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”.

5 thoughts on “James Wentworth Day and big shoulder guns”

  1. A good post. I love this lore even if I am not a wildfowler. I relate to wildfowling being "a communion with the wild". I think there are more geese than there used to be in England now but a lot has still changed.

    "The gun is approx 18lbs but short in the stock and handles like a 20 bore."

    Was it 18 lbs primarily to absorb recoil? Was that the minimim weight for the load and was the gun build around that weight?

    Were 8 bores built to the same tolerances and quality as best guns?

    Was "Emma" a best?


  2. It is too bad 8 bores are illegal here. Modern made guns to handle steel shot could be useful. Also what would new tech do for 8 bores?

    How about these speculations

    Triggerplate guns?
    Stainless or titanium or corrosion proof coatings?
    recoil suppressors?
    electronic hammers?
    synthetic but attractive stocks?
    adjustable stocks?
    decent cheaper ammo?

    It seems like there is room to update 8 bores especially for those around salt water. A vintage $30,000 gun around salt would be a headache


  3. Thank you for this post! I was asking a friend why punt-gunning is banned in most of the western world. The sources I have found claim poaching and market-hunting, but the device seems to be counter-productive if one wants to shoot large number of birds.

  4. I expect Herve Bruchet could make any calibre of Bruchet-Darne, if he put his mind to it, and the prospective purchaser was prepared for a hefty bill!, but he currently makes "standard " bores up to 12 G ,I believe.

    I have a light V Model, 3 in chambered ancient Darne 10 G, with fantastic engraving .

    Like all Darnes I have shot,there seems to be less perceived recoil for a given load, and they swing beautifully….



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