The virtue of a boxlock is its simplicity,” said Richard Tandy, a director and gunmaker at W.W. Greener, Ltd., the British firm long renowned for building some of the world’s finest guns of that type. “Its design is such that it really doesn’t need interceptors.”
Need them or not, though, Tandy and fellow Greener director and gunmaker David Dryhurst exhaust themselves building interceptors in every new Facile Princeps gun they make. “In our smallbores, the components are tiny,” Dryhurst said. “Fitting and regulating them is like making a Swiss watch.”
This is part of what makes a new Greener “best”-grade Facile Princeps—aka the “G-Gun,” based on a boxlock-type action—as expensive as a Boss over/under and, in Tandy’s words, “every bit as hard to build.”
Therein lies the conundrum confronting British boxlock side-by-sides and the handful of makers who still craft them by traditional methods. Nowadays the boxlock is commonly regarded as a middling-quality gun—rugged, reliable and strong, like a plow horse, but, unlike the sidelock, not an action aristocratic enough to saddle the design of a “best” gun upon.
Yet for about 40 years—from the last quarter of the 19th Century to around the First World War—many Anson & Deeley boxlocks (and derivations thereof) were built as best-quality guns—guns that competed successfully in the marketplace with London’s bar-action sidelocks.
Yet to compete effectively with sidelocks, many boxlocks of this era were fitted with intercepting sears—not out of mechanical necessity but because the public perceived interceptors as requisite in high-quality guns.
That interceptors were somehow needed is an attitude as old as the hammerless gun itself. As I explored in September/October (“Intercepting Sears: Sidelocks”), the first generation of Victorian-era shooters exposed to hammerless actions were unnerved by loaded guns with unseen hammers inherently carried at full cock. The safety—in two basic forms—was the response: as the now-ubiquitous trigger-bolting safety (which most commonly manifests itself as the top safety) and as a tumbler (hammer) safety, or intercepting sear.
The modern interceptor—I use the term “modern” loosely, as its operating principles are at least 130 years old—works by blocking or otherwise retarding the fall of the tumbler until the trigger is pulled. The Needham & Hinton patent of 1879, better known as W. & C. Scott’s “Patent Block Safety,” established the basic design principles most commonly found on sidelocks.
It is notable that the original boxlock patent—Anson & Deely’s of 1875—depicted manually operated tumbler blocks for each lock, and at least some of the early A&Ds built by Westley Richards featured them. According to J.W. Walsh in his book The Modern Sportsman’s Gun & Rifle (1882), these were not effective, however, and quickly fell by the wayside.
It didn’t take long before England’s enterprising gunmakers harnessed more effective interceptors to boxlocks—notably those (like Scott’s Patent Block Safety) that removed the tumbler block automatically by the pull of the trigger.
In traditional craft gunmaking, variations on patents or on principles of operation seem almost infinite, and boxlock interceptors flourished in the late 19th Century. Some boxlock interceptors hinge on the triggerplate, others hinge in the action on the same pin as the main sear, and others revolve on a pin just behind the fences.
A design of the latter type was a specialty of Webley & Scott, as featured on the maker's Anson & Webley boxlock. The A&W was a combination of an A&D action with Webley & Brain’s “screw-grip” top-fastener; in its highest grades it was fitted with interceptors, and they are commonly encountered on guns made for the London trade—notably for William Evans and Army & Navy. A visual giveaway to their presence is the interceptor hanger pin found just behind the fences. (Other designs are not readily visible unless the gun is disassembled.)
But boxlocks never really needed interceptors. W.W. Greener, arguably the British boxlock’s most ardent and influential advocate and whose guns sometimes featured several interceptor designs, noted in his book The Gun: “. . . the box-lock is more trustworthy, without any safety bolt, than is the ordinary hammerless sidelock with any of the intercepting automatic safety bolts commonly used; [the boxlock] has greater wear, and no ordinary blow or shock will jar its sears from bent.”
Greener attributed this to a more rigid action, which better protected the components from jarring, and also the boxlock’s wider tumblers and sears, which because of their greater bearing surfaces gave more purchase at the bent and the nose of the sears than did the thinner primary sears and tumblers of a sidelock.
On the contrary, in The Modern Shotgun Maj. Sir Gerald Burrard argued that in fact there was little difference in size between the relevant boxlock and sidelock components; Burrard instead maintained that differences in the geometry of the primary sears of the two actions permitted the boxlock sear to have a more positive bite at the bent.
That’s because the pin in a boxlock about which the primary sear revolves is located farther away from where the sear is lifted up by the trigger. Relative to the sidelock, this creates a longer tail on the primary sear, which when the trigger bears on it as it is pulled, provides greater leverage to trip the sear nose from the bent in the tumbler. Consequently, the bent in a boxlock tumbler and its sear nose can be shaped to provide more frictional resistance than on a sidelock, thus obviating the mechanical need for a back-up safety sear.
And, as English gunmaker Robin Brown points out, boxlocks possess yet another attribute that helps render an interceptor largely superfluous: A large and robust sear spring, which bears on the underside of the primary sear near its nose, can also assist in keeping the primary sear firmly in contact with the bent, thus adding some additional resistance to jarring off.
Because the A&D was a simpler gun than the sidelock, it could be made—and made well—more cheaply, and as the 20th Century wore on most British gunmakers began to relegate the boxlock to their second- and third-quality lines. Increasingly shooters began to think of boxlocks this way—only as mid-grade guns. Interceptors, because of the complications and attendant expenses they added, began to disappear. By the time Burrard published The Modern Shotgun, in 1931, he noted: “. . . this intercepting safety is almost universally omitted from boxlocks.”
Although interceptors are usually an indicator that a gun originally was built as a more expensive boxlock, the lack of them does not necessarily auger a second-rate gun. For example, even the highest-grade Westley Richards hand-detachable “droplocks” do not have them, nor do Churchill’s Hercules—arguably the last A&Ds aggressively marketed as best guns by a London firm.
Ironically, many of the boxlocks originally fitted with interceptors no longer have them. As Tandy explained: “After the Second World War, when many boxlocks were being restocked down to a price, intercepting sears were often thrown away, because without them the guns were easier and cheaper to restock.”
British auctioneer Gavin Gardiner believes today’s consumers have largely forgotten interceptors on boxlocks. “I am only rarely asked about intercepting sears,” he said. “Sometime someone will ask what the extra screw is for on a boxlock, and I will tell them, which only gives rise to another question: ‘What is an intercepting sear?’”
Neither Westley Richards, nor A.A. Brown & Sons, nor newly founded Boxall & Edmiston builds interceptors in their boxlocks these days. Back in the 1990s, however, ex-W. & C. Scott/Holland & Holland craftsman Tony White attempted to create a niche by building high-quality boxlocks at a time when A&Ds had virtually been abandoned by the British trade. White and actioner Ted Atkinson patented an intercepting sear mounted on the triggerplate. Although the design was mechanically successful, it has not proved commercially popular. White reports that few clients seem willing to pay for handcrafted boxlocks whose costs rival those of sidelocks.
As noted earlier, W.W. Greener continues to fit interceptors into its best-grade G-Guns—based on Harry Greener’s patent of 1896—but production is small compared to the firm’s sidelocks, and the company has cultivated a base of some of the world’s wealthiest collectors who are willing to pay top-shelf prices for modern-day museum pieces that harken to Victorian designs and craftsmanship at their finest.
Michael McIntosh once described a trigger-block safety as a “necessity” on a game gun and an interceptor as a “nice refinement.” On a boxlock it is a less-than-necessary refinement—but it again bears stressing that primary sears, bents and sear springs can and do fail through wear, tear and neglect, grit and grime, or poor-quality gunsmithing or manufacture. Boxlocks are no exception, and muzzle control and prudence on the part of the shooter are the safest interceptors of all.
Author’s Note: Thanks to gunmakers Tony R. White, Richard Tandy, David Dryhurst and Robin Brown for technical perspectives and to auctioneer Gavin Gardiner for his historical view.
Vic Venters’ book Gun Craft: Fine Guns & Gunmakers in the 21st Century is available for $30 (plus shipping) from 800-685-7962; www.shootingsportsmanbooks.com.
- By: Vic Venters