Hammer Guns: Classic Sporting Tools

An external hammer shotgun can be a thing of beauty or a disaster waiting to happen.

posted on June 5, 2022
Left-side view side-by-side shotgun on wood table with quail birds ammunition

This feature article appeared originally in the November 2005 issue of American Rifleman. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page and select American Rifleman as your member magazine.


Time was, a gun with two barrels was thought quaintly old-fashioned. A generation steeped in the sheer firepower so well demonstrated in World War II wondered why anyone would want a gun that shot only twice when he could have one that held anywhere from three to seven cartridges at a single loading.

That same generation looked upon a two-barreled gun with exposed hammers as hopelessly obsolete—a “grandfather gun,” even at a time when Grandad, himself, most likely shot a Winchester or Remington pump or a Browning A5. A gun with hammers—“ear hammers,” they were often called, or “mule ears”—was an artifact positively prehistoric in comparison to the mechanical systems available at prices nearly anyone could afford.

Consequently, virtually every gunshop with even a modest inventory sported a few old hammer guns, quietly gathering dust and seldom earning a second glance. And in fact, a lot of them hardly deserved even a first glance.

Man outdoors shooting double barrel shotgun vintage old photograph
King George V was an inveterate hammer gun man. He once said “a gun without hammers is like a spaniel without ears.” An avid game shooter, he continued to shoot his Purdey guns with external hammers well into the 1930s. Photographic Collection, Royal Archives, Windsor

From about 1880 ’till the beginning of World War I, the American market was awash with hammer, and hammerless, guns cheaply built in Belgium or by such stateside factories as Crescent Fire Arms in Connecticut. These so-called “contract guns” were sold as house brands by scores of hardware and sporting-goods dealers under the names of gun companies that never existed except on paper. No one knows exactly how many of these brand names there were; current count is well over 200.

Because they were cheaply made and cheaply sold, a great many had fallen to pieces by the 1950s and ’60s. And because a lot of them had twist or Damascus barrels, the survivors were shunned as disasters waiting to happen if combined with current, nitro-powder cartridges. Even those barreled in so-called “fluid” steel weren’t very durable; if the barrels didn’t blow out, actions were almost certain to shoot loose.

The equations were simple. Hammer gun = antique. Hammer gun with twist barrels = dangerous antique. So, such guns were pointedly ignored except by a few chaps who found them interesting, if rather funky, reminders of a bygone age. Collecting contract guns was, moreover, an inexpensive pastime. Ten or 15 dollars would buy almost any of them, and if you paid as much as $30 you were probably getting skinned.

Truly high-quality English and Belgian hammer guns sometimes surfaced in the sea of junk, but few possessed the knowledge to recognize them, and the warnings against Damascus barrels had become so ingrained by then, nobody would pay much for an unshootable gun.

Times change. So do tastes. Interest in double guns began to perk around 1980 and steadily gathered momentum among collectors and shooters alike. With game-bird populations declining in many parts of the country, hunters rediscovered the double’s wonderful handling qualities and reckoned that if bag limits were growing smaller, taking those few birds with a lovely old gun added an element to the sport that wasn’t available from a repeater, even if it could hold half a box of shells. In short, American hunters more interested in experience than in simply gathering meat recognized the double gun as a direct link to the best traditions of the sport.

side-by-side shotgun right-side view on table with brass ammunition bird decoy
This Parker “A” grade with Damascus barrels should be reproofed before the gun is fired. Aside from reproofing, the author states, there is no way to determine whether or not the barrels are safe.


Take those traditions a step further back in time, and rediscovery of hammer guns became inevitable. This began in the early 1990s, and over the ensuing decade, the alchemy of romance transformed hammer guns from dross to gold.

As shooters became more sophisticated with regard to their guns, more and more of them learned how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Nowadays, interest in hammer guns is greater than at any time in living memory. Call it regression on a 150-year scale, but it bears an element of soul not easily described.

Aesthetics certainly are a part. To my eye, there is no gun so elegant as a top-quality hammer piece. Because I know something of what went into its creation, a fine hammer gun strikes me as the ultimate reach of hand craftsmanship. Some workman stood at his bench for hours, days, patiently filing hammers in the mirror image of one another, sculpting fences in graceful curves and planes, filing triggers to a form as slender as a lady’s ankle. Combine such skills with those of a master barrelmaker, a first-rate stocker, and the decorative touches of a skillful engraver, and you have something that transcends time in the same manner as a piece of fine art.

I spent years looking for just the right hammer gun until it ultimately found me—a vintage-1886 Purdey 12-bore with isolated, back-action locks set into a stock that shows considerably more figure than was customary at the time. The sheer grace of its lines and its consummate craftsmanship are a continual source of delight. I suspect that anyone who knew how much time I spend just turning it over and over in my hands in simple admiration would think me rather simple. And perhaps rightly so. I love all my game guns for how they look and feel and perform, but there’s something about that old Purdey that draws me as inexorably as I am drawn to my wife, and for many of the same reasons—breathtaking to behold, irresistible in substance.

Elegant shotgun vintage double hammer rabbit ear sidelock shotgun engraving black background
Some modern makers, including Italy’s Fratelli Bertuzzi, build self-cocking hammer guns with tang safeties

 

It was originally barreled in solid steel, sleeved with new steel tubes in 1988 and reproofed in London. Of all the parts to a hammer gun—or any old gun, for that matter—barrels require the most knowledge and the most sensible caution. Right now, the demand for English hammer guns is such that dealers are literally combing British country pubs and buying wallhangers to resell in the United States. Some are good, some aren’t, and the crucial elements begin with barrels.

The pendulum seems to have swung to its full extent. We’ve gone from “All Damascus is Bad” to “All Damascus is Good.” Neither is the case. Some Damascus barrels are perfectly good for reasonable modern ammunition; some others, no matter how pristine they appear, truly are the old disasters waiting to happen. The original level of proof is one key, current condition is quite another.

A lot of old Damascus barrels were proofed with blackpowder only. That doesn’t in itself mean they’re unsafe with nitro cartridges. Some others were originally nitro-proofed, but similarly, that doesn’t mean they’re safe to shoot now.

Some old blackpowder barrels will stand current proof perfectly well, and some old nitro-proofed barrels won’t. Don’t be mislead by a nitro proofmark that’s a hundred-odd years old—simply because you don’t know what’s been done to the barrels in the mean time. They may have been rebored, restruck, or otherwise modified in ways that render original proof invalid.

Take this as the rule of thumb: Do not consider any twist or Damascus barrels safe unless they’ve recently been reproofed for modern ammunition by one of the British or other European proof houses. This applies to every gun of any origin, and particularly to American guns. Proof laws have been in force in Britain and European countries for 400 years or more. The United States has never had a uniform code of firearms proof; it’s always been up to individual makers to conduct proof tests on their own. American makers bought most of their Damascus tubes from Belgium or England. These were usually top-quality in original form, but you have no way of knowing how far from original form they are now.

Damascus barrels can ring like bells and shine like new dimes inside and out. A good ring means only that the ribs are still well secured. Shine can mean anything from pristine original condition to repolishing that may have left the walls thin as paper. Superficial examination and even careful measuring cannot reveal the condition of the occlusions between the skelps of iron and steel that constitute Damascus or twist. And trust me, there is no so-called “expert” who can realistically vet barrels just by looking. The real expert will tell you that reproof is the only reliable test.

Having a set of barrels reproofed by an English or other European proof house is neither difficult nor particularly expensive—dirt-cheap, actually, when you consider that not having it done may cost you anything from a couple of fingers to an entire leading hand, and a wrecked gun besides.

With barrels, you just have to harden your heart. Forget about how beautiful the gun may be, and forget about what any dealer or barrel man might tell you about the condition of any set of tubes. If there is no recent reproof mark in evidence, there is no evidence on which to suppose that those barrels are safe.

right side holland and holland side-by-side shotgun dove decoys birds

 

Hammer guns also require rethinking in how they are to be handled. All modern guns have safety mechanisms, including some currently made hammer guns. The old ones generally do not. For those, “safe” is either rebounding locks or a half-cock notch on the tumbler. As we are now at least three generations removed from familiarity with hammer guns in general, safe handling is a particular issue.

You have some choices. One is to leave the hammers at rebound or half-cock position and cock them both when you’re ready to shoot. This requires a strong trigger hand and a fairly long thumb, one that can lever both hammer spurs at the same time. If you’re physically capable, this is a good means of shooting doves, ducks or driven game.

Another, perhaps even safer, approach is to cock both hammers and crack the action slightly open for carrying. An open action means that an accidental pull on a trigger will be harmless because the striker cannot reach the cartridge primer. This, too, is good for doves, ducks and driven birds.

For other upland shooting—quail, pheasants, grouse, or other birds likely to spring up without notice—neither of these options is ideal. Trying to cock hammers or close an action when birds are in the air is at best a comedy of errors that’s apt to leave you howling like a ruptured panther and your companions rolling on the ground, laughing their heads off. I’ve tried carrying hammer guns every way there is and found only one that’s truly efficient.

This simply is to cock both hammers and carry the gun with muzzles up, my thumb between the hammers for a secure hold, and one or two fingers over the guard to stave off brush or anything else that might snag a trigger. As my gun weighs only 6¼ lbs., it’s comfortable to carry that way—and perfectly safe so long as the muzzles are pointing harmlessly upward. In places where the footing is such that I might stumble and fall, I simply uncock the gun before wading through.

I wish it had a tang safety, partly because clicking a thumb-piece is for me an unconscious element in swinging and mounting a gun, and partly because a mechanical safety is yet one more layer of protection against firing an accidental shot.

But relying upon any mechanical system to the extent of ignoring the muzzles is a ticket to catastrophe. Control of the muzzles is control of safety.

In some ways, a hammer gun is safer than a hammerless. You can tell at a glance whether a hammer gun is cocked; with a hammerless gun, you have to assume that it’s cocked any time the action is closed. And you can readily uncock a hammer gun without unloading it. Depending upon how the fastener is designed, you can uncock some hammer guns just by opening the action and easing the hammers down with your thumb. With others—and my Purdey is one—the right hammer has to be let down with the action closed. To do so, I turn away from my companions and dogs, point the muzzles at the ground and thumb the right hammer down. Should it slip because of an insecure grasp or cold hands or whatever, the shot goes harmlessly into the dirt. With the right hammer down, I can open the action to uncock the left one with no possible harm at all.

Some Italian makers—notably Abbiatico & Salvinelli, Fratelli Piotti and Fratelli Bertuzzi—have built self-cocking hammer guns fitted with tang safeties. The self-cocking part is not a new concept. In the 1870s, Thomas Perkes patented a system involving a T-shaped arm fitted into a gun’s standing breech; rotating the top lever lifts the arm, which contacts the necks of the hammers and pushes them to full cock. A number of London makers adopted the mechanism during the transitional period between hammer and hammerless actions. Later systems, including those currently used in Italy, are based on the Holland & Holland-style system of cocking by internal levers—no different, really, from the way most hammerless doubles are cocked today.

In staid and steadfast Britain, hammer guns remained the favorites of some long after the hammerless breechloader became standard. Lord Ripon, acclaimed as the finest game shot in England from the 1870s ’till he went face-down in the heather of a grouse moor in 1923, shot a trio of Purdey hammer guns through a career that accounted for better than a quarter-million birds. Except for being best-quality ejector models, Ripon’s guns looked just like mine. I wish I could say I shoot mine as well as he shot his.

But there was that day in South Dakota last season when I was a blocker and a big, gaudy rooster flew the gauntlet of walkers and was still cackling invective when he came barreling past me about 30 yds. out. A Toyota’s-length of forward allowance, a touch to the back trigger, and he went head-first into the corn stubble. If a gun could purr, I imagine mine did right then.

King George V, another inveterate hammer-gun man, once remarked that “a gun without hammers is like a spaniel without ears.” None of my spaniels have heard that without giving me a baleful glare, so I don’t figure to test the truth of it. But so long as I can caress a puppy’s ears with one hand and a pair of beautifully filed hammers with the other, I’ll go on assuming that His Majesty was right.

—Michael McIntosh

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