Never Say Never.  Never!

Gorgeous, no? Boss & Co. #6205, 20 gauge, made around 1915, is a self-opening over/under. It may be one of a kind. Or, it may not. Photos courtesy Rock Island Auction Company

by Terry Wieland

Not just once, but several times over the past 20 years, I have written that there has never been a self-opening over/under shotgun.

Well, I was wrong.  Wrong, wrong, WRONG!

There is such a beast, and I have held it in my hands.  There are photos of it below, and the eagle-eyed Anglophiles among you will recognize it instantly as a Boss.  (I’ll give you a moment here to mop away the drool before I continue.)

This is a 20-gauge Boss & Co. (“Makers of Best Guns Only”) produced, with one set of barrels, sometime around 1915.  Eighty-five years later, a second set of barrels was fitted by gunmaker Ian Crudgington, co-author (with David Baker) of the three-volume The British Shotgun, listing and explaining all the patents from 1850 to 2011.  This latter fact is significant, as we shall see.

Now let’s move on to the mysteries.  First of all, I have never read, seen, or heard of any self-opening mechanism, not just for Boss, but for any over/under.  It is not mentioned in Donald Dallas’s official history of Boss, nor in Geoffrey and Susan Boothroyd’s The British Over-and-Under Shotgun, nor—perhaps most significantly—in Baker & Crudgington.  Yet here is Ian Crudgington himself producing a second set of barrels for just such a gun, a full decade before the third volume was published.   Since that volume covers the period 1891-2011—and the Boss over/under design saw the light of day in 1909—that’s where any relevant patent should have been listed.

Since my interest and knowledge is largely academic, I called a man whose experience is first-hand and hands-on, gunmaker Kirk Merrington.  Kirk trained as a barrel maker with E.J. Churchill before coming to America.  Had he ever heard of a self-opening Boss O/U?  He had not.

And yet, here one was, listed in the Rock Island catalogue for the Premier Auction in May, and there the gun was, leaning nonchalantly on the rack reserved for the more aristocratic offerings.  When I picked it up and moved the lever to the right, she snapped smartly open in a manner to rival any Purdey or Lancaster (two makers noted for their self-openers).

Having said that, we should also note that both the Purdey action (1880) and the Lancaster (1884) were designed by London’s resident mechanical genius, Frederick Beesley.  The Purdey action, now in production virtually unchanged for more than 140 years, is particularly noted for its durability and longevity, and that is due as much to its excellect mechanics, including the self-opening feature, as it is to Purdey’s superb workmanship.

A self-opener improves durability by maintaining tension on the action at all times.  Wear occurs when a part becomes slightly loose.  Recoil exacerbates the problem, it becomes looser and looser, and eventually ramshackle as it bounces back and forth.  With cheap guns and their generous tolerances, this problem begins to worsen with the very first shot.

This being the case, one has to wonder why no one has ever developed a self-opening mechanism for general use in over/unders.  Obviously—and we now have proof in the form of Boss O/U #6205—it can be done.

My friend Mark McDonald, a serious English-gun devotee, was pondering placing a bid for the Boss, and we spent a long time examining it over the course of several days.  The actual mechanism for self-opening consists of two rods, one on each side, that protrude from the forend iron.  These are powered by springs.  When the action is opened, they push against a vertical surface of the frame.

One thing to keep in mind is that this Boss is a 20 gauge and weighs slightly more than five pounds, which means it does not require great pressure to open.  With a 12 gauge, weighing two to three pounds more, the mechanism might require springs so strong that it would be quite difficult to close.  Just a thought.

All of these theories don’t explain either the lack of mention, anywhere, of a self-opening Boss, nor the lack of any patent.

Kirk Merrington’s theory is that it was a one-off.  Gunmakers in those days were enormously inventive and, if a client came along asking for something unusual, they would do their best to provide it.  This Boss may well have been just such a gun.

Still, here’s another tantalizing titbit:  In the Boothroyd book, there are photographs of a Boss O/U 20 gauge, shown open, and in the gap between the forend iron and the frame, there is what looks very much like a rod pushing against the frame.  That gun is serial number 8,000, made in 1936.  An accompanying photo of the gun, dismantled, shows what look very much to me like two cylindrical rods, protruding from the forend iron.

Another self-opening Boss over/under?  It would appear so.  But, and I have to say this, I have been wrong before.

PS:  The Boss at Rock Island brought $82,250 and no, it was not acquired by anyone I know.

Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland has read the advice “never say never” when it comes to English guns written not only by Geoffrey Boothroyd and Gough Thomas, but by Michael McIntosh, Steve Denny of Holland & Holland, and a host of English gunmakers.  But did he listen?  You guessed it.