Osborne: fine English craftsmanship
Country Notes

Goodbye, old friend

Parting ways with a favourite old shotgun

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As presents go, it was a pretty good one. I’d just turned 17 and I very clearly remember the battered leather box being laid out on the kitchen table. My godfather, a devout fisherman and moderately keen shot, had decided to rationalise the contents of his gun cabinet and reckoned that his old English side-by-side, a gun some long-dead relative of his had bought as a workhorse, would suit me well.

Beneath the initials on the front of the case were labels that had been stuck on down the decades, “Euston”, “Waverley”, and “Aberdeen”, relics of a time when you could hand your gun to the train porter before settling in for a gin while watching the country-side rush by. Incidentally, when I was in my early twenties ScotRail decided
they would no longer allow the transportation of fi rearms at all on any of their services.

Lead shot is on its way out, which means it’s the end of the road for lots of old English guns

For years, the gun was my go-to. I had a rough and ready Italian over-and-under for wet and muddy days but the “Charles Osborne” — Osborne’s being a mid-market Birmingham gunmaker (at one point one of many, but now almost all gone) — was my first choice. Some of my happiest memories are of flushing rabbits from the gorse with my dog and of being beneath a pigeon flight line in Dumfriesshire on a hot August afternoon, always shooting badly and always with a beer.

The world is changing — lead shot is on its way out, which means it’s the end of the road for lots of old English guns. It’s complicated, but the most popular alternative is steel — a material which in terms of its qualities is very different to lead. Lead is dense and malleable whereas steel is light and hard.

There’s a reason lead has been used in ammunition for so long: on many levels, it works. It carries energy and deforms on impact, which causes whatever it is you’re shooting to die quickly. Steel, on the other hand, causes less trauma and the amount of pressure required to get it to travel as far as lead is much greater.

In other words, a shotgun cartridge needs a lot more bang. In modern heavy guns, that’s all good and well but in Edwardian side-by-sides like mine, the barrels won’t take it.

The lead question is a divisive one. Old readers of Shooting Times call me up regularly to tell me they’ve been eating lead-shot game all their lives and there’s nothing much wrong with them, but the stuff is toxic — lead shot that falls on ponds and lakes can be ingested by ducks and geese, which will eventually kill them.

Calling my godfather, before selling the gun, seemed like the right thing to do. His family had owned it from new and I wondered if some teenage relative of his could use it for a few years before lead is totally phased out. “It’s yours”, he told me, “Sell it if you like”.

What I wanted to do, I explained, was to use the money for something to stalk muntjac deer with. The population is on the up, they cause huge damage to songbird habitat, and as meat goes it’s as good as it comes. Simon Reinhold at Holt’s Auctioneers in Norfolk picked the barrels up, flicked them with his nail, and cocked his head like a Labrador.

Steel causes less trauma and the amount of pressure required to get it to travel as far as lead is much greater

“Not bad”, he said.” “Not perfect, but not bad at all.” It is, he told me, a very nice example but they won’t get more than £500 for it. It’ll almost certainly, he predicted, be a commercial buyer who will send it to America where it will fetch a couple of thousand dollars. There’s money to be made in exporting guns but it’s a tricky process. Over there, shotguns are pretty rough and ready, and elegant pieces crafted on English workbenches are admired.

Curiously, Americans always liked to make their own cartridges. From time to time an old boy with an unsteady hand would tip too much powder into the blend and barrels had to withstand the pressure when the thing went off. Consequently, the likes of my Osborne really stand out amongst their lumps.

At the same time, with people looking to a steel future, the likes of Browning guns, headquartered in Utah, are doing a roaring trade in England. It’s always sad to part with an old friend but I’m already enjoying the thought of the Osborne bagging quail beneath the Carolina sun.

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