by Terry Wieland
Rock Island’s spring premier auction is coming up this month (May 19-21, 2023) and there is one item that every admirer of double rifles should take a look at—to drool over, if not to bid on.
Lot #483 (www.rockislandauction.com) is by W.J. Jeffery, in .450/.400 (3”), that two experts of my acquaintance have dubbed “the finest” they have ever seen. It’s not one of the over-the-top, intended for display not for use, elaborately engraved creations of 20 years ago, but a rifle made for hunting in the late ‘20s or early ‘30s.
I became acquainted with this rifle in 2009 when I was working on the second edition of my book, Dangerous-Game Rifles. George Caswell, owner of Champlin Arms and one of the preeminent double-rifle experts in the U.S., introduced me to the rifle’s owner, Johnny McCharen of Oklahoma City. Johnny had an extensive collection of doubles, many of which were purchased from George.
At the time, I was in pursuit of a John Rigby & Co. rising-bite from the same era for the cover photo, and Johnny had a superb one in .450/.400 (3¼”). I went to visit, got the tour of his gun room (which included a Charles Boswell .500 Nitro Express that belonged to the famous J.A. Hunter) and was introduced to the Jeffery.
“The Rigby’s wonderful,” Johnny told me, “But the Jeffery is in a class by itself.”
To the untutored eye, it was a typical “best” quality sidelock, engraved to the ‘nth degree by a master, with nice but not spectacular walnut. Nothing radically different than any number of similar rifles by other great makers, notably Holland & Holland. What set the Jeffery apart, I think, was that it was impossible to find even the smallest flaw, inside or out.
“I’ve seen a lot of double rifles,” George Caswell told me, “But never one like that one.”
Johnny very generously allowed me to take both the Rigby and the Jeffery home to photograph for the book, and I remember checking into a cheap motel in Joplin, Missouri (site of one of the bloodier exploits of Bonnie and Clyde) and thinking, “What am I doing, checking in here with two rifles, either of which is worth far more than my car?” I didn’t dare leave them alone in the room, so I dined on strong coffee and memories of ribeye, and hit the road early.
I lost touch with Johnny after I returned his rifles a couple of weeks later. Then, a month or so ago, Rock Island posted the catalogue for Premier Auction #88 online, and I began going through it page by page. When I came to Lot #483, I absently added it to my “look at” list and carried on. A few lots later I thought, wait a minute, and went back for a second look. Sure enough, it was that gorgeous Jeffery from 15 years ago.
Much as I admire Rock Island’s catalogue photography, they do not do the rifle justice. With all due modesty, I have to say my photos were better, and I’ve attached a few here. Of course, I had two weeks to work on them, while Rock Island’s photographer probably had to get it done in ten minutes.
There’s not much more to say. The Jeffery is one of those rifles you have to pick up, weigh in your hands, put to your shoulder, run your fingers over, and feast your eyes to really appreciate. RIAC has estimated a price of $35,000 to $55,000. This tells you something, because double-rifle prices have receded dramatically from a decade ago. Then, you could not hope for anything decent for less than $25,000; now, good rifles are changing hands at auction for $10,000.
As well, the sky-high prices today are reserved for the big elephant bashets, from .500 on up. The two .450/.400s are not considered real stopping rifles; they are nice all-around rifles, especially for lions and tigers, but they tend to sell for considerably less than a comparable .500. so Rock Island’s estimate tells you something.
At any rate, I am going to the auction to renew my acquaintance with the W.J. Jeffery, and when it comes on the block, I’ll be in the audience cheering. I hope it goes for a million.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, sometimes ponders the question of whether ’tis better to appreciate the finest guns and not be able to afford them, or to have the money but no real appreciation. Opinions are welcome.