SA JAGTER/HUNTER | November-December 2021 | By HUBERT MONTGOMERY

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Undisputed - Daniel Fraser of Edinburgh, Scotland

People’s appreciation of fine firearms and the value system by which they judge these firearms are a complex function of their own knowledge of, experiences with, and their exposure to such firearms. In addition, they are influenced by legend, folklore, advertising, and their own personal bias. Ask most hunters or rifle enthusiasts to name the highest-quality rifle manufacturer they know, and you will quickly hear familiar names such as Holland & Holland, James Purdey, Westley Richards, and John Rigby being thrown around. Occasionally, someone who has perhaps studied this subject more thoroughly may bring up more obscure names like James Woodward or George Gibbs.

 

However, should you want to be less subjective and more scientific in your quest to determine the top riflemaker, your question needs to be directed at knowledgeable and experienced firearm collectors of these high-grade firearms, or alternately, at top gunsmiths specialising in high-quality rifles who have spent lifetimes disassembling these rifles, examined their insides in detail, and worked on most of these brands. If you persevere in this quest, you will slowly, like a hidden treasure, uncover the name of a gunmaker whose work was superior to all the famous brands mentioned above – that of Daniel Fraser of Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

In my opinion, Daniel Fraser was the undisputed champion of fine rifles. Anyone who disputes this has most likely never handled an original Fraser “highest-finish” (i.e. best-quality) rifle. His workmanship, quality and attention to detail was simply incredible and unequalled by any of his peers. In fact, it is difficult to comprehend how he made a profit on any of the rifles he sold considering the vast number of manhours that had to be consumed in the creation of each one. 

 

With Fraser rifles, quality is not only apparent externally as superior fit and finish visible immediately to the user, but also an equal amount of care has been applied internally in many areas not visible without disassembly of the rifle. Performing superior work in the hidden internal areas of a firearm where no one else may ever look – that is the sign of a true craftsman!

 

WDM “Karamojo” Bell, the most famous elephant hunter of them all, called Fraser “a genius in his own line”, and Bell was not fond of praising gunmakers. In fact, Bell’s very first rifle, bought in 1897 when he was just 17 years old and had already determined that he was going to Africa, was from Fraser in Edinburgh. It was a “beautiful Fraser .303” single-shot fallingblock rifle.

 

Later, Bell acquired a Mannlicher-Schoënauer rifle from Fraser specially made for him of which he writes: “Of all the weapons I have owned, this was certainly the most beautiful. The stocking, bluing, and sighting had been done by an artist – Fraser of Edinburgh”. Fraser and Bell knew each other well as they were both from Edinburgh and Bell referred to Fraser as his “great friend” in his book Bell of Africa.

 

THE HISTORY 

Daniel Mackintosh Fraser was born in 1848 at Inverness, Scotland, and at the young age of 13 was already enrolled in a sevenyear apprenticeship with the famous master gunmaker Alexander Henry of Edinburgh, the grandfather of all Scottish gunmakers. Fraser and Henry had a good relationship; once he completed his apprenticeship and not even 21 years old, Fraser became Henry’s shop foreman and together they held a number of patents. In 1872 Fraser left Henry and set up his own shop in Edinburgh, initially known as D. Fraser, Gunmaker. His brother John joined the firm in 1878 as accountant and the name then became D. & J. Fraser, with many of his early rifles so marked.

 

After the partnership split up in 1889, the firm finally became “Daniel Fraser & Company”, located at 4 Leith Street Terrace, Edinburgh. His business flourished and, according to Jonathan Kirton’s book Daniel Fraser, Gun and Rifle Maker of Edinburg, Scotland, reached its peak between 1898 and 1901 when his workforce numbered around 15. At that time, his production was about 50 % boltaction rifles (built on Mauser and Mannlicher actions), 30 % double rifles, 10 % shotguns and 10 % falling-block rifles.

 

Sadly, Daniel Fraser passed away at the young age of 53 on 7 December 1901, of which Bell wrote, “it was a terrible loss to all riflemen when he died quite young”.

 

The running of the company was taken over by Fraser’s 20- year-old son, Donald Mackintosh Fraser, who had just completed his seven-year apprenticeship under his father. Donald Fraser must have maintained the quality instilled by his father as many of the finest Fraser rifles are from the post-1901 period. When World War I broke out in 1914, Donald Fraser became a military armourer, and the business went dormant. It was eventually formally closed on 18 June 1917.

 

A GUNMAKER AND A MARKSMAN 

Like many of the old-school gunmakers (John Rigby and George Gibbs come to mind), Daniel Fraser was also an accomplished marksman and he regularly competed in longrange shooting matches with the Scottish Rifle Team. This explains why nearly all of his early rifles were “target rifles” built for competition shooting. In a historic rapid-fire match held in 1867, Fraser defeated the famous John Farquharson himself. But Fraser could also shoot big-bore elephant rifles equally well.

 

When Bell was briefly employed by Fraser in 1901, he often had to shoot and regulate the heavy Nitro-Express double rifles (still in the white) built by Fraser. Bell hated this, saying that these kicked so much that “one felt that one’s whole skeleton would fall asunder”, and for the rest of his career, he would loathe and avoid big-bore double rifles. He writes in Bell of Africa that “Fraser would fire them all day long, getting better and better groups from them, without turning a hair”. Being both a gunmaker and a shooter meant that Fraser’s rifles, being of unmatched quality and workmanship, were also “rifleman’s rifles”, i.e. accurate, handy, wellproportioned, practical, and properly fitting. 

 

Fraser built shotguns, boltaction rifles and double rifles but is probably best known for the unique falling-block singleshot rifles, built on his own patented action. Although not as generally known, the Fraser falling-block action was in every respect superior to the famous Farquharson action.

 

In his definitive book Single Shot Rifles and Actions, Frank de Haas describes Fraser as “one of the most skilled gunmakers in Great Britain who made some of the finest single shot rifles ever”, and his fallingblock action as “a masterpiece of gun craftsmanship”. The Fraser action’s advantages were numerous, including the fact that it was much more compact and was completely enclosed at the bottom. Even with the action open, there were no parts protruding from the bottom of the action and no openings for dust or debris to enter the action. This, together with the side-lever, meant that the action was ideal for shooting prone as the shooter did not have to move or tilt the rifle in order to reload. Another major advantage was the massive stock bolt threaded into the rear of the action and passing all the way through the stock.

 

Fraser built a total of only about 4 000 firearms in his career as a gunmaker, of which approximately 400 were falling-block rifles. Unlike many prestigious London firms, Fraser made all his firearms in-house, including manufacturing his own actions, barrels, and stocks. He was so proud of this that he would allow potential customers to tour his factory to witness for themselves that he “manufactured throughout”. He was also somewhat unique in that he designed, patented, and manufactured his own firearms. Evidently, he took great pride in his products, as he refused to put his name on “second-finish” rifles, or those rifles that he did not manufacture himself.

 

FALLING-BLOCK RIFLE NO 1731 

This exquisite “highest-finish” rifle using a Fraser patent (Patent No. 5403 of 23 December 1880) side-lever falling-block action, was built around 1890, using the early version of the Fraser action, which has a tapered takedown pin. After the fore-end is unlatched and the pin is knocked out (with the special punch provided), the 26-inch medium-weight barrel can be completely unscrewed from the action. The action is fully engraved with fine, bold acanthus scroll engraving with ropework borders, and has the patent use number FRASER’S PATENT NO. 231 engraved on the top.

 

The barrel has a full-length, file-cut raised rib with acanthus scroll detailing and the address DANL. FRASER & CO. 4 LEITH ST. TERRACE. EDINBURGH engraved into the rib. A matted folding-leaf rear sight for 100 and 300 yards is inlaid into the rib and the front sight has a ramped bead with detachable cover. Dovetailed into the rib, are Fraser’s patent (very neat) telescopic sight bases. Assembled and without telescope, the rifle weighs only 7.5 lbs.

 

Fraser’s quick-detachable mounts are used to mount a vintage telescopic sight with a sprung leather-covered eyepiece, with the tube engraved D. & J. FRASER MAKERS EDINBURGH. BY ROYAL LETTER PATENT. It has very fine crosshairs with dual horizontal lines for zeroing the rifle at two different ranges, certainly an advanced feature for a circa 1890 rifle. Fraser was one of the first manufacturers to offer telescopic sights and the Fraser telescope was adapted and improved from the original design of Colonel Davidson. A classic Alex Henry style fore-end with buffalo horn tip is held in place with an engraved Deeley & Edge patent release latch. When Ruger brought out the No 1 single-shot rifle in 1967, they also copied the Henry-style fore-end (and contrary to popular belief, the Ruger No 1 action has more in common with the Fraser action than with the Farquharson action).

 

The receiver is colour casehardened and has an automatic safety with stalking bolt. The trigger is partially chequered and engraved, and the serial number is engraved on the trigger guard. A classic-styled stock has a small cheekpiece, a horn pistol grip cap and a 1⅛”-thick horn-and-rubber sandwich butt pad. This type of butt pad is unique to Fraser, used on some of his early rifles only, and was an attempt to prevent the fraying and disintegration of the early rubber butt pads of the day. It consists of two pieces of horn with a slab of rubber in between, the outer piece of horn being chequered and forming the butt plate, which in itself is a work of art.

 

BOLT-ACTION REPEATING RIFLE NO 2334 

Built in 1896 around a muchmodified Mauser M1893 boltaction, this rifle is the earliest rifle built by Fraser on a Mauser M93 action, according to the records. Like almost all of Fraser’s rifles it is also in takedown format with removable fore-end and threaded barrel shank, the barrel being locked in place with a slotted lock screw. The rifle is chambered for his own .303 Fraser Velox calibre (now obsolete), which was basically a rimless version of the .303 British and is dimensionally very close (but not identical) to the Mauser 7.65x53mm cartridge.

 

Fraser supplied his Velox cartridges with his patented “Oblique Ratchet” bullet, so named because it used oblique ratchet slots cut into the bullet jacket at an angle opposite to that of the barrel’s rifling. This promoted expansion and was, in fact, one of the first examples of premium bullets for hunting. 

 

The 25,5-inch barrel is fitted with a matted folding leaf rear sight for 100, 300 and 500 yards fact, the .375 Flanged has the same rim dimension and can thus be loaded using the original Steyr stripper clips. This is probably the reason why Fraser chose to use this action, rather than the Mauser action, for this particular rifle and calibre.

 

The 27-inch barrel, which is signed “DANL FRASER & Co., GUN & RIFLE MANUFACTURERS, 4 LEITH ST. TERRACE, EDINBURGH”, is fitted with a matted folding-leaf rear sight for 100, 200 and 300 yards and the ramped front sight has a very fine bead with detachable cover and a flip-up ivory moonsight. In order to reduce glare, the top of the receiver and the bolt has been file-cut. Again, the foreend has an Alex Henry shape and is held in place with a Deeley latch completely covered in very fine engraving. Stunning walnut is used on the classic-styled stock, which has a small cheekpiece and two raised side panels per side, one at the wrist area and one on the fore-end. In addition, a Silvers solid rubber butt pad, horn grip cap, and flattop chequering completes the stock. Sunken into the stock is Fraser’s signature recessed round sling swivel eye, which matches with a barrel-mounted round sling swivel eye.

 

The ungainly, big, round bolt knob and short bolt-handle of the original military Mannlicher action has been completely reworked into an elegant flat bolthandle with a small, round bolt knob, fully chequered and divided into four equal panels. After 1897, this style of bolt knob was used on most Fraser bolt-action rifles and became somewhat of a trademark.

 

Fine acanthus scroll engraving with ropework borders covers the action, bolt handle, magazine housing, action screws and the sides of the trigger. Engraved on the side of the magazine housing are the words, “Fitted with Fraser’s Patent Trigger Action”, which indicates that this rifle is also fitted with Fraser’s special intercepting safety sear trigger, similar in all respects to the trigger fitted to the Mauser M93 action described earlier. The only difference being that there is less room in the M95 action for such a trigger, and it is therefore of more compact construction. Another Fraser trademark is the neatly chequered bottom half of the trigger face (the other two rifles described in this article also have this feature). Assembled, this rifle weighs only 7.3 lbs.

 

WHY WAS FRASER SO UNKNOWN? 

There are many reasons why the name Daniel Fraser was and still is so unknown and obscure. 

 

Firstly, he did not operate a London salesroom like many of the other well-known and bigname brands. London guns had a mysterious and much-inflated quality attributed to them by the general public, which is where the term “London best” comes from. Secondly, Fraser was not from England, but rather from Scotland, and Scotland had only a small number of wellknown gunmakers. Thirdly, as already mentioned, Fraser made only a very small number of firearms in his career. Fourthly, Fraser died in 1901 at the young age of 53. In 1901 the market for high-quality rifles was really only starting to take off, and other manufacturers such as Rigby and Jeffery were receiving brisk orders. 

 

Finally, and this is probably the main reason, Fraser rifles, because of their superior quality and extreme rarity, are jealously guarded by collectors all over the world, as well as persons lucky enough to own one, and are seldom offered for sale.