Getting to know an ‘unknown’ hammer gun

The advert did not give much away about this unknown hammer gun. The heading simply said: Unknown, 16 Gauge Hammer Shotgun. The firearms dealer, Alan White of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, was really helpful, but he did not know the make, and the gun did not even have a serial number. 

Solving the mystery of the unknown hammer gun

Unknown gun adverts are always intriguing, as they can be ordinary Spanish boxlocks, but can sometimes be rare and even valuable. This was one of the latter. The pictures Alan sent showed a very good quality, old gun, with 26-inch sleeved barrels. Sleeving is where the original barrels are cut off at the chambers and replaced with new tubes. This often happens when the old barrels are badly damaged, as it is much cheaper than ordering new barrels. There was one other slight problem with this gun; the right hammer had been broken in the past and had been welded back on. Safe, but not aesthetically great. These issues undoubtedly brought down the price of what could have been an expensive gun.

When I finally received it, my unknown hammer gun turned out to be even better than I had expected. The advert had put the weight at 5 ½lb. It was very light compared to all my other guns. I was not prepared to expect a positively minute gun! This little gun weighted practically nothing compared to many modern over-and-unders. The hand of the stock was delightfully slim. After handling the 16, my 12 bores felt very crude and bulky. On closer inspection of the barrels, the rib revealed two interesting details. Initially, some marking on the rib appeared to be smudging in the blueing, but this was too regular. The barrels turned to be made of Damascus iron and steel! Further investigation showed that the chambers were made of beautiful four iron Damascus.

Other than the issues mentioned before, the gun was in very good condition. The lock work was still shiny, and free of rust. This wasn’t just a recent polish – the original colour hardening was still visible, and this could also be seen under the forend iron. The wood was also in excellent condition, with the only damage being some chipped chequering. When new, this gun must have been splendid.

Getting to know the maker

The faint lettering I found on the rib piqued my interest. It rubbed off over the years, but some words were possible to make out. The clearest was ‘Yeovil’. A quick search showed that there had been two gunsmiths in Yeovil, Henry Little, and Joseph Helyar. Had we returned a Little shotgun back to the family? Looking closer I could see a faint address: ‘Middle Street’. This ruled out Henry Little, as he had premises at Silver Street, but Joseph Helyar’s address was 93 Middle Street. I had finally identified the maker! The unknown hammer gun’s history started to slowly unravel …

Joseph Helyar was a gunsmith and glove maker for 51 years, up until his death in 1912, when his son took over the firm until 1919. But how old was my ‘unknown’ hammer gun? The proof marks would give a rough date, as they changed every ten years or so, but no exact date can be ascertained because of the missing serial number. Because of the sleeving, this gun had two sets of proof marks. The later ones showed it was sleeved between 1954 and 1989. The other marks were much older. I found that the gun had been proofed between 1887 to 1896. I had just acquired a gun that was around 130 years old!

My lucky little hammer gun

I took the hammer gun out for the first time at the SYCET Young Shots day at Kinblethmont near Arbroath in January this year. Even using light 25g 6s suitable for such an old and light gun, I contributed a brace of pheasants and a pigeon to the bag. The speed and pointablilty were amazing, and the gun was particularly handy for snap shooting. On the penultimate drive, this speed allowed me to shoot my first ever woodcock. A special milestone for me, made even more special by handling the oldest gun in use that day by far.

Exactly a week later, on a walk about after rabbits, a hen teal sprang out of a nearby stream. I was shocked when she suddenly froze in mid-air and fell to the ground, dead. I really hadn’t expected to manage a direct hit. Later, while plucking her, I could see no shot holes. Intrigued, I plucked nearly up to the head, where I found a single piece of shot had passed through the very middle of the neck, killing the bird instantly. This was my first teal – the second ‘first’ with the new hammer gun in a week!

This little 16 bore hammer gun has once again shown me that old guns are not only true works of art, and pieces of history, but also very capable sporting firearms. When used with appropriate ammunition, they can be comfortable and very effective against the most difficult of quarry. As with many other old guns, I expect this gun will, if carefully looked after, last another 130 years.

You can read two more articles by Michael Little on Damascus guns here and here.