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Any serious collector of Antique firearms is likely to have cased arms in their collection, and will be well aware of the value added to the firearms themselves by having the correct case, label and accessories. In a recent auction, an authentic Manton case for a pair of duelling pistols went for £5000 including buyer’s premium, more than the price of a pair of uncased duelling pistols by a good but less famous maker. The definitive book on gun cases, until someone writes a better one (unlikely) is – British Gunmakers Their Trade Cards, Cases and Equipment by W.Keith Neal & D.JH.L.Back , so what follows is culled from their book and the observations of others who know more than I do. Be aware that some experts have reservations about some of Keith Neil’s opinions!
The story of gun cases coincides perfectly with the rise of British gunmaking from a position of significant inferiority compared to continental gunmakers to become the most sought after gunmakers in the world through the efforts and innovation of a few dozen individuals, and it is not surprising that this rise was accompanied by a major upgrade in the presentation of their products.
Since best guns were mostly made in London, but bought by the landed gentry, they were usually shipped from maker to buyer, and that would have necessitated some form of packaging, if only for shipping back and forth between maker and user on purchase or repair. Before the middle of the 18th century packaging for long guns probably consisted of plain deal boxes that were discarded after use, although none survive. Pistols that needed to be carried around in use were normally carried in leather holsters , but would have been sold in cheap bags made of blanket offcuts, called ‘shoddies’. Presumably if they needed to be shipped they would also have been packed in simple wooden boxes.
The transition from simple deal box to what we now recognise as a gun case saw a number of short lived transisions via hard leather and wickerwork and tin, but they don’t really throw much light on what we now deal with, if you are interested see Neal & Back’s book.
( later edit 2021) The popularity of cases with associated accesories probably coincided with the popularity of duelling pistols, since these would need to be carried by the seconds to the duelling ground with all the accessories necessary for loading. In some duels a pair of pistols was loaded by the seconds ( as was normal) and each participant used an identical pistol, the challenged dueller having the first choice of pistol. Duelling pistols would also have been carried to galleries at major gunmakers for practice, so the case as we know it would have been useful. The need for a fancy case and accessories for a sporting gun is less clear.
From about 1770 cases began to converge on the designs we are familiar with – initially made of oak, or possibly leather covered deal and divided internally to hold the gun and accessories. The first mahogany cases probably appearing occasionally around 1775 and would, like the oak cases have had a handle on the top that consisted of a bow shaped handle pivoted at each end in a hole drilled in a tube that was part of a fitting with a disk screwed to the case lid. Note that these Chippendale style handles were mounted ON the lid and prevented boxes being stacked. Two hooks were usually fitted to the front of the case engaging with loops on the lid – again these stood proud of the wood – they were of rounded section and often hung down below the bottom of the case, making them liable to scratch furniture or get broken off. At this time shot for guns was carried in an over the shoulder leather ‘snake belt’ and not in the leather flasks that later replaced them. and cases would have had a long compartment for the belt where appropriate – before the snake belt shot would have been carried loose in a bag or pocket. The case lock, if fitted, had a single bolt and a bone or ivory escutcheon or a simple brass strip round the keyhole. Long guns were almost always arranged with the barrel removed and at the back with the breech to the left, presumably because it was easier to lift out the muzzle using the right hand for right handed shooters. For similar reasons the stock was cased with the butt to the right. Up to 1775 long gun flintlocks were left in the stocks when cased, but after that date they were always given their own compartment separated from the stock. It was and still is considered necessary to remove flint locks after firing in order to remove all residues and prevent corrosion – it wasn’t until the percussion era that locks were left in the stock when in the case. Some flint long guns, for instance by John Manton, had the side nail passing through the breech block, so the locks had to be removed before the barrel could be taken off to clean – remember that to remove black powder residue normally requires water, usually hot so the barrel will dry off afterwards. Pistols were almost always cased with the locks in the stocks, and cases were made so that pistols only fitted with the locks at half cock. Case lining would be in baize from about 1780, or 0ccasionally patterned paper before that. Baize would have been quite rough and hairy gradually getting finer and smoother in later years after 1790.
From about 1785 we see a number of changes introduced piecemeal -first the Chippendale handles were bolted through the case lid – initially with exposed nuts on the inside and later with the nuts concealed beneath the baize, then a version of the style was used with the handle and mounts sunk flush with the case top. Later, around 1795, a new pattern of handles of circular form recessed into the lid and having a large escutcheon filling the centre was substituted. This allowed cases to be stacked without damage, and also made it suitable for enclosing in a hard leather travelling case – which became a common feature of best pistol cases, and is still occasionally encountered today. From about 1790 the hooks were housed within recesses in the case and lid and engaged with pins rather than loops. The recesses limited the movement of the hooks and made their operation easier. The hooks were now flat, rather than rounded. By 1785 it had become common for gunmakers to put their (small) trade card in the gun case, either loose of glued in, at first sometimes cutting out the baize around the card, but later always glueing it to the baize. As 1800 approached gunmakers had larger paper labels printed and stuck inside the cases. Some early guns that were returned to gunmakers for modification or major repair had their labels replaced by that of the gunmaker doing the repair, and so may not be an accurate guide to the maker. From about the date paper labels were used, the escutcheon that had filled the centre of the ring handle was reduced to a smaller escutcheon with a band of wood between it and the ring. By this time the lock would have had two bolts and the plate in the lid the same length as the lock plate and with two holes for the bolts.
Cased guns; Long guns were cased with barrels removed, flintlocks with the locks also removed. Usually single guns per case, but very occasionally as pairs, possibly with lift out trays. Pistols cased intact, almost always in pairs in the flintlock and single shot percussion era. Very occasionally as a garniture, often with two pairs of pistols for different purposes. Flintlock pistols almost always cased with the locks at half cock and the pan closed. Percussion usually with the cocks let down. Percussion revolvers usually cased individually, often with a spare cylinder.
Case material; Oak initially to about 1770, then mahogony until about 1820, by which time it had got coarser and paler, then mostly oak, initially again quite dark but becoming lighter. Some presentation cases were made up in rosewood.
Case lining; Paper in very early cases, then rough (Irish) baize or velvet, later smoother baize or velvet, occasionally leather, After about 1850 occasionally pigskin. See comments below for link to modern baize maker.
Lining Colour; Mostly green, but some used blue, purple, red or pink.
Lining style; The basic styles were the continental, in which the components are held in sculpted recesses in a flat board covering the top of the case, often covered in velvet, and the British in which the case is divided into compartments with flat bottoms and equal depths by ‘fences’ that are covered in the lining material. The fences could either be made of any wood and totally covered, or be made of mahogany and carefully covered so as to leave the top edge showing as exposed wood, the fence section being shaped to recess the top edge of the lining. The raised edges inside the top of the case could be treated in either way. Occasionally fences were left as wood. Fences were usually just glued in, but sometimes rebated into the sides of the case.
Lifting tapes; Tapes that matched the lining were fitted to assist removing items from the narrow compartments of the case – e.g. the cleaning rods, tools and barrel.
Case Handle. 1770 Chippendale standing proud and screwed on, then bolted, then countersunk. 1790 circular flush handles with centre escutcheon were bolted through. From about 1800 the central escutcheon reduced to a disk with wood between it and the handle. From around 1820 some cases were fitted with square shaped handles with clipped corners.
Case corners; Not used initially and not common. Around 1790? brass corners were sometimes applied externally, later recessed into the wood. Bands/strips of brass were used as well as corners.
Case hooks; Initally fixed to the case with loops on the lid, standing proud of the surface and of rounded section. Later in shaped recesses to restrict movement and of flat section, the loops being replaced by pins. Later -1845… sliding bolts occasionally used instead of hooks.
Case hinges; Early hinges allowed case to open fully but later (1785?) changed to stop butt hinges that held lid open just past the balance point.
Case locks; Originally (1770) single bolt with shorter latch plate in lid. Later 2 bolt locks with lid plate same size as lockplate.
Case lock escutcheons; early inverted teardrop of ivory or bone or bent brass lining, later brass.
Case labels. 1770 none – 1785 trade card inserted in case on glued to baize or in a cutout in baize. around 1795 – 1800 printed labels on paper were used, probably about the same time as makers started to number their gun.
Case compartment lids; From early days there were usually at least two lidded compartments in any gun or pistol case for small parts, wads, balls flints etc. The lids were usually left as wood to match the case and not baize covered. All early and mid lids were lift off, but later in the percussion era sliding lids were occasionally used which necessitated cutting away the top of a partition to allow the lid to open fully.
Compartment lid handles; Around 1770 the lifting handles for the lids were loops of tape or leather. By the 1775 pistol cases had loops of brass or silver wire to lift the lids and by 1785 buttons of ivory or bone with concentric rings were replacing the rings although these still appeared. Occasionally pistol l.ids had turned brass buttons Long guns mostly used turned brass knobs, larger ones for the lift out mounts for the detached locks. From 1810 loop handles were no longer used.
Cased duelling pistols – original case?
Note tops of partitions are exposed mahogony – uncommon, particularly so in early cases (?)
Fine pair of Percussion pocket pistols in pigskin lined case by Salmond of Perth
Most percussion revolver cases were made of oak and were light in colour. The tops of the lid were usually fixed by small brass screws left visible