James Woodward and the Vertical Double

Teasdale-Buckell’s articles were later compiled in a book, Experts on Guns and Shooting, a reference used to this day. For whatever reason, Teasdale-Buckell didn’t include his article on Woodward in the book, and that omission has contributed to the reclusive air surrounding the company.

No one knows anything about James Woodward or his background, except that he was born in 1814 and in 1827 apprenticed to Charles Moore, where he worked his way up to the position of head finisher. Around 1844, the company moved to 64 St. James’s Street, Woodward was made a partner, and the company name was changed to Moore & Woodward. Moore retired around 1851, Woodward took over the business, brought his sons into it, and in 1872 the firm became James Woodward & Sons.

The year 1851 was momentous for the London gun trade—the year of the Great Exhibition in which Lefaucheux exhibited his break-action, inspiring Joseph Lang to build the first such London gun. One can imagine no more auspicious time for an ambitious gunmaker to take the London stage, and James Woodward did exactly that. His competitors included such graduates of the Manton school of gunmaking as James Purdey, Thomas Boss, and Stephen Grant.

Woodward wasn’t only a gifted gunmaker with impeccable taste, the highest standards, and a unique flair; he was also a talented gun designer. Over the next 60 years, he, his sons, and his employees made a significant impact with a wide range of patents, as the London gun trade enjoyed what Michael McIntosh called “the most momentous half-century in the history of shotguns.”

It was a half century in which the break-action side-by-side as we know it was conceived, developed, and perfected. Historian Donald Dallas refers to this half century as the “pursuit of perfection,” and it’s hard to argue that the London trade (abetted by its cohorts in Birmingham) didn’t achieve that.

This gun was built in 1882, ordered for “big days” on the grouse moors. Winston Churchill owned a pair of Woodward “Automatics.”

The London gun progressed from the pinfire, through centerfire hammer guns, to hammerless; Purdey developed the double underlug, Scott (of Birmingham) the Scott spindle, and together they became the standard bolting system used today. John Stanton perfected the rebounding hammer; Frederick Beesley designed first the Purdey action, then the Lancaster—the premier hammerless self-openers of all time.

That isn’t the tip of the iceberg or even the tip of the tip: It is the crystal atop that tip, and the patents of those years, many still in wide use around the world, filled three volumes published by Crudgington & Baker.

Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, conceived the Great Exhibition, and its success owed a great deal to his backing. So, too, did the many shooting sports in England. Because he was an enthusiastic deer stalker and wing shooter, those activities became all the rage at every level of society, and it was this enthusiasm (to say nothing of money) that allowed the London gun trade to flower.

Competition was intense, and every fine gunmaker looked for something to set his works apart. Lesser makers, unable to make true “best” guns, sought gimmicks. A “best” gun, by the way, is a gun that no further effort or expense can improve. It is a maker’s finest effort, with nothing spared. Today, the term is tossed around to describe all manner of machine-made (albeit expensive) junk.

Only Boss & Co. made the making of best guns a fetish, printing maker of best guns only on its trade label. Everyone else, Purdey included, made different grades of guns.

Each, however, did have a few products that became its trademark. With Purdey, it was the Beesley-designed self-opening sidelock, while Stephen Grant liked side-lever guns. James Woodward & Sons set itself apart, in a way, by not setting itself apart. Throughout its history, the company made a wide range of guns and rifles, incorporating virtually any feature a client might like. No single Woodward patent became a standard feature of a best gun, but that doesn’t mean that Woodward wasn’t an active inventor.

“After an almost-50-year hiatus, the London Woodward was back. But then, in several important ways, the Woodward never left.”

Before the advent of the hammerless gun, different makers sought ways of automatically cocking hammer guns, to save steps when the birds were flying . Woodward, always an admirer of underlevers, patented a self-cocking design, with the underlever cocking the hammers as well as releasing the barrels. It was called “The Automatic,” or sometimes “Automaton.”

It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time the word automatic was associated with a shotgun, and it causes some confusion today when automatic means “machine gun.”

With the advent of hammerless locks, Woodward adapted this pattern, using the underlever to cock the tumblers. “The Automatic” became a popular Woodward model, and the company even produced them for other makers— a common practice.

Woodward was known (to use a hackneyed term) as “the gunmaker’s gunmaker.” Its quality was never in doubt, nor its workmanship. During the company’s century of existence, it made fewer than 5,000 guns and rifles; the serial numbers begin in the 3,000 range (probably taking over where Charles Moore left off) and end at 7,184 in 1948.

Woodward was also a “shooter’s gunmaker.” By this we mean that a man who knew guns, and shot his guns a great deal, would go to Woodward because he knew he would get a gun that would last under hard use. One finds many old Purdeys in almost-new condition, shot little, purchased by men who had made money, felt they should shoot “the best,” and assumed that meant a Purdey. One finds very few pristine Woodwards. They were made to be shot, and shot they were. Woodward’s direct rival in the London trade wasn’t Purdey, but Boss. The firm was of about the same size, situated a few doors down, at No. 73 St. James’s Street, and, until Boss was purchased by John Robertson in 1892, produced relatively few guns, but ones of exquisite quality.

British gun historian Donald Dallas points out that they were the only two makers that did their final finishing, not with emery cloth on a wooden block but with ultra-fine #8 files. Those files are almost impossible to find today. Boss and Woodward believed fi ling gave guns a “crispness” that couldn’t be achieved with less exact polishing blocks.

In 1892, Robertson purchased the struggling Boss & Co. from Thomas Boss’s nephew, and Boss entered a new era. Robertson was one of the foremost outworkers and designers in the trade, and he brought Boss to a new level of innovation, modernizing its products and even improving its already legendary quality. Among Robertson’s inventions was, first, his single-trigger mechanism (1893), followed in 1909 by the famous Boss over-and-under.

Woodward’s shop, not to be left behind, designed (but never patented) its own single trigger, and its own over-and-under in 1913. The firearm was called, incidentally, an “under-and-over” or, occasionally, the “vertical double.”

Until that time, no English company had made a really successful over-and-under. Part of the design problem was a bolting mechanism that didn’t make the gun excessively deep. Boss solved that problem by using the ancient cannon trunnion for pivoting the barrels. The trunnions were attached to the barrel block beside the under-barrel, rather than beneath it. The result was a slim, graceful gun.

Woodward’s patent employed the same principle in reverse, placing the trunnions in the wall of the receiver. If one was better than the other, no one to this day has proved it.

An earlier Woodward/ South gate patent for an external hammer gun, opened and cocked by an underlever.

Woodward’s timing, however, was unfortunate. Boss had time to establish its over-and-under before war engulfed Europe; Woodward did not. After 1918, the Woodward was being offered in the midst of economic devastation. Woodward catalogs from the 1930s describe the over-and-under as “the gun of the day.” The copy also points out that the firm built its first “under-and-over” in 1908, before the Boss appeared, but was dissatisfied with it and spent five years perfecting a new design.

The catalogs also tacitly point out who the real rival was when they assure clients that “We do not build our guns down to a price—they are built up to a standard of excellence in design and workmanship unsurpassed by any other fi rm. Nevertheless the prices of our guns will be found to compare very favourably indeed with those of other firms making best guns only.” (Our italics.)

For the record, when that catalog was issued in the 1930s, a Woodward “best” side-by-side sold for £120; the “Under and Over” gun, “Made in best quality only,” was £140—£40 more than a Ford 8 saloon.

JAMES PURDEY ACQUIRED WOODWARD effective January 1, 1949. All Woodward guns disappeared except for the over-and-under, which was renamed Woodward/Purdey.

In his history of Purdey, Richard Beaumont includes an appendix listing all the subsequent modifications to the over-and-under design. They included slimming the receiver, redesigning the firing pins to maximize the blow to the primer (a noted weak point of the Woodward), modernizing the locks, and strengthening the fore end. The bolster was moved inside the frame and out o f sight, giving the gun c leaner external lines, and introduced a rounded Purdey top strap to reduce cracking, combined with a Purdey-style safety and top lever. Similar alterations were made to the smaller gauges, which included 20, 28, and .410 bores.

The first Purdey/Woodward over-and-under, a 12-bore, was delivered in 1950, and it has been a mainstay of the Purdey line ever since. Together, the Woodward and Boss designs inspired (and, in many cases, were the models for) what we now know as the modern over-and-under shotgun, made from Japan to Germany, Italy, and now the United States.

In 1995, James Purdey & Sons announced that once again it would offer guns, both over-and-unders and side-by-sides, with the name J. Woodward & Sons engraved on the locks. It also resumed the Woodward serial number sequence where the count had left off in 1948. After an almost-50-year hiatus, the London Woodward was back. But then, in several important ways, the Woodward never left.

Its old location on St. James’s Street now houses a Swiss private bank, the Bury Street premises no longer exists, and the old workshop in Blue Ball Yard, off St. James ’s Street, is a discreet hotel mews. As for the walk from Bury Street to South Audley, it is nothing like it once was.

Charles Woodward might not recognize this new London, but he would certainly recognize his family’s most famous legacy.

Wieland dates his awakening to what a really fine gun feels like to a day in 1991 when Michael McIntosh dragged him bodily to a booth at a gun show and placed in his hands a Woodward 28-bore over-and-under. The asking price was a then-astronomical $75,000. Wieland didn’t have the money, but he still has the memory.