A closer look at five of the most iconic Scottish guns and rifles to have ever sold under the hammer with Holt’s Auctioneers.
To choose just five ‘iconic’ Scottish shotguns and rifles seems sacrilegious – after all, Scotland has given us some of the most stunning rifles and shotguns in the world. Donald Dallas, historian and author of books on John Dickson & Son, David McKay Brown and the great collector Charles Gordon, came up with a list long enough for a new book, rather than just this article. He quite rightly believes what sets Scottish shotguns and rifles apart from the crowd is their elegance, saying: “What separates the Scottish gunmakers is the amount of thought that went into the designs. They are attractive and sumptuous, right down to the gun cases.” And indeed it is worth mentioning Scottish gun cases, which are often lined with pigskin, giving them a luxurious look.
It’s not only the elegance that is remarkable, however. The number of developments to come from Scotland in the world of firearms is extraordinary. Think of Alexander Henry, who gave us snap caps and, of course, the rifling and barrel used in the renowned Martini-Henry rifle. Then there’s cordite, one of the early alternatives to black powder, which was developed by Sir James Dewar – also, incidentally, the inventor of the vacuum flask. And, indeed, one of the first breech-loading rifles to be put into service by the British military was the Ferguson rifle, designed by Major Patrick Ferguson in the 1770s, which was used during the American War of Independence.
We have the Scots to thank for percussion caps, too. The Rev. Alexander John Forsyth patented those in 1807, thus replacing the unreliable flint system. Surprisingly, percussion caps weren’t adopted until 1842 for Brown Bess muskets.
And finally, it may not be a firearm but its association with both fieldsports and the military allows me to mention the one invention that bucks the trend for elegance and an attractive appearance: the ghillie suit – that portable hide brought to us by Scottish ghillies.
Henry .450 rifle
Alexander Henry (1818–1894) was based in Edinburgh and was appointed gun and rifle manufacturer to HRH The Prince of Wales in 1872.The famed Martini-Henry rifle, as mentioned above, was first issued to the army in 1874, and thanks to the patent seven-groove rifling, it had incredible accuracy.
I have chosen the .450 rifle which was entirely made by Alexander Henry. This example of a Henry .450 is a black powder-only round barrel, 28" long, which has the Henry patent rifling. It sports block-mounted bone-inlaid open sights, as well as a folding leaf sight for 200 yards, and a gold sighting line and a block-mounted bead fore-sight. The rifle has a non-rebounding cranked back-action lock with bolted dolphin hammer, and the action and furniture are decorated with a fine border and acanthus scroll engraving. The pistol grip stock is highly figured, and has a horn pistol grip cap which finishes the rifle off beautifully. The rifle weighs 7lb 10oz., and is perfectly balanced.
Sold by Holt’s Auctioneers: June 23, 2011.
Hammer price: £6,500.
James MacNaughton 'Edinburgh' bar-in-wood shotgun
James MacNaughton first set up in business in Edinburgh in 1864. The triggerplate lock, also used by Dickson, was conceived by James MacNaughton. By placing the hammers, sears and mainsprings directly above the trigger-blades, and using the top lever to both open and cock the action, the entire action was made slimmer and lighter. Indeed, this development is one of the main reasons for the elegance of Scottish-designed firearms.
His ‘Edinburgh’ bar-in-wood shotgun is perhaps the one that is best known, and deservedly so. This pair of 12 bore ejectors are testimony to the thought and effort that has gone into designing an attractive shotgun. With 28" nitro-proofed Damascus barrels, the pair are separated by a gold-inlaid ‘1’ and ‘2’. There are grape and vine motifs engraved at the breech ends. This pair have the 1894 barrel-cocking design and solid inspection plate covers. Made in 1901 as ‘Extra Best’ grade shotguns, they come in a lightweight brass-cornered leather case.
Sold by Holt’s Auctioneers: June 30, 2016.
Hammer price: £28,000.
McKay Brown round action
Few contemporary gunmakers deserve the name ‘iconic’, but David McKay Brown is definitely among those who do. Born in 1941 in Glasgow, David began his apprenticeship with Alex Martin, and when the firm joined Dickson & Sons in 1960, he followed. Seven years later, he set up his own business – at first just repairing guns. Having worked on the famous Dickson round actions during his time there, however, he was inspired to build one himself, and completed the first one in 1974. Every part of his guns are built entirely in his own workshop.
The example I’ve chosen is a very pristine pair of 20 bore double trigger over-under round action ejectors with 6mm raised matte top-ribs and 28" nitro-proofed barrels. They have automatic safeties, and hold-open top levers.
The round bodies are fully engraved with bold acanthus designs on a matte background, while the undersides have gold-inlaid designs of a pheasant and a woodcock respectively. The pair were delivered in a leather-bound canvas motor case, with a full complement of accessories.
Sold by Holt’s Auctioneers: December 8, 2016.
Hammer price: £40,000.
Dickson & Son round action triggerplate
Founded in 1820 by John Dickson, the company was a family-run business until 1936. Over the past century, it acquired several of the major Scottish gunmakers, including the Henry rifle company, the Fraser rifle company, Alex Martin and Thomas Mortimer. The shareholding of Dickson & Son was bought by the owners of James MacNaughton in 1999, forming Dickson & MacNaughton.
The most famous Dickson & Son shotgun is the round action – in fact, both Dickson and MacNaughton went to court claiming design rights for it. This was the design that bridged the gap between boxlock and sidelock actions. The design was not only strong and reliable, but it was also elegant. Today, Dickson & Son still uses the same design for the mechanism, having decided it cannot be improved on.
The example I have chosen is a 12 bore 1887 patent round action triggerplate ejector, with 27" nitro chopperlump barrels and bored for ¼ and ¾ choke. Made in 1978, it embodies the elegance of those 19th-century shotguns, with gold-washed cocking levers, fences carved in high relief and beautifully engraved game scenes. The triggerplate still has its original colour-hardening and finish, and the boldly-figured stock is 15" long. With a weight of 6lb 4oz., this is the perfect combination of the practicality and elegance that Scottish gunmakers are so talented at achieving.
Sold by Holt’s Auctioneers: June 20, 2013.
Hammer price: £18,500.
.303 Fraser rifle
Daniel Fraser, who was originally from Inverness, worked with Alexander Henry. Alexander clearly trusted Daniel, for he was sent to Turkey to oversee the Sultan’s bodyguards being introduced to Henry rifles. Daniel Fraser opened his own premises in 1878. Known for their luxurious finishes, down to gold-washed internals and velvet-lined cases, Fraser rifles don’t surface very often. He often used chopperlump barrels, and these are some of the most individual guns, with scalloped-back actions. They’re fantastically balanced.
I’ve picked a .303 nitro express boxlock ejector double rifle as an example. This has the tell-tale chopperlump barrels, 25¾" in length and with reinforced breeches, and a raised matte rib with open sights and two folding leaf sights, which is file cut finished.
White metal-inlaid sight lines marked for 200 and 300 yards, and a ramped bead fore-sight, flip up moonsight and mount bases for a telescopic sight, show that this is a rifle made to be used. It also has fine acanthus scroll engraving with ropework bordering, and some of the original colour-hardening and finish is still there.
Sold by Holt’s Auctioneers: June 30, 2016.
Hammer price: £9,000.