Vintage firearms expert Diggory Hadoke happens upon an unusual mechanism even he hasn’t seen before!

credit: Archant

To users of modern, hammerless guns, the cocking of the locks is something which we take for granted. We open our gun, put in some cartridges and close it. When we need to pull the trigger, it fires. To get to this point, gunmakers had to take the mechanisms involved through a number of stages.

The hammer gun as a breech-loader was a relatively simple concept. To put the hammer under power, the mainspring in the lock had to be put under tension. In the early days this was done manually. However, even to open the gun, the hammer had to be pulled back to ‘half-cock’ in order to free the striker from the cap in the cartridge base. This too was effected manually, by pulling it back with the thumb, until the sear engaged with the first notch, or ‘bent’ in gunmaking terms.

This must always have been something of a bore. When excited and in a hurry, the instinct is to open the gun and reload as fast as possible. Setting hammers to half-cock is an interruption in the process. It is no surprise, therefore, that gunmakers sought to find a way of making it happen automatically.

One avenue was to make the mainspring do the work, and a number of gunmakers worked around this idea, culminating in Stanton’s rebounding lock. This is ideal, as the hammer ‘bounces’ back to sit in a modified half-cock position just above the striker every time the gun is fired. All that remains for the shooter to do is pull it back to full-cock after loading. Rebounding locks started to become widespread after 1867 and remained the norm for the rest of the hammer gun era.

However, as with most developments in gunmaking, a lot of people were working on solutions to the same problem and another avenue that many explored was the ‘self half-cocking’ lever mechanism. This group of mechanisms involve some kind of addition to the operation of the lever, which, up to this point, had simply unbolted the barrels from the action. This addition took many forms but its function was to lift the hammers to half-cock when the lever was operated to open the gun after firing. An early example was Needham’s 1862 patent, which I have written about in these pages before. Another relatively common one is Woodward’s ‘automatic’ which is a lever-cocking mechanism that was made as a hammer gun less commonly than it was as a hammerless one.

An unusual example of a self half-cocking mechanism came to me this year, through an auction purchase for a client. Unlike most, which are snap-actions, this resembles the inert Jones screw grip of 1859. It is by Erskine and was listed as an ‘1866 Patent’ in the catalogue, though I cannot find an Erskine patent of that date, nor a patent number on the gun. It is a mechanism I have never seen before.

Outwardly it looks like a Jones screw-grip and underlever, operating normally, with the lever rotating to the right and unbolting the barrels. However, the lever appears to have a boss on it internally, which engages with some lifters, which raise the hammers to half-cock as it rotates. There is a slight delay between the cocking of the right hammer after the left, suggesting progressive engagement from a rounded bearing surface.

How does it work in practice? The gun looks similar to a conventional Jones underlever with back-action locks when you pick it up. Turning the lever to the right, there is some feeling of ‘sponginess’ for want of a better word, as the spring tension is increased as the lever is turned. The hammers tip back as the lever rotates and at the end of the lever’s travel, as it reaches 90 degrees, the hammers sit forwards and rest on the sears at half-cock. There is no firm ‘click’ as the hammers go back, which falsely leaves a worry that they may drop back when the lever is released, but this becomes less noticeable as the action becomes more familiar.

It is impossible to ‘over reach’ the lever and push the hammers to full-cock. This has to be done in the normal manner once the gun is closed. In practice, what happens is you open the gun, load it, close it and you have in your hands a loaded gun at half-cock. You pull the hammers back to full-cock and are then ready to fire.

Is it appreciably faster than a non-rebound lock with normal Jones underlever operation? Yes, marginally. The awkward first stage, after firing, of pulling each hammer back to half-cock is dispensed with. I’m still not entirely used to the spongy feel of the lever as you push it aside, but that is an issue with most lever-cocking guns and one I imagine one stops noticing as familiarity sets in. Were I choosing a gun for driven shooting, this may have a slight edge; however, for other types of shooting, I prefer the more positive feel of a conventional non-rebounder. One can understand how these, not-quite-perfect, mechanisms gave way to rebounding locks quite rapidly in the 1870s.

This Erskine is going into a collection in Texas, just another fascinating example in wood and metal of the inventive minds that were at work in the mid-19th century, and a reminder that, however thoroughly our most eminent writers and researchers have been in cataloguing the development of the sporting gun, there are still unusual examples that emerge from time to time, and add to our understanding of history.