August 17, 2018
According to the current owner of the nice side-by-side hammer gun shown here (Kirk Merrington, who specializes in working on vintage British guns), gunmaker Lincoln Jeffries of Birmingham, England, built it sometime between 1898 and 1915. It displays several interesting- although not uncommon- features. For instance, it's a hammer gun, even though hammerless actions had been perfected several decades before.
This gun was built during what was perhaps the most fascinating period of gunmaking history. For those who want to learn more about this period, Terry Wieland's excellent book Vintage British Shotguns- which I've drawn on heavily for this column- is an excellent reference on the subject.
This was the golden age of handmade firearms, a time when the art deco movement spurred refined aesthetics in every aspect of life, including hunting tools. The rigorous grouse-shooting habits of the Brits demanded unprecedented and unparalleled durability in field guns. Renowned shooters would often log thousands of shots per season, shooting driven wild birds through all conditions- rain or shine. Guns of the day were built to last multiple lifetimes.
Although the Lincoln Jeffries gun shows signs of use, it's in very good condition for its age. The stock and forearm are original, but Mr. Merrington added a well-fitted recoil pad. The action is beautifully tight without being stubborn, and a fair amount of case-coloring is still visible on the metal. Mechanically, the gun is outstanding, and its lines are impeccable.
Unlike London guns, which were often seen entirely through the build process by one gunsmith, Birmingham guns were usually the product of several specialists that did their part and then handed the gun on for the next step in the process.
Interestingly, the finish work on the stock (checkering, fit) and the metal (engraving) is not inspiring. Not that it's bad- in fact, at first glance the gun displays simple but tasteful styling and decoration. However, examined closely, the engraving shows signs of haste. And gaps between wood and metal are seen along the tang atop and below the wrist. My guess is that the stockmaker and engraver were lesser craftsmen than the barrel and action specialists who built the gun.
But I'm being nitpicky. All things considered, it's a nice example of a working-class gun.
Hammer guns feature very simple, elegant actions. This Lincoln Jeffries is a top-lever, double-trigger gun with rebounding hammers and extractors rather than more costly ejectors. The double-bite lugs on the barrels lock up tight, and the rebounding hammers prevent firing pins from binding in the primers of fired cases as the action is opened.
To load, press the lever to the right and open the gun. Drop two shotshells into the chambers and close the gun. Cock the hammers, swing with the target, and squeeze the triggers. Open the action to lift out the two fired hulls (or live shells if you've been in the field and haven't shot them).
Merrington referenced Boothroyd's Revised Directory of British Gunmakers to date the gun between 1898 and 1915, courtesy of the address "Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham" engraved on the barrel rib. Lincoln Jeffries was in business at that address from 1898 to 1930. This particular gun is estimated to be worth around $1,500.
Merrington purchased the Lincoln Jeffries in 2017 at Julia's Auction in Maine. "Likely it came into someone's collection at an early date and has been carried a fair bit but not shot a lot," he speculated. "It definitely was not abused like a lot of the plain guns have been."
Most vintage British guns have 2.5-inch chambers, although some have slightly deeper 25/8-inch chambers. According to Merrington's measurements, this is one of the latter. Correct shells are available from RST and a few other companies, but most savvy shooters are comfortable firing low-pressure 2¾-inch shells through such chambers (the short chamber acts as a steep forcing cone, safe with low-pressure loads). Since I didn't have any 2.5-inch shotshells on hand, I asked Merrington's permission to fire 2¾-inch shells in his gun. He consented.
Hoping to shoot a cottontail or two with the Lincoln Jeffries, I informally patterned the gun on a threatening bush hanging on a ravine bank about 35 yards distant. To my delight, each barrel put its shot cloud centered over the bush. The two are choked Cylinder and Full, and the right Cylinder barrel predictably produced a wider pattern than the left Full barrel.
Dry conditions and a low point in the bunny population cycle combined to send me home rabbitless, but a couple hours of carrying the Lincoln Jeffries gun demonstrated what a delight it is to pack a 6.8-pound 12-gauge shotgun in the field.
Repairing to the range, I spent an hour shooting clays. Usually, I use a Champion automatic target thrower to boost targets skyward, but I'd loaned the machine to a friend. So I threw the clays with an MGM hand thrower. It was a tricky affair that really highlighted the fast-handling characteristics of the lightweight, responsive British shotgun.
With a pair of shells loaded in the chambers and the action closed, I'd heave the clay (unpredictably), raise the shotgun, cock the hammers as it came to my shoulder, and fire. To my amazement, rarely did a clay target go unscathed. The gun shoulders beautifully and points where I look.
True to its roots, it never offered the slightest hiccup: loading, cocking, firing, and extracting beautifully. Lamenting the fact that it was February and not pheasant season, I returned home, carefully packed the gun, and returned it to Mr. Merrington.
While "plain" double guns such as this Lincoln Jeffries may not be the artistic works of perfection that a London Best gun is, they offer vintage class, mechanical excellence, superb lines and balance, and real usability in the field.
LINCOLN JEFFRIES HAMMER DOUBLE
MANUFACTURER Lincoln Jeffries
TYPE Side-by-side break action
BARRELS 28 in.
OVERALL LENGTH 45.4 in.
WEIGHT, EMPTY 6.75 lbs.
LENGTH OF PULL 15 in.
FINISH Blued barrel, case-colored action, oil-finished wood
SIGHTS Compact bead front