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Januarie-Februarie 2024 | SA JAGTER/HUNTER | Johan van Wyk



The boxlock action as used in shotguns was the result of a long evolution of hammerless actions.

Something special happened in 1875 in the workshops of Westley Richards & Co, gunmakers, in High Street, Birmingham. On 11 May of that year, two Westley Richards employees, namely William Anson and John Deeley, respectively the foreman of the gun-action department and the managing director, registered patent no. 1756 for an action that cocked when the barrels were lowered and with lock-up by means of a bolted top lever. What Anson and Deeley had accomplished was to usher in the era of modern gunmaking and their invention and the way it was manufactured influence gunmakers to this day. 

The principle of cocking a gun by means of the lowering of the barrels that was introduced with the boxlock, and with the action’s relatively modest number of parts, was easy to manufacture and was admirably suited for mass production, important factors in reducing costs. The Birmingham gunmakers of the time – largely focused on production in large numbers (which contrasted with their rivals in London, who were focused on producing best-quality guns and rifles in modest numbers), took immediate notice of the new action and the business potential inherent in the boxlock was not lost on them. The problem, however, was that the design was protected by patent and thus the property of Westley Richards, who alone could manufacture boxlock- actioned guns according to the specified design. Provided the holder of the patent paid the annual £50 fee, everybody else was prohibited from manufacturing similar guns unless a royalty was paid to the patent holder. The powers that be at Westley Richards knew the colour of money themselves, however, and they soon issued manufacturing licences to those who wanted to manufacture boxlock- actioned guns with a royalty fee of 15 shillings per gun so manufactured being charged.



One firm that took up a manufacturing licence for the Anson & Deeley design in 1877 was WW Greener, also from Birmingham. At the time, the man in charge was one William Wellington Greener, not only an influential manufacturer but a prolific inventor, debater, marketer and successful, if highly opinionated, businessman as well. WW Greener had a look at the bowels of the Anson & Deeley gun and soon set out to improve things according to his own way of thinking. Greener got rid of the Anson & Deeley’s individual cocking dogs (which pressed against the rear of the fore-end for leverage to cock the action) and replaced them with two turned-in cocking levers which, in turn, made use of a single stud projecting from the lump that pressed against the cocking levers. Greener called his action the “Facile Princeps” (translated as “Easily Superior”) and set about producing guns and widely advertising them in his usual over-the-top terms.

Greener’s design clearly had a lot in common with the Anson & Deeley design and some claimed that Greener’s aim was to get around the royalty of 15 shillings per gun he had to pay to Westley Richards according to the agreement between them. Not surprisingly, the Westley Richards directors were not amused by Greener’s creation, and they instituted legal action against Greener for patent infringement, claiming damages in the amount of £5 000, a hefty amount for the day.



The legal clash between the two gun-making rivals from Birmingham enjoyed wide publicity at the time and things eventually culminated in 1884 when the matter was referred to the House of Lords. Greener, to the surprise of many, emerged as the winner when their Lordships, in their infinite wisdom, concluded that the Facile Princeps worked on a different principle from Anson & Deeley’s design. Westley Richards’ claim was therefore dismissed, and the firm was ordered to pay Greener’s substantial legal costs.

In accordance with many products manufactured by WW Greener, the Facile Princeps was available in various grades and finishes, ranging from very average to superb. The G-Grade Facile Princeps was the highest grade and was made to compete with the London best sidelock.

A G-Grade Greener was just as expensive as a Purdey sidelock ejector and although made on a different action, was every bit as well-made as well. Interestingly, a select team of 20 men was chosen to work on G-Grade guns when their production commenced in the early 1880s. These same workmen men were still making them, one by one, in 1916, by which time the priorities of war and the advanced age of the workforce began to take their toll.


A criticism sometimes levelled against the G-Grade guns (especially later ones that incorporated a few subtle changes to the action) were, firstly, their “Self-acting” ejectors and later their “Unique” ejectors. It was a very intricate design housed in the rear lump under the barrels instead of in the fore-end, like with most other ejector systems.


When things went wrong, it took a very skilled pair of hands to put things right again. In later years, Greener themselves changed over to simpler Baker-patent ejectors, which was as close to an admission by Greener that the original design was overly complicated. Many G-Grade guns were also saddled with Greener’s distinctive side-safety through the head of the stock. I’m at a loss to think of a more awkwardly placed safety catch for a double gun.



Greener made several exhibition-grade G-Guns, which were showed off with great publicity at various fairs and exhibitions around the world. These guns showed off the various styles of engraving on offer and provided Greener with a world-wide marketing platform. G-

Grade Greener guns are today enjoying new-found popularity amongst collectors, and for good reason.


They were superbly made and have a very distinctive and unique look about them. After World War I, with the loss of their elderly first team of gunmakers and a change in the tastes of the gun-buying public, Greener gradually abandoned the G-Grade for simpler designs.

By 1929, the G-Grade was no longer featured in the Greener catalogue. This situation rather sadly endured until 1985 when the reconstituted WW Greener (Sporting Guns) Limited commenced with very limited production again, complete with “Unique” ejector systems. Alas, they are financially well out of reach of most of us. In addition to the Facile Princeps, Greener continued to make guns on the Anson & Deeley pattern after the cessation of hostilities with Westley Richards. Although soundly made, they were mostly lowergrade guns and many were sold under the name of JV Needham, whose firm had been absorbed by Greener in 1875. The first English gun I owned was such a Needham-marked Anson & Deeley-actioned Greener 12-bore fitted with Southgate ejectors. It provided sterling service for several years until a friend coveted it more than I did, and I sold him the gun.



Another maker who made extensive use of the Anson & Deeley action and, like Greener, also patented its own modifications to the basic design, was Webley & Scott. Webley & Scott was created when the Birmingham firms of P Webley & Son and W & C Scott amalgamated in 1897. Webley & Scott manufactured a bewildering variety of guns and rifles in all grades, from utility grade right through to the best that money could buy. To confuse things even more, only a fraction of Webley & Scott’s production was sold under their own name, and many other gunmakers bought the guns sold under their own name either in semifinished form or as complete guns from Webley & Scott.

Webley & Scott made guns for many of the aristocratic London makers such as Holland & Holland, William Evans and John Rigby & Co.

Webley’s biggest contribution to the development of the boxlock was patent no 3053 of 1882, registered in the names of TW Webley and T Brain. The screw-grip (as the design would later become known) combined the Scott spindle (a patent dating back to 1865, ten years earlier than the Anson & Deeley action itself) with Purdeystyle underbolting and a second, threaded spindle that acted with a step in the rib extension as the gun was closed and opened to provide a very secure third grip or “bite”.


The screw-grip Webley quickly gained a reputation as one of the strongest double-gun actions available and was popular for use on double rifles up to .600 NE. As history would attest to, it was also extremely well-made and thus very reliable, and screw-grip Webley-actioned guns and rifles are much sought after today. The screw-grip was in production from 1882 to 1946, by which time Webley & Scott replaced it with the muchsimplified Model 700-series actions. Another tombstone in the history of British gunmaking.



Westley Richards were quick to improve the boxlock themselves as well. When Purdey’s 1863 sliding-bolt patent expired, they incorporated this into their top-lever locking action for additional strength. Westley Richards guns made on their Model C-action have a very distinctive look about them with some of the harsher edges neatly rounded, an action body with shoulders that extended slightly further back from the fences, the short broad lever combined with a rearwards-sliding bolt and, in many instances, nice embellishments such as fine engraving and checkered side panels. For many years, I ventured afield with an 1895-vintage, best-quality Westley Richards 12-bore boxlock ejector that weighed in at a racy 6 pounds, 3 ounces with 28-inch steel barrels. I shared many wonderful days afield with that gun and it gave me a soft spot for Model C-actioned Westley Richards guns. They are a special breed.


It is fitting that the ultimate evolution of the boxlock came from Westley Richards themselves. Around 1897, Leslie Taylor, the brilliant managing director of Westley Richards at the time, asked the foreman to find a way to conceal the pins protruding through the body of the Anson & Deeley action. Because the pins provided support to the lockwork of the action and were vital cogs in the operation of the gun, this was easier said than done. What the foreman came up with, though, was nothing short of genius. Instead of mounting the locks inside the action and keeping everything in place with friction-bearing pins through the action body, he mounted the lockwork on internal plates which, in turn, were concealed by the floor plate of the action. The Westley Richards Detachable Lock, as the design is known, offered the additional advantage that the lockwork could not only be easily removed for cleaning or repair, but a customer could also order a spare set of locks to be made for his gun.


For rather obvious reasons, the Westley Richards Detachable Lock quickly became known as the “droplock”, and that is still the name by which it is known to many. With the advent of modern steel and design and manufacturing techniques, Westley Richards has been able to design and scale the droplock action to a range of calibres and gauges, and it is still very much in production to this day. If a customer desires a .410 droplock made to his individual dimensions, he will receive a gun with his specified stock dimensions, barrel length and chokes that is also built on an action scaled exactly to .410 cartridge dimensions and therefore as slim, trim, elegant and well-balanced as can be.


Second-hand Westley Richards droplocks are much in demand today and guns in good, original condition often sell for prices approaching that of good sidelock ejectors. Over the years, many other makers also built guns on Anson & Deeley-pattern actions. Firms like Bonehill, Osborne, the Midland Gun Co, Thomas Turner and others made thousands of boxlock-actioned guns and rifles in many different grades. Many of these guns were made for export to Britain’s many overseas colonies and ended up in places like Australia, Canada and South Africa. In many instances the guns were of rather mediocre quality and were intended to be sold as cheaply and as quickly as possible. Alas, many of these mass-produced guns did not stand up well to the ravages of time and I have seen many of them with handling qualities akin to a piece of plywood and actions shot completely off the face. That is what a combination of poor fitting and finishing, modestly-priced components and a steady diet of high-pressure cartridges can do to a gun.


On the other side of the coin, however, were the better-quality guns made by many of the oldtime makers. In some instances, the names engraved on the action bodies and ribs are almost completely unknown. At other times, the name of the maker (or, in some instances, the retailer) may ring a bell.


Quality-wise, though, the British boxlock gun still offers some of the best value for money in a used gun that can be had today. A perfect example of just such a gun is the 12-bore boxlock ejector gun in one of the accompanying photographs to this article. The name on the ribs is that of TC Martin of Manchester.


Thomas C Martin was only in business from 1883 to 1897 and it is highly doubtful if the firm were practical gunmakers, but this gun and the quality it exudes speaks volumes. The action is covered in fine scroll engraving and the stock was carved from a beautiful piece of French walnut. The gun is perfectly balanced at just over 6 pounds with 28-inch steel barrels and handles just like a fine sportcar. Overall, it is a gun that I would not at all mind owning, and its latest owner should get many more years of excellent service from it. As a bonus, he didn’t have to trouble the bank manager to be able to afford it, either.


If that is not value for money, then I am not sure what is. In the modern era, the boxlock finds itself in a unique place. A boxlock action costs roughly two thirds as much as a decent-quality sidelock action to manufacture, but even with fine engraving, good wood and all the other embellishments usually associated with fine guns added to the mix, selling a new boxlock for two thirds the price of a new sidelock-actioned gun of similar quality is just not possible in today’s market. The current Westley Richards new gun list illustrates this well: a new droplock is a gun of superb quality and as well finished as almost anything on the market, yet it sells for considerably less than a sidelock with a London name engraved on it. Life’s not fair, but that’s how it is.


Thankfully, thousands of boxlock guns were manufactured through the years and good second-hand examples are still reasonably easy to find. Expect to pay a premium for a British gun bearing a recognisable name or one that is made on an action such as a Webley screw-grip or Westley Richards Model C.


With a bit of luck, you may just find yourself the custodian of a gun that is the envy of many and is the product of top-class craftsmanship, all for a lot less money than what the average machine-made over/under sells for. So, in a nutshell, that is the boxlock, Birmingham’s favourite son.

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