Canvas, Wood & a 4-Bore
It was 90 years ago, on August 4, 1914, that Britain declared war on Germany after Germany had declared war on France the previous day. These actions not only triggered one of the bloodiest conflicts the world has ever seen, but also heralded the arrival of the age of modern warfare-and, in one case at least, the use of the duck gun in aerial combat. The Great War saw the development of tanks, the adaptation of fixed-wing aircraft and zeppelins for combat, and the obsolescence of traditional cavalry in the face of the machine gun.
Battles would no longer be fought in accordance with the rules of gentlemen. However, these shocks of the new would come later as developments in weapons of war were still "shaking themselves out" in the opening months of the conflict, especially in the air. Between August 13 and 15, 1914, the Royal Flying Corps, under the command of Brig. Gen. David Henderson, deployed its force of 84 aircraft to France in support of the British Expeditionary Force. The aircraft were a mishmash of types-mostly Bleriots and BE 2s-as the pretty and deadly Sopwith Camels and the like were still two years away from development. In addition, the gearing that would allow the mounting of through-the-prop forward-firing machine guns was still on the drawing board. In the early months of the war pilots often took up their wood and canvas aircraft armed with only a rifle or revolver, but one RFC pilot had a very different idea: He took his Churchill double 4-bore duck gun. This obviously was someone who understood the mechanics of hitting moving targets-mostly manned observation balloons during those initial months. Our unknown flyer was giving himself an edge with the Churchill and its four-inch chambers, for shells holding at least three ounces of shot each. Tactics would have been simple: Get within 100 yards of an observation balloon and discharge both barrels-deadly indeed for both balloon and occupant. We know this happened, because although we have no extensive written history of these actions, we do have the gun. At press time the massive E.J. Churchill best-quality sidelock 4-bore was slated to go up for sale in Holt's September auction in London. In the catalog it is described as a "magnificent" exhibition-grade sidelock non-ejector, Serial No. 1016, with shortened 26-inch blackpowder-only barrels and a weight of 20 pounds 4 ounces. It has a treble-grip action, with Churchill best-quality seven-pin sidelocks and a manual safety with a gold safe indicator. The action, lockplates and furniture are profusely decorated with best acanthus scrollwork. It is in the lid of the massive case that we find the story of gun No. 1016, on a plaque engraved with "The History of a 4 Bore." It reads: "THIS EXHIBIT ILLUSTRATES THE FACT THAT WE CAN BUILD ANY TYPE OF GUN TO ORDER. Built in 1898, with 36" barrels, it was used successfully in India and elsewhere against Wildfowl, afterwards, with barrels shortened it became the property of a well known big game hunter, and with him in Africa, firing a solid spherical bullet, killed elephant and buffalo and with big shot Lion. Finally in 1914-15, the Royal Air Force had it for use in aerial combat." Churchill's records confirm that the gun was made 1898 for Philadelphia sportsman D.M. Barringer, but how it ended up where it did is a mystery. We do know that after the war it was incorporated into the extensive collection of a Scottish sportsman named Mr. Watson, the grandfather of the seller of the gun in the Holt's sale. According to Mr. Watson's grandson, on the single occasion that Mr. Watson attempted to fire the tremendous weapon, it knocked him into a ditch, damaging his shoulder. This injury plagued him for the rest of his life, and it is referred to in a letter from Robert Churchill dated 1943. Apparently, the injury caused "a twitch so severe that cups of tea and such, if lifted too far with that hand, ended up being thrown over his [Mr. Watson's] shoulder-a tremendous party trick." Guns with provenance are always the most interesting, and they don't come much more interesting than Churchill No. 1016, especially considering the gun's role in the opening days of "the war to end all wars."
- By: John Ian Gregson