First Published in "The Territory Gun Collector", March 2009.
As a student of British sporting arms, I am often more interested in a gun built to a rare patent but in very poor condition than in a very fine gun of common design. Whilst I’ll admit a great fondness for an immaculate sidelock Holland or Purdey, and marvel at the workmanship, balance and overall beauty, they are in reality not rare at all, common in fact, and owning one is really just a matter of dollars. If you’ve got enough cash you can buy the finest gun no problem.
That’s not so true with the rarer British guns from the late 1800’s. Finding them in any condition is the biggest challenge. During this period the British gun trade experienced an explosion of invention as gunmakers sought to develop and improve on the early breechloading system. Numerous inventions were patented during this period. Many, obscure and impractical, were nothing more than rough ideas that were quickly abandoned without even being made into a workable gun. But others held some promise and were manufactured and sold in varying quantities. Some of these patents changed the course of firearm development, the Daw centrefire cartridge of 1862 and the Anson & Deeley boxlock action of 1875 both come to mind. Others patents of course, were produced in very small numbers for a few years, then forgotten. It is these guns however, that arouse such interest for collectors such as myself.
Such a gun I discovered several years ago on an overseas holiday. I make a habit on these trips to stop in on as many gunshops as possible on the off chance they might have something of interest. On this occasion they did. Although I could barely move among the accumulated junk of the small town sporting goods store, I spotted an old hammer gun lying in a dusty corner behind the counter. On my first glance the gun appeared to be a relatively common British hammer gun built with a Jones rotary under lever, back action locks and damascus barrels. It was only after asking for a closer inspection that I realised that there were no external firing pins and that the hammers were not hammers at all but merely cocking levers. The actual strikers were internal. This was built to quite a rare design. When I pointed this out to the shopkeeper he seemed hardly interested. A grunt was all I got. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic.
The gun appeared to be made, or at least retailed by a “T. Fletcher” as this was the name inscribed on the locks. The name on the barrels was different, I could just faintly read “Chas. Osbourne & Co. London” suggesting that the barrels had been replaced at some time. The back action locks looked a little larger than a similar lock on an external hammer gun. This was no doubt to allow room for the striker. Externally the overall condition was fair. The action had been heavily buffed at some stage as almost all the engraving had been polished off the action body. The locks had also suffered an over polishing but the English scroll engraving was still clearly visible. The barrels were a fine damascus scroll and although suffering numerous small nicks and dents were in quite good condition overall. Similarly the stock showed evidence of much use despite the chequering on both the grip and fore-end having been refreshed.
On rotating the underlever and opening the action I could see an unusual extractor, this comprised a lever that was pivoted in a slot on the rear barrel lump. The lever extended below the barrel lump into a slot in the base of the action. When the barrels were lowered the lever was pushed forward and pivoted thus pushing the extractor open. I quickly removed the fore-end for a closer look at things and there on the action flats next to the London proofmarks was a stamping which read “Patent No. 1461” and a trademark of some kind. The exact details of Patent 1461 I didn’t yet know. It took quite a few hours of study to find out.
The design used to build the gun was patented on 27th May 1865 as number 1461 by a Thomas Bissell of 75 Tooley Street, London. It is one of three very similar designs from 1865 that describe the use of internal strikers. The other two are the earlier A. Henry patent 1071 and the later F.H. Grey patent 2743. Patent number 1461 actually describes two quite separate inventions. The first part details a breech action to which our gun conforms in part. But the patent goes much further. Within it is a description of an extractor mechanism, an internal striker arrangement, a half cocking action based on the opening of a rotary underlever and a firing pin with a conical spring return. In addition to all this there is a second part of the patent that bares no relation to the first at all and describes a ladder and fore sight arrangement that both have provision for a lens thus making a crude telescopic sight.
The inclusion of numerous unrelated inventions and concepts under a single patent was a common enough practice in the day. The cost of lodging and maintaining a patent was quite expensive so it made financial sense to include as many diverse ideas as possible under a single patent. Some very well known patents describe far more than that for what they are most famous for. An example of this is Alex Henry’s patent 1071 of 1865 that we briefly mentioned above. This patent is famous for containing the details of Henry’s falling block rifle, but it also describes in detail a single bite snap action, an internal striker arrangement, cocking indicators and an extractor mechanism. None of these relate in any way to the famous rifle action.
The part of the patent specification that relates to this gun shows a rotary double grip underlever of the Henry Jones type with a projection on the opening lever that acts as a cam to lower the bottom end of two levers. These levers when pivoted push back the tumblers thus cocking the gun on opening. The patent also shows the extractor which has a similar pivoting lever fitted into a recess at the bottom of the action. The opening of the barrels cause this lever to pivot against the action face and open the extractors.
The gun I have only partially conforms to this patent. The internal strikers and extractor mechanism are identical to the patent but there is no mechanism by which the strikers are automatically cocked and, after dismantling the action for close inspection, can find no evidence that this part of the patent ever existed. I know of several other guns built to this patent but none of them have the automatic cocking feature. There has been speculation that a gun with this mechanism installed would have resulted in the removal of a significant amount of wood from the wrist area of the gun, perhaps weakening it excessively. Then again, perhaps the mechanism simply didn’t work as well as hoped, and that the best features of the patent, the internal strikers and extractor mechanism were those that made it to the production guns.
Of Thomas Bissell himself we know he operated as a gunmaker in London from 1857 to 1891. He had several different shops in Tooley Street between 1857 and 1876 before relocating to Rotherhithe New Road in 1877 where he remained until moving to Hollydale Road, Peckham in 1889. He ceased trading in 1891. In addition to patent number 1461 he also contributed to a famous design, the Rigby-Bissell rising bite (Patent No. 1141 of 1879)
Little is known about the gun’s supposed maker, T. Fletcher. There are some vague references to a Thomas Fletcher who traded as a gunmaker at 42 Poultry, London between 1866 and 1872 and it is interesting to note that Fletcher’s address is only a short distance across the Thames from Tooley Street and the shop of Thomas Bissell. Perhaps the gun was made in whole by Bissell and merely retailed by Fletcher or perhaps Fletcher was an outworker who worked for Bissell but also took orders from the public himself. We can only guess. What is known is that guns built to the Bissell patent are often found engraved with the names of other makers, suggesting Bissell was keen to sell guns of his design to the general trade or allow them to be made to his design.
A friend asked me recently why I was so passionate about old worn out guns that I couldn’t really use. Wouldn’t I rather have a really good high grade gun that I could use in the field? Absolutely I thought, but then I wouldn’t have all the history, rarity and ingenious design that comes with obscure guns. All things being equal I’d still take the Bissell, the Sidelock will have to wait for another day.
The British Shotgun, Vol 1 – I.M. Crudgington & D.J. Baker
Patents for Inventions (Small Arms) – Armory Publications
Directory of British Gunmakers – G. Boothroyd
British Gunmakers Vol I & II – N. Brown