Damascus-steel Barrels

Are They Even Safe To Shoot?
22

A new-manufacture Damascus “color-hardened 20 bore with four seasons
engraving” quail gun from famed English shotgun maker W.W. Greener. Cost? Don’t ask.

Pull out a Damascus-barreled shotgun at a skeet range and a number of folks will run for the hills — they want to be far away when your blunderbuss blows up. Some of their concern is valid, for over the years enough shooters and hunters have had major issues with Damascus-barreled shotguns. Still, a properly inspected gun with twist barrels loaded with low compression shells functions every bit as good as a contemporary model. Owners just need to do their homework, is all.

In simple terms, Damascus is a technique of combining steel and iron for greater strength. It was first used on edged weapons starting around the 3rd century in Damascus, the capitol of Syria. Those knives and swords were produced in such volume the unique pattern became known by the city’s name.

Another new-manufacture Damascus Greener, this time a 12-gauge single-trigger
pheasant gun. If this gun doesn’t inspire awe, you’re simply not a shotgun shooter!

Pretty Tough Stuff

Over a millennium later and in the mid-1790s, a Frenchman named Jean-Francois Clouet of Liege, was among the first Western gunmakers to experiment with Damascus barrels. Two Englishmen, William Dupein and J. Jones, expanded on his work several years later with Jones patenting a new process of turning a bevel-edged band of metal into a spiral-twist with interlocking threads. To make these barrels, iron and steel metal was stacked on top of each other, heated and hammered to create one block of mixed metal. The block was then heated and drawn to form a rod. The process was repeated until six such rods were made and then the rods were prepared for heating and twisting. Three of the rods were twisted with a right-facing thread while three of the rods were twisted in the opposite direction with a left-facing thread. A thin-metal sleeve was wrapped around a mandrel over which the barrel ribbons were wound. The threads were connected, heated and hammer-welded, the mandrel was removed, and a barrel was formed. It normally took seven feet of rod to create one foot of barrel.

Many know the Crolle Damascus pattern-welded barrels, for they are artistic and contain highly-figured patterns based on how the two different-colored metals were “piled” or layered while the rods were twisted. Those patterns form because when twisted, the outer layers move inward. The various degrees of depth coming from the number of threads per inch determines the pattern, with some being simple chevrons or diamonds while others being more complex.

Americans, eager to switch to smokeless powders — slower-burning but maintaining high pressures for greater velocities and longer-distance shots — moved into barrels that would accommodate the extra pressure. This change in shotshells caused American gun manufacturers to produce barrels from fluid steel that could accommodate those stouter loads. Americans shied away from Damascus guns starting in the late 1880s though British gun makers continued with Damascus-steel barrels through the early 1930s.

A 1902 Ithaca Grade two side-by-side with Damascus barrels. It’s still perfectly
serviceable after inspection by a qualified gunsmith and using low-compression shells.

The Past Is Past

Does it make sense to let go of the past? Cell phones have replaced the telegraph as cars replaced stagecoaches. With such a focus on modern firearms, sales of Damascus guns have plummeted. What has been created, though, is an opportunity to acquire high-grade, vintage shotguns for more than a reasonable fee. If you’re in the market, a close inspection by a reputable gunsmith is necessary.

One proponent of Damascus guns is Vermont’s Lars Jacob of Lars Jacob Wingshooting:

“Damascus-barreled shotguns in good repair are highly functional,” he said. “Barrel integrity is the most important — and the least understood — element of shooting vintage Damascus-barreled shotguns. Barrels typically fail inspection from one of three distinct issues. The first comes from pitted bores. Pitted bores are often caused by a manufacturer’s use of soft iron or poor welding techniques. Pitting also can come from improper storage over time. If the bores have been reamed to remove rust and pits then the wall thickness is altered. When excessive amounts of metal is removed then the barrel integrity is compromised and is therefore weakened. Gunsmiths use micrometers to measure barrel thickness in a variety of places and then compare those measurements with factory specifications.

“The second reason Damascus guns fail inspection is because the barrels have been dented while hunting. It’s easy to remove dings from fluid steel barrels but removing a dent from twist barrels creates a soft spot and lessens barrel integrity. And the third issue relates to chokes. Most vintage guns had tighter chokes, with improved cylinder and modified being most common. The second common configuration was modified and full. If your candidate has cylinder and skeet chokes then the odds are high that the chokes have been opened at some point.”

In these, shooting low-compression shells is a must, and thanks to companies like RST and Polywad, these traditional shells are commercially available.

A vintage Henry Clark and Son’s Damascus-barreled side-by-side. It still shoots,
even though some might run away if it shows up on the firing line!

Ain’t Skeered

Shawn Wayment, DVM, is a Colorado bird hunter who isn’t afraid to reach into his gun cabinet and extract a Damascus-barreled shotgun. “I’ve got seven Damascus guns,” he said. “Two are Parkers, two are Lefevers, and three are Frank Hollenbeck Drillings. Every one of their barrel patterns is unique, and they’re all gorgeous. My first Damascus gun was a Parker GH 16 gauge on a 0 frame. Because it’s a 16-gauge on a 20-gauge frame, it’s light and is considered to be the Holy Grail of grouse guns. I found it at M.W. Reynolds shooting and fly-fishing store in Denver, and when I mounted the gun it fit perfectly. After a thorough inspection I bought it on the spot. I’m a bit more careful when hunting with the Damascus gun, and because I hunt at high elevation in rugged terrain, I’m cautious not to ding the barrels. I shoot RST 2-1/2″ low compression shells, and I’ve killed one heck of a lot of birds. These days I don’t care if a shotgun’s barrels are fluid steel, Damascus, or twist. If the gun fits I, buy it.”

Graham N. Greener, the Director of W.W. Greener Sporting Guns LTD offers new shotguns with Damascus barrels manufactured over a century ago. “Our company was the last English gun-making company to make Damascus barrels and production of these ceased in 1903,” he said. “We had a stock of these and decided to make shotguns with these barrels again and some with steel and Damascus interchangeable barrels. These have mostly been side lock side-by-side sporting shotguns in 12 and 20 bores. All have been made to individual orders including pairs and sets of guns. Many are featured on our website.”

Missouri’s Steve Culver, a master knifemaker and a master gunsmith, sought to create a firearm that combines his two unique skill sets. “I made Laffite’s Revenge as a combination weapon,” he said. “I designed the flintlock mechanism to create a .50 caliber flintlock pistol with a spiral-welded Damascus barrel. To that I added a 12″ long Damascus blade that features a Woodhead pattern. The spine slopes downward toward the point that keeps the blade from obstructing the shooter’s view when aiming. They’ve been a highlight in my career but the required production time as well as the required materials is too much. Still, I don’t know of any modern gunsmith who has made Damascus barrels. Do you?”

I do not, but what remains is while shooting a Damascus-barreled shotgun requires more due diligence from a quality gunsmith and the shooting of low-compression shells, these firearms are safe to shoot. And if properly cared for, I suspect they’ll continue to break clays and drop quail many years from now.

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