Special Guns Episode 11 BossQ&A

Special Guns with Roger Rule

Episode 11 –  John Wilkes London Best Over-and-Under


PART 1 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table, gun in holders}

VIRGINIA: My name is Virginia Hall and I’m here today to introduce you to Roger Rule, author of The Rifleman’s Rifle, and host of this series of episodes, Special Guns with Roger Rule.

ROGER: Thank you, Virginia, welcome, …and welcome viewers to my 11th Episode of Special Guns with Roger Rule.

VIRGINIA: What do we have today?

ROGER:   In my previous episodes of Special Guns with Roger Rule, we covered some of the evolution of the side-by-side shotgun from the breech loader with hammers, to the hammerless sidelock, to the boxlock.  And in the last episode, we looked at the early over-and-under shotguns made in Germany and Austria.

Today, I am continuing with the evolution of the over-and-under shotguns, and taking us to the second great over-and-under that is still considered by many today, as the greatest of all over-and-unders.  The year was 1909, and the company that patented it, was Boss of London.

To help you appreciate it, I have a couple of quotes:

From Sidelocks and Boxlocks by Geoffrey Boothroyd: (quote)

“In 1909, John Robertson patented the Boss O/U gun, considered by many to be the finest of all British O/Us [editor’s note, that would include the Purdey and the Woodward]. Still in very limited production, the Boss O/U is not just a shotgun, it is a work of art.” (close quote)

And this quote from Gamefield Classics by Michael MacIntosh and Bill Headrick, and I quote:

                         “The Boss over/under, patented and introduced in 1909, was not the first such gun in the modern English trade, but it certainly was the first to match the splendid handling qualities of the English side-by-side. Making an over/under action strong isn’t the trick; making it strong and slender is. With side-mounted trunnions forming the hinge and a fastening bolt that engages bites at the sides of the lower barrel, the Boss frame is scarcely taller than the stacked barrels themselves. The Boss had a tremendous influence on the over/under gun…You can see clear evidence of that in sidelock guns by Lebeau-Courally, Fabbri, Bertuzzi, A.Galazan and others.  What happened with the over/under in the twentieth century is essentially the same as what happened with the side-by-side in the nineteenth century…The problem with perfection is that it leaves no room for improvement.” (close quote).

VIRGINIA: You’ve been to some of those London gunmakers, have you ever been to Boss?

ROGER:  Yes, when I first went to Boss’ premises at 13 Dover Street in London, I was young and dumb and had no idea about their over-and-unders.

Earlier, I had a friend who owned a gun shop in Modesto California.  We would often have coffee together and he would bombard me with information to fill my vacant passion for guns.  Or, it was more accurate to say I would bombard him with questions, which were easy for him to field.

One day he mentioned the great makers in London, and Boss was at the top of his list.  He also had great admiration for the Westley Richards detachable lock system, but that’s another story and we’ll cover that later.  When he mentioned Boss, I had never heard the name, but it was easy to remember.

A few years later, when I was staying in the Browns Hotel in London, I looked up Boss’ address and when I discovered it was on Dover Street, it was a coincidence that the Browns hotel also had an entrance on Dover Street and as it turned out, Boss was less than a couple of blocks away.  I’ll never forget walking down the sidewalk in what was truly a London fog that morning, and suddenly there was a sign above the shop that said Boss & Co., Ltd., since 1812.

You couldn’t just walk in, like the other London makers I had visited, you had to press an intercom button and be admitted. Once inside, I was greeted by Tony Lokatis.  He was very helpful and while I was impressed with the quality of the few double side-by-sides that I could see, Tony tried to steer my interest to a large commercial drawing on the wall of their over-and-under.  At that time, I had no knowledge of their over-and-under — only that they made best quality side-by-sides.  I’m afraid I gave Tony very little in terms of my reaction to what he was trying to show me.

Years after that, I would learn I was looking at, what many consider, the greatest over-and-under shotgun design in the world.  It has now been copied by many companies, but to build the design properly, they have to be master gunmakers and the names of those who have made the clones, or near clones, reads like a who’s who in the Gunmaker world: A.Galazan (here in the USA), Piotti, Bertuzzi, Lebeau Courally, John Wilkes, and Fabbri.

VIRGINIA:  Are they expensive guns?

ROGER:  Yes, as you might imagine, all of them are expensive guns when comparing them with other over-and-unders.

VIRGINIA: What’s so hot about this over-and-under?

ROGER:  I’ll get to that, but first, let’s look at the reason the two geniuses for Boss came up with the idea.

PART 2 {Audio-only}******************************************************

By 1900, all of the innovations for the perfect double side-by-side had been invented and perfected: the breech fastening system, the hammerless sidelock, automatic ejectors, self-opening actions, and single triggers.  All the best gunmakers were making similar guns and it was up to someone to come up with something that set themselves apart from the pack.

John Robertson, a gunmaker, became an active partner in the struggling Boss & Co. in 1891.  He invented a single trigger design for their double side-by-side gun in 1893 and the mechanism had brought the company back to the forefront in the London trade.  But, that wasn’t enough, Robertson wanted to set the company apart and he and his actioner, Bob Henderson, began working on a design for an over-and-under with the intention of building one with all the quality features that could be found then on the London side-by-side.

For the basic design, they wanted to make the action strong but slender and as low in line with the barrels as possible.  Using the already-popular barrel chopper lump and underbolt fastener system found on the side-by-sides, could be adapted to an over-and-under design, and had been by the Germans, but Robertson and Henderson came up with a better approach. Their final design consisted of side-mounted trunnions forming the hinge and a fastening bolt that engages the bites at the sides of the lower barrel.

It was a revolutionary design and allowed the Boss frame to be nearly the same height as the stacked barrels themselves.  And to increase the strength without increasing weight, Henderson configured the action so that the barrels interlock with bolsters inside the frame.  The end-product, besides being a more sleek gun, resulted in excellent weight distribution and better balance with improved pointing qualities. The patent was issued in 1909 and with Boss’s renowned quality, the new gun was met with immediate and lasting success.

PART 3 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table, gun in holders facing other direction}****

VIRGINIA:  So this portrait is of one of those two men?

ROGER: Yes, the portrait in our vignette is of John Robertson, who spearheaded and co-patented the Boss over-and-under.  I couldn’t locate a picture of the actioner, Henderson.

VIRGINIA: And so this gun here today was made by Boss?

ROGER: No, the gun today was not made by Boss, but it is one of those clones I mentioned that demonstrates the Boss design and was made by another best London gunmaker, John Wilkes, that had been in business since the 1820s under their own name.  And here’s my John Wilkes story —

On one trip to London, I wanted to make sure I had visited every gunmaker that was still in business: John Wilkes and William Evans were on my list.  I was in Asprey’s on Albemarle Street (at that time a gun dealer themselves) and walked from there to an obscure street named Beak Street in Soho to reach Wilkes’ address. I had never ventured into that area on foot before and I was a little surprised at how much it felt like something out of a Jack the Ripper movie. I’m sure that wasn’t the feeling of the locals, just this one crazy American.

When I got to 79 Beak Street, the shop looked closed, not commercial at all, a dark green front store, the 3 or 4 shop windows were covered from the inside, and the green door’s windows were blacked over with the number 79 on a second door next to it. On the green frontispiece above the door and windows were the words, “gun makers John Wilkes rifle makers”.  And there was the familiar intercom button to press for customers and tradesmen to enter. Even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday, when I pressed the button, I halfway didn’t expect anyone to answer. It really looked as if it were locked up and abandoned.

Then, suddenly I was asked why I was there, and answering, I was admitted in.  Inside, the place looked old, like this company had been there a long time.  Most of the surrounding jigs and equipment just had a look that they hadn’t been moved from their stations since they were placed in the shop and everything smelled like old grease.

The first guy, I don’t remember his name, asked me to wait and left the main shop area and returned from a backroom with another man. The second man was introduced to me as John Wilkes.  I suddenly felt I was in an old Twilight Zone TV show.

Virginia, have you ever seen re-runs of that show?

VIRGINIA: (your answer)

ROGER: But this John Wilkes was the 5th generation.  The two men were very amiable and showed me a fantastic .470 double rifle they were building. As I looked it over, there was no doubt about it, the big rifle was definitely a London best gun and I was impressed.

PART 4 {Audio-only}******************************************************

The gunmakers of John Wilkes can trace their roots in gun making back to about 1820 in Birmingham, but it wasn’t until 1894 that John Wilkes, the third generation, opened his own premises at 1 Lower James Street, between Piccadilly Circus and Golden Square, in Soho, the district where the business would remain even though their address would change.

By the late 1890s, the firm was producing 100 John Wilkes guns a year, some finished as London best quality and some as lower grades outsourced and made up in Birmingham.  They sold both retail and to dealers for resale.

At the turn of the Century, the next John Wilkes (the 4th generaton, known as Jack), joined the firm. In the period from 1895 to 1915, nearly 2000 guns and rifles were produced, half sold by dealers. During the first WW and the four war years leading up to 1918, production slowed to only150 arms. Between 1913 and 1925, they moved locations three times, always in the Soho district, ending at their last 79 Beak Street address.  They closed their Birmingham business in 1933 allowing Jack Wilkes to concentrate effort on making and selling Wilkes guns from the London shop.  They acted as the workshops for many of the other London makers who were unable to train and keep their own staff through the depression years.  They completely manufactured rifles for Rigby and Jeffery.

During the second WW, the fifth generation John Wilkes joined the firm.  After the war, the production of guns slowed to a trickle. Retail activity was mostly repairs and alterations. But other London makers, whose craftsmen had not returned after the war, were struggling to fulfill orders and the Wilkes firm survived mainly as a trade gunmaker, doing much work for Holland & Holland, Greener, Westley Richards and others.

In 1968, Jack Wilkes died.  The younger John and his brother Tom were left with running the business.  In the mid-70s, the brothers decided to rebuild the company name and began building new guns again under their own name, this time aiming at the market for more elaborate ornamentation, rather than the bland products of the 30s and earlier. In the last 30 years, they produced over 100 best shotguns and rifles, mostly sidelocks and many of them elegantly ornate, and on par with the best London guns ever made.

In 2000, the brothers decided to leave the Beak street premises after being there ¾ of the century. It took another three years to clear out the large number of stored customer guns and all of the stock in-trade, finally vacating in 2003.  Craig Whitsey, who had been their master gunmaker with the firm for 30 years, continued running the John Wilkes business from his workshop in West Sussex.

PART 5 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table, gun in holders facing other direction}

ROGER: Today, I have a beautiful John Wilkes clone of a Boss sidelock ejector over-and-under with single trigger.

VIRGINIA: Is it in 12 gauge?

ROGER: No, this one is in 20 gauge with 2 ¾” chambers and 29” barrels, cased.  It was built as the “Special Series” in 2004 in London.  It was distributed to the then-John Wilkes Gunmakers Ltd. in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is one of the first ones with the Brazier “solid solid” Monobloc barrels, versus the chopper lump barrels.

Let’s go over to the sideboard and examine it by components.

PART 6 {Gun disassembled in case, Roger off camera}******************

ROGER: Here we have the John Wilkes Special Series over-and-under, field disassembled with its two major components separated in its fitted case.

This beautiful gun comes cased with a leather case with an outside protection shell made of canvas and leather.  The interior partitions are wood, felt lined with burgundy wool but showing wood edges.  Accessories included are: 2-piece wooden cleaning rod, 2 nickel snap caps, 1 nickel oil bottle, a set of Briley chokes, choke wrench, and a leather pouch with cleaning brushes, swabs, etc.

{Pick up the barrels – Remove forearm}

Examining the barrel assembly, we see that it has a very low matted ventilated rib that ends with an ivory bead. The profile of the barrels shows an extended length of steel that meets the forearm wood and curves with it at the nose, stopping halfway down the lower barrel.  This is a spacer that aids in the forearm fitting up close to the barrels.

Looking at the underside of the barrel flat, we don’t see the typical Purdey chopper lumps, but instead there is a block with side-mounted hinge-lugs with their hinge bites that fit the trunnions in the action, which forms the action’s hinge.  At the rear of the block, we see two lumps at the sides of the lower barrel that lock up with two lumps in the action.  The action’s fastening bolt does not show here, but it catches on the front of the barrel block.  The serial number, 15516, is again on the barrel flat.

On both sides of the barrels are the automatic ejectors.

On the underside also is the forearm release lug with its locking bite.

For inscriptions, on the left upper barrel, is inscribed, “JOHN WILKES, LONDON.” On the right side, “John Wilkes Colorado Springs, Co.”  The words Colorado and Springs are abbreviated.

{Set down the barrels and pick up the forearm}

Next, looking in the forearm, we see the serial number 15516 on the inside of the forearm iron. Notice how fine the forearm is thinned down where it meets the barrels.  We’ll come back to the finish later, but notice the intricate inlay work of the metal escutcheon for the Anson push rod forearm release, and the two sundial retainer heads for the interior bolts, and the beautiful engraving on the forearm iron. Notice also the near horizontal lug near the bottom end of the forearm iron for locking into the receiver.

{Set forearm down, pick up stock and action}

Looking at the stock and action, from the exterior, we note these are 6-pin sidelocks.  Looking inside, we see the clever trunnions on each side of the action which fit the hinge bites on the sides of the barrels to create the action’s hinge. We also see two lugs on each side of the action that mate with the two lugs on the sides of the barrels for the true lock-up.  There is a fastening bolt sliding in its concealed runway under the floor of the action. This fastener catches the front edge of the mono block of the barrel flat. Additionally, looking at what we would traditionally call the water table, at the base of the breech face is a small button, that when depressed, unlocks the top lever when it is moved to the right in the locked position.

For inscriptions, we find on top of the action walls: on the right, “Special Series” and on the left, “15516”.  On the upper tang, the word “SAFE” is in gold and on the underside of the action, we find again, “John Wilkes, London.”  On both the right and left sides of the frame, under the locks, we find two more inscriptions, “JOHN WILKES.”

Mechanically, it has a tang-mounted manual safety. The ejectors are automatic, and although it has a single trigger, it is not selective. The first pull of the trigger fires the lower barrel. The trigger resets from inertial.

On the exterior of the sidelocks, we can see the cocking indicators, little arrows that when slanted, pointed at 10:00 o’clock on the right and at 2:00 o’clock on the left, show that it is cocked. When they are horizontal, pointing at 9:00 o’clock on the right and at 3:00 o’clock on the left, we know the gun is not cocked.

PART 7 {Virginia sitting at table, Roger standing, gun in holders}**********

ROGER:  Now, looking at the finish, let’s start with the wood. It has the classic comb, which is nicely fluted, not severe. While not a straight-hand stock, this one has what in the industry is called a round knob pistol grip.  Or often, it is called the Prince of Wales pistol grip.  The butt is not plated or fitted with a recoil pad, but instead, like many best guns, especially for the smaller gauges, it is checkered end-grain wood. The forearm is shaped with finger channels on both sides and fits very well against the extra steel struts on the barrel that we talked about. The nose of the forearm has a reverse angle slant to it which normally is not conservative, but goes well on this gun.

The wood type is dark English walnut showing a handsome pattern of dark streaks spread evenly with some fancy figure near the butt and near the forearm tip.

VIRGINIA: The wood on this one is better looking than the last gun we covered.

ROGER:  I agree, but it probably also has to do with the type of finish.  The finish of the wood appears to be several coats of French polish oiled finish that has been rubbed to a pleasing semi-gloss.

The hand checkering pattern on the grip consists of two panels of point pattern, coming together over the wrist at a single point. It has a combination of double and single borders tastefully done and the checkering is fine, at about 26 lines per inch and extremely well executed.

The forearm has wrap-around point pattern checkering which starts below the finger channel and creates a clean diamond shape, centered on the underside. It too is 26 lines per inch with a combination of double and single borders and executed exquisitely.

The metal is finished in a two-tone look, with the action, sidelock plates, upper tang, two round inlays on the forearm and the forearm tip’s push-rod escutcheon, all coin finished. The trigger is bright. The rest of the metal rust blued: trigger guard and lower tang, forearm iron, and barrels and rib.

And then there is the engraving.

VIRGINIA: This engraving is different than all the others we’ve seen.

ROGER: The pattern on the action is unusual because John Wilkes chose a Celtic pattern of interlocking ribbons and arabesque.  It is full coverage on the action, the sidelock plates, the upper tang, the top lever, the trigger guard, the forearm iron, and the inlays and the push-rod escutcheon.

The wood to metal fit is perfect, wood to sidelock plates, wood to receiver, wood to lower and upper tang, especially noted at the very pointed lower tang, and at all three inlays on the forearm.

The length of pull is 14 ¾” and the weight is 6 pounds, 15 ounces.

{Roger sits down, and continues}

According to the Blue Book of Gun Values by S.F.Fjestad, the gunmaker’s price for the Special Series started at $32,950 in 2004.

VIRGINIA: Wow, I could have a condo on the beach for a year!

ROGER: And that was for a new gun pre-ordered to custom fit the buyer.  As a pre-owned gun, the value is less now, and in that way, similar to a new car. But unlike autos, after the first depreciation, the value begins to climb again and will continue to climb through the life of the gun if the condition is kept strong.

Finally, now, after going to Boss and eventually understanding this over-and-under design to be arguably considered the best over-and-under design in the world, and then after going to John Wilkes and realizing the quality that that house put out for their best guns, and then finding this example to exemplify both, I have developed a great and deep appreciation for this fine small gauge shotgun. And if those reasons weren’t enough, just looking at it, handling it, and seeing how beautiful and graceful this work of art is, are reasons enough for me to place this shotgun at the top of the list, if I were to make a bucket list of finest guns to own.

Next episode, I intend to continue this search of the best double shotguns and will be taking us to the best boxlock side-by-side shotgun ever designed.

That’s it for today, thank you Virginia, and thank you viewers for watching, and if you enjoyed this episode, I invite you to subscribe to my YouTube channel and share with others.  And, I hope you join us next week for another episode of Special Guns with Roger Rule.