James Wentworth Day and big shoulder guns

Perhaps because I grew up on the New England coast, living a hunter- gatherer’s life and shooting magnum twelves and tens like my father before me, I  have always been fascinated by England’s big bores– defined here as the gauges above ten that were made illegal when the first legislation to protect waterfowl from commercial gunners was passed after the first world war.

Looking back, one suspects that it was almost a class prejudice thing that spawned such an arbitrary rule; the wealthy eastern gentlemen who drafted the new rules associated big guns with uncouth Chesapeake Bay watermen, and they made an upper limit of ten gauge because nobody they knew shot anything larger. I would argue, as did conservation writer George Reiger, that bore is irrelevant; the only factor in saving birds is the number of a species you kill, and the big bores were difficult specialist’s guns used by experts to bring down single birds at a distance. If I could shoot an eight and had access to a place where I could pass shoot at high geese, I would. It is worth mentioning that you might “lead” such a goose by ten goose lengths at distances above sixty yards, where specialist 8’s and 4’s come into their own. (One of the few American masters of the big bore, Idaho’s Elmer Keith, shot a magnum ten, a gun with the shot load of a light eight, and I know two people who saw him make seventy yard shots).

Today, the working big guns that once were shot by the humble as well as the educated romantic are being “commodified” and disappearing into collectors hands, never to be shot again. (see the Holland below, which is expected to go for over $20,000 at auction). A few lower- priced big guns have been made in Spain or Italy or as English one- off guns like the big two I wrote about last week. The classic English guns are mostly being retired and hoarded or sold to the US where they can’t be shot at migratory birds, so I was delighted with the news that James Wentworth Day’s huge Roaring Emma, an 8- bore of the heaviest configuration, had gone back home to hunt on the English coast.

And yes, “she” is big. Shooting friends know my exasperation at the Nash Buckingham/ George Evans- promoted fallacy that our magnum twelves were eight bore equivalents; they didn’t equal light eights, never mind magnums like Emma, built in the early 1870’s and shot today.

Pete Humphreys on her specs : “4 1/4 chamber with brass cases made by Allen Meyers. 3 ozs of bb’s. The gun is approx 18lbs but short in the stock and handles like a 20 bore. Note that the stock has hole in it and the triggers have drilled holes so they can be wired together and fires simultaneously on a punt boat. The hole in the stock is for a rope to hold the gun on the punt.”

Further on this particular load: “… dad met Jimmy WD in the later years of his life. Dad visited him at his home and spent an afternoon with him. WD was almost blind and health failing. Dad was possessed with Emma and JWD’s writings.  They talked in great detail about the Emma.  WD had sold it on long ago.

“At one point during the visit he asked dad to located a rusty old cookie box (biscuit tin). The box was tucked in a mass of clutter as WD was a hoarder. On the tin in pen it had the words “Emma” written on it. WD told dad to open the box and inside were a handful of the original 4 1/4 inch ELEY cases that were his loads for Emma. WD told dad to take 2 for his collection. I remember the cartridges vividly. I’m sure they went with the gun to its new home.  Dad wrote JWD’s obituary for the Shooting Times.

“Dad originally had a 3 1/4 inch 8 bore and had lots of modern loads in that case length. He would shoot those through Emma to save on the good brass loads as he only had 20 cases made in 4 1/4 brass. He couldn’t figure out why his kill rate was awful with the shorter loads. He realized, with help from my father in law and a pattern plate that the pattern was being “blown” with the short cases. The combs [forcing cones?] on the 4 1/4 chambers are so big, the gases would escape around the shot and blow the pattern of the shorter 3 1/4 cases. 

“He only shot 4 1/4 cases from then on and the gun came back to life and a real hard shooting gun. Would kill geese at 50 yards like a 12 bore kills pigeons at 20 yards.

“I was standing next to my brother David when he dropped a right and left at pinks with Emma. Brilliant stuff.  We were taking it in turns to shoot her w dad watching on from the depths of the ditch we were hiding in.  Tall birds that threw their heads back and folded up stone dead to smack on the field with a loud thud. “

When I was researching this material, I came upon this photo of JWD and assorted paraphernalia in the postwar edition of his Modern Fowler.

When I looked at it I wondered about the gun and when I put it under a magnifying glass I saw the stock hole. Emma!

And here is a Holland and Holland hammerless eight, doubtless headed for some rich man’s collection. I wouldn’t mind if I thought he might shoot it.

Still to come: the story of Emma’s return to England… and better photos of “her”.

Punt Guns

I have been in touch recently with Pete Humphreys, son of the man who brought Roaring Emma, the sporting writer James Wentworth Day’s 140- year old magnum 8 bore Joseph Lang, back to England. Pete is an all- round sportsman himself and heir to a rich heritage, especially in wildfowling, and a font of what may seem to be arcane lore to an American.

 Americans, when they think of England, usually picture “driven” shoots and reared pheasants, using guns that cost as much as my house; more a rarefied and difficult mixture of farming and a shooting game than a communion with the wild. English coastal wildfowling, with its big guns and more egalitarian nature, is less familiar. In England, punt guns were for adventurers and romantics, not poachers or market hunters*; the possibility of a big shot was balanced by the difficulty of stalking birds on open water and the danger of going out on winter seas in a kayak- like craft, armed with a cannon that might weigh over 100 pounds. Some seasons you might get only one or two good shots; in Colin Willock’s book The Gun-Punt Adventure, published in 1958 and covered in my new book on sporting books, his first season’s best shot was all of seven birds!

My old friend John “Johnny UK” Hill says it well: “… long may a few, specialist, intrepid ‘fowlers ply the wild estuaries around the UK!… I have seen them depart from [wildfowler, conservationist, and artist] Peter Scott’s lighthouse at Sutton Bridge, and later return, counting them back like old time aircraft, as if the weather changes, it can be a very dangerous activity. Local knowledge of tides, sandbanks and weather is crucial, [though] mobile phones and improved rescue services have mediated the modern day risk a little!” In a crowded island, the edge of the sea is still the edge of wilderness, danger, and adventure.

If you simply look at a punt gun you can see it is big, but how big? The one illustrated in the post below– here is a shot from the gunner’s perspective– is one of three DOUBLE punt guns made by Holland and Holland, this one in 1900; it weighs 250 pounds and shoots twenty ounces of shot from each barrel.

Its owner also has a single- barreled Patstone with a 1 3/4  bore that shoots 32 ounces of BB’s with 5 of black powder! (They got one shot last year). The Holland is, like all of its maker’s products, something special, and has what may be a unique feature; according to Pete “The locks are set up so the 2 shots go off with a tiny delay… when the first barrel goes off, the gun lifts and the birds jump.  The second barrel goes a split second later to shoot through the flock as it lifts.” Or at least this is the theory; I suspect getting such a shot is still a product ot determination, skill, and luck.

Below, some illos from the ninth Edition of Greener’s The Gun (1910), showing various punt gun actions. The last is a single H & H; put two side by side and you have an approximation of the one in the photos.

* Probably the greatest slaughter for commerce was accomplished with 12 bore repeaters rather than big guns. Browning patent autoloaders were favorites, though market hunters favored (prohibited) extended magazines. The number of birds rather than the nature of the tool was still the only factor that affected conservation, though I suppose banning a tool was not as stupid as, say, banning Italian immigrants ( a solution advocated along with banning Browning A5’s by the irascible William Hornaday).

On losing a dog

Unfortunately, as Kipling and (even) Ogden Nash knew, a recurrent event given our disparate life spans. Tom McIntyre’s Kaycee died suddenly at four last week, after a joyous bout of play. Tom reflects:

P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }The
death of a dog teaches what a tenuous, suspended by a silk thread
thing life is. And yet, the wonder is not in how easily and
perplexingly they die, but how truly alive they can be. It is not
just about dog years, but dog days, even dog minutes. If I “only”
had four years with him, I would have settled for ten seconds. And
wished for forever. Because he was my friend.”


From Michael Gruber’s blog, true and witty but not funny:

don’t much like to talk about my work while it’s in progress or read
reviews or give encouragement to people trying to enter a profession I
know to be a miserable way to make a living, with a premature death rate
that compares unfavorably to coal mining.”

That one would rather do nothing else is a separate matter.

My computer has just had a mental breakdown!

Apologies. Actually the blog and webs seem fine. The mail and some other things are off. I get but cannot receive mail (I get large attachments so that is not the trouble). Regular correspondents are being dumped in the spam file. And oddest of all, I can download photos from my camera, but cannot edit or open or export them– although I can see thumbnails the program insists they do not exist. I cannot export them, and while I was trying to, over 300 photos from my “art” folder suddenly dumped into IPhoto in a few seconds, and I only stopped it dumping thousands I have stored by pulling the plug! Yikes.

So apologies to the regular circle, to John M and Dr John B, and especially to Pete Humphreys, who is sending me great material on “Roaring Emma”. I’ll be back– actually I may just be able to get through on Libby’s new IPad, which I have been tardy in learning as I have been working overtime…

Gun Quiz Solution

It was (obviously?) an 1895 Winchester, most famed as Teddy Roosevelt’s lion gun in Africa, using its odd heavy load, the .405 Winchester. It was a relatively strong action, and because it had a box magazine* rather than the typical tubular ones on most leverguns, it could shoot modern spitzer type loads like the .30- 06.

But what this specimen looks like is the front of an old bolt action military rifle grafted on to a “cowboy” rear. Because that is exactly what it is. It is ’95, but one made for the Czar’s army before the Russian revolution, in the old Mosin Nagant caliber, 7.62 x 54 Russian.

The interesting thing to me is that they made 300,000 or so in this caliber, 70 % of all production, more than they did of .405 Winchester, .30-06, .30-40 Krag, and .303 British COMBINED. They sent almost all of them to Russia– and they flat- out disappeared. Those that don’t know Russia say, well, the Soviets had strict gun control. But though that is to an extent true, I have seen SKS’s, Mosins, AK’s “Baikal” shotguns, and even CZ Mauser sporters everywhere in Central  Asia and never a hint of a 95 Winchester. I think there must still be a stack of crates in a cave in the Urals…

(More negative evidence for what it is worth: the Chinese have even harsher gun control, up to the death penalty, AND the demented sixties youth movement known as the Red Guard once tried to destroy all 45’s because they were a “bourgeois caliber”. But I have seen more Chinese Broomhandles in .45 ACP for sale, albeit for absurdly high prices– $5000!– than I have Russian Winchesters).

The owner of this one has a theory. He writes in part: ” [My girlfriend’s grandfather]… in Finland passed away a few months ago. He acquired the firearm during the 1950s or 1960s as his first moose-rifle… you may be wondering how a Finn acquired the 1895. Well, 70% of the rifles were produced for Imperial Russia before the model was discontinued in 1936. The rejected rifles were resold on American commercial market. The 1895 can use the same stripper clip as the 1891 Mosin Nagants. However most of them ended up in Finland and Baltic states before the October Revolution of 1917. Some of them were reissued by the Soviets for the Spanish Civil War. This particular rifle produced in 1907 survived World War I, Finnish Civil War, Winter War, Continuum War and Lapland War. “

He adds: “…  after the Civil War, many of ’95 were converted to 8.2x53mmR or 9.3x35mmR during the interwar period for moose-hunting because of the hunting laws they had during that time period which only allowed 8mm or larger calibre. Those which survived to serve in the Winter War without being modified into hunting rifles were either converted to 7.62x53mm or left intact… My Finnish contact said one can still find a lot of people still hunting with them in Lithuania or Latvia… “

Correction: Dave, the owner, writes: “The 9mm round is: 9.3x53mmR, not 9.3x35mmR.”

Which I believe.  But surely not all 300,000! See comments for more thoughts.

UPDATE: Bruce Douglas (he appears a few posts below with two flavors of Broomhandle Mausers) reminds us that the rifle makes an appearance in the last great work of Akira Kurosawa, Dersu Uzala, carried by  Captain Arseniev. Arseniev’s Dersu the Hunter is also in my new book of one hundred books.

*Elmer Keith disliked the protruding magazine and said it looked like the belly of a poisoned pup.

Miles City is still in Montana*

I just saw the video below and am trying to give it some publicity. It is ostensibly an interview with Miles City writer, rancher, and horseman John Moore about the Miles City Bucking horse sale, but he touches on the strange way that difficult life skills have been transmuted into (often expensive) play.

When he talks about the “fire” being bred out of today’s horses I can nod,  knowing that European and city breeders are trying to do that to my tazis. He introduced me to the eye- rolling term “pasture ornament “, for a horse that just stands around,and looks pretty, about like Libby’s “supermodel dog”. He know all beings are best off with the right work to do, unlike the show salukis of the woman who once said my dogs must be mutts because they had muscles.

Read, smile, shake your head, pass it on.

* When Libby was leaving Bozeman 20 or so years ago I was ranting about idiots there to the owner of the Feed Store, who lamented, “This used to be Montana…”