The Fowling Piece – Part I

THE FOWLING PIECE, from the Shooter’s Guide by B. Thomas – 1811.

I AM perfectly aware that a large volume might be written on this subject; but, as my intention is to give only such information and instruction as is necessary for the sportsman, I shall forbear introducing any extraneous matter; at the same time, being careful to omit nothing which can be useful even in the remotest degree. That the fowling-piece is an object of the first consideration, will be readily allowed; hence the necessity of being able to form an opinion of its merits prior to laying out a considerable sum of money on this article, as Well as to prevent those dreadful accidents which too frequently occur from causes which at first sight are by no means obvious.

The first thing that presents itself for notice under this head, is the barrel: which, from its nature is liable to the following imperfections, ‘viz’. the chink,’the crack, and the flaw. The chink is a solution of continuity, running lengthwise of the barrel. The crack is a solution of continuity, more irregular in its form than the chink, and running in a transverse direction, or across the barrel. The flaw differs from both : it is a small plate or scale which adheres to the barrel by a narrow base, from which it spreads out as the head of a nail does from its shank; and, when separated, leaves a pit or hollow in the metal.

The crack and flaw are to be regarded as much more dangerous than the chink; as the efforts of the powder are exerted upon the circumference, and not upon the length, of the barrel. The flaw is much more frequent than the crack; but the latter will frequently occur, where the iron is of an inferior quality. All these defects, however, when only external and superficial, are of no material consequence, except in point of neatness; but when situated within the barrel, they become a very serious and even dangerous disadvantage, by affording a lodgment to moisture and filth that corrode the iron, and thus continually enlarge the excavation till the barrel bursts.

A common gun barrel is formed in the following manner :—The workmen begin by heating and hammering out a bar of iron into the form of a flat ruler, thinner at the end intended for the muzzle, and thicker at that for the breech; the length, breadth, and thickness of the whole plate, being regulated by the intended length, diameter, and weight, of the barrel. This oblong plate of iron is then, by repeated heating and hammering, turned round a cylindrical rod of tempered iron, called a mandril, whose diameter is considerably less than the intended bore of the barrel. The edges of the plate are made to overlap each other about half an inch, and are welded together by heating the tube in lengths of two or three inches at a time, and hammering it upon an anvil that has a number of semi-circular furrows in it, adapted to the various sizes of barrels; and, by this means, the whole of the barrel is rendered as perfectly continuous as if it had been bored out of a solid piece.

The barrel, when forged, is either finished in: the common way, or made, to undergo the operation of twisting; which is a process employed on those barrels which are intended to be of a superior quality and price to others, This operation consists in heating the barrel in portions of a few inches at at time to a high degree of red heat; when one end of it is screwed into a vice, and into the other is introduced a square piece of iron, with a handle similar to that of an augur; and by means of these, the fibres of the heated portion are twisted in a spiral direction, which has been found to resist the efforts of the powder better than a longitudinal one.

The next operation is that of giving the barrel its proper calibre, which is called boring. The boring bit is a rod of iron, somewhat longer than the barrel; one end being made to fit the socket of the crank, and the other being furnished with a cylindrical plug of tempered steel, about an inch and a half in length, and having its surface cut in the manner of a perpetual screw; the threads being flat, about a quarter of an inch in breadth, and running with very little obliquity. The form gives the bit a very strong hold of the metal ; and the threads being sharp at the edges, scoop out and remove every roughness and inequality from the inside of the barrel, and render the cavity smooth and equal throughout. A number of bits, each a little larger than the preceding one, are after wards successively passed through the barrel, in the same way, until it has acquired the intended calibre, It is hardly necessary to observe, that the equality of the bore is so essential to the excellence of the piece, that the utmost perfection in every other respect will by no means compensate for the want of it; and the merits of a barrel, in this particular, may be ascertained with tolerable accuracy by means of a plug of lead, cast on a rod of iron or wood; or even by a musket ball, filed so as to exactly fit the bore, and pushed through the barrel by the ramrod; care being taken not to use an iron ramrod, or too much force, lest the ball be flattened, and an artificial difficulty created. Thus, if the bullet move regularly through, there is every reason to be satisfied with the equality of the bore; but if, in passing it through, it move irregularly, that is, in some places quicker than in others, the bore is not true, and the barrel is consequently to be regarded as a bad one.

N. B. Of late, there have been some improvements made, by which barrels are bored with greater expedition; but as these improvements throw no further light on the nature of gun barrels, I shall forbear enumerating them.

In this state the barrel comes into the hands of the gunsmiths, who polish the inside, and file the outside quite round; though sometimes the lower part is formed into eight sides. This octagonal form may appear more handsome, for aught I know, but it serves to make the barrel heavier, without adding in the least to its strength; since the effect of the powder will always be sustained by the thinnest part of the circumference, without any regard to those places that are thicker than the rest. Great pains are always taken to render the circumference of the barrel very even throughout, which is indispensibly necessary, in order to render it perfectly sound and secure.

The last operation is that of colouring the barrel ; previous to which it is polished with fine emery and oil, until it is rendered perfectly smooth and equal. It was formerly the custom to colour barrels, by exposing them to a degree of heat, which produced an elegant blue tinge; but as this effect arises from a degree of calcination taking place upon the surface of the metal, the in side of the barrel consequently sustained considerable injury; and this practice, therefore, has been disused for many years. It is now the custom to brown barrels ; which is done by rubbing the barrel over with aqua-fortis, or spirit of salt, diluted with water, and laying it by until a complete coat of rust is formed upon it; a little oil is then applied, and the surface, being rubbed dry, is polished with a hard brush and bees-wax. This is not the only method to render barrels of a fine brown; it may be done (by the sportsman him-self, if he thinks proper) by first rubbing the barrel bright with sand-paper, to take off all greasiness; and afterwards fit a stick into the muzzle to hold it by. Bruise half an ounce of stone brimstone, and sprinkle it over a gentle fire; hold the barrel over the smoke, at the same time moving it about, until all parts become equally tinged; then place it in a damp situation until the next day, when you will find a fine rust thrown out, over which you may draw your finger, to spread it even over the barrel ; let it remain another day, after which it should be polished, above described.

When barrels are intended for a double gun, they are dressed to their proper thickness, which  is generally less than for single barrels ; and each of them is filed flat on the side where it is to join the other, so that they may fit closely together. Two corresponding notches are then made at the muzzle and breech of each barrel ; and into these are fitted two small pieces of iron to hold them more strongly together. The barrels being united by tinning the parts where they touch, the ribs are fitted in, and made fast by the same means. These ribs are the pieces of iron which are placed between the barrels, running on their upper and under sides the whole length, and serving to hold them more firmly together. When the barrels are thus joined, they are polished and coloured in the manner already described.

Twisted barrels are deservedly celebrated for their superior elegance and strength. The iron employed in them is formed of old horse-shoe nails, which are originally made of the softest and toughest iron that can be produced; and this is still further purified by the numerous heatings and hammerings it has undergone, in being reduced from a bar into the size and form of nails. Twenty-eight pounds of these stubs are required to make a single barrel of the ordinary size. These barrels are twisted into a spiral form, by means of the anvil and hammers alone, which is  not the case with the common barrels; the method of twisting which has been before described. These barrels are finished in the same way as the common ones. Stub iron is also wrought into plain barrels, which, as they require much less labour, are only half the price of the twisted ones.

The French canons a rubans, or ribbon barrels, very much resemble the twisted barrels of the English; and the acknowledged superiority of twisted and ribbon barrels over plain ones, has induced many persons to counterfeit them, by colouring plain barrels, so as to shew a spiral line running from one end to the other. This is produced by wetting a thread with diluted aquafortis, or spirit of salt, and winding it in a spiral direction round a plain barrel, so that a coat of rust may be formed where the thread touches. When the acid is employed the second time over the whole barrel, the part over which the thread has passed, by being more rusted than the rest, shews a dark line winding, round the barrel; arid renders it,  when well finished, scarcely distinguishable from the twisted or ribbon barrel. Other barrels are, by similar means, clouded in an irregular manner, so as to resemble those made of stub-iron. To prove, therefore, whether a barrel is what it appears to be, it will be necessary to fix upon any part of the under side that is covered by the stock; and having cleared a small space with a fine file, apply a feather dipped in aquafortis, which, in a little time, will render the fibres of the metal distinctly visible, when, consequently, it will be easy to ascertain in what direction they run.

Spanish barrels have always been held in great esteem, as well on account of the quality of the iron, which has generally been considered as the best in Europe, as because they possess the reputation of being forged and bored with greater accuracy than any others. It will here be necessary to observe, that of the Spanish barrels, those alone are accounted truly valuable, which are made at Madrid; and in consequence of this predilection, numbers have been manufactured in other parts of Spain (particularly at Catalonia,in Biscay, with the names and marks of the Madrid gun-makers). They have also been counterfeited at Liege, Prague, Munich, &c. and with that nicety too, that a person must be a very good judge, not to be deceived by them.

The barrels which bear the highest price, and are the most sought after by the curious in this way, are those made by artists which have been dead many years; though, I am inclined to think, this preference has no better foundation than the common prejudice in favour of things that are the production of remote ages or distant countries.

Madrid barrels are composed of the old shoes of horses and mules collected for the purpose; and an idea may be formed of the great purity to which the iron is brought in the course of the operation, when it is known, that, to make a barrel, which, rough from the forge, weighs only six or seven pounds, they employ a mass of mule shoe iron, weighing from forty to forty-five pounds; so that from thirty-four to thirty-eight pounds are exhausted in the beatings and hammerings it is made to undergo, before it is forged into a barrel.

The avidity with which Spanish barrels were sought after has, however, in a great degree, subsided ; and I am of opinion, that our stubs twisted barrels are fully equal to the Spanish, and that the preference given to the latter, by some few whimsical persons, proceeds more from a fancied, than any real, superiority. The vanity of possessing something that is singularly curious, the false idea that whatever is expensive must necessarily be excellent, and occasionally the laudable desire of improvements have all, in their turns, been the causes of a variety of experiments being made in the manufacture of barrels ; and twisted are allowed to be superior to any other.

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The best source of well-being or wealth is Economy. It is the daughter of Prudence, the sister of Temperance, and the mother of Liberty.

— Dr. Johnson