The Mystery Gun

Fine Craftsmanship and Custom Features, But What is it?
19

It WAS a mystery.

A strange combination gun has intrigued me since I acquired it on a whim at a Tucson, Ariz., gun show a few years ago.

It’s a side-by-side double barrel, but only the left side is a shotgun — 12-gauge with a 2 1/2" chamber. The chambering is a bit unusual, but the gun is around 120 years old and short chambers were pretty common then. So that isn’t the mysterious part.

The right barrel is chambered for .44 WCF and is so-marked. This would not be unusual on a Winchester lever gun, but the info engraved on the barrel rib identifies the maker as H. Pieper, a highly respected Belgian gunmaker who plied his trade in the late 1800s.

This type of combination rifle and shotgun is commonly known as a “Cape” gun, but is usually chambered for a more common European cartridge. The .44 WCF (or .44-40) is as American as apple pie, so why would this European maker of fine guns choose a chambering practically unknown in Europe?

Puzzling...

The metalwork shows fine craftsmanship and custom features, such as a German silver front sight, three-leaf folding rear sight, color case-hardening, side-lever receiver and gracefully sculptured outside hammers. The lever moves smoothly to operate the action, and it locks up snug and tight.

On the other hand, the walnut buttstock, though nicely checkered, has huge gaps where it is inletted to the receiver. On the tail end is a thin steel buttplate with a well-inletted inset top. However, at the toe, the buttplate overlaps the wood noticeably.

Good quality metal and sub-par inletting? The stock contours are as graceful as befits a high quality firearm and the checkering was well done, but the wood-to-metal fit was poorly executed.

A folding leaf rear sight allows the shooter to obtain the proper elevation for long range shots.

Puzzling...

On top of this, there’s an even more perplexing head scratcher. On the left side, on the wrist of the stock, at the rear of the triggerguard are three carefully carved notches.

I doubt I need to explain what one or more notches on a gun usually signifies. I suppose it could mark three successful hunts for deer, elk, bear or some other species, but I don’t think so. I think it is a tally of men killed by someone using this weapon.

A previous owner of this Cape gun carefully carved three notches on the wrist of the stock behind the trigger guard.

But who? And why?

In my opinion, the notches are not the work of an ordinary person — farmer, laborer, storekeeper or other private citizen of the late 19th century. If a situation arose where such a person had to use deadly force, he probably would not be happy about it and would not carve a notch on his gun. Three such occasions and three notches would strain most people’s limits of credibility.

So, I believe this gun must have belonged to a professional. Lawman? Bounty hunter? Outlaw? Whoever it was had an odd outlook on gun fighting as reflected in his equally odd — and obviously expensive — choice of weapon. Clearly, he saw some kind of advantage with this unusual weapon or he would have armed himself with a more conventional firearm.

The Cape gun’s muzzle has a German silver front sight. It also clearly shows the difference between the .44 WCF rifle barrel on the right and the 12 gauge shotgun barrel.

I needed to know more about this Cape gun, so I emailed some photos of it to an old friend, Garry James, a well-respected arms historian, TV personality and expert on the firearms of earlier centuries.

Garry’s passion for antique firearms was obvious in his voice as we talked about my gun. He told me H. Pieper was a well-known Belgian maker of fine firearms in the late 19th century. He also mentioned that although the .44 WCF is an American cartridge, it is not uncommon in Europe. However, he told me he believed this was an “export gun,” and he wanted to look into it a little further.

Scarcely had a few hours passed when I received Garry’s email saying he’d found my “exact gun in an 1896 Sears catalog!”

Garry was correct about this being an export gun. Pieper exported this model gun to the U.S. for the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. However, it was no bargain basement item. It was offered for what was then the princely sum of $23.45. In the same catalog, Winchester Model 1873 rifles and .45 Colt single-action revolvers cost about half as much.

It explains how a Cape gun from a prominent European gunmaker could end up at a modern day gun show in Tucson, Arizona.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue advertising the Pieper cape gun offered at $23.45. This price is about twice that of a Winchester Model 73 or a Colt Model 1873 elsewhere in the same catalogue.

Clearly, the original purchaser had been a man of means, not a down-at-the-heels drifter. He also had a discriminating eye for something out of the ordinary.

The mystery is solved — most of it, at least. He was a well-heeled man, not necessarily wealthy, but of comfortable means. I still don’t know his name or how he made his living. Also, I am still puzzled about the story behind the three notches …

So, a good bit of mystery remains — and maybe it’s a good thing. The truth might turn out to be too ordinary to be interesting, and I think I prefer what my imagination can dream up.