Considering that the MacNaughton (patented in 1879) and Dickson (patented in 1882) round-action guns arrived on the Edinburgh double-gun scene at nearly the same time, one cannot help but wonder how closely aligned their development was. My research, mainly in the writings of Geoffrey Boothroyd, shows little of parallel design but does mention that MacNaughton sued Dickson for patent infringement. Boothroyd apparently did considerable research on the coincidence, but the only other information I can find says that MacNaughton’s lawsuit was denied. Fortunately we can make our own examinations of the similarities and differences between the two Scottish guns and compare the mechanisms.
John Dickson the Elder served an apprenticeship in Edinburgh and was in business for himself by 1840. Known records begin with gun No. 1590 in 1854, with the firm under the John Dickson & Son name. Boothroyd’s Directory reports that John Dickson the Younger had served his seven-year apprenticeship by that date and was a journeyman while firearms development was still in the percussion era. Boothroyd states that Dickson’s “first double breechloader sold in 1858, No. 1928 . . .” and “In 1865 breechloading guns with snap actions were being produced.”
Any discussion of John Dickson & Sons must include mention of the firm’s best and assuredly most eccentric customer, Charles Gordon (see “Charles Gordon & His Guns,” SSM, May/June ’08). From 1875 to 1906 Dickson’s made Gordon some 300 guns, many to designs already obsolete at the time. I have had the pleasure of handling a Dickson/Gordon flintlock single-shot rifle very much in the 1820s style of John Manton guns, although it was produced in Edinburgh in the early cartridge-gun era.
Dickson’s certainly made a good showing of shotgun patents in the late 19th Century. The earliest I could find was No. 294 of 1880, clearly showing a sidelock action in the drawing but describing a cocking mechanism similar to the later triggerplate guns. Patent No. 873 of 1882 is most commonly referred to in association with the triggerplate action. Actually described is the mechanism for a three-barreled (laterally placed) gun, illustrated with drawings of a triggerplate action. The description of the mechanism includes an interceptor safety not found on my example gun, although the gun has a later variation.
Patent No. 9399 of 1887 “Relates to ejecting-mechanism for drop-down guns” and describes the coil-spring ejector mechanism within the action-body that is a Dickson hallmark. The cocking shoe for the ejectors also acts as an assisted-opener, although that is not mentioned in the patent. (This can be seen in the photo on page 42.) Patent No. 10,621 of 1887 is the most interesting to me. It is for an improved ejector mechanism but also shows modifications to the triggerplate mechanism. The illustrations clearly show the hammer pivots moved forward, effectively shortening the hammer fall and the length of the firing pins and (importantly!) making the action much more compact.
In Shotguns and Gunsmiths, Boothroyd pictures a skeleton action as well as a three-barreled Dickson. Each has a sidelever opening system covered in the original 1880 patent, and each gun adds another degree of unique elegance to the round action already fully endowed with class and character.
The most obvious similarity between the MacNaughton and Dickson is in the external appearance of the round actions. To my eye, the most obvious differences are the long MacNaughton toplever compared to the distinctly shaped and shorter toplever on the Dickson, the (Boothroyd-termed) “apron” of proud metal surrounding the Dickson ball fences, the conventional Dickson safety button versus the MacNaughton lever safety, and the use of a conventional long-tang trigger guard on the bottom of the Dickson compared to the abbreviated rear guard and extended triggerplate on the MacNaughton.
But it wasn’t until I opened a Dickson that I discovered the defining difference between the two. Once I got a good look at the internal mechanism, I could see why the lawsuit had been tossed. As I often have said, all double shotguns have the same basic parts (hammers, sears and the springs that power them); the difference between action types is largely the way these parts are mounted in the operating mechanism. This Dickson had these working parts mounted to a massive center support block on the triggerplate and, somewhat like on a sidelock gun, the hammers and sears were sandwiched between screw-on bridles that supported the off-sides of the hammer and sear axles. Dickson’s use of bridles—versus MacNaughton mounting its working parts to pyramid posts without the use of bridles—apparently was enough to warrant relief from patent infringement.
The Dickson’s arched mainsprings and forked sear spring were very much like a MacNaughton’s (described in Part 3)—enough so to again cause speculation as to who might have originated the design. The gun had an automatic safety actuated by the locking bolt and was very similar to Anson & Deeley boxlocks I’ve seen.
The example Dickson, on loan from Charlie Pfleger of Hill Rod & Gun Co. in Bozeman, was a 12-gauge with 28" barrels choked Skeet (.003") and Improved Modified (.025"). It weighed 5 pounds 13 ounces and balanced about one inch in front of the hinge pin. According to Dan Morgan, one of the leading American experts on Edinburgh guns, this gun (No. 7193) was made around 1930.
The action was pretty well covered—top, bottom and sides—with bouquet & small-scroll engraving with lovely large rosettes at the hinge. “John Dickson & Son” was neatly engraved in small letters just below the action flat, and “Dickson’s Patent” was inlaid in gold on the bottom just behind the knuckle. The gun obviously had been redone or refurbished, as it showed newly finished metalwork, including re-blued screws and re-blacked barrels, triggerguard and toplever.
The extremely attractive walnut stock showed very fancy figure but had excellent layout, with the grain flowing down from the action, straight through the wrist and down toward the toe. I can’t help but wonder if the wood wasn’t more reddish in its original state.
Although the main and sear springs of the Dickson were very similar to those of a MacNaughton, that is where the mechanical similarities ended. Faint traces showed that originally all of the Dickson’s moving parts had been gold-washed. The bridles appeared to have been case colored, and I’ll bet that when this gun was new it was as handsome on the inside as it was on the outside.
Charlie told me about a perfect day hunting sharptails and pheasants in eastern Montana with the fine-handling Dickson and a marvelously performing young Brittany. Prior to that the gun was to be sold, but, as I’ve heard before, the greatest pleasure in owning a Scottish round-action gun is in the shooting. That day sold Charlie on keeping this one around for awhile.
Author’s Note: The majority of my historic research was done in books by Geoffrey Boothroyd. For more information about John Dickson & Son, I especially recommend Boothroyd’s Shotguns and Gunsmiths: The Vintage Years. Patent information was gleaned from the marvelous seven-volume set of British gun patents, Patents for Inventions (Class 119) Small Arms 1855-1930, available from Armory Publications, Missoula, Montana.
Steven Dodd Hughes will be offering seminars about custom guns and gunsmithing in the summer of 2013. For more information, visit www.finegunmaking.com.
- By: Steven Dodd Hughes