America’s Double Heritage
A wide variety of over/under and side-by-side
guns were in use by hunters in the 18th
and 19th century.
Whoever made the first double-barrel gun is impossible to identify with certainty. In his masterly work, One Hundred Great Guns, Merrill Lindsay observes over-and-under double-barrel wheellock pistols and rifles appeared in the 16th century. He specifically points to a double wheellock pistol made for Charles V by Peter Peck of Munich around 1540, which is now housed in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. From the early wheellock period through the flintlock and late percussion eras, double-guns of various calibers and gauges continued to evolve and be refined, even in America.
Historically underrated, the double rifles and combination guns made in upstate New York and New England from the 1830’s until the metallic cartridge era of the 1870’s were very popular for big game hunting—well made, well regulated and surprisingly affordable, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Have you ever heard of the shot that sealed the eventual outcome of the Revolutionary War fired by “the double-barreled rifleman” of the Revolution, Timothy Murphy? Opinions differ on whether or not the famed marksman, Murphy, a member of Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps, was actually using his double rifle on that fateful October day in Saratoga, New York, but the historical man and his double rifle are so well documented I would have to side with the historical markers in place at Saratoga and Schoharie commemorating his feat.
Murphy did indeed own a double flintlock rifle and was known for his exceptional marksmanship. At the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie, New York, not only is there displayed a percussion-converted double rifle attributed to Murphy but also a page dated February 19, 1776, from the ledger of gunsmith Isaac Worly of Easton, Pennsylvania, reading, “A rifle made for Timothy Murphy, a two-barrel rifle—with both barrels rifled, only one made.”
In 1777, the British 3-prong strategy to split the colonies and destroy Washington’s forces called for General Burgoyne and his army to descend from Canada down Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River and connect forces with Col. Leger moving east along the Mohawk Valley and General Howe moving north from New York City. Great strategy, but unfortunately Howe struck west into Pennsylvania for some unknown reason, and at Saratoga, on October 7, 1777 Timothy Murphy shot and killed both Burgoyne’s utterly essential field officer, General Simon Fraser, and a bit later, Burgoyne’s chief aide-de-camp, Sir Francis Clarke. Without Fraser’s leadership, Burgoyne’s army fell into disarray. Surrounded by American forces, cut off from Canada with no prospect of retreating north during the winter, General Burgoyne surrendered the whole northern army on October 17, 1777. Tim Murphy’s marksmanship and possibly his double rifle had helped to turn the tide of the Revolution.
Timothy Murphy’s double flintlock rifle looked much like this one,
with the addition of a patchbox and subtle carving.
A Nelson Lewis .44×14-gauge combination gun was a versatile game gun and this
particular caliber pairing was very popular in the day. Predominantly, Lewis
used back-action locks on his guns.
Early double guns were over/under, stack barrel designs. The art of regulating side-by-side barrels joined by a soldered rib to converge at a common point-of-aim was a skill developed only much later. With two barrels stacked on top of one another, there was either a single, or in the case of barrels that could be rotated, two distinct and separate sighting planes.
The .58-caliber, swivel-barreled, flintlock double rifle pictured is typical of an O/U design of the 18th Century, although this particular rifle was made by contemporary gunmaker, Lenard Day. Timothy Murphy could well have carried a similar model.
The two octagonal barrels are soldered together without a rib. Each barrel carries its own separate set of sights. There is one lock and two pans. A release inside the triggerguard unlocks the barrels so they can be rotated into battery and fired. This simple, fast and effective design was carried on right through the end of the percussion period. A number of barreling combinations can be found in the originals—both barrels rifled, both barrels smooth, one barrel rifled, the other smooth. In the percussion era, there were even more simple, non-rotating O/U designs which either used two locks, one of which had a longnose hammer that extended down to fire the nipple on the lower barrel or a single lock supporting two side or mule ear hammers.
In the late percussion era, New York and New England were the hotbeds for the production of double rifles and combination guns for resident hunters. Gunmakers like Nelson Lewis (1811-1888) of Troy, N.Y., Morgan James (1815-1878) of Utica, N.Y., and William Billinghurst (1807-1880) of Rochester, N.Y., stand out in particular based on their lifetime production.
The most detailed description of the actual use of cap-lock double rifles for hunting in New England is contained in Ned H. Roberts’ classic book, The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle. Said Roberts, “Some men who were better able financially had Billinghurst or N. Lewis double barreled rifles in 52, 56, 64 or 70 gauge [.45, .44, .42 or .40 caliber] and these were considered the very finest, most practical rifles for big game shooting.
These rifles usually had 26- or 28-inch barrels, weighed 8 to 10 pounds and, firing alternate right and left barrels, would keep ten shots in a 3- or 4-inch ring at 20 rods [110 yards].
In addition to the “lollypop” sight, the James rifle is mounted with simple open sights.
Morgan James enjoyed a long career and was noted for his precision target rifles and scopes.
A precision “lollypop” tang sight was very common on
double rifles and combination guns.
The .40-caliber barrels of the James double are rifled for a patched roundball.
“Both Billinghurst and Lewis also made combination double barreled guns with the top barrel a rifle of any desired caliber and the bottom one any regular gauge shotgun, or having the two barrels side-by-side. These were considered by many hunters as the finest hunting arm as with such a gun one was always prepared to shoot big game, or grouse or squirrels and other small game.”
The double rifle pictured here was built by Morgan James, a master gunmaker best known for his outstanding target rifles and telescopic sights. It’s a .40x.40 caliber, choke-bored and rifled for a patched roundball. The barrels are unusually long, measuring 33 inches, adding to the rifle’s hefty overall weight of 11.5 pounds, but you have to remember each rifle was built to the customer’s specifications. Maybe the owner felt longer barrels would provide more velocity from black powder or maybe he wasn’t a woods loafer and chose to shoot his game from an Adirondack guide boat or stationary stand. Who knows?
The rifle is fitted with both an open leaf sight and as well as a fully adjustable, folding, “lollypop” peep sight mounted on the tang—a common combination of the day. With a charge of 40 grains of FFFg, a 0.395-inch roundball and a 0.014-inch-thick patch, the Morgan James will consistently average 2.5 inches at 50 yards and 4.5 inches at 100 yards. That’s one left and one right, allowing the barrels to cool down completely between 2-shot strings, which is essential when shooting a double for zero.
One of the interesting characteristics of double guns, be they rifles, shotguns or combinations, is that the right barrel is typically fired more often than the left barrel. In muzzleloading guns, the right lock is usually more worn than the left lock, and often the hammer of the right lock is a replacement. In the James rifle, the sear and tumbler of the right lock are more worn than those on the left.
The second SxS double pictured is a .44×14-gauge combination made by Nelson Lewis. The .44×14-gauge SxS was by far the most popular combination gun of the percussion era, and more guns are seen in those calibers than all others combined.
Lewis rifled his guns with a gain twist, and the rifling in this piece appears to be designed for a patched picket bullet rather than a roundball. The Lewis gun sports 27.5-inch barrels and weighs 8.5 pounds, which conforms to Ned Roberts’ general description. The rifle still carries a set of adjustable open sights on the rib, but the original “lollypop” tang sight is missing. The hole for the threaded stem of the “lollypop” has been filled, and two additional holes have been drilled and tapped for a later, Lyman-style tang sight.
Mounted with silver hardware and with the barrel steel marked Suhl, Germany, this .44×14 would be listed as a No. 2 grade in the N. Lewis price list of 1876: “No 2. Best iron barrels, German silver mounted, or case-hardened trimmings. From $40 to $50.”
Maybe the most interesting feature of the Lewis double gun is the right hammer is a plain-Jane replacement for the original. The owner exercised his rifle barrel a lot more than his shotgun barrel.
If only these old doubles could talk!
By Holt Bodinson
The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle, by Ned H. Roberts, reprint, hardcover, 328 pages, $34.95. From A&J Booksellers, 4731 E. Cooper St., Tucson, AZ 85711, (520) 512-1065, www.ajarmsbooksellers.com