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Grays Best

Rip Van Reilly

Down from the rafters and back to work.
by Terry Wieland
From the August 2006 issue.

There's a term in the trade that says it all: Henhouse gun. Contrary to what you might infer, this isn’t a gun suitable only for keeping in the barn to shoot marauders. Rather, it refers to the fallen angels sometimes found languishing behind the hen-house door, relegated to predator control by peasants who wouldn’t know a Purdey from a peashooter.

My favorite example comes from Steve Denny, now of Holland & Holland and formerly of E. J. Churchill. One of Churchill’s employees had a girlfriend from a farm in Wales. On a weekend visit, the girl’s father pulled out an old gun he kept behind the henhouse door for shooting stoats. Changes in English gun laws (and a decline in stoats) prompted him to get rid of it.

“When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it,” Steve says. “It was a Boss and Company over-and-under—dirty but clean, if you know what I mean, and technically out of proof. But still a Boss, and a very good one!”

Steve bought the gun and flipped it a week later for a good profit. When last seen, after various refurbishments and having changed dealers’ hands several times, the gun was for sale. Asking price: £35,000.

Why henhouse gun? Why not garage or tool-shed? Since stoats, weasels and foxes rarely eat lawnmowers, the henhouse is the logical place for a gun.

Of course, not all henhouse guns come from an actual henhouse. I know of one Winchester Hi-Wall single-shot rifle that was used to prop open the door of an autobody shop, where it gradually accumulated a shell of auto enamel. A friend of mine spotted it and bought it for $50, knowing only that it was a Hi-Wall. From beneath the paint emerged a lovely custom rifle, with a beautiful feather-crotch walnut stock, made by C. C. Johnson at least a half-century earlier. It was chambered for an obsolete wildcat cartridge, which my friend happily began handloading.

The shooting world is replete with weird coincidences. A couple of years ago I saw and fell in love with a P. Webley boxlock owned by a friend and refurbished by our local Swiss-gunmaker wizard, Edwin von Atzigen. The gun has a Webley screw-grip treble-bite, an uncommon but highly desirable variation of boxlock patented by Webley in 1882. Webley used it for their own “best” boxlocks, as did a few others in the trade—notably William Evans and Army & Navy.

The “screw-grip” refers to a rib extension that seats in the standing breech. An L-shaped extension slips under the spindle. As the gun is closed and the lever moves back into the locked position, the underside of the lever around the spindle acts as a cam on the extension and bolts it solidly in place.

Of course, it has long since been demonstrated that third bites are superfluous. A Purdey double underlug will handle anything up to a .600 Nitro Express with complete aplomb. Still, many third-bite mechanisms are fascinating, and to me the intricate Webley design is the most ingenious and intriguing of all. My friend’s Webley has the doll’s-head variation, but they were also made with a simple, flat, L-shaped extension.

A few months after I saw the Webley for the first time, I came back from Africa and walked into my local gunshop to see what was new. Jeff emerged from the back carrying a grimy trunk-style case with a set of barrels strapped to the top.

“Tell me what you think,” he said.

One look inside and I had but one question. How much?

“$1,200.”
    “Sold.”

The name on the gun, E. M. Reilly, is an obscure London maker, but London nonetheless. A century ago it was a highly respected firm occupying premises on Oxford Street across from James Purdey. Such notables as Sir Samuel Baker and F. C. Selous took E. M. Reilly guns with them to Africa.

But it wasn’t the name that grabbed my attention; it was the Webley screw-grip bolting system that still slid smoothly back and forth despite being stored for 30 years in the rafters of a henhouse.

The gun’s history took some piecing together and still isn’t complete. It was made around 1890 and owned by a Scottish gamekeeper—probably a gift from his employer. It is a London “best” boxlock, with the finest Webley action covered with tiny, intricate scroll engraving. The original barrels were 30-inch Damascus, bored cylinder and choke. All of these facts help to date the gun: sometime after the action was invented, but before Damascus barrels fell out of fashion and so on. By 1900 gunmakers were employing degrees of choke more sophisticated than merely “cylinder” and “choke,” which denotes wide open and tighterthan- tight. In the case of this gun, the right Damascus barrel has 3⁄1000 constriction, the left barrel 38⁄1000. Another fact helping to date the gun is that it was proofed for blackpowder only, and the chambers are the early 2⅝ inch rather than the later 2 ½ inch.

E. M. Reilly merged with another company in 1920 and disappeared. Around 1925 our gamekeeper decided he needed to shoot smokeless. Instead of nitro-proofing the Damascus barrels, he went to George Coster in Glasgow (a well-known gunmaker in his own right) and had him make a new set of fluid-steel barrels to duplicate the original Damascus.

With the Damascus barrels, the gun weighs six pounds four ounces; with the fluid steel, six pounds five ounces. The fluid-steel barrels are marked “George Coster, Glasgow,” and the constrictions are 7⁄1000 and 34⁄1000—close to the original, but not exact.

Sometime after that the gun passed into the hands of the gamekeeper’s son, who emigrated to Canada with his family and settled on a farm in southern Ontario. He used the gun regularly, but when he died in the mid-1970s it was nowhere to be found, and his wife assumed he had sold it. Then in 2004 she decided to clean out some buildings. Climbing up into the rafters of the henhouse to pull down the stored lumber and old equipment, she found a burlap bag, and inside the bag an oil-soaked Brady case, and inside the case the E. M. Reilly, happily resting and completely unrusted after a 30-year nap.

The gun has several interesting technical aspects, including the E. M. Reilly patent ejector system, which was well-respected but eventually eclipsed by the Southgate system. Suffice to say, this was a London “best” boxlock made at a time when workmanship and ingenuity in gunmaking were the best they have ever been. Since 1914 there has been a steady decline, not necessarily in workmanship but in the intricacy of the designs and the attention to the smallest detail that was routine in gunshops in 1900.

It’s tempting to wax rhapsodic about the gun’s tiny technical details, but we won’t. Instead I’ll tell you about the stock.

When I first saw the gun, the action seized my attention. The stock was a dark, almost featureless piece of lumber, battered and scratched. The original owner wasn’t tall and he was left-handed, so the stock was both short and had cast-on. The drop points had been literally worn off. The owners had oiled the metal religiously and looked after it—there was normal wear, but no dings, dents, or gouges in the metal— but the wood was tragic.

Once I got it home and examined it in good light, I could see very good figure under the discoloration, and I began to suspect I had acquired a real prize.

A year later, the motor oil has been patiently coaxed out of the wood, and the dents and dings steamed out. Underneath we found a piece of French walnut that is one of the finest gunstocks I have ever seen anywhere. It is breathtaking. The stock has been bent to cast-off and lengthened with hard black German rubber, which looks and acts like the finest ebony and is checkered accordingly. The stock took my measurements and held them perfectly.

Such French walnut blanks are a thing of the past, but what it might cost if you could find one is anyone’s guess. Four thousand? Five thousand?

The forend required considerable work because the motor oil had done severe damage. As well, there was some rust around one pin, and the ejectors needed repair. Beyond that the frame and barrels are unmarked but have a patina money cannot buy and technology cannot duplicate.

There is great satisfaction in having a gun built to your exact tastes, knowing you are creating something that another aficionado may still be treasuring a century from now. It’s even more satisfying in a different way to take a truly fine gun like this E. M. Reilly and return it to its former glory.

I have no idea where it will be a century hence, but I am reasonably certain it has seen its last henhouse.

 

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Spanish Best is one of several books by Terry Wieland. You can find it and other titles by him at Amazon.com.


 
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