efficient from a materials-usage standpoint. I know that “tradition” says a best-quality gun should have chopper-lump barrels, but the reality is that tradition and the endorsement of gun writers who know more about writing than gunmaking are the only arguments in their favor. The lump and stub rib/extension were made from 4140 (normalized), and the breech ends/lump/stub rib were assembled by brazing. The forend lug also was brazed, to eliminate the possibility of it ever coming loose. A block was soft soldered temporarily to each side of the assembled barrels at the breech end and machined parallel to the lump sides. This facilitated holding the barrels in a milling-machine vise or bench vise. Next the frame profile was roughed out of a billet of 1018. I used 1018 instead of 1020 because the higher manganese content of 1018 makes it stronger than 1020, with or without case hardening. Since the carbon content in any given plain steel is a range, the carbon content is effectively the same between the two. The frame flats were machined flat, and the standing breech was machined at an 88° angle with a generous radius where they meet. Once the slots for the lumps, the pocket for the rib extension, the bores for the vertical bolt and the hinge pin were machined and reamed, the work of mating the barrels and frame could begin.
Once that was done, the bolts, the link that connects them and its pivot pin were made (see above). The link is very important, because not only does it synchronize the movement of the vertical and horizontal bolts, translating the horizontal movement to vertical, but also its geometry ensures that both bolts clear their respective bites in unison. If you visualize the link as an inverted “L,” with a pivot where the legs meet, you’ll get the idea. When the downward-pointing leg moves axially, the forward-pointing leg moves vertically. The bolts are made from O1 and the link from 1095. The top strap was blanked from a piece of 1018 and TIG welded in place. The forend iron was blanked out and fit to the forend lug and frame knuckle during this phase as well. The triggerplate was made from a 1020 billet.
The sidelever was made in two parts from 1020 and shaped by hand after TIG welding the parts together. The lever’s pivot area and the lug that operates the bolt were carburized and case hardened after fitting. It is powered by a V-spring linked to the lever with a stirrup for smooth operation throughout its range of movement. The sidelever was chosen, because I think it is the best-looking method of operating the bolts. Invariably, the first question asked when someone sees the gun is why I made the sidelever left-handed. The answer is that I didn’t. I’m right-handed, and when holding the gun, my right thumb is on the left side, hence the lever’s location. It’s not traditionally done that way, but it works well for me; so functionality trumps tradition here. Personally, I never have understood any of the rationales behind putting the lever on the right side of a right-handed gun. Too many things in the trade are done simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done,” and the traditional position of the sidelever seems to fall into that category.
Moving back to the barrels, the bores were reamed to size, the chokes were cut, the extractor bed was machined and the extractor shaft and guide-pin holes were drilled and reamed. The extractor was made and fit seamlessly to the barrels, and lastly the chambers were cut. The left and right strikers, bushings and return springs were made. The strikers and bushings are of O1. At this point it was a “barreled action” and could be fired, though not from the shoulder but rather clamped in a test rig. The lockplates were blanked, shaped and then fit to the frame and secured with work screws. The aesthetically all-important shape of the trigger guard bow was established, the triggers were made and hung, and then it was time for the fun to begin. I speak, of course, of chiseling. There is little in gunmaking (to me, at least) that is more satisfying than shaping a blocky, raw frame with a hammer and a multitude of chisels. It makes me feel like a cut-rate Michelangelo. Untold hours of chiseling were followed by untold hours of scraping and polishing. I then made the top, bottom and splinter ribs. The bottom ribs were sliced from seamless 1020 tubing of a diameter that would provide the desired radius of the ribs. The top rib was machined from the solid, hollowed and tapered toward the muzzle. Now it was starting to look like what I’d had in mind. It also was time to start making the rest of the internal parts, which meant two of everything. In the case of the lockwork, it also meant that components had to be mirror images of each other.
The locks are a back-action design in order to allow for more wood under the action bar. More wood means more strength and far less chance of the cracking that is so common in some other bar-in-wood designs that employ an almost razor-thin shell of wood in this area. The tumblers, sears and bridle screws were made from O1; the mainsprings and sear springs were made from 1095; and the bridles were made from 1018. The screw heads were made in watchmaker style, as were all of the screws on the gun. This means that the heads are perfectly flat with beveled edges that correspond to the beveled edges of the pockets in which they reside. The bridles were carburized and hardened, and then finished by polishing, “straight graining” the vertical surfaces, beveling the edges and finally having vertically oriented “Geneva stripes” (Côtes de Genève) applied. (These are the real thing, not the “lining” that so poorly imitates it on many “fine” guns.) If some of these terms seem unfamiliar, it’s because they are from the watchmaking world, not the gunmaking world.
The inside surfaces of the lockplates were finished by “frosting,” which was not done by abrasive blasting but with a tool that looks like a miniature version of the old Thompson Roto Stripper paint stripper. The edges of the inner sides of the lockplates were beveled and polished, and the tumblers and sears were gold plated. You may notice that the outboard ends of the tumbler pivots are made in a flower motif. This was done by machining equally spaced notches and then hand-filing the shape of each petal. The bezels for the cocking-indicator windows were nitre blued and the inner angled surfaces polished, leaving the outer edges blued in contrast. The crystal windows then were pressed into the bezels. The outboard ends of the tumblers ride in hardened O1 bearing inserts in the lockplates, while the sear and mainspring pivots are ruby jewel bearings as used in watches.
None of this is necessary (or “traditional”), and that’s exactly the point. It is craftsmanship for its own sake, which is exactly the point of any craft-made, best-quality item, be it a gun, a watch or a coachbuilt automobile. Also non-traditional are the raised and polished “trim,” or “accent,” pieces around the lockplates and separating the spurred, black, kangaroo-leather-covered butt from the stock. They are a bit of automotive-styling influence that works well with the sharp creases that abound on the finished gun. They also contribute greatly to the overall “sleekness.” Another car-inspired touch is the raised name “badge” on each of the lockplates. I made these on my pantograph from Monel 400 (a nickel alloy) using a 10-up pattern and a .010" carbide, two-flute end mill.
Clockwise from top left: Almost at the beginning, the frame is blanked and the breech ends of the rough tubes are machined in preparation for jointing with the lump and rib-extension blanks; the frame and barrels ready for jointing, showing the "work blocks" temporarily soft-soldered to the barrels; the jointed and bolted action rough chiseled and filed to shape; the left lock assembly—fully functional but still in its "rough" form prior to application of the various finishing techniques.
As for the other details, the safety is a Hagn-inspired roller, and the forend is retained with a wedge, which is captured by a pin that engages a groove machined into the wedge’s upper surface. The capture pin not only prevents it from being lost but also acts as a stop when installing it. I never cared much for the look of the typical wedge with a big head on one side, so I made this one symmetrical. I think it looks much cleaner. The escutcheons were filed up by hand in the usual manner.
The gun was stocked in Turkish walnut. I actually bought three blanks for this project at three different times from the same wood dealer in Turkey. Every time I thought I’d found “the one,” I found one I liked even more! The lesson here is: Don’t keep shopping! Or: Don’t settle. I don’t know which. The wood finish was a concoction of tung oil and Japan drier, and the final polish was done using 3,000-grit paper and variously shaped thick cork blocks. The metalwork was finished in the white, because that’s how I like it. I believe it shows the work in its best light.
The second-most-asked question I get about the gun is: “How will it be engraved?” The answer is that it isn’t going to be engraved. Engraving is one of those things that is “supposed to be done” on a shotgun and is, unfortunately and wrongly, the primary measure used by the layperson when judging a gun’s quality. To many, it seems that the gun exists only as a canvas for the engraver and that it isn’t finished until the engraver has “elevated” it. I don’t buy into that. I can’t recall ever seeing an engraved Duesenberg automobile, and most of the very best handmade watches exhibit little, if any, engraving. The craftsmanship should be what impresses, not the decoration. Besides, the world doesn’t need another English rose & scroll-engraved double, and I can’t afford Manrico Torcoli.
I’m pretty pleased overall with the result. Some details did change as the gun took shape and the envisioned design “evolved.” I originally had planned a Westley Richards-style grip safety as used on the maker’s percussion guns. Graceful as it is, however, I thought it would detract from the overall sleekness of the gun. The original target weight was a rather arbitrary 5½ pounds, and the gun finished at 5¾. Close enough. It balances at the rear edge of the forend wood and handles in a way that belies its light weight. I have broken some targets with it but, due to my workload, it probably won’t see much use. That’s OK, because it was made primarily to dispel another longstanding gunmaking myth—one that seems especially prevalent among my Anglo colleagues. Many state flatly, as if it were fact, that one person can’t make an entire gun.
To which I respond: Then why call oneself a gunmaker?