Once upon a time a gentleman might learn the importance of good manners the hard way. If rude to a fellow aristocrat or lady in the 18th or early 19th century it was quite possible you could end up being challenged to a duel. Before you knew it there would be pistols at dawn and the prospects of a painful death.
It is this romantic sense of honour and daring among the ruling classes, where risking life was preferable to losing face, which has led to a soaring demand for collectable vintage duelling pistols – and prices rising by up to 50% in the past decade.
Most duelling arms were built from about 1770 when the pistol became the weapon of choice for gentry, politicians, Army and Royal Navy officers. It marked the start of a “golden age” of duelling that lasted until around 1850, when duels were banned.
While once firearms might have been in demand from jealous husbands or wronged business partners, now these beautifully crafted guns are yearned after by collectors. The best investment is not an individual firearm, but a pair of flintlock pistols complete with a lined mahogany carry case and a powder flask, ramrods and a bullet mould. It might also include some tools.
Flintlock pistols are muzzle-loading single shot pistols and are seen as historic collectables so, unlike modern revolver pistols, can still be purchased today. Modern pistols are outlawed in most countries and owners need special permission to own them. Percussion revolvers were not generally used for duels because, even though they were around by the 19th century, using them was poor etiquette.
Thomas Del Mar, who runs an antique armoury business and is a consultant for Sotheby’s in London, says you need a careful eye to spot the difference between real duelling guns and target pistols of the same era. “Duelling pistols tend to have longer barrels of eight to 12 inches and may not include sights,” he says. “The barrel of a duelling pistol will also not be rifled as it was not seen as sporting. Rifling is the grooving on the interior of a barrel that is designed to make the bullet spin with more accuracy.”
Del Mar says that Wogdon & Barton of London is among the best names for duelling pistols, with fine sets costing £10,000- £15,000 (€11,212-€16,814), though it is easy to pay far more. Provenance also makes values soar.
A 1785 pair of Wogdon & Barton 30-bore duelling flintlocks once owned by the Duke of Bedford sold for £24,000 at Bonhams in April. Other gun makers to look out for are John Manton and (moving into the early 19th century) Joseph Manton, William Jover and Henry Twigg.
Del Mar recently sold a fine-cased pair of 1827 38-bore flintlock duelling pistols by John Manton for £31,200.
Another famous gun maker of the era was Swiss-born Durs Egg, who produced guns for wealthy gentlemen. Others specialising in duelling pistols include Jeremiah Patrick of Liverpool, Charles Moore of London, Henry Rowland, John Watson, Thomas Addis, Westley Richards and William Graves.
James Purdey is not well known as a duelling pistol maker but is one of the finest names in firearms. He learned his craft working for Joseph Manton. A rare cased pair of 1825 flintlock duelling pistols by Purdey sold for £60,000 at Bonhams in April.
In about 1775 John Twigg began to make an octagonal barrel for duelling, a style that was widely imitated – you also sometimes see hexagonal barrels. Others offering octagonal barrels included Manton and Jover. Duelling pistols also often had “hockey stick” type handles with cross-hatching. Designs tended to be plain with few embellishments.
According to the British Code of the Duel of 1824, duels could only be conducted between people of equal social standing. While there was some snobbery involved, duels were not just about class honour and defending a good name; they were also a way of handling slander or libel that avoided the courts.
Combatants would stand back-to-back and step forward at least 10 paces (24 feet) and up to 40, before turning to aim and fire. A “seconder” might give the order to fire. The shooting arm was slightly bent as a straight arm was seen as poor form. The other arm would usually be tucked neatly away behind the back.
Doctors were often called upon as silent witnesses with a gruesome task at the end. A lead ball – typically up to a quarter inch wide – was pushed down the barrel wrapped with “patch” linen so it did not fall out before firing. If the flint ignited the gunpowder the bullet would hopefully fly out. Failure was “a flash in the pan”. Typically up to three shots were allowed and reloading skills were key in a duel.
These days, Britain has some of the toughest gun ownership rules in the world. Any firearm with a barrel less than 30 centimetres in length is a “prohibited weapon”, which effectively outlaws modern pistols for anyone without special written permission from the Home Office. A Firearms Certificate is only issued for so-called black powder weapons – such as a flintlock duelling pistol – and manually loaded cartridge rifles. Each gun has to be strictly justified.
However, requirements for a Shotgun Certificate are not so draconian, even if they still require permission from the police and use of a security safe. Once a Shotgun Certificate has been granted it enables possession of a wide range of shotguns, including vintage firearms sought after by collectors.
The shotgun has changed little in design since the late 19th century. But its appeal has been transformed thanks to a boom in the popularity of clay pigeon shooting and expansion of game shooting to those outside landed gentry. Anyone interested in investing in firearms should take an active role in shooting to appreciate the guns that they hold.
Gavin Gardiner, a vintage shotgun auctioneer who also works with Sotheby’s, explains the big three names for collectors are James Purdey & Sons, Holland & Holland and Boss & Co. This is not just because they made the finest quality “best guns” but were also innovators inventing the modern firearm.
J Purdey & Sons was established in 1814 and received a Royal Warrant in 1868. Queen Victoria owned a pair of Purdey pistols. It transformed what had previously been a muzzle-loading flintlock into a break-action breech-loading gun in the 1860s. A sidelock design and hammerless ejectors were added in the 1880s. Apart from a few minor changes this is the same design used by modern firearms today.
London-based bespoke gun maker Holland & Holland began in 1835 and also became a great innovator of sporting rifles. Boss & Co was established in 1812 and invented a single trigger for two shots in 1894 and an over-and-under in 1909.
Gardiner says: “If you have the money a pair of matching shotguns is ideal because on a driven game day you may not have time to reload for birds overhead. The best shot of all was Lord Ripon. This Victorian legend would go shooting with three guns.”
Lord Ripon once shot 28 pheasants in a minute and famously had seven dead birds still in the air. Gardiner sold a pair of 12-bore sidelock ejector Purdey guns made in 1937 for £46,000 at a recent auction and a pair of Purdeys from 1999 went for £96,000 – a relative bargain as a brand- new Purdey can take up to three years to build and cost £70,000.
Just below the big three there is another level of high quality shotgun makers that include William Evans, Stephan Grant, Joseph Lang and Henry Atkin. These are still highly regarded but can be picked up for less than £15,000. Non-British makers with pedigree include Beretta, Browning, Perazzi, Miroku and AyA.
A big reason vintage firearms have been climbing in value is the craftsmanship from top makers, particularly in the Edwardian era and between the World Wars, has never been bettered.
But Gardiner warns against allowing the heart ruling the head and recommends attending specialist auctions, seeking advice and handling firearms first. He says: “Don’t be afraid or be led astray by magpie tendencies. Most people find it hard to judge the real quality of a gun – construction and the way a gun feels are what is most important. Auctioneers should be happy to offer free help on viewing days.”
A tall or large person tends to suit a gun with a longer barrel while a shorter or slightly built one might want a shorter length. Longer barrels, typically of 30 inches, are most in demand. Minor stock alterations can easily be made for about £200.
The “side-by-side”, where cartridges are fired from two barrels next to each other, is the most popular traditional game gun design, but in recent years the “over and under” has attracted more attention, being favoured by clay pigeon shooters.
A “sidelock” style refers to the way the firing mechanism is installed under plates and curves into the side of the stock. It has been around for more than a century and regarded as the most collectable. The “boxlock” is another traditional favourite – fitting as a unit within the gun – but although commonly used on shotguns today it is generally regarded as inferior.
Engraving is also a consideration for investers and – although it may not improve shooting – famous names can double the value of a shotgun. Italian engraver Angelo Galeazzi, still alive today, provides countryside and hunting scenes that are great works of art in themselves. His decorations on guns by local makers such as Luciano Bosis and Abbiatico & Salvinelli can go for £20,000 or more. Great British engravers to look out for include Ken Hunt, Keith Thomas, Alan Brown and Ken Praeter.
The vast majority of sports guns are 12-bore. The term refers to the amount of lead required to make a round ball that will fit the inside diameter of a barrel – not the dimensions of lead shot in a cartridge. A 12-bore is a twelfth of a pound. However, smaller 20- bore sports guns are becoming increasingly collectable.
Although vintage firearms may appreciate in value they are termed a “wasting asset” by the taxman so escape capital gains tax when it is time to sell.
Contact: Gavin Gardiner, +44 (0)1798 875 300, gavingardiner.com; Thomas Del Mar, +44 (0)20 7602 4805, thomasdelmar.com. Other gun auctioneers include Christie’s, Bonhams and Holt’s. Guides include The Vintage Guns for the Modern Shot by Diggory Hadoke; The British Duelling Pistol by John Atkinson.